How do I create and maintain boundaries with Mom?
My new therapist suggested we work with Tarot cards as a way to share a "surface" while we are doing sessions remotely. It was easy to say "yes" to that. I've been coveting a deck of cards that I saw in her office - the Ethereal Visions Illuminated Tarot Deck. My husband gave it to me for Christmas and I've started playing with the cards in simple, one card, readings.
We've also been talking, in therapy, about my very challenging relationship with my mother. It's going on 17 years since I moved across the country and away from her and my siblings but, wow!, still!, I am triggered easily by her behavior, way of talking to me, and even individual words she says. It's upsetting, distracting, mood-disrupting, and just ugly for me.
Distance, alone, isn't enough of a boundary between me and Mom.
A few days after Christmas, I opened my new deck of cards. I shuffled them, laid them face-side down, and spread them in an arc. I asked one question, "How do I create and maintain boundaries with Mom?" I drew one card. The two of pentacles.
Such a lovely card! A young woman dancing energetically. Waves ebb and flow behind her. An infinity sign wraps around the ground below her indicating perpetuity and potential. She holds a pentacle in each hand, like weights being balanced. Her face is serene and her hair flows out behind her, riding the motion of her steps.
After sitting with my first impressions of the image, I visit Google. How do others (experts?) interpret this card? My favorite interpretation is also the most encouraging. Little Red Tarot suggests that I am capable of handling this challenge, this balancing act, this dance. It advises me to find my "sweet spot" where I can manage the weight and the sway. The interpretation also grants that I may need to ask for practical help or even lay something down. And that's ok. In conclusion, this interpretation notes that it might be time to make a decision. Either/or? Both/and?
Today, I'm holding with both/and. I can be myself and I can have a different relationship with Mom. It requires change and balance - that persistent wobbling to find a sweet spot. Which means, ugh, this will require energy and time, like maybe I'm dancing these moves forever. And it means, oh, I can do this, I can be creative about it, and I can ask for help. I have choices.
My first choice is obvious to me. I'm laying down that very heavy "good daughter." She's the one who ensures current photos are up on Facebook or otherwise available to Mom. She arranged the family video call at Christmas. She always replies to texts and calls and says thank you and cushions any possible disappointment for her mother and never asks to be seen or heard as anything other than a "good daughter."
She's also a terrible dancer and she's wearing me out.
My brain knows that it's going to take some energy and time for the "good daughter" to be replaced by... who? What is the name of the daughter, me, in the sweet spot? I'm dancing my wobbly balancing dance to meet that version of me.
This is the space I inhabit most of my waking hours every day, during Covid-19. It's a comfortable sized room with a large window onto our backyard. The walls are lined with shelves of books, notebooks, art supplies, plus a desk, a couple computers, pens of various styles and colors... I have so many tools for expression, as a professional and/or as simply me, in arm's reach.
On the right side, you see my workstation. Here, I do my job from home, primarily. It's also where I journal, issue email and texts to folks I love, and write cards and letters to go out in snail mail. I increasingly appreciate the utility of this work space and the flexibility to use my tools in different ways.
On the left, under my son's painting of a planet, lays an altar. It's new. It's special. It represents my escapist dream of a solitary life in a shack by the sea. In my imaginary seaside retreat I am soothed by the sound of the waves, restored to myself by the absence of heeding and tending the needs of others. I am whole and wholly my own.
Establishing the altar was a suggestion from my new therapist. She is younger than me, vibrant and vital, creative and wise. She nudges me back to myself, a dynamic, multi-faceted me, through little activities that express my deep insides out to my open view. I see me. I know, and can be, more me.
By setting up and using both of these spaces, the workstation and the altar, I have jerry-rigged a "room of one's own" where I can think my own thoughts and act on my essential Jenni-ness. The room more functional than Romantic - I can't hear waves crashing on the shore and there's an assortment of random kid-stuff crowded under the altar table (not to mention an occasionally pungent litter box in a corner) - but that's all part of me, too. I am not a solitary life. I am whole and wholly my own, and gratefully interdependent with my partner, child, friends, and colleagues.
In this room, I am learning to restore myself where I am. It's gradual, baby-stepping work. Close the door (they can knock), pop in earplugs, light a candle, sit down... I know I have the tools I need, inside and out, and am practicing how to use them.
We're pretty content, right now.
J and I have been married for almost a year. Yes, life as a blended family, who are together all the time due to a global pandemic, includes some ongoing challenges. Yet, life as a family, in our own home, with garden beds in the front and back yards, with neighbors who are friends, is good.
Which makes me wonder... what's next? For each of us? For the family we are becoming? What will we choose and how will we support each other in achieving those new goals?
