This “Learning to Be Free” post is inspired by Julie, the randomly-selected winner of our survey-based contest! Julie writes:

“Funny you suggest a few lines about where I am in my life – I’m not sure! I am 60 yrs. old and have been a mother for 40 yrs. In addition to giving birth to 3 sons, my husband and I became foster parents. After 24 years and 39 placements, we finished off our family with 6 adopted kiddos, bringing our total to 9!

My youngest child turned 12 today. He and his 13 yr. old brother are both on ‘the spectrum’ although it looks very different on the 2 brothers. I am facing the biggest challenge of my life to parent them, everything I thought I knew about parenting no longer applies. My friends have gone back to work, or have even retired. Where do I belong? I used to know where my heart was, and what I was good at.

Your recent post about church was very thought provoking as I try to muddle through this new part, and these new expectations, that, yes, I am probably putting on myself! As you can tell, I love to write, as well as to read – keep up your truly inspiring posts.”

forest, learning to be free

Image courtesy of moggara12 /

Learning to Be Free: A Letter

My dear Julie,

I love that you began with, “I’m not sure.” That made me smile, made me think that maybe we’re kindred spirits. The more we grow, I think, the less sure of anything we are.

That said, just because we don’t know where we are in life doesn’t mean that we’re on the wrong road. On the contrary, that sense of displacement we struggle with may mean that we’re on the right road.

But since the going is hard and heartbreaking, sometimes we can’t see straight, and then we panic. It’s terrifying to feel so vulnerable. There are times when the path takes a sudden turn, and we can’t see how far we’ve come or what lies ahead.

At times like these, I recall the words of Rainer Maria Rilke:

“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. / Just keep going. No feeling is final. / Don’t let yourself lose me.”

So that’s where we begin: with letting the beauty and terror of not knowing where we are happen.

Admittedly, I keep looking at the numbers in your email to make sure I’ve read them right. 24 years and 39 placements … what does that say?

It says that you’ve invested in relationships, that you’ve chosen to care when it would have been much easier not to. You’ve stepped right into the mess and beauty of motherhood not just once, but over and over again.

Truths You Already Know

Given that, you probably know a lot more about parenting your boys on the spectrum than you think you do.

True, there’s much to learn. As a sister to a young man with autism, I understand. From behavioral strategies to physical sensitivities to potential therapies … it’s overwhelming.

But just as you have two sons with autism, you also have two sons who need a loving parent. Your patience, your tenacity, your strength … those were forged by fire, and those are exactly what your boys need.

So yes, be open to learning how to parent these particular boys, but trust that the biggest thing, the thing you already know … that does apply. Love always applies.

How to Fill Yourself Up

In your words, I hear a person who’s so good at caring for others, someone who knows how to pour herself out. But do you know how to fill yourself up? From where I sit, as a recovering perfectionist and chronic people-pleaser, that’s the hard part.

So many of us know how to give, but not how to receive. We’re good at knowing how to do, but not so good at knowing how to be. How to just sit with someone; how to just sit with ourselves. How to accept the nourishment life offers.

It takes practice, and maybe that’s why this season of life feels uncomfortable. Maybe you’re confident with the ‘pouring out’ part of the equation, but less so with the ‘filling up’ part.

I see myself in that, I really do. And that question you ask, those four small words that carry such weight: Where do I belong?

You Belong Somewhere You Feel Free

When I was dating the man who would become my husband, he learned to play Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” because it spoke to me. And if I could give you anything right now, I’d give you this lyric: You belong somewhere you feel free.

You don’t belong in a place of constriction and stressed-out fear; none of us do. You belong in a spacious place, somewhere you can take flight.

As you’re learning to be free, keep an eye out for situations and people that help you relax and laugh at yourself; watch for those shimmering, fleeting moments when linear time falls away.

You can trust those moments. You can use that sense of expansion as a reliable compass.

learning to be free

“I used to know where my heart was, and what I was good at.” Me too, Julie, me too. I think we all did. Back when we were children – before we started taking other people’s expectations and criticisms too much to heart – we knew.

We knew ourselves in simple ways: in the reading of a book, the striking of a note, the embrace of a friend. And so maybe that’s where you can start now. I’m starting with writing to you. Where will you start?

It’s not about having lost someone you once knew. It feels that way, I know, but she’s not lost. She’s just covered up. It’s an excavation process you’re undertaking; you are always your own discovery.

So here’s to you, Julie, to what you seek and what you find.

Love, Caroline


Can you relate to Julie’s words? How are you learning to be free? Join the conversation in the comments below!

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