I sit, barely upright, on the enormous blue IKEA couch with my enormous blue breastfeeding pillow and my tiny son, who is two months old. He’s been nursing for about fifteen minutes now, and I can see that he is gradually falling asleep, but as I repetitively wiggle one of my feet that is hanging off the end of the couch, I keep waking him up a little. My wiggling foot wiggles the nursing pillow he’s lying on, and it’s just enough to prevent him from really sleeping. The problem is, though, that I can’t stop wiggling my foot; in fact I need to start wiggling my entire leg. I am exhausted, I have a headache, I’m hungry, and I have to pee. But the baby needs a nap, and I can’t figure out how to get him to sleep deeply enough to allow me to slide him onto the solid couch for his nap so that I can go to the bathroom. If he doesn’t go down for a nap he’ll cry, and then my toddler daughter will cry, and their cries hurt my ears and my heart. But if I don’t go to the bathroom I will get a bladder infection, the third one this month. My body is already developing bad reactions to the antibiotics they give me, and antibiotics also mean an inevitable yeast infection afterward. I am clearly a terrible mother. I can’t get my son to sleep without feeding him, I will end up letting him nap on the couch, my daughter is crawling around chewing on a spoon, a choking hazard, and she’s still crawling at 18 months because she can’t yet put more than five or six steps together before falling. I will never, ever be able to do this right. These babies are better off without me.
It’s not an exact memory by any means, but this is a snapshot of what a typical moment of my day was like about seventeen years ago. My son, who is now 17, was born only fifteen months after my daughter, who is now 18, and I was alone to care for them. My mind was a whirlwind, spinning with self-pity, frustration, and fear. My daughter had only been five months old when I found out I was pregnant again, this time unplanned. During my second pregnancy my daughter had begun to show signs of a developmental delay or disorder, but at the time we did not have access to a doctor who recognized that, and so I was told that I needed to feed her more food more often, spend more time with her reading and teaching her, etc.
There’s more to the story, of course, but the point is that, like any new mom, I was sleep-deprived, not physically recovered from the births, uninformed about where or how or when to ask for help, disconnected from other people except for my husband, and suffering from deep postpartum depression. I couldn’t even seek help for myself because, as I saw it then, I had no one around me other than my husband who could possibly care for the babies while I went to the bathroom, let alone the doctor’s office. I had been very prepared for pregnancy and childbirth, but I wasn’t prepared at all for motherhood, even after two years of it.
No new mom knows exactly what it will be like to be a mother and care for an infant until she really begins to do it, so I can’t fault myself for being unprepared for how hard it was to be alone caring for two babies under two years old. But there are many, many things that happened in those first few years of parenting that I could have avoided if I’d exercised appropriate personal boundaries for myself and my family.
Just as boundary lines on a map indicate where one state or country or city stops and another begins, boundaries in relationships help two people understand each other’s expectations for the relationship and, when necessary, communicate with each other to make sure that their various needs are met. It’s one of those things that’s hard to explain without examples, but, let me tell you, it’s a lot easier to learn and implement by choice than it is to try to salvage and rebuild a relationship when uncommunicated expectations and needs have built into years-worth of anger, frustration, and fear.
The expression “good fences make good neighbors” is a reference to relationship boundaries. I have a fence around my backyard that had to be reinforced when we moved in because I have a dog who fancies herself to be a canine Houdini. So the fence around my backyard is a boundary that benefits my dog, because it keeps her safe from street traffic, but it also benefits me, because I don’t have to chase her down (she’s faster than me) or worry about her becoming lost or being hit by a car. My dog isn’t aware that the boundary of the fence is for her safety, but nevertheless it is beneficial to her. It’s beneficial to me as well – I know she is safe in the backyard, and I don’t have to watch her or tether her with a leash while she’s out there or worry about her safety. If I think even further, the boundary (fence) benefits my community too. My neighbors don’t have to worry about her being in their yards, some of which aren’t fenced. My neighbor who keeps chickens might have a problem if my dog wandered into her yard. Because my dog can’t escape my yard, she can’t run into oncoming road traffic, putting herself in danger, but in truth, if she did this (and she has) she could also be putting drivers in danger as they try to maneuver around her. (Side note: Don’t get a Siberian husky without first getting a secure fence.)
I’m using this as an illustration because it offers a visual representation of the ways that boundaries serve people. Because I took measures to prevent my dog from escaping my fenced yard, my neighbor with the chickens can be assured that, as long as my fence remains in good repair, she doesn’t need to worry that her chickens might become my dog’s lunch, and I can be assured that my dog won’t be hit by a car or end up lost in the woods.
It’s stickier in relationships, though, because we don’t necessarily know where or when a relational boundary is needed until a problem develops, and close relationships require more boundaries and different boundaries than looser ones. The boundaries you keep in your relationship with your spouse will obviously need to be more complex and nuanced than the ones you keep with your neighbors or your plumber, and in close, long-term relationships boundaries often need to be altered over time as life circumstances change as well.
In close relationships I find it helpful to think in terms of what is within my control and what isn’t. The only person that I have full control over is myself, and even then I am limited by circumstances that may interfere with portions of my self-control. When my husband and I left for our vacation in the Colorado mountains last month I knew I wanted to go hiking, so I did what I could and packed what I could to make that happen. I had control over what I packed in my suitcase, so I packed clothing and shoes suitable for hiking and being on my feet a lot. But then, when I sprained my ankle the day after we arrived, I couldn’t go hiking, and, as some of you may remember, I complained about it and indulged in my self-pity and frustration for about 24 hours before I figured out that laying around bemoaning my weak ankles was unlikely to speed up my healing and very likely to drain me of any enthusiasm for anything that I could potentially do over the next two weeks. Although it could be said that I do have control over my own body, in the particular moment that I sprained my ankle circumstances took that control away from me, and I was mad about it. But my anger over the unexpected setback of spraining my ankle robbed me of a full day of my vacation. Instead of coming up with something my husband and I could do together despite the circumstances, like going for a drive or playing a board game together, I spent the day complaining. My injury took away my option to go hiking on vacation, but I took away my own option to make the most of the next day because I chose, by indulging my self-pity, to spend the day complaining. So, to recap, I have control over my own body and my own thinking. However, my control over my body is limited when I hurt myself and can’t use it as I normally would. After hurting myself, however, I still have control over my own reactions to the setback – I could lay around complaining or find something I could do without moving around. In this case I ignored my options and just did what came naturally – complaining to anyone and everyone I could about my bad luck, and wallowing in my frustration like a pig wallows in mud. When I finally woke up and realized that I could choose to get over it and start considering what I could do instead of whining about what I couldn’t, I made the decision, quite pragmatically, to stop whining about my ankle and start finding ways to make the most of the rest of the trip.
This is an example of how I recognized that, because I had not set a boundary with myself, I ended up hurting myself emotionally by whining and refusing to consider any options other than lying in bed complaining. But that recognition of my own power over my thinking allowed me to switch gears and eventually move on well enough to enjoy our vacation. But when I need to set, receive, or defend a boundary with someone I love, there are bigger limits on my control.
One common situation in my home where boundaries and close relationships meet is when my husband and I have conflicting ideas about how to spend time on weekends and days when he is not working. For example, in the late afternoon on Saturdays I often like to cook dinner for the family, with the intention that we will all sit down and eat together at the dining room table, something that happens less and less often as my children grow. Here are two different ways that this situation could go, one in which I don’t consider my own boundaries and the boundaries of others, and one in which I do:
Saturday night dinner A (without using good boundaries):
It’s about 4PM and I notice that I have the right ingredients to make a dinner that I know all five of us can enjoy. If I start within 30 minutes I can have this meal made and on the table by 5:30, and we can have a family dinner together, pray over our food together, and talk. I take stock of what the rest of the family is doing: my husband is about 45 minutes into a 2-hour run, so he should be back home by 5:30. Each of my kids is in his or her own respective room staring at his or her own respective smart device, so I know that they will be here at 5:30, because they don’t have any plans most of the time.
But making the meal is taking a lot longer than I had anticipated. Since I didn’t decide to make this meal until 4PM, there is no time to properly thaw the meat that that is still in the freezer, so I place it in a glass baking dish and use the microwave to thaw it. And I always underestimate how long it takes to chop vegetables and get a pot of water boiling. By the time I have the meat thawed, vegetables chopped, and pasta boiling in water, it’s 5:15.
