Talk about someone who needed some boundary-setting in her life. When I had one baby and headed back to work after maternity leave, the experience was tough. I was sleep-deprived and felt like I had no clue what I was doing.
Because my little guy wouldn’t take a bottle (I had some lipase woes), I worried and worried, and worried some more. But then along came baby number two, 26 months later, and for me, 1 child + 1 child felt like 85 children. No one was sleeping (ever, it seemed!), and I couldn’t seem to “catch up” at work during the week or at home on weekends. I was swimming in desperation, was in tears on my kitchen floor more often that I want to admit, and “mama meltdown” felt like my middle name.
Now, five years into this motherhood adventure, I’ve managed to learn – often the hard way – a few (make that a few million!) tricks of the trade. One of the most important for my own sanity has been what on earth to do about boundaries. That is, how to (1) define, (2) set, and (3) honor them. Boundaries are, after all, one of those concepts in life that’s quite simple (draw a line!). But really, really hard to implement.
I’ll walk through these three steps to living with effective boundaries, one at a time:
(1) “Boundary”: A Definition
Look up “boundary” in the dictionary, and you’ll find “a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line.” I really love the analogy to a playground with a fence, though, which Pleasance Silicki, recently shared with me:
“Boundaries are a source of liberation. This truth is demonstrated elegantly by the story of school located next to a busy road. At first the children played only on a small swath of the playground, close to the building where the grownups could keep their eyes on them. But then someone constructed a fence around the playground. Now the children were able to play anywhere and everywhere on the playground. Their freedom, in effect, more than doubled.” – Greg McKeown, Essentialism
A boundary keeps what you want in your life at a particular moment, in. And it keeps what you don’t want at that particular moment, out. But fences have gates and doors, and you can choose when to open them and walk through.
(2) Boundary-Setting: An Action
To “set” a boundary, you need to decide what you want to live on either side of it. This often requires a good bit of thinking, journaling, noodling, doodling, and brainstorming. As I returned to work after maternity leave, I had to think hard about what I wanted my work schedule to look like. This included things like setting end-of-day, work-from home, and remote availability boundaries. I ultimately landed on a hard-stop-go-get-kids boundary of 4:30pm (as my daycare closed at 5:45pm and I needed to get there before 5:30pm). Work-from-home Fridays. And evening-post-bedtime online availability (the so-called split shift). To keep what I want “in” – i.e. quality time with my family during dinner, bath, and bedtime – I set a tech-free boundary around my 5-9pm window.
Sometimes you can decide in isolation on the boundary you want to have. More often, though, boundary-setting requires a negotiation with other humans who also have opinions about their own boundaries. If you want flexibility at work, you’ll likely need to negotiate it with your supervisor and your team. If you want to set a boundary at home, your partner and your children are probably important constituents in the equation. For example, my husband and I both committed to a weekly meeting to consolidate chaos in our lives. We then had to set a boundary around the time of day and day of week to hold this meeting.
Boundaries can be set around time, of course, but they can also be set around feelings, interactions, actions, and commitments. I AM willing to sit with and feel deeply a sadness I’m experiencing about my baby (okay, son!) getting so big I can hardly carry him anymore. I am NOT willing to spend time with someone in my life who leaves me feeling depleted. I am NOT willing to engage with my toddler during this tantrum. I AM committing to 5 minutes of meditation tonight.
(3) Honoring Boundaries
Okay, so now you have a good idea of what a boundary is and what boundaries you’d like to set. I think the most important thing about boundaries, though, isn’t setting them but honoring them. It’s easy enough for me to say I will stop work at 4:30pm or put my phone down from 5-9pm. But it is another thing entirely to do what I’ve just committed to. The key to honoring boundaries in a way that makes them work (for your sanity!) is sticking to them more often than not. And walking through that fence door when it makes sense to do so.
To stick to a boundary, perhaps the most critical skill I’ve learned is saying no. Here are some of my own musings about the topic (and a 4-step formula for saying no in a thoughtful way). This Brené Brown quote is also simply awesome:
“I also practice setting and holding boundaries. Saying no is hard when you’re trying to please everyone, but it’s way easier than feeling resentful. My boundary mantra is, ‘Choose discomfort over resentment.’ If you are coming toward me with a PTO sign-up sheet and you see me quickly close my eyes and start chanting – you’ll know exactly what I’m saying.” (Read more here.)
To honor a boundary – and honor yourself – it needs to be okay (and not another source of guilt) for the boundary to be permeable at times. When the General Counsel of a hospital client of mine calls my cell phone at 5:30pm and says she has the Hospital CEO on the line, I don’t tell her to call back later. When a friend makes a surprise visit from out-of-town on a weekend my family had reserved to do nothing, I see the friend. When we get invited to a dinner party on a Saturday night, we move our Saturday meeting. And when a kiddo is home sick on my work-from-home-get-yoga-in-first day, I skip yoga. Of course.
You can do the work to set and honor good boundaries. Here’s to brainstorming what boundaries you need, allowing them to be permeable when they need to be, and believing in their power to liberate.
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave