It began without warning. Arms laden, bags hanging precariously as I urgently asked Eli to bring in the only remaining item in the car – his own drink bottle. Apparently this ill-timed request violently disrupted his train of thought and he responded with a harsh and angry comment. The small spark was all it took to set alight the haze of resentment that had been silently floating in the air…waiting.
In the car on the way to IKEA on Sunday, I had an epiphany. I was deep in the midst of Rising Strong by Brene Brown, reading about her experience of learning the hard way how to set boundaries and value her own work. After having reluctantly accepted a pro-bono speaking engagement, she found herself sharing rooms with a woman who pushed all her buttons. The experience brought up a lot of angst for her and she was forced to examine why she found it so difficult to relate to those who seemed to enjoy breaking the ‘rules’ or struggle to adhere to certain standards of decency. After an uncomfortable few weeks of wrestling with the topic of whether people are really ‘doing their best’, she came to a startling realisation:
“…early on in my work I had discovered that the most compassionate people I interviewed also had the most well-defined and well-respected boundaries. It surprised me at the time, but now I get it. They assume that other people are doing the best they can, but they also ask for what they need and don’t put up with a lot of crap. I lived the opposite way: I assumed that people weren’t doing their best so I judged them and constantly fought being disappointed, which was easier than setting boundaries. Boundaries are hard when you want to be liked and when you are a pleaser hell-bent on being easy, fun and flexible.”
I’m not great at setting boundaries. I want to be the person who can do it all, go with the flow, be everything to everyone, and this usually works great… until the moment when it all falls apart. I find myself suddenly completely overwhelmed, fighting for breath and unable to seize any moment of rationality to see beyond the despair.
On the surface, we had a great morning. I dropped the younger two off at Family Daycare and Eli and I were set for a lovely day together. He spent the morning enthusiastically playing with his school friends at a local playcenter while I caught up with their mums.
It was the little things: the lack of appreciation for the chocolate milk shake I bought him. The disagreement over not being willing to go to the car to get his suit jacket five minutes before we were due to leave. He wanted to go into McDonalds rather than get drive-thru. The sullen demands to go swimming, visit the shops to buy a toy… What was supposed to be a fun, easy day was subtly morphing into a frustrating experience.
Then the drink bottle incident happened.
I didn’t even realise that I had been storing up resentment, but it soon came pouring out. The lists of nice things I had done for him, his failure to be grateful, the grave offence of talking to him in an ‘angry voice’ only for him to be perfectly happy to use a rude tone to berate me. ‘Wednesday was supposed to be MY day!‘ I heard myself saying.
This is our third Wednesday together. The day when I would usually have had space to do writing, catch up on chores and podcasts and get much needed breathing space from the relentless cycle of parenting is on hold while Eli has a rest day from school. It has been hard. The toxic cocktail of feeling as if I should be treasuring every moment because he is about to be at school full-time, mixed with the expectation that things should be a little easier because I only have one child to take care of is exploding into misery for us both. The need for constant emotional management of his ideas and expectations – let alone my own – is exhausting and I find myself resenting the new reality.
Of course, stuffing down negative feelings only seems to make them stronger, and the explosion today was a testament to that unfortunate truth. Adjusting to new rhythms of school drop offs and pick ups, disrupted rest-times, and an ever expanding task list has been more taxing than I realised, and the thought of February stretching forth before me with no break in sight was enough to do me in.
Thankfully, I had safe places to deliver my ‘shitty first draft’ (a Bird by Bird/Rising Strong reference) of how I was reacting to everything, and Dave was able to come home a period early to give me a breather. Eli and I had a good chat when we had both calmed down about how I was used to having a break which helped me to be a better mum and I was struggling with the loss of that space. I reiterated that I love spending time with him and but do want to be spoken to with respect as well. He apologised for his responses and offered to help me cook dinner, asking if I wanted to watch one of my movies instead of pressing ‘play’ on Finding Dory.
I’m learning how to recognise the signs before it is too late, how to acknowledge that I need help rather than nonchalantly brush off kind offers with an ‘I’ll be alright’. I’m taking the principles of Essentialism to heart – figuring out who I want to be and saying ‘no’ to events and expectations that sit outside of that. But it hasn’t been easy. Even the simple task of prioritising my flagging energy one night instead of attending a friend’s product party had me second guessing the decision and trying to convince myself out loud in front of Dave that I had made the right decision. Disappointing people feels so foreign and wrong to me but I’m trying to relearn the truth. Simply trying to please those around me without filtering the requests through an overarching values framework ultimately leads to resentment and fractured relationships.
Previously the mere experience of hitting that wall where there are no rational responses and expletives seem to be only words available would have been enough to have me walking around under a cloud of shame for a fair while. And I’m not proud of my responses – in an ideal world I would never lose it, get mad, swear or do anything that I would regret. But we aren’t living in such a fictional space. At the very least, I guess my kids are learning how to pick themselves back up again after a fall, how to say sorry and how to move forward from screw-ups. And I’m becoming more appreciative of my need for others – for people who can handle the raw mess that I become when I’m in that zone and who love me anyway. That is pretty damn priceless.
I seriously can’t emphasise enough how much I have been getting out of Rising Strong. It is the type of book that gathers insights together like strands of wool, weaves them together and suddenly steps back to reveal a knitted masterpiece. Have you read the book? Are there any other books that have helped you figure out life or parenting that you