When I was growing up, I had no experience of healthy boundaries. Instead, there were walls. High and impenetrable, those walls were erected by my family and culture to protect me from others and even from myself. I spent vast amounts of energy on manipulating those walls: I dug under them to emerge on the other side, I jumped over them, sometimes I even intelligently walked from behind them. Then, for a little while I had no boundaries at all. There was no holding, no safety. Overwhelmed, I ran back for the safety of the walls. I hid behind them almost hoping that life would pass me by and leave me unharmed. Except, I was hurting. Staying behind the walls of restrictions and harshness was unbearable. I needed certainty and clarity that healthy boundaries offer. All of this I understand now when I am trying to set healthy boundaries for my son.
After I gave birth to my baby girl three months ago, for a while we almost lost our way.
‘He is going through a big transition, be gentle, give him what he wants,’ I said to my husband on more than one occasion. I thought it was a loving thing to do. But as weeks passed by, my son’s demands got louder and louder. For example, he refused to go to bed without me. He wanted me to put the baby girl down and hold him instead. Going into a bath turned into a battle every evening; coming out of the bath was a war! Some of this behaviour is understandable. And so I tried to be accommodating. It was a loving thing to do, right?
We need loving limits to feel safe and to be able to flourish in the world.
It was only at the Embercombe family camp when I finally got what loving boundary means. Up until then I agreed with the importance of ‘clear and consistent’ boundaries, but had no felt sense of what it actually meant.
It was the afternoon on day 2 when we had our first adult session. I was trying to drop my son off at the crèche but he was not having it. I decided to take him out and miss a session. A wonderful lady who held the space in the crèche took me aside and said:
‘He is crying because he is well attached to you. And this is wonderful. But by going away and then coming back you are teaching him resilience. When you are ready to walk out, I’ll hold a space for you outside to be with your own feelings.’
I walked out of the crèche with an aching heart. My son was crying. I sat on a sofa outside of the crèche and cried too. A few minutes later I noticed my son stopped crying while my tears were still flowing. I glanced in and he was happily nestled on the lap of a wonderful crèche worker reading a book.
Perhaps, I was just avoiding his tears by giving in into his demands, crossed my mind.
That evening, we had one of our usual battles. My son likes the taste of his toothpaste. We place tiny amount on his toothbrush which he smears all over his mouth and then demands more.
‘More peese!’ he said batting his long eyelashes at me.
In the past, we went back and forth on this several times, until his attention switched to something else. On that day, I finally set a boundary.
‘No, darling, that’s enough. It’s not good for you.’ He cried. I cradled him. He cried. I loved him up and explained some more. He cried. I continued to hold him.
He got that love was still there even if he did not get what he wanted in the moment.
Since then, he is fine to have his toothbrush dunked into his toothpaste only once. Bath time became a lot more manageable. The same goes for the bedtime routine. We spend a little time reading and singing together, while my husband looks after the baby girl. After a while, my son points at the door and says ‘baby’, indicating that it’s time for me to go.
God, life is so much easier when there are healthy boundaries in place!
When we are clear in ourselves, other people, especially children, mirror that clarity.