Boundaries

Lying in a yellow hammock with my golden-haired daughter, I read The Secret Life of Trees and watch the first leaves fall. It is the last warm day of summer. I would like to feel charmed but my squirrel will not sit still.

“What do you need? I ask. “Why are you so wiggly?”

“Mama, I need silly love,” she says.

Uh oh.

Silly love is Avery’s name for tactile, sensory affection. In manifests in her pressing her body against mine for all she’s worth. In one such moment she said, “Mama, I want to climb back inside your body.”

Avery’s need to give and receive love does not shame her. She’ll make you the craziest gift of post-it notes scribbled with stick figures and letters, wrap it in pipe cleaners and electrical tape, and offer it up with stars in her eyes. “I love you,” she says, pink glitter flowing forth. Hers is a love unafraid.

You know you are the object of Avery’s affection when every sentence serves as an excuse to say your name. “Heidi,” she says, “you know next summer when I turn five? I’m going to need a really big cake for more candles, Heidi. And purple roller skates, Heidi.”

Avery has two friends who also receive this special treatment. I fear the rejection she will eventually face; but that’s my baggage. As her mother, I for one will try to reflect Avery’s effusive brand of love to her.

Spinning-out-of-control happens when Avery needs affection, but also when she is tired and hungry, I’m busy with the brothers, she’s mad because I took away her butterfly wings (stop jumping off the couch!), or we are trying to leave the house.

It takes a few minutes before I recognize why the room is exploding into chaos. By that time Avery is running circles around Toren or chasing him until he falls over. She spins upward and outward, like the bubble gum she’s infatuated with, until she’s on the ceiling. Faster and faster; the bubble expands until she’s in trouble and it pops in a tantrum — hers or mine.

No words can calm her. I ask my friend T how to curb this energy; but I catch her in a moment of nostalgia. Her kids are bigger than mine, and they’ve moved on from wanting her in this I love you, I love you, I hurt you way. “Four year-olds are a more condensed, beautiful version of themselves,” she says. “It fades, somehow, as they grow.”

*

I always feel the need to interfere with silly love; so I don’t really know what Avery is driving towards. Back in the hammock, I wonder what will happen if I do nothing. The brothers are asleep and I have no pressing appointments. I pull the fabric around until we become two peas in a pod. We tickle and play. I am holding my thumb and index finger an inch apart and saying, ‘don’t squish the invisible man!’ in a silly voice when the licking begins.

It’s like a run-in with a puppy. “Blech!” I say. “I don’t like it!” She weighs less than 40 pounds but she is strong and seated on my chest. There isn’t much I can do.

Avery reveals possessive and jealous feelings with tension around her mouth. As a toddler she popped non-food items inside as a symbol of ownership. I would come to take something away, and in it went. Mine.

She is not going to stop. “I don’t like it when you do that!” I say. “I don’t like where this is going!”

I use the phrase I don’t like it when you do that to express any breach of boundaries. I learned it from a preschool teacher, and these words continue to blow my mind. Like, you can just say that?

Telling her how I feel maintains my integrity regardless of whether or not Avery stops. Her response doesn’t matter; in fact, I’m giving this to her. She stops when she’s ready. I am tired from laughing but no worse for the wear.

*

Since most people don’t like to be the object of an obsession, and because I would enjoy this mothering journey quite a bit more with 18” of personal space, Avery and I talk a lot about boundaries.

I worry that I might sound rude when I speak boundaries but I am learning to ignore those thoughts. Polite, direct communication benefits everyone. If you or your child is the subject of a boundary that I am protecting, please recognize that I would also protect your boundaries if you ever needed me to.

I also acknowledge body language and other forms of non-verbal communication. A scrunch of the nose. A lift of the eyebrows. The babies offer ample opportunity for Avery to practice. “Did you see that?” I ask. “Toren moved away from you. He doesn’t like what you’re doing,” I say.

“But mom,” she says. “I love him.”

“I know, sweetie. But all you can do is offer an invitation. If he doesn’t want to play, he doesn’t have to.”

Kids learn to respect boundaries by observing their parents’ boundaries. That’s why kids aren’t allowed on my lap while I’m eating. Unless holding that baby is the only foreseeable way for me to finish my meal. Then, by all means, climb aboard. And the babies stay in their cribs at night; unless I perceive, through blurry eyes, that my chances of a restful night’s sleep are better if they are in bed with me.

You see how things get squishy.

But clearly, I have boundaries. The other day I was on the toilet and nursing Eirik when I heard Avery say, “Mama? Can you help me with this zipper?”

Feeling generous, I invited her in. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll help.”

She was surprised, and a wee bit jealous, to see me sitting there with her baby brother, and she asked, “Mama, can I sit on your lap?”

“No,” I said. “You can’t.”

Real boundaries are easy for me to stick by; though not boundaries surrounded by any degree of idealism. For example, when we tried, briefly, to teach baby Avery to sleep on her own, my husband and I sat in the next room wringing our hands and watching timers while she cried. We decided it wasn’t worth it; and I unwittingly committed several hours a day, for the next two years, to getting her to sleep.

With the twins, mama ain’t got time for that. I’m not going to the brothers in the night and I hope for the love that they learn to link sleep cycles very soon. I don’t mind the crying because sound sleep is a necessary end goal. Mama at your beck-and-call is not a sustainable system for a house full of kids. Everyone’s got to do their part to make nighttime work. This shift in perspective makes the addition of twins easier than the addition of my first baby.

*

In the afternoon, Avery is playing in her little swimming pool when dad comes by. He has a net and starts to scoop out the leaves littering the water’s surface. “Dad,” she says, “please don’t do that while I’m in the pool.”

Mama is very impressed with her words.

But my husband, focused on the task, brushes aside her voice: “I’m just cleaning a little,” he says. Mama lowers her brow like a bull lowering its horns.

What should we do when our boundaries are expressed but not respected? I am trying to get more and more clear with my language as opposed to getting louder and louder (or quieter and quieter) with my voice. But it’s hard to do. I should coach Avery to continue the dialogue, but I also want her to know that mama got her back.

People need to learn that no means no and yes means yes. When kids say, “tickle me!” start and stop when they want you to. Lessons on body boundaries that we receive during childhood rough housing are carried with us into our adult sexuality. Let’s not confuse things.

“She asked you to stop,” I say, my voice rich with meaning. M nods, catching my drift, and leaves the leaves to float.

***

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