Getting Dressed with the Door Closed: A Lesson About Boundaries
This week I made a profound decision that I have earned the right to be alone when I poop. My oldest daughter is almost 16, and I have gone to the bathroom with small people in the room with me, or the door open in case they call me, or with someone standing outside the closed door asking me questions since she was born. I think that's long enough.
I said this in so many words to my twelve year old who had been either asking me through the door where her shoes were or if she had punctuated something in her essay correctly -- I forget which it was -- on Tuesday, as I came out of the bathroom. I feel empowered and free. For the next 15 minutes before she left for school, as I tried not to rescue my 12-year-old from her own bad time management by hastily making her lunch and finding her homework, in my brain, I wrote this blog. Some people will tell you that the great lesson of parenting is learning how to be selfless. I disagree. I think the most valuable lesson of parenting is learning how to have healthy boundaries. And moreover, that is a much harder and more valuable lesson to learn than abject selflessness. As a mom, it's simpler to decide that you will live solely for your children. To meet their needs ahead of yours all the time or even most of the time is easier. To pick up their shoes, pack their lunches, and make their beds; to listen to kiddie music in the car and watch only their shows on Netflix; to arrange your social life around the children with whom they get along; to cook for dinner their favorite meals and not make the things you like but they don't; to read them books for as long as they want and never try to get through a chapter of your own book until they go to bed at night; to keep going without a nap after being up with them all night rather than put them in front of the TV; to give them your full attention and ignore your friends' phone calls every time the kids want you -- these are the easy choices to make. These lifestyle choices will probably make you bitter and resentful -- I don't believe any human can be this selfless without that being the natural result -- but worse, it will make your kids terribly self-centered. When you are nothing and they are everything, you've set them up for a bad fall in the real world. Additionally, you may eventually crush them with your devotion, and they will turn to you at seventeen or twenty-two or thirty and tell you, cruelly, to get your own life -- and you will end up in a Codependents Anonymous meeting with me. (Where you are welcome, by the way. We can help you.) But truly, for many years, that thankless, selfless way of living would be much easier because you would never have to wrestle with yourself. You wouldn't have to wonder if the guilt you feel when the child whines and you don't answer is teaching him the valuable ability to delay gratification or if you're causing him to have an anxious attachment disorder for the rest of his life. Also, you would never have to hear your child whine. "Why is it so hard to not feel like a bad mom?" my friend Brittany, whose first son just turned one, asked me this week. "Because you're a good one," I told her. A good mom struggles with obeying their genetic command to answer every cry with the higher functioning part of the brain that says her soul needs it's needs met too, and her body has limits. Moreover, every person on the planet who wants to love God, others, and themselves with knowledge and depth of insight needs to wrestle with the tension between self-care and selfishness, people pleasing and saying "no" when appropriate. Anne Lamott penned something brilliant about parenting and people in general in her book Grace (Eventually); Thoughts on Faith: [People with children] tell pregnant women and couples and one another that those who have chosen not to breed can never know what real love is, what selflessness really means. They like to say that having a child taught them about authenticity. This is a total crock. Many of the most shut-down, narcissistic, selfish people on earth have children. Many of the most evolved--the richest in spirit, the most giving-- choose not to. The exact same chances for awakening, for personal restoration and connection, exist for breeders and non-breeders alike. In other words, whatever the lessons that life gives us are, it's our choice whether or not we learn them. I'm sure that it's time to let my kids delay gratification and solve their own problems while I go to the bathroom. And here's another lesson I learned this week. It's time to get dressed with my door closed. I've been changing clothes with my bedroom door open for years, in case a child cried, fell down, puked, or drank a bottle of Baby Advil (that last one happened while I was in the shower). And now that they are both adolescents, I've kept it cracked in case they try to talk to me. But even though my girls still want me to answer all questions they have immediately just as they did when they were toddlers, as adolescents, they are horrified if they walk in and see me naked. This is a wonderful learning opportunity for us all. Their lesson: to delay answers to their questions or risk seeing me topless. Mine, to realize that though they tell me to close the door, they will forget it's closed and yell out to me urgent questions, like "Where are my clean undewear?" I still have to shut down my genetic anxiety that says, "Answer them now!" The lesson for all of us: forbear with others, be patient while they absorb their lessons, and learn to care for ourselves.