The Ideal Life Round-Up: Commitments

“Stay close to what makes you feel alive.

To many of my Ideal Life themes this year, I gave a little tagline–one little sentence to guide my thinking. For example, the theme of Marriage was, “Half the magic is me.” Or for Parenting, a quote lifted from Hamilton: “Talk less. Smile more.” Or for Relationships, “Be there when it counts, but don’t overstay your welcome.”

For the Ideal Life theme of Commitments in 2021, my tagline was “Stay close to what makes you feel alive.

I know, I know, I know. This sounds like an open door to hedonism, and I’ll admit there might have been some of that. At the very least, it was an invitation to make unwise decisions.

But before you throw the baby out with the bathwater, this was the reason behind it: As a recovering people-pleaser, I have never known how to say no to anything. If it would make someone like me, or be pleased with me; if it would make someone else feel good, or find enjoyment and they were able to articulate that to me, then I would consistently commit to activities that I would dread.

Systematically, I would dread anything to which I committed–even things I theoretically should have enjoyed. By saying yes out of guilt, or duty, or tradition or by instinctive need to polish someone else’s self-worth to the detriment of my own, I was reinforcing my own lack of boundaries, and that makes me feel dead inside.

So having that one little thought guide my action–“In 2021 I will only commit to things that make me feel alive“, meant I had to say no sometimes. And that, my friends, is not as easy as it sounds.

But let’s take it from the top, shall we?

In my Ideal Life, I am a person who…

  • only commits to things that make me feel alive
  • knows how to say no
  • doesn’t oblige someone else’s folly
  • steps back from responsibility at the right time
  • doesn’t dread social engagements
  • can be supportive without getting involved
  • has her priorities straight

Where are you coming from?

This year was a transition–from the Great Lockdown of 2020, which was this socially anxious introvert’s dream scenario, back to something that resembles “real life.”

I said no to activities and social engagements because of ahem, “concerns for the health situation,” which honestly was just code for “I just don’t want to,” but I still don’t exactly know how to say that in a non-confrontational way.

I know that this is a bit of a cop-out. But I did do one very scary thing this year, which, if I did nothing else, will be what I remember from 2021.

You know by now that I have the very best in-laws a girl could ever hope for. They have been in my life for 25 years, and really, they are la crème de la crème. I often feel like I don’t deserve them. We live spread out in France: my BIL and his family live in Paris, my SIL lives in the Alps, my MIL and FIL live in a hilly little fairytale village in Southeastern France.

While we do manage, several times a year, to cross paths here and there, the only real constant is Christmas. My SIL, for as long as anyone can remember, has hosted Christmas Day at her house.

The tradition, if I could put my finger on it, began upon the birth of my eldest niece. It was easier to pack my BIL, who was single at the time, my indulgent husband and myself, who had no progeniture, and my MIL and FIL into a car and take the several-hour-aggravated-by-holiday-traffic roadtrip.

As my SIL’s family changed, adding new in-laws on her end, the number of guests increased substantially, but the tradition remained unchanged.

The nieces grew up, and my husband and I had babies. The tradition remained unchanged.

You may have heard me say that my scalawags are each a handful. Well, it got to the point that, in order to keep them from knocking over the dining tables, we had to spend the whole day in an unheated hallway so that they could play, as they were no longer welcome in the teenage girls’ rooms.

My BIL got married and had a little boy, so now there were at least two cars on the road for a few hours, and now there were three little boys in an unheated hallway. And, as they say in French, my nephew ne donne pas sa part au chien, meaning, he holds his own pretty well as a scalawag, too.

It was untenable.

So this year, I dared say something about it. I dared object to a tradition which, while convenient for one part of the family, had become an object of dread for me. It would have nothing to do with the health context. I just wanted to see what it would feel like if I put my family’s interests first for once.

I exchanged with my SIL, about how the boys were growing up, and how they needed more space than the darkened little hallway. I told her, and this is the truth: I dread taking my boys anywhere, anyway. They are noisy, they don’t travel well, they don’t transition well, they break things, not because they want to, but because they are curious. They are little boys who exist, take up space, and have their own personalities that we are all are learning to navigate.

I suggested that we would prefer not to make the drive this year, and allow the boys to enjoy the familiarity and comfort of their grandparents house on Christmas Day. I felt like the exchange went well. I felt understood, and vaguely, like we had reached an agreement. This was soooo liberating for someone like me.

Well. The very next day, I got a call from my MIL, saying, “What is this? You don’t like being with the family on Christmas?”

And suffice it to say that this stirred up the guilt and regret center of this people-pleaser’s brain.

But, because I had spent twenty-four hours luxuriating in the euphoria of having set a boundary, and I had felt so proud of myself for it, I dared hold the line. I told the truth. About the long travels, the cold hallway, the breaking things. I told her, “The situation is vastly different from when we first started this tradition, and, for the well-being of my children, and frankly, for my own mental health, I would like us to consider doing something else this year.”

And basta.

I re-set a boundary, and this time it held. I know for a fact there will be more conversations about this later this week when I see them all face-to-face, because what else do my MIL, SIL and I do but sit around and chitchat while little boys play Playmobil, right?

Most importantly, I believe a tiny little switch in my heart got flipped: Setting a boundary isn’t rejection. Setting a boundary is building a container in which everyone can feel safe and have fun. I genuinely hope my children will learn this critical lesson, if it is the only one they ever learn from me: Setting a boundary isn’t rejection. It is self-preservation, and an investment in healthy relationships.

Where are you going?

While I didn’t mention it in the above section about where I am coming from, I had set myself a rule in 2021: I was not to commit to anything that fell outside of the scope of my regular, pre-pandemic activities and responsibilities.

I’m hesitating to put in place a similar rule for this year, or perhaps, allow myself just one new non-pre-pandemic activity.

I was extended several free-lance opportunities this year, which fell outside of the established scope, and I declined them. This was somewhat painful in the moment, because the money would have been nice. To be paid for one’s expertise is a foundational expectation, but one I did not have the proper administrative structure (declared self-employed status) to accept.

In retrospect, I am glad I declined, at least for 2021–there were and are just too many unknowns with the boys’ school situations in the pandemic context. And, In my Ideal Life, I have my priorities straight.

So where am I going in 2022? I have committed to launching the first six-episode season of my podcast, Sing With Your Feet. I have committed to publishing bi-weekly French-language content. I have committed to launching a French-language podcast.

I have made commitments to my family, to my singing engagements, and to a very narrow circle of friends for whom I will be there when it counts, but won’t overstay my welcome.

But most of all, I have, and will continue to commit to feeling alive, to setting boundaries, and being true to myself.

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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