I went 20-some years not knowing a fundamental truth about myself: I have boundary issues.
Like many people (women especially, it seems), I had a hard time knowing where my responsibilities ended and another person’s began; I immediately resorted to “helper” mode, wanting to take care of everyone in my life. I didn’t know how to not absorb other people’s emotions, how to not take responsibility for other people’s feelings.
I didn’t know how to say “no” when I really wanted to.
In so many ways, I had a hard time even knowing how I felt or what I wanted without gauging another person’s opinion. I especially had a hard time making my needs and wants a priority.
Boundaries: a fundamental foundation for being a healthy person.
But in the context of motherhood, those boundaries seemed to blur and fade. If I had a hard time taking care of myself before, just add the title of “mother.” Phew. Even for those with a healthy sense of boundaries and self-care, it’s hard to shake the hardwired guilt and uneasiness in taking care of ourselves, as individuals, apart from being mothers. Our bodies, our minds, our creative passions. Aren’t we supposed to take care of everyone around us? Isn’t that our job now?
On author Elizabeth Gillbert’s new podcast “Magic Lessons,” she spoke with a stay-at-home mom and writer, Erin Rawlings, who struggles with guilt for having a passion other than her children. She’s scared her passion will take focus away from her kids, and those fears protrude into mental roadblocks, keeping her from the work she deeply wants to do.
“I want to talk about the guilt,” Gillbert responded to Rawlings. “I feel like mothers are the members of society who need to be given the most permission to be able to do the things that ignite their own souls. Because there’s some deep, deep sense in the world that once you are a mother, your lives belong exclusively, entirely and only to your children.”
Gillbert goes on to credit her mother, who modeled creativity throughout Gillbert’s childhood, as the sole reason she’s a creative person. (“If you model martyrdom to them, they will grow up to be martyrs. If you model creativity to them, they will grow up to be creators. It’s a public service for you to honor your creativity,” she said.)
When we pursue our passions, when we take care of ourselves, we can better love the people in our lives — without resentment or anger or nagging discontent. And it’s not just creativity. I can’t tell you the number of emails and comments I’ve received from young women struggling with pursing their own lives vs. existing solely for their children.
A friend of mine recently started a direct-sales business from home, allowing her to be a stay-at-home mom to three young kids and also have a little something just for herself. She’s enjoying it. It makes her feel better. And yet.
“Now that I’m doing something for myself, even giving up doing things with and for the kids in order to do this ‘work,’ I feel so guilty,” she admitted. “Why do I feel so guilty?”
Another young woman recently emailed me, confessing her struggle with the idea of going back to work, of kick-starting her career, because isn’t she supposed to want to stay home with her baby? Does that make her a bad mom?
Guilt. Boundaries. Pursing our passions. These were on my mind the other day, as I sat behind a closed door for my scheduled work time. A time to be creative, a time to make some money, a time for me.
Before I knew it, the door flung open and my 6-year-old boy was asking for food. Again. Despite the fact that his father was in the living room, despite the fact that he’s fully capable of fixing a snack on his own. And so I calmly pulled him close to me and laid down my boundary:
“Listen honey, this is Mommy Time. Not because I don’t want to be around you, or because I’m punishing you, but because mommy needs this time for herself. This is my time to be creative, and when I don’t get this time I feel angry and anxious. I turn into the Mean Mommy. Giving me this time means that I’ll have more energy and happiness to share with you later. Do you understand?”
He did. He didn’t want me to be the Mean Mommy, either. You see, boundaries are good for everyone.
He now knows that when I need to take care of myself — my early morning meditations that he’s allowed to quietly join, but never disrupt; my gym class that he’s allowed to watch and cheer from the sidelines; my writing time that is sacred and important — he needs to respect that.
Not because I’m a selfish, terrible mother who neglects my child’s needs, but because I’m an individual woman who is modeling how to take care of herself, how to set boundaries, and how to respect herself and her passions.
A big part of having healthy boundaries is recognizing and respecting other people’s boundaries. If he’s going to set his own parameters to take care of himself as an adult, he needs to see what that looks like. He needs to see it from me.
To all the other mothers battling their inner guilt and outer critics, know this:
You are not a martyr.
You are not a doormat.
You are not a shadow in your child’s light.
You are a real, full, vibrant woman fighting against expectations and ideals and nagging guilt in the pit of your stomach, as we all are.
Give yourself permission to ignite your soul in all the ways you need, big and small. Play, run, bake, draw, write, create.
Give yourself boundaries and lovingly enforce them.
Our kids will be better and healthier if we do. And so will we.More On