Boundaries Are Love

Yael Shy
May 5, 2022

“Boundaries are love.”

This is a phrase my stepfather, a psychologist, is fond of using.  But when I first heard him say it, I had no idea what he was talking about.

At the time, as the mother of two clingy toddlers, I had gotten used to life with almost no boundaries of any kind. My kids would hang off my body the moment I picked them up from daycare, and whenever I’d enter the bathroom for any purpose. They would engage in wild fits of crying and stalling tactics when it came time to separate at bedtime.

A part of me enjoyed the physical closeness of their bodies and the ferocity of their clinginess, like tiny monkeys.  Contrary to my stepfather’s formulation, I felt love everywhere in this soupy, boundary-lessness of my connection to them.

But there was a problem with this boundary-less love. The same way that babies can’t stay in the womb forever, my kids started to make it very clear that, despite their clinginess, they want to be in control of their own lives.

One recent power struggle took place when my four-year-old son not only refused to come upstairs and eat dinner with the rest of the family, but demanded that I come downstairs to keep him company while he ate his dinner on the floor. Not on a plate on the floor, mind you. He was demanding to eat his mac and cheese directly on the fibers of the playroom carpet. When I asked him why, his response was one of his infuriating signature phrases: “Because, yeah.”

But it’s not just my kids who need to assert themselves. When I live in the boundaryless soup with them for too long with them, I watch myself growing resentful and filled with rage. A few months ago, I was on a late-night run to CVS. When the time came to turn from the main road into the parking lot, I felt an almost overwhelming urge to just floor the gas – Fast and Furious-style -- out onto the open road and never come back.

I didn’t. I wouldn’t. And yet. Some wild part of me wanted so badly to be free and apart. Not just for the night or the weekend – forever. Because, yeah.

This push and pull, between all-consuming love and an intense need to get away, is what it feels like to be a parent, in my experience. This coming together and springing apart -- this merging and individuation -- I think that is how love lives in the boundaries. It is messy and often painful, the same way birth is painful. Each time the individuation comes, there is a loss of intimacy, even as I get some more of myself back. It feels heartbreaking.  And each time we snuggle up, there is a loss of my personal space, even as I gain a closeness with them. This dynamic is as dizzying as it sounds.

Of course, this is not just the case with parenting. This is the truth of all relationships. We find one another, we merge with one another, and then we pull back to find ourselves again, over and over.

On Mother’s Day 2020, during the worst of the pandemic, I asked my husband if he could take the kids so I could be free of them for several hours. But as soon as he did, and I took a blissful breath to myself in our empty house, I burst into tears. What kind of monster wishes her kids gone on Mother’s Day?  I began having memories of my own mother on Mother’s Day saying that all she wanted for these special days was to spend time with us, her kids. I cried, feeling undeserving and ashamed.

But I wanted some space.  I wanted rest and pause and peace.  And I still do.  That wish for boundaries is healthy, and it is an expression of love, both for myself and for my family. Part of the role of my meditation practice is to accept it with self-compassion. And of course, when I do get space, even for a few hours, I have so much more to give to everyone else.

This Mother’s Day, two years later, we’re all in a different place. But that dynamic of boundary-drawing and boundary-crossing is probably still in play.  At least it is for me. Wherever you are, can you bring gentleness and mindfulness to your experience? Can you draw and re-draw boundaries to keep honoring the space you and your loved ones might need? This is the way that love becomes boundaries, and boundaries become love. 

Yael Shy is the CEO of Mindfulness Consulting, where she supports individuals and institutions with transformative mindfulness coaching, consulting, and teaching. She is the author of What Now? Meditation for Your Twenties and Beyond, and can be found on Instagram at Yaelshy1.

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