I feel like it's time for me to push through and out of another shell. I list possibilities in my journal of what my "next" could be. I'm thinking in two directions: outward into the community of my son's school and our district, and inward into some special reading and writing. Both of these directions have been calling to me for a while, but I've always felt too tired, too distracted, too small to begin. Things needed to be stable and I needed to feel better, energized, ready. Now, I think that if I wait any longer I will become cemented in my contentment.
I wonder how many people feel ready for what's next. I observe some folks who make tidy paths of milestones, each achievement qualifying them to pursue the next. How do they do that? What guides them or fuels them for such a course? My path is scribbled and overlapping. I am often disoriented and simply road weary.
Now, however, I can see and appreciate what we have here. It was a long and uncomfortable journey to reach this place. So, I will step, next, more fully into where I am.
Today is Mothers' Day and, as celebrations go, it was a dud. Kiddo was out with his dad. J was digging a foundation for the new shed. I went grocery shopping. The store was crowded, despite going at my usual Sunday morning hour, and everyone appeared to be purchasing flowers, plants, cards, gifts, and ingredients for festivities with moms.
Driving home I was surprised by a wave of sadness. Mothers' Day has rarely been a big deal for me. N's dad wasn't really into it, and it's awkward to take your own young child to purchase a card or gift for yourself, so I accepted it as a flimsy excuse for a Hallmark card event. But, ugh, no event for me and my motherhood.
This year, I am keenly aware of my relationship with my son in a different way than prior years. Partly, it's because he's 12 and relates to me in a different way than he did as a smaller child. Partly, it's that we're under a stay-at-home order so we are together, each day, more than we have been since he was a newborn. I enjoy his company, (most of the time... he is a tween). I welcome his ideas, interests, and developing perspective. I'm surprised by his vocabulary. I'm laughing to tears from his comedic timing.
If you know me well, then you know I wasn't planning to be a mother. I was a newlywed anticipating a two career household, with a cat, and no children. I looked forward to fulfilling work, out there, in the world, and hopes for comfortable compensation in the future.
But kiddo came along and everything changed, as they warn you it will, and now it's 12 years into this mothering gig and I'm missing my kid on Mothers' Day. And that's a good feeling. I'm grateful for this darn kid and I'm grateful to be his mother.
Two years ago, this very weekend, we saw our house for the first time. I was enchanted immediately by the open living room, large windows with So Much Light, and perfect number of rooms. The backyard felt huge and just what my apartment-raised son needed. I had to have this house. We had to make this home.
Two years later, complete with a pandemic and stay-at-home order, and we are home all the darn time. It's perfect.
Which is to say, it's got its quirks. We don't entirely understand why the former residents did many of the things they did to the house and yard. They had an abiding love of plywood and fake-wood paneling, not to mention corrugated plastic, chunks of petrified wood, and an overabundance of small lava rocks. Some of the wiring puzzled us, but we're pretty sure J resolved that.
The house, itself, has good bones and the structure teems with life since we occupied it. Four cats, three humans, self-propelled dust bunnies... podcasts, laughter, music, Super Smash Bros, neighbor kids, friends with kids...
The yard was all for N, in the beginning. Even before we moved in, he was spotted and befriended by the neighbor kids over the back fence. Conversation quickly turned into playdates and birthday parties. With a little vision and J's muscle and sweat, the yard became something we could all enjoy. Garden beds were built, filled, planted, tended, and harvested. I honestly couldn't believe J's willingness to submit green lawn to boxes of dirt for my amateur agriculture.
The front of the house looks largely the same as when we purchased it. We did removed the metal moon and sun thingy from the front wall. J replaced the mail box post and added two new garden beds on the front lawn. But, in general, you might not recognize that a different family resides here. However, inside and out back, it's all us. Pictures, paint, books, games, noise, cooking smells, cat fur... hammock, raised beds, garden starts, overfilled-and-half-disassembled shed, flowers, barbecue smoke, and a wheelbarrow boat.
Today, I am grateful for the house, yard, and neighbors. The family we are becoming. The time and place to inhabit together. I am grateful to be home.
I found a surprise in my inbox, this week, and I've appreciated it. A blogger I used to follow sent out a "Quarantine Planner" with kind and quirky suggestions for organizing and inhabiting time at home. Here are a few of my favorite pages.
Spring emerged boldly, this weekend, with warm sunny days and lots of color. I started planting our garden with zucchini in the bed by our front door.
Other savored signs of Spring included "opening the pool." It was 48 degrees that morning but kiddo would not be swayed from the maiden voyage of his wheelbarrow boat.
The weekend included the usual cleaning, tidying, and puttering (that I secretly enjoy) reestablishing our cosy order and lived-in clean. I made a few colorful and practical changes to my "office," since kiddo and I will be inhabiting more time there. Framed pictures went up, a drape over the gaping closet of random containers, and a new keyboard tray and mousepad. My wrists and back are already thanking me.
