When Personal Boundaries Get Fuzzy… Sometimes It's Worth It

No matter what age we are, the challenge of telling others "no" never really goes away.

Photo from Shutterstock.


“Mom, there’s something I have to tell you.” Ula’s eyes were wide with distress as she kneeled at her kitchen chair. I had made her shredded zucchini with a marinara meat sauce, one of her favorite August meals. She wasn’t touching it. That worried me.

Under other circumstances, it might have been funny in a “kids do the darndest things” kind of way.

“What is it, Sweetie?” I reached over and pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. Her cheek was hot.

“I know we weren’t supposed to do it,” she began. Never a good sign.

She had been playing with one of her friends from swimming lessons. The friend had wanted to practice the CPR they had learned in swimming class. On her.

Ula started to cry. “I didn’t want to do it. I told her I didn’t want to do it. But she really wanted to, and I didn’t want to make her mad.”

“CPR is never something you should do on a person unless it is a life or death situation,” Bob said.

“I know that,” Ula said. Her tears were falling into her bowl. “And it was so awful, I would never do it again!”

But there must have been a bug going around, and it was too late. Ula's temperature was running somewhere around 101 degrees.

I sent a note to the other girl’s parents so they could talk to their daughter. I suppose, under other circumstances, it might have been funny in a “kids do the darndest things” kind of way. But something Ula had said disturbed me: “I didn’t want to do it. I told her I didn’t want to do it. But she really wanted to, and I didn’t want to make her mad.”

Ula had known that what the other kid wanted to do wasn’t right. She knew it was something she didn’t want to do. But she didn’t stand up for herself and that frightened me. As I reflected on her recent experiences with different children, I realized that this wasn’t the first time she’d had this trouble.

Over the next few days, once a good purgative vomit has flown across the kitchen table and the fever has broken, Ula required a lot of close time. She wanted my arms around her nonstop. I honor the need, and we talk about boundaries—the invisible protective force fields around our individual bodies that help us to keep safe, that help us, when necessary, to see to our needs before the needs of others.

Boundaries can protect us from being overworked. They can protect us from getting overwhelmed. They can protect our belongings. They can safeguard our health. Sometimes they simply buy us the time to be alone or with a friend, away from the chaos of life, to rest and enjoy ourselves.

We practice saying “no.” We imagine different friends in different situations, crying and carrying on, screaming and yelling, threatening to tell on her. We visualize her walking away from manipulative behaviors. I tell her that I trust her to know what is right, no matter how angry that may make someone. I tell her I will always be there to back her up.

Lisa recognizes a lifelong struggle to define her limits and put herself first.

Then on Tuesday I break away from the farm. My friend Lisa has her second chemotherapy session. She has decided to use the weekly four-hour confinement sessions as an opportunity to spend time with her girlfriends. This week, she chooses me. We are calling it our spa day. We leave our children at the farm and drive into Albany.

It has been four months since Lisa was diagnosed with breast cancer. During that time, we have spent a number of hours on the why of the disease. Was it the soy milk? Grocery store meat? Was it some toxin in the water? The stress of her move to Cobleskill last year? Lisa has cleaned out her refrigerator. She is buying local and organic foods. She reads constantly about diet and nutrition. But when we talk about the healing process, the conversation inevitably goes to boundaries. In her own diagnosis, Lisa recognizes a lifelong struggle to stand up for herself, to expect better of her world, to define her limits, to put herself first.

The car is parked, and Lisa leads the way through the business park to the cancer treatment center. Once inside, we are taken into a room with several rows of reclining heated massage chairs. She chooses her seat and we unpack our picnic lunch.

Our chat continues as the nurse brings her some pills, then begins prepping the catheter that has been inserted into Lisa’s shoulder.

“Make sure they download the new version of iTunes while you’re hooked up,” I quip as Lisa closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and the nurse puts in the tube. If only it were that easy, I think to myself. A simple download to address any potential security breaches. The nurse leaves, and we begin a leisurely luncheon.

An hour later, we are still chatting and eating. There isn’t a ton of food, but with no children, no telephones, no pick-ups, no drop-offs, and no interruptions, we luxuriate in the leisurely pace. Food is seasoned with sporadic conversation, followed by stretches of companionable silence. I leave to find us tea and marvel at how relaxed I am in the hospital setting. It’s the boundary, I realize. As we sit through Lisa’s chemo, the boundaries are drawn. She is tied to a drip tube. I am tied to her. We can’t go anywhere. We can’t do anything. No children are allowed in the chemotherapy room. There is a giant fence circling us, isolating us from the chaos of our lives.

