Limits and Boundaries

Engineering my summer project two: Family Schedule and Planning

Forgive me if this article reads like a Reddit AITA post. (In case you don’t know what that is, it is a forum where people explain uncomfortable situations that they have found themselves in and ask, at the end, Am I The A#$%µ*& (person who behaves inexcusably)?

I know in advance that I am not the person who behaved inexcusably, and I am not asking that the finger be pointed, either. No one meant any harm by the story I am about to tell, but it will look like there was a bad guy. We are very very lucky that this story does not make my indulgent husband out to be the bad guy. I desperately want to make sure that he never gets portrayed as the bad guy, because he really does put up with a lot when it comes to me. I do not call him indulgent for nothing.

I am hoping that this story will illustrate why I so badly need to make progress on limits and boundaries by learning to ask questions and set expectations.

Once upon a time

Once upon a time, someone caught me while I was out and about and invited my family over for lunch. I didn’t know this person well, but well enough to know his name and to have had some occasional reasons to be in their circle. Already, as you know, I am not a terribly social creature, but this very nice person had seen my husband on an interview show where he appears from time to time and seemed eager to meet him. I asked my husband what he thought and he agreed.

Prior to the pandemic this kind of thing would have freaked me out. But I really thought I had made some strides in breaking the cycle I always feel around social engagements.

I knew for a fact that lunch would never happen. I know that I have a pair of raging tornados for children and getting them both to sit down at the same time and actually eat anything would mean irritation, embarrassment and humiliation for all parties. That did not sound like a good time to me, and in my effort to be respectful to myself, I suggested rather that we could just get together for dessert. My thought was, “my boys might sit still for brownies or ice cream. And at least we wouldn’t feel obligated to keep them seated. We’ll bring toys if we need to.”

After some negotiation back and forth, me feeling ever more encouraged that I had somehow learned to prioritize my mental health (by not putting my myself in a position where I would feel like a failure), my children (by not putting them in a position where they would be unhappy), and my husband (by not putting him in a position where he would be humiliated by his wife and children who are squabbling while he had adult conversation), I was pretty pleased with the result: we would have a late afternoon dessert with this man and his wife.

The plot thickens

I managed to not dread this date on our calendar, which stood in stark contrast to just about any other time I have ever taken our boys anywhere. Why? Because I had negotiated terms that felt safe. I felt like we had actively given consent about when, where, for how long.

As I had already decided that I was going to embark on my CPW Challenge by the time our date rolled around, I wore my pretty yellow lace dress (which I would need to wear some 22 more times) and, of course, my white Adidas which I put in the washing machine especially for the occasion. I didn’t want to have to take off my shoes upon arriving at someone’s house and have the whole place filled up with that awful smell of death which accompanies a woman who has vowed to buy no clothes, shoes or accessories for a year. What’s more, I even bleached my one pair of relatively intact socks, so that they were crisp and white and perfectly clean, again, just in case we would be asked to take off our shoes.

(Sidebar: I may not be the person who behave unreasonably in this story, but I am a chronic overthinker. I’m giving this little window into my preparations because I want to prove that I didn’t go into this situation lightly. I had my thoughts, based on what I believed we had negotiated, and I wanted to do my best to make myself comfortable with the impending social interaction which, in normal circumstances would have paralyzed me with anxiety. I channeled dread into action, which was a huge leap forward for me.)

Upon our arrival, these very nice people suggested we take a walk. “Okay,” I thought. “A walk is cool. It’s a good thing I wore my sneakers.” Except that soon thereafter, they were grabbing the keys to their car. “Why do we need a car for a walk?” I wondered. But naturally, I didn’t ask, because, apparently, I don’t respect myself enough to ask important questions.

We were with our little scalawags, who, for all of their lives we have made a practice of respecting enough to inform them of what we were going to be doing and asking for consent. This was one of the principles of RIE, the method of caring for them we undertook to emulate when they were babies. These children, who are accustomed to being informed and asked for consent and are now firmly in throes of little boyhood, quite logically, wanted to know what we were doing. I didn’t know.

“It’s hot out,” said the very nice people. “Let’s go walk at the edge of the forest.”

The word forest prompted my youngest to cry. He is afraid of the forest, any forest. We sometimes have to use different words for him to be willing to go to the woods at all. No one meant any harm, but I did have to explain why he had this reaction. Someone made a passing comment, perhaps hoping to motivate him, that “maybe we’ll see a deer,” and that set him into another panic: he is terrified of wolves, and according to stories he heard at school, wolves live in the forest. For him, a deer is just a prettier wolf. He doesn’t know the difference. He’s never seen a real one of either in the wild. More panic and more tears.

