Boundaries— How to not lose yourself in motherhood and in love

Where do I end and where do you begin? 

    It’s so romantic, the notion of being in union with a romantic partner so much so that when your skin is on theirs it’s hard to tell what is yours and what is theirs.

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 I’ve had a similar experience with my daughter when she was a baby; cuddling in bed nursing, I had the oddest sensation of stroking her chubby little wrist and feeling like I could feel myself touching her, even though visually and logically I knew we were separate, we were so connected. In the middle of the night I would wake up seconds before her, we got the hiccups at the same time, when she learned to crawl I would wake up moments before she was about to fall off the bed (this was before we got a bed railing!), and recently in her toddler years this entanglement has expressed itself in not so endearing ways. Her extreme and unbridled expression of emotion was taken so personally that I felt worn down, exhausted and like a failure if she was having a challenging day or even a challenging moment. Her rollercoaster of emotions pass through her like clouds and don’t seem to phase her, while they left me traumatized, waiting anxiously for the next outburst or crying spell. 

    In romantic relationships in the past I’ve been completely swept up in falling in love, giving endlessly to ensure I won’t be abandoned, enduring and tolerating physical and emotional abuse, shame, blame, neglect and criticism,  literally driving across the country or flying thousands of miles away in the name of ‘love’ all so that I won’t be left alone. My single girlfriends have remarked almost spitefully that I have never had a problem “finding a guy”, which has been true, the problem has been I also never found anything wrong with losing myself in one either, until now. 

    It’s not okay to lose yourself to a partner, to a baby, to an identity, to a job, to anything, and I have had to learn this the hard way. The word boundaries has always been elusive, one of those words that kept popping up all my life and I never bothered to look deeper. What exactly does “setting boundaries” mean?, I tell someone they can’t do something and they just won’t do it? What would I even say they can’t do? Until this past year, I honestly had no idea what a boundary was or why it is so important.

    Having dealt with both childhood abandonment issues and traumatic abusive relationships involving addiction, I have had a tendency to become codependent in relationships. I also have had a tendency to choose partners, friends and situations that put me in a place of over giving to prove my worth, of overcommitting and letting things go and go and go until I get resentful and just stop everything and I go, usually by running away or burning bridges, usually both. I also have had a tendency to caretake my romantic partners, making sure their needs are met, which is also a form of control, so I know they won’t abandon me, because I have enabled them and their abusive ways- whether physical or emotional. The latter is more sneaky, emotional abuse doesn’t feel like abuse when you’re in it. There’s no shock factor of a smack or a burn to run adrenaline through your body and wake you up. The only way to stop the cycle is to set boundaries.

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    It took until my daughter’s toddler years for me to realize how important setting boundaries is. Up until about age 2, I could get away with not really needing to set limits because her needs were so basic- love, comfort, breastfeeding, sunshine, playtime, diapers, sleep. Upon toddlerhood it got much more complicated—lots of words (especially NO!, lots of desired independence without competency in doing things she wanted to do, and lots of feelings. Young children are naturally self-protective and ego-centric, which is healthy, the ego has to develop first so there is a rooted sense of self and with that, security in the world. It’s wonderful to see her expressing her preferences for things, physical affection, socializing, going places, what clothes to wear, what food to eat (but mostly not!). She’s a healthy, strong and confident almost 4 year old girl who knows her boundaries and sets them proudly without any apology or shrinking away, she literally has no shame, she loves every part of herself and tells me all the time. I have managed to do one thing right in this parenting thing— to not ingrain shame or blame. I learned from her how to set boundaries. I have rightful desires and needs, and I’m suffering not expressing them.

    It started with a list, a very long list of all my needs in relationship, then I moved on to desires, and to all that I require in order to feel in balance in my friendships and work relationships. I realized that while I had a handful of my needs met, over half of them were completely unmet, and my desires were for the most part completely unmet as well. This is the cost of losing yourself, a side effect of serving and giving endlessly as a mother and a wife. As a side effect of this, I’ve also struggled with complete adrenal exhaustion, severe anxiety, suppressed immune system where I was literally sick with one virus into the next for 4 months straight, and other mystery symptoms. The body and mind are completely linked, and I know that setting boundaries initiated the healing process. There is a lot of healing to be done, once you begin, you realize the more you dive in the more there is to do… much like cleaning!

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    Setting boundaries can sound like “I’d prefer not to talk about this right now, let’s talk about it tomorrow afternoon after some sleep” and “That feels like a no for me”, and “My rate is $40/hour and the total is due upon completion”. With my daughter it sounds like, “ I’m not going to allow you to speak to me that way, it’s not kind”, and “We have 5 more minutes here and then we are leaving, when you hear the bell, we go”, and “I’m going to go lay down for 20 minutes and rest, you are welcome to play quietly or take a nap with me but it is time for rest”. Setting boundaries ensures no emotional energy is leaked, my physical energy is conserved, and my resources are protected and in a constant flow of abundance, rather than discounted, given away and devalued.

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    Losing yourself to motherhood, to the role of someone’s wife, partner or girlfriend, to an all-consuming job or just to the rush of life flowing on costs you and can be prevented with healthy boundaries. We don’t have to lose ourselves when we become mothers, it’s so difficult in this culture where motherhood is a viciously consuming role that doesn’t leave any room for error and so much room for judgment. We can’t be perfect, we aren’t. We were wild once. I won’t lose that. I’m not saying to go back to who you were before, because I personally wouldn’t trade anything to go back to her, I want to take just the parts I loved and integrate them into this embodiment of the woman I am now, having created so much— a whole human from my body, several businesses, some long, transformative relationships, several homes, beautiful community. I want to take all my favorite parts of myself from the last decade and assemble them as I wish into this new identity, and even then once I’ve created it, this identity isn’t one I want to completely lose myself in, it’s a state of flux, always evolving. My best friend says she’s never identified with being a mom. How wonderful! It must feel so free, to just ‘be’ a woman who happens to have a child, and still has all her desires and dreams and life intact. We aren’t bound by our children to create this ideal identity of motherhood, and I don’t want my daughter to be looking up to me in that way either, I’d prefer she see me as the badass, independent, activist, almost-midwife, healer, dancer & artist that I am. 

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    As for the blissful feeling of not knowing where one ends and the other begins, it feels even better once you’ve freed yourself of needing the other. You are free to LOVE with vulnerability, integrity and authenticity, to witness and experience the present moment, without the anxious mind carrying you away to the future or the past. Boundaries allow you to surrender. Surrender is not giving up, it is trusting and accepting, which allows the most delicious presence and expansion of pleasure in the moment.