Since our eldest became mobile around age of 8 months old, the notion of boundaries has fascinated me. It was around this time that those close started to advise, ‘He needs boundaries!’ and soon after, ‘He’s testing yours!’. However, I didn’t quite understand what they meant and, having grown up with highly ambiguous and constantly shifting boundaries myself as a child, I was extremely naïve. At that point, I had thought there existed a universal set of boundaries for me to learn and, as our son approached his first birthday, I was meant to start ‘imposing’ these on him. From my observations, much of it seemed to be about saying, very sternly, “NO! You can’t climb on there.”, “NO! You can’t eat grapes off the floor.”, “NO! You can’t….”. It appeared almost as if a right of passage in parenthood. But I really didn’t want to be saying “NO!” to him all the time and therefore resisted.
Boundaries were a trigger for me. Those that I had received as a child were on the opposite end of affirming and largely, painfully confusing. Both parents would swing from dis-engagement and pertaining not to care, to being highly dictatorial and condemning. Boundaries seemed to happen when the mood suited them. I was generally left to my own devices and, by necessity, became seemingly very independent. My confidence grew from my own enquiry but, where I did struggle and required guidance, my parents were quick to dismiss my need. My mother’s way in was to be highly critical and, when she chose, hugely controlling and domineering. My father’s was overly authoritarian when he did, on occasion, step in and this I found hard to take heed to. So I had a vast and open free reign on one hand and on the other, my choices were predominately criticised and undermined, which in turn, uprooted my faith in my sense of self.
It proved an extremely overwhelming way to learn who I was and how to be in the world and left me as a young adult spinning between two extremes. In the centre of my heart I sought connection, a very young and innocent form of connection. Yet in my conditioning, I held crippling fear, shame and confusion. I reacted against my parent’s negativity and, not wanting to tread the path that had been carved around me, blindly put trust in others. This trust was in fact hope. Heartache and confusion, in friendships and relationships, ensued as I carried my open fragility in search of belonging and connection. There was so much I didn’t understand and it was only until I had our son, I genuinely began learning.
I started questioning; what are these boundaries that people keep recommending? Why do I disagree with so many of them? What do they mean to me? Without a positive model as my premise, I felt like I was literally trusting my instincts in the dark and my feeling, at the time, came again to trust. I wanted to trust in my son’s abilities and he me. And so, with this and a strong connection between us, I gave him a long leash as he took his first wee steps into independence and exploring his world. It was my first foray into boundaries and was far less about setting them. I appreciate now the gaps and holes in my intention but I needed to learn, and the first thing I came to understand was that there are no universal boundaries; they are instead personal and unique to all. But how to identify and implement?
With keen intent, my investigations lead me to discover there is in fact a middle way, a way in which to foster healthy and loving boundaries for children through gentle parenting. Application however was challenging; I was afraid of stepping into my parent’s shoes and instilling fear and confusion as they had done with me. Uncertainty and chronic health issues kept bringing me back to the same place; exhaustion, burnout and, later, resentment. With hindsight, I see now how I was ironically neglecting attending to my own needs whilst I learned how to ‘bound’ our children. I wasn’t repeating the same pattern of fear with them, but instead repeating, over and again, the one I had learned from childhood and continued to consistently over-look and violate my own boundaries just as my parents had done. Yet I persisted to question throughout, to dig deep and finally have arrived at this: when I respect my own boundaries, it lays the foundation for my children to respect both mine as well as their own. I cannot expect them to do this without me doing it first. This is vital, for us all, and I am now learning the how of creating a new nourishing model that is greatly distinct from my parents one.
These insights help me to see that my parents, for whatever their individual personal reasons, needed me not to grow-up. The boundaries they tried to set were intended to destabilise, not empower. Those that I now focus on setting with my own children are primarily about honouring three sets of individuals; my son, my daughter and I. Myself, as parent, whom carries a duty of care unto my own being and theirs and they, whom I chose to bring into the world. I now seek to empower all of us as much as I possibly can and, again, this is very much a learning process.
As I mull the word boundary over and over in my mind, its origin ‘bound’ literally bounds into my thoughts.
Bound: to be bound in arms. To be encircled, with love and care
Bound: to run and leap and jump. To feel free
Bound: a word that to me always connotes happiness although there is another side
Bound: restricted, confined, constrained
All of these help me to consider how I establish my boundaries with our children. If I am binding something, someone, do I want to do it with a sense of constriction and inhibit flow or do I want to create a sense of an embracing containership and encourage growth? And if I wish to do the latter, what am I trying to hold, with so much consideration? What am I bounding in safety? What am I bounding for?
These, for now, are my arrival points:
- First, myself. I try to keep bound and protect my integral sense of self. Without this, I cannot offer guidance, nor strength or a firm ground.
- Secondly, I must learn the dance that is they and how I can keep coming back, as if plucking a unifying sound, to that which makes them tick. Within here, I hope, they start to construct a positive, loving sense of self and that, through modelling towards both them and I, I am able to demonstrate how they learn to protect and nourish this for themselves.
- Lastly, I am bounding for a healthy independence. I seek their bounding to enable their positive self to relate fruitfully with the world around them, for now and as they grow. And what I manifest as care for their own selves can form the foundations of care for others.
Boundaries are relatively new territories for me. I continue to ponder and reflect as I learn. I have no answers. Perhaps a marginally better understanding, but this, I feel, is only the tip of the story.