After tea, we pull out our knitting projects. Each of us is knitting an Aran sweater. They will not be gifts for anyone else. They are for ourselves. The nurse comes by to marvel at our work.

“Can you believe it?” Lisa sings from her chair. “This is what we have to do in order to get a day to ourselves where we can sit and knit!”

If I visualize my boundary lines, I confess that they would be in watercolor on a piece of wet paper.

Her comment hits home. Since we met almost a year ago, we’ve talked about taking a day to knit and just be together. But there is homeschooling we both must do. There are the constant needs of the children. There is her work. There is the farm. There are household chores. There are family obligations.

I leave to find us a second cup of tea, allowing myself a good look around. Peppered throughout the room are women in my age group, their faces exhibiting a raw beauty—it seems like every thought is made bold across a visage stripped of its ability to hide behind hair. All of them must be thinking about how to keep this disease from coming back. All of them must be on a fast-track course for inner wisdom and personal boundaries.

I like to think of myself as a woman who can articulate her boundaries, who can draw the line to make sure my personal needs are met. I probably do this better than most.

Learning to protect our personal boundaries is not like riding a bicycle.

But if I visualize my boundary lines, I confess that they would be in watercolor on a piece of wet paper. I would paint a circle of protection around myself, but the line would run and fade. It would become this messy blob that blurred into the surrounding landscape of the canvas of my life. It would be broken by my children, my husband, my mom and dad, my friends, my work, my neighbors. It would be smudged with errands, with overgrown grass, with weeds and Japanese beetles, housecleaning, lesson planning, emails and phone calls, with homemade soap, canning jars, broth pots, and kettles of rendered fat. It would be decorated with sausages and pork chops, garnished with kale salad and sauerkraut.

Lisa and I walked out of chemo, both of us relaxed after four hours of chatter, giggling, knitting, and relaxation; thankful for the moment, for the exterior forces that gave us a protective bubble for a few short hours.

But by today, Lisa will be paying for that little holiday. She will be sick to her stomach. She will be exhausted. She will be unable to eat. She will face a future of mammograms and follow-up appointments. That’s a high price to pay to for a crash course in setting boundaries.

I meet my family at the farm and we head home. Ula is sobbing. Saoirse is yelling at her. There has been another incident with a friend where Ula has failed to say “no.” An (admittedly insignificant) toy has been damaged as a result, and Saoirse is furious because Ula is the one who let it happen, who didn’t say “no” when she should have. We revisit what has now become these week’s theme, about loving and saying no at the same time.

“Being kind doesn’t mean you have to agree to everything,” I repeat once more. I am beginning to feel like a broken record.

The next day, Saoirse falls prey to the stomach bug that Ula picked up from her CPR nightmare. Bob leaves for the farm, and I do my best to dash up and see to her needs while trying to keep Ula’s lessons on schedule downstairs. I am failing at both tasks. Furthermore, I have forgotten to eat my breakfast. I toss some leftovers in the oven to warm for lunch, and a short while later, Saoirse calls me to her side. She is poised over her vomit bowl.

“Please stay with me,” she whimpers.

I sit on the bed with her, stroking her hair, rubbing her back, rubbing her feet. But her stomach will not release its contents. By the end of an hour, we are both begging for the purge. Of course, she is suffering greatly, but I, too, want release. I want to rest. I want to eat. I want to go the bathroom. I stay with her.

As I press my thumbs into the soles of her feet, my mind wanders to my own boundaries. Am I letting them be violated this afternoon? Should I draw the line and see to my own needs? I picture again that watercolor painting with the runny, interrupted line that protects my body. In my mind, I pan out and gaze at the broader painting. I find solace in observing that all the assaults on my boundary line are chosen ones. They are people and things that I love. But that doesn’t mean the line can be eliminated from the picture.

As I sit on my child’s bed, I realize that it doesn’t matter if we are seven or 47. Learning to protect our personal boundaries is not like riding a bicycle. It is a never-ending study and practice, rife with errors in judgment. With each day of our lives, we have to learn where the line is. We have to learn how to define it. We have to decide whether and how, on that day, we will defend it.

I stay with Saoirse until she lays herself back down on her pillow. “You need to go eat,” she says, then gives me a weak smile. And in her diminished state, I am awed by her wisdom as she reminds me of the next great lesson in boundaries. It is not enough to look out for our own limits. We must honor them in others.