This past Sunday night, after a long battle with my digital TV antennae, I settled myself down in the basement couch to watch the USA Women’s Gymnastics Olympic Trials.
I found myself a little overcome with emotion. Four years ago, I watched the Fierce Five win gold from the same couch set in our little house in Kentucky. Four year ago… has it really been four years?
That was the summer when Call Me Maybe was going viral; Duets and Pretty Little Liars were my favorite TV shows; my husband had recently returned from his final deployment; Ezra was about to turn two; but most importantly – I had entered a tumultuous phase of change at every level of my being.
I had just come to the realization that I was a perfectionist, a Facebook addict, and had some huge problems with pleasing people. I read The Mom Factor and Boundaries, two books which single-handedly revolutionized my life – but not before they sent several key relationships in my life into serious flux.
Has it really been four years?
After the Fierce Five won gold, my mom and I booked tickets to go to their post-Olympic tour – something that we had done after the 1996 Olympics when I was just a girl. This morning, I bought us tickets for the 2016 Tour because, gold or not, we are going.
In the fall of 2012, I started trying new things. Some small, like wearing scarves and straightening my hair. Others big, like setting boundaries in my relationships. Really, I was fumbling with boundaries more than anything, but it was a beginning. I started EMDR in therapy. At the end of that year, I came face to face with God’s grace and made an emotional break from my fundamentalist roots, embracing God in a new way.
Has it really been four years?
Last night I sat across my kitchen table from a long-time friend – one of my bridesmaids. If I’m honest, I’ve done a crappy job of keeping up with her, but we still like each other’s statuses and photos on Facebook and message each other occasionally. We hadn’t seen each other since 2009. I was pregnant with Ezra at the time, although I wouldn’t find out with a positive test until two days later.
Has it really been seven years?
I told Ezra how she was in my wedding a long time ago. She looked at me and said, “We’ve changed a lot since then, haven’t we?”
How different we are from when we met on an online discussion board ten years ago! We talked about turning 30 next year, joked about “adulting,” and exchanged thoughts on what has surprised us most about this stage in our lives. We talked about how we feel less defensive…less offendable. Less like we owe the world (and everyone in it) an explanation for everything.
Our babies, now four and five, played together. Argued. Colored pictures. Got on each other’s nerves. Hugged and kissed. It was so sweet.
I sat across from my counselor on Tuesday. I rambled on an on for an hour about these big emotions I’ve been feeling lately. How I’ve been feeling tumultuous yet settled all at the same time.
It’s like the ocean, I told her. When you go to the beach at high tide, it’s not just the massive, angry waves that are knocking you down. You also have to fight the strong, underlying rip current that wants to pull you back out to sea.
For me, the waves of high tide have been the everyday life stresses. The sleep deprivation, my son’s special needs, Russell’s anxiety, and all those things entail for me on a daily basis. But that underlying rip current is the darker, deeper struggles. The anger that has overwhelmed me about everyone and everything in my life. The hard struggles with faith. Trying to get to the heart of who I’ve been, who I am now, who I’m supposed to be — what it’s all supposed to look like.
The rip current has threatened to rip me apart.
But somehow, it’s settled. The waves still crash over me. Those day-to-day struggles are still there, still intense. But that rip tide has settled into much calmer deep waters.
I’m not as angry anymore.
(The combination of maturity and medication have worked wonders on my psyche.)
The deeper pains within me have started to heal over. The scars will be there for years to come, but they just don’t hurt as bad now.
With this settling has come a better grasp on boundaries.
Really, the biggest thing about boundaries is realizing your responsibilities – what you ARE responsible and what you are NOT responsible for. And that’s where the peace comes from.
As a caregiver and special needs parent, I take on a lot of responsibility because I’ve had to. But I’ve taken on MORE than I’ve had to because I’ve lacked good boundaries. Now I’m stepping back. I’ve realized that I don’t have to fix everything. I don’t have to take on every meltdown or panic attack as my own. I don’t have to feel everything that they feel. I don’t have to make it all better. Nor do I have to prevent it from happening. That’s not my job.
It’s being settled in a place of acceptance.
I have spent the last two years grasping for control of every situation. What can I do to prevent the next panic attack? The next meltdown? Then being devastated when it still happened.
The last time we went hiking, Ezra had the worst meltdown he’s had in months. Russ started yelling. Ezra started screaming. But we got through it. Meds were administered, walks were taken, and they found the ways to pull themselves back together. Then we hiked and had a fabulous time.
“I wish that for once, we could take a family hike that didn’t have a massive meltdown,” I told my husband.
But that quiet reassurance from that settled place deep within said, “It’s okay. This is our life now…but it’s okay. You don’t have to fix it.”
We are into our fifth month of Intensive In-Home Services for Ezra. He’s made loads of improvement, but sometimes, I’m not sure if it’s because of the therapy or if it’s just maturity on his part. For me, it’s been three big realizations:
Ignore negative attention seeking behavior. Limit negative engagement. Stop trying to fix everything.
When Ezra is misbehaving or disobeying, I just ignore him until he starts doing what he knows he’s supposed to do. If he wants to argue, I just quit talking to him. It takes two people to have a power struggle. If I don’t engage, the fight dissipates.
Rather than saying, “Ezra, calm down! You are out of control!” I say, “Ezra, when you are calm and in control, I will speak with you.”
Instead of engaging in an argument of cross words, I just tell him, “When you can use calm words…when you can ask me nicely…I will…”
Screams, taunts, name calling, argumentative tones, harsh demands. Ignore. Ignore. Ignore.
But “Mommy, can you please…?” results in “Absolutely, Ezra! Thanks for using kind words!”
By telling him I will not engage with negative behavior, rather than trying to FIX the bad behavior, I am setting boundaries. The message is “I am not going to take responsibility for your bad behavior. It is not my problem to fix. It is yours.”
Less verbal engagement means less over-stimulation for him. For me, it’s a lot less work and a lot less emotionally draining.
When you spend less time fighting you have more time for loving and sweet time together.
I’ve been doing the same thing with Russ on some levels too. Rather than engaging with him over his anxiety and depression by trying to offer solutions, suggestions, and reassurances – I simply empathize. “I hear you. I know. I understand. I know what you mean.”
But his anxiety does not have to be mine. His mood swings don’t have to alter my day.
When the two of them start to fight, I’ve stopped intervening as swiftly. I stand close so they know I am there, but I wait to see if and how they can work it out.
I am learning that I can be supportive without joining in the chaos and taking it on as my responsibility to fix. That’s me setting boundaries.
This spills over into other areas. Last week, social media blew up with racial tension. This is an issue I’ve been grappling with much over the last two years. It seems like the popular thing for middle and upper class white women – especially those with online platforms – to champion social justice causes like those pertaining to race and gender identity. I’ve stayed mostly silent. For one, I hate following trends. Two, these are issues on which I am not qualified to speak.
But it seems like we have reached a point where people are verbalizing this ultimatum: You have to choose. If you are not with us, you are with them. Either you are a social justice warrior or you are a racist steeped in your white privilege. You are either on Team #blacklivesmatter or Team #alllivesmatter and there is no in between.
All weekend I struggled with hard questions. What is my role in this? Do I have to speak out? What would I say if I did? What part have I played in systemic racism? What is my responsibility?
Then, Sunday morning, it hit me:
I am not responsible for white cops killing black men. I don’t have to apologize for the color of my skin just because someone else of a different skin color is oppressed.
It’s not my job to fix all of the world’s injustices any more than it’s my job to fix the mental health challenges my family faces.
I got a message from a friend of mine last week that bothered me. Two years ago, I would have responded to her in anger and defensiveness. I would have given her a long explanation of my side of things, begging for her to understand where I was coming from.
“Friend or not, you don’t owe her an explanation,” came the quiet assurance from that settled place within. “You don’t have to respond.”
I’m not responsible for people misunderstanding the choices I make for my family.
I told Russ on Sunday that I don’t know how to fix the problem with racism in America, other than to shut up about things I don’t know about and live my life – MY life – in the most gracious way I know how. By being kind and accepting of all people and raising my kids to do the same. By loving my kids. By enjoying my family and taking care of them.
I don’t have to respond. I don’t have to explain. I don’t have to defend. I don’t have to be offended. I don’t have to take on everyone else’s problems as my own. I don’t have to be drawn into drama and chaos that isn’t mine to own. I don’t have to fix anything.
My word for 2016 is “Grow.”
From the outside, I don’t see a lot of growth. But underneath? Deep in the soil? The roots are stretching, expanding, and strengthening. My trunk is sinking into a beautiful, settled place.
I’ve learned (and am learning) my limits. I’ve learned what’s my responsibility and what isn’t.
Boundaries bring peace.