I am especially grateful for this guy for his pragmatic support, easy company, and all-around silliness. We make a good home, together, all the more apparent by the extra time we're home, right now.
I ugly cried, last night. I'm grateful for a partner who comforts me. I'm still a little shaky, today. I'm grateful for a quiet house and softly snoring kitties. I look out over the computer monitor, now, to see patches of blue sky and a brightly lit backyard bearing signs of spring.
The pandemic, the changes in our routines and movement, the people falling without a safety net, the essential workers on all fronts, the powerful accepting collateral damage in exchange for wealth and security... the situation is so BIG. I am so small. I am ineffective. I am isolated and meaningless. These facts and feelings spin and rage in my mind and my emotions. My sleep is one long nightmare. My body is aching and tired.
The storm inside me will pass. It has before and it will again. For now, I tend myself gently with nutritious food, a warm shower, napping in the sunshine, and so much gratitude that I can tend myself in these ways.
Making some meaning of the BIG storm, for me, is not contained in taking care of myself, my family, my home... Making meaning is reaching beyond my yard. I am small. I am not ineffective or isolated. I do see both people in need and people in power. I am not content, not really. I'm looking for ways to make a difference, make daily life different, liveable, in the midst of crisis, and between them. This is not the only storm.
I think about meaning-making, or assigning significance and definition to our experiences and events in our lives, as a largely communal or collective phenomenon. There is an element of making sense of things as individuals, but even that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We make sense of things through the lenses of our family of origin, formative experiences, spirituality, location in the socio-economic strata etc. And that stuff is communal or collective.
Given that everyone is stuck at home, right now, I’m wondering how people are making meaning out of the pandemic and all its associated impacts, influences, and adjustments to “normal” life. Based on what I’m seeing online, the place for communal activity these days, it looks like there are two main avenues into this question. Folks starting at the individual and household sphere, and folks starting at the societal and political sphere. I don’t have a judgment on one or the other approach. I think, ultimately, we’ll all end up trying on both positions - and more.
When I consider this a level deeper, I’m reminded of a lesson from grad school - every community has its own “common sense.” Or, there isn’t a broad brush universal common sense for comprehending events and acting on that understanding. This was struck home to me in an ethics course exploring the meaning of justice. A classmate, a woman of color, explained that in her community there is “no justice, there’s just us.” In her example, calling the police to respond to an incident isn’t necessarily common sense, because police involvement may escalate the situation. The common sense is to solve the problem internal to the community.
What is the common sense or meaning made of the covid-19 pandemic in our communities? It’s probably too soon to tell, as we can find disagreement within a given household regarding what it all means and how to act. Even so, I want to wrap my head around it. For me, that means trying on a variety of perspectives and reading accounts from a variety of communities so that I can perceive the spectrum of common sense.
I’ve started at my individual and household level. That’s my most immediate experience and where I can assert some noticeable agency. In myself and in my home is where I feel the most intense emotions about this experience, address the most immediate changes to our routines and expectations, and recognize the advantages and challenges of our current life together. While broader meaning making is still in progress, for now I know that we have a safe comfortable home, simple pleasures, and gratitude. Our immediate needs are met. We’re adapting to competing priorities for jobs and schooling. We wash our hands, a lot. We make few trips to the store for necessities and treats. We savor our treats.
Almost simultaneously, I thought about our neighbors, the local food banks, grocery store workers, nurses, and then the forces at directing and bearing down on them (all of us) from the government and concerns for the economy. If I feel pressure to keep pace with my job and keep pace with my son’s academics, I imagine that pressure is more intense for folks with essential jobs and their own children to tend and to teach. What feels like an unwieldy challenge to me, might be untenable for a mother with fewer resources.
Starting with just these two perspectives, I’m noticing that while “back to normal” might feel very good in my home, it might be out of reach, and blatantly damaging, for folks in other locations of the broader context. The common sense in those positions may be a call, a conviction, for a new meaning and a new context altogether. I have no idea what that really means, today. I am curious to learn more. Even as I’m sensitive to what changes and new common sense it could mean for me and my household.
Tonight, I am grateful and content. This weekend felt...normal. Like the former normal. Kiddo went to his dad's. I cleaned and organized the house. We purchased more seeds at the hardware store. There was time together and time apart. I napped, twice!, today. While grocery shopping, I picked up some stuck-at-home toys for kiddo. He was grateful and we played together in the late afternoon.
Recent days have been bumpy. Each day with its own series of ups and downs and back up again (mostly). Because the "new normal" doesn't arrange itself overnight. We create it one small course correction at a time, which bring us closer to stability, familiarity, and a sense of normal.
Things that are working in my house: making art, physical activity outdoors, planting seeds (literally) for a big new garden, revising the schedule of working-at-home and school-at-home, practicing patience and mercy (aka grace) with ourselves and each other. What's working in your home? What fails are you either learning from or just moving on from? It all counts.