Then, just as I’m starting to go through the steps on the actual recipe card to put the meal together, my husband comes in the house, drinks a glass of water and a half a bottle of beer. He sticks the beer in the fridge, then, still in his sweaty clothes, walks out again. Five minutes later I hear the lawnmower start. Calculating in my head, if I can have the meal done by 6 my husband will be done or almost done mowing, so we can still sit down and eat together.
The cat keeps jumping on the counter because he smells the food, so I take him into another room and feed him to keep him out of the way. While I’m feeding the cat I notice that my 17-year-old son has emerged from his room, but hasn’t noticed me because he’s wearing headphones. I can hear the sounds of an animae cartoon coming from his headphones. I know he’s there, but by the time I finish feeding the cat and run back to check on the food cooking, he’s back in his room.
At 6:15 I finally have the table set and all the burners on the stove turned to low to keep the food warm until everyone is assembled. I open my daughter’s bedroom door, saying, “Dinner’s ready,” then head to each of my son’s rooms. I tell my older son and he seems glad (because he’s always hungry). I open the door to my younger son’s room, where he has his back to me, working on his computer. I tell him quickly that dinner is ready, then head back to the kitchen to make sure nothing burns.
But 6:30 rolls around and still there’s no one at the table. Then, at 6:45, when everyone is still doing their own things, I start to get mad. Why are they ignoring me? They should be thankful – I made them a full dinner, I set the table, I lit a candle. I worked hard so that we could have some family time together on a Saturday night, but the family didn’t show up! Do they not care that I worked to make this meal for them? Do they think that, because I don’t work a 9-5 job, I have all the time in the world to wait around for them to decide when they want to eat dinner? Why is are the lawn and video games more important to them than spending some quality time eating together? Is it too much to ask that, when I make a meal and serve it to my family, they show up to eat it?
I sit down at the table alone, angrily eat my own meal, and leave the rest of the food where it sits. At 7:30, my daughter finds me sitting on my bed looking at my phone and asks if the food on the table is ready.
“It’s been ready for an hour,” I tell her angrily and without looking up. “I told you it would be ready at 6:30, and no one showed up.”
“You didn’t tell me that,” she answers. So I tell her that I had called her to come down and eat at 6:15. “I even gave you an extra 15 minutes to show up!”
“I didn’t hear you say that,” she says. She probably had her headphones on, and since I only opened her door and didn’t actually look for her when I went in to tell her to come eat dinner, I hadn’t considered that she might not have heard me.
I go to my younger son’s room, where he is still staring at his computer. It takes me three tries to get him to turn around when I call his name. Finally he turns around, “What?!”
“Oh. I’m not hungry.” I’m not surprised to hear this, given the 3 empty Cheez-Its boxes on the floor. I walk out and slam the door, heading to my older son’s room.
He is sitting up straight and wide-eyed, obviously on high-alert. He must have heard me get angry with his brother in the room next door.
“Oh,” he says, “That’s OK. I’m not really all that hungry. I make some of that leftover pasta in the fridge a little while ago.”
I roll my eyes and growl a little bit. “Why the hell did you eat leftovers when you knew I was cooking a family dinner?”
“I didn’t know you were cooking dinner.”
I growl under my breath.
My husband comes in from the yard at 8:15, when it’s already dark and I’ve already scraped all the food I made for a nice family dinner into leftover containers and filled the sink with dirty but unused dishes. I hear him loudly banging the dishes as he rinses them and puts them in the dishwasher.
“Why are you mad?” I ask aggressively.
“I’m not mad.”
“Why didn’t you come in and eat dinner with us?”
“I didn’t know you were making dinner for everyone. I’m sorry I missed it.”
“Everyone missed it. I made a whole dinner and served it. And I had to run back to the store for some stuff. I had the table all set and everything and no one bothered to come in and eat it.”
“I’m sorry; I didn’t know you had made dinner.”
Hurt, I throw my own headphones on and turn on a podcast so I can ignore my family the same way that they ignore me.
Here’s your assignment: Read through this only-sort-of-fictitious story and write down all the things I should have done differently to make an on-time family dinner happen. What were my expectations at the beginning of the story? Were the met or unmet? Did I communicate my expectations, and if so, how? Were my expectations reasonable? Was my anger at the missed meal justified? What should I have done differently?
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