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Forget the Mama Bear Analogy...Mama Elephant is Where It's At

Have you ever felt an analogy? My journey has had me looking reflectively at the past lately, especially relating to my children and the many ways that I failed them after my divorce from their father. And those are just the ways that I can recognize from here. I'm still hoping one day to be able to learn about and make amends for the ways that they feel I failed or hurt them. It's a very painful period of my life to revisit, but I also know that it's a necessary part of healing--both for myself and for the relationships that have been strained.

Last night I got home from a weekend trip to see family in Texas and celebrate my niece's high school graduation. I wanted to lay on the couch and watch something that was "easy"--something that wouldn't require a lot of emotional investment. I opened Hulu and the first recommendation was Secrets of the Elephants. Perfect. I love elephants. I didn't pay much notice to the description on the first episode: "Big families and strong relations are the secrets to success for savanna elephants. Emotional bonds and wisdom help them navigate a changing world." I do love elephants.

In the opening scenes of the first episode, they're following a herd as they search for water in the dry, drought parched landscape. This is the main herd, led by the matriarch, composed of females of all ages, and young elephants up to about age 12. For the males, once they hit puberty, they go off to join the male herd. It's the matriarch that makes the decisions and leads the entire herd.

In this particular scene, the herd comes to the edge of an expansive, 600+ foot cliff with what looks like an almost vertical drop to the earth below--and the life-giving water that the herd desperately needs to survive. Of course, the show plays up the dramatics of the matriarch having to make a tough decision--to attempt to lead her pack, which includes her very own and very young calf, down a very treacherous and potentially deadly cliff, or stay at the top where a large part of the herd will likely die of dehydration.

Boom. You're in an abusive relationship--you have young kids--you are at the edge of the cliff. You're terrified that you don't know the way down, you don't know if your kids can make it on their own, and you know you won't be able to help them on the way down, because the momentum created by taking that first step will keep you hyper focused on reaching the bottom alive. But you also know that staying at the top isn't an option--there is no water and you will all eventually dehydrate and die.

They show the matriarch slowly making her way down, one unsteady step at a time, her calf directly behind her, struggling in the shifting rocks and physical toll of each step. She's using her trunk to feel ahead and lands her giant feet in exactly the spots she's scouted, hoping that her efforts are enough to stop the avalanche that would decimate her herd.

Boom. You've filed for divorce (or left the relationship) and there is no going back. You can't see more than the first few steps in front of you, and you're doing everything you can to prepare and make sure each next step is as safe as possible for your kids. You know they are struggling, and you're thankful for your herd because you know they are trying to help.

The calf slips and slides in its mother's footsteps, crying for her and trying desperately to stay close and feel safe. She can't stop scouting and moving forward, so she uses her tail to offer comfort "I'm here...and I'm doing what I have to do to for you my baby"

Boom. The pressure is overwhelming, but you don't have time to think much about it. You comfort your kids to the best of your ability, all the while the ground shifts and you are having to feel around for stability with every step, hoping to god that you don't make a mistake that will have you all tumbling towards earth.

As you watch the footage of the herd making their way down the sheer cliff, you realize that there actually is a bit of a path. It's very narrow, and I don't even want to begin to consider the angle, but there is a path. These are not the first elephants to have to make their way down. This pathway, though treacherous, has been walked before. The matriarch likely was shown that path by matriarchs that came before, just as she was showing the path to all of the herd behind her.

Boom. You are not alone. Others have gone before you. They've created a small path that whispers "We've been here, and you will make it to the bottom."

In the show, the elephants all made it to the bottom. The matriarch comforted and let her calf nurse, reassuring him that he was safe and that she was there. The next scenes were of the herd reaching the life-giving water. All is well. For now. What about the poachers? What about next season, that may be even dryer than this one? This is where the metaphor starts to get a little fuzzy for me.

I think the cliff represents the journey of choosing to leave an abusive relationship in an attempt to protect your kids and demonstrate healthy boundaries and relationships. The journey down the side of the cliff represents your kids' entire childhood, as you attempt to co-parent with a person whose sole intent is to get back at you or create division or hostility in your relationship with the kids.

Being at the bottom represents the kids reaching adulthood. You think it's some milestone where things can be different, but you forget about all the damage that was done on the way down. There are wounds to tend, comfort to give. But the realities of life dictate that we don't necessarily get that time. Now they're grown and expected to navigate the world. Maybe they're mad at you and don't understand why you ever took the step off that cliff in the first place. Maybe they're hurt that you didn't comfort or protect them the way they needed you to during the descent.

This is where my metaphor ends. I'm not sure where it goes from here. I am hopeful that there will come a day when I can answer those questions and take ownership for the choices that I've made. I am not perfect. I know that some of the steps I took caused harm to my children. But I also believe that I didn't really have a choice but to step out over the edge of that cliff and do my best to navigate the barely visible path. I'm thankful for those that stepped out before me.

But even more importantly, I'm thankful for those that continue to step out over that edge as part of the herd for every person making the courageous decision to leave an abusive relationship and protect their children. The herd is growing thanks to voices and fierce advocacy of people like Tina Swithin of One Mom's Battle, and groups like Custody Peace, putting domestic violence by proxy and coercive control into the public spotlight.

I hope that my kids never find themselves at the edge of any cliff, having to make a decision about taking a step towards whatever is at the bottom and knowing it really is the only option. But if they do, I hope that there is a visible path, no matter how small, and that there is a herd behind them for support. I know that at the very least, they'll have me. Mama Elephant.

If you have taken that step, and are currently in descent, or know that you are close to taking that step, I would love to be a part of your herd as a certified high conflict divorce coach. Feel free to contact me for a free 20 min. consultation.

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