This is going well, I thought to myself.

Into the Woods

The next thing I know, after following them in our car for about twenty minutes, we have embarked on a sixty minute uphill hike in the Vosges mountains. (I hate hiking, remember?) “Only sixty minutes?” you are thinking. Listen. I am an indoor kinda girl. My ideal rainy day is a sewing machine and a pile of clothes that need mending and ideal sunny day is a parasol, a chaise longue, a margarita and a good book. I don’t have the notion of these kinds of things. My boys, ages 4 and 5, are active, very strong, but they would rather be doing daredevil stunts on skateboards than walking in the woods.

Here we were, with only a tiny bit of water between the four of us that I had happened to have in my backpack from the day before. I was wearing a yellow lace princess dress and white Adidas I had just put through the washing machine so that they wouldn’t smell. The hike was muddy and steep, the thornbushes devastating to my princess dress, with one of my boys ultra-clingy and needing to be carried because he is terrified of the woods.

I rarely have felt so disrespected by perfectly nice people. I rarely have been so angry: angry because we could have prepared, but no one told us what was going on. I wouldn’t have worn a lace dress if I had known. I would have brought water if I had known. I would have worn shoes with grip if I had known. I wouldn’t have bleached my damn socks if I had known. I would have prepared my little one who is terrified of the woods if I had known.

I would not have consented to this if I had known.

And then…

I smiled and chatted and acted perfectly normally, all while I was stewing about how very different this plan is from what I had negotiated. The dissonance this stirred up in my heart was so loud and cacophonous that I couldn’t think straight. Still after an hour or so at the summit, we had to make the sixty minute return trip with little boys who are now way past their bedtime and tired and hungry and asking every thirty seconds when we were going to be home.

We did finally get home. Everyone did finally get to bed.

But I seethed with rage for days afterwards.

This is the kind of thing I get myself caught up in when I lack the self-respect to either ask the important questions or call the whole thing off when I start to feel that things are getting out of control.

I was seething with rage because I didn’t respect myself or my little boys enough to say “This sounds like something we should undertake on a day when we are better prepared,” or “My boys are tired and hungry and I want us to go back now.”

Everything went wrong. I am not the only person who didn’t do the right thing. But I could have, at any number of moments, tried to turn the tide. I simply don’t respect my own discernment and my own intuition enough to set boundaries and limits.

Miserably ever after

This illustrates perfectly why I hate social situations. Even when I think I have set up an environment in which I think we can function, things get out of control. When it only effects me, I can take it. I may hate it, I may be mad, but I can deal.

When it effects my children, and I realize that my inability to set limits and boundaries for myself has put them in an uncomfortable place, it turns up the level on my self-loathing to max.

Whether or not it should trigger my self-loathing is a conversation for another day. The fact is that it did. I cannot live the rest of my life with this cycle of avoidance, engagement, dread, misery and avoidance.

I genuinely thought I had figured out how to break the cycle: I had negotiated the engagement! The proof to me that I was onto something was that I didn’t dread the engagement the way I usually do. This was already huge!!!

Apparently, though, I am not out of the woods yet.

Into the woods and out of the woods…

I need to start small and work my way up. I need to be willing to listen to that little voice of discomfort and ask questions. Darn it, I am allowed to ask questions if it’s about where we are going, what we are doing, what I need to bring. I need to give my consent. My boys deserve the opportunity to consent.

The way I know that I can make the greatest strides in this area is by simply making an effort to face my discomfort regarding my family’s everyday schedule and planning.

And home before dark…

Starting tomorrow I am going to start examining the practical ways I can make headway on my limits and boundaries. Wish me luck.

(PS: Why the grumpy cat up top? Well, because this whole situation has made me a grumpy cat. There you go. And you know what? Cats are very very good at setting limits and boundaries. I’d like to be more like a cat, thank you very much. They aren’t afraid to get up and leave when something isn’t to their liking.)

Published by Lily Fields

I am passionate about contentment. This is a challenge, because I am equally passionate about progress. I get up at 4:00AM to chip away at a solution to this monolithic problem: how to make progress on my contentment. Born and raised in the USA, I married a French philosophy teacher in 1999. We have lived in France since 2007. We stayed young and carefree until life threw us two curveballs in the form of little humans one after another in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Now I am a slightly older, slightly more exhausted version of myself, but with mystery stains on my walls and a never-ending pile of laundry.

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