Boundaries and me

At 5:30 this evening I was sitting up in bed, trying to achieve exit velocity from Netflix so I could go stare at the kitchen shelves before making dinner, when my mom walked into my  bedroom.

This was no casual drop-in.  She lives a third of the continent away from me–fifteen hours by car, although her flight was substantially shorter.  I’d opened up to her this week about my current major depressive episode, and this weekend as soon as she was free from prior obligations, she flew out to see me.  We went to dinner, and then she bought me groceries.

Well, first we hugged.  And after we hugged, I went to grab my purse and shut my computer, which involved signing out of instant messenger.  My mom just showed up bbl.

Then I paused, considered that sentence, and added a little 🙂 before actually signing out.  Because with my friends, you can’t take that kind of appearance for granted as a cause for relief and joy.

The people I run with are really big about boundaries.  My friends often fall into a series of overlapping groups that talk about boundaries a lot:  feminists, mental health advocates, sexual assault survivors, survivors of childhood abuse, and people with disabilities, to name a few.  A lot of them are deeply concerned with fighting the social pressures that take away their independence, autonomy, and agency; they want the right to make their own decisions about what they do, where they go, and who they do it with.  I think it’s a good fight and I support it.  But at the same time, I back off from rhetoric about boundaries being the ultimate social good, about how a stated boundary should be inviolably respected; the issue is more complex for me.

For a lot of my friends what happened tonight would be a horror scenario.  Their relationships with their parents are deeply toxic, marked by years of emotional abuse–which means, parental attempts to dominate and control their children.  As adults, my friends often struggle to establish autonomy–the right to go to schools of their own choosing, to date who they want, to get haircuts they like, all kinds of things, large and small.  A parent showing up in their sovereign territory, unannounced (in fact, after a phone call earlier this week when I said now probably wasn’t a good time) would be the opening salvo in a barrage of boundary violations that spell out what you want doesn’t matter, I’ll decide what you get.

And yet.  My mom walked into my bedroom and I flew to her and held on tight for two minutes straight.  There are so many shades of human experience.

I don’t suffer, in my life, from an overabundance of people barging into my business and telling me what to do.  My problem is that while I actually love the feeling of being taken care of, asking for or accepting help has become a major anxiety trigger for me.  I no more think of it before I anticipate things like  I’m going to ask for too much and be a burden; they’ll resent me for being so needy; it won’t be helpful but I’ll have to act grateful anyway.  It’s hard for me to accept help unless I’ve carefully considered its probable effects on the resources of the person offering it and our relationship together, especially considering whether or not it would help enough for me to be believably grateful and gracious when the time comes for me to stop receiving help.  So when Mom offered earlier this week to fly out, my automatic reaction was to say no.  I wouldn’t want you to spend that much money, especially if I need you to help me out if I go on disability leave from work; it might be better anyway to wait until our schedules are clearer.  I’m not going to get much done even if you do come.   I didn’t feel up to the task of carefully considering all the aspects of that offer, and making sure I could offer the best possible return on investment.  The next night I backed down a little and suggested that we both had some free time around the 20th, and not long after, I gather, Mom started making travel plans on her own without telling me.  “I was afraid if I asked you’d say no,” she said.  “That was a wise decision,” I told her.

I don’t know just what it is about my relationship with my mom that makes me feel so comfortable–actually, comforted–by her crossing that boundary, offering me something I really wanted but didn’t feel capable of asking for.  I think a lot of it had to do with the wry, sympathetic look on her face when she walked in my doorway, the one that said, you might not want me but here I am; it said that I could tell her this wasn’t okay, and she’d go find a room at the local Best Western.

Maybe it’s all the years talking here.  When I was thirteen we started going camping together for a weekend every summer, with a few basic rules:  We don’t do anything we don’t want to; you can’t fail vacation; you don’t act like a mother and I won’t act like a daughter.  For our own personal Carnevale, I was spared a motherly “Don’t forget your coat!” if I agreed not to complain if I found myself defenseless against the rain, and if I didn’t like an outing I had to say so and agree to leave instead of slumping along in a pout.  Over the years those annual trips moved from being a magical weekend where all the rules were topsy-turvy into a natural expression of our adult relationship.  I think they were good training for us.

I’ve proven myself willing to walk out on Christmas Dinner because I hated the argument we were having, and she’s proven willing to help me find an apartment and dedicate hours to helping me move all my stuff because we were fighting too much when we lived in the same house.  That’s the kind of bitter work that, hey, turns out to have a payoff after all.

I go back and forth on family being sacred (and if it is, I think therapists in particular need to have the word desecration close to hand), but I think history counts for something.  I’ve spent the past month drowning in painful memories of my childhood, and part of why I was so glad to see my mom was the persistent recurring fact of how much she had loved me the entire way along.

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4 thoughts on “Boundaries and me

  1. It doesn’t sound like your mom crossed a boundary. It sounds like she accurately guessed, based on limited communication, the location of a boundary of yours that’s in a different place on average than the equivalent ones of many of your acquaintances, and that moves around depending on circumstances such as each person’s resources and relevant relationships. Moveable boundaries are a thing. Seems like boundaries only get really rigid, or really weak, in response to the flexible ones not working or being supported.

    1. This. Because the thing is also that if you’d greeted your mother with OH GOD NO expression, she’d’ve left.

      None of your reasons when you originally said “no” were “don’t come because I don’t want to see you” reasons, and your mother is in a position to know you well enough to know that; they were “I’m not up to taking responsibility for you coming” and “I can’t justify a need for your presence” reasons.

      That’s not really a boundary. A boundary would be me asking “want me to come clean your place”, you saying “no I’d rather you didn’t” (not, note, “you don’t have to do that” but “don’t”) and me doing it anyway. Or you having said to your mother “no I can’t handle company” and her coming anyway.

      *chinhand* Which in light of Other Things makes me wonder if it might help you to sit down and reexamine your assumptions about what constitutes a boundary –not being able to parse this one as not actually a boundary violation kind of explains why you don’t tend to react immediately and self-protectively when your actual boundaries are violated.

      1. …yeah, Marwen’s suggestion seems like it could be really helpful, when you can spare the spoons to reflect on it.

        I’m reminded of another internet acquaintance who recently remarked that, having always been penalized for having boundaries/ “saying no” in zir family of origin, never learnt how to express (or, I think, recognize) zir own boundaries until *after* they had been transgressed so badly ze felt violated and panicked… so the shape of zir boundaries wasn’t defined by zir, but by others.

        Boundaries mark out the shape of what one will accept or tolerate, and what one will do to enforce one’s acceptance or lack thereof, NOT what others will attempt. A ‘boundary’ that tries to determine other people’s thoughts or actions isn’t one, though it seems a common mistake that leads many people to feel guilty or confused when those unenforceable not-actually-boundaries inevitably get violated by other people doing their own things, some of which are OK (like a caring mom) some of which ain’t (a million examples).

  2. I think you have to know the person in question and take their feelings and interaction style into account when thinking about boundaries. I have one of those Southern families where everyone is in everyone’s business and we can’t keep secrets and we’re all happy with that–we don’t like secrets in our family, we all genuinely enjoy each other as people, we all value each other’s input, and we all know each other as people. Knowing someone as a person helps you know and intuit what is a hard boundary (“No, seriously, don’t show up at my house, I’m studying for finals, I don’t care if you bring food, you’ll be distracting by breathing in my vicinity.”) and what is a way of saying, “I love you but I don’t want to be a bother and/or it will hurt my feelings if you don’t come so I’m going to pretend it’s my choice that you’re not here in case you don’t” and it’s therefore important to show up and confirm that said family member isn’t a bother and you want to support them.

    Yes, sometimes toes get stepped on and fights happen and we have to say, “No, when I said ‘Don’t do that’ I actually meant ‘Don’t do that’ and it’s different from other occasions where I didn’t mean it because of X” and the person who stepped on the toes has to say, “Thank you, I appreciate that, I’ll change my behavior in the future” and then genuinely do it in a non-passive-aggressive way. It’s hard and complicated and requires a lot of honesty and can get ugly, but we love each other and like each other and like knowing that if we say, “Don’t show up” but actually mean “I don’t want to be a bother and am scared you don’t want to support me”, our family will know that’s what we meant and will be there.

    Now, this intuition about boundaries only works because in any individual relationship in my family, one person watched the other grow up and the other person has known the first from the cradle, and they have interacted and been actively involved in each other’s lives and loved and supported each other the whole while. I would not recommend this style of interaction with, say, some girl you met at a bar three days ago, because you don’t know the person or their interaction style. You do have to assume that people are meaning what they’re saying, and act accordingly, because you do not have the sufficient data on them to develop intuition regarding their boundaries.

    And the intuition only works because we love each other and genuinely want each other to be happy, successful people and we are willing to put work in and change our behavior to better support each other. I feel blessed that my family feels this way and acts accordingly. It’s hard–I know because I do the work, too–but we’ve collectively decided it’s worth it, and it is super powerful to know that your family will do hard, inconvenient things that don’t come naturally to them to support you and help you.

    If the relationship is new or not coming from a place of mutual love and respect and genuinely wanting to help each other, yes, boundaries are important and sacred and need to be articulated clearly and explicitly and defended rigorously if the boundaries as stated are violated.

    If the relationship is established, if you do know the other person very well, and your relationship is one of mutual love, respect, and wanting to help each other, then I think showing up in someone’s kitchen unannounced might be the perfect thing, depending on the folks in the relationship. And I think that level of emotional intimacy and knowledge can be really beautiful and cool.

    I hope you’re having a great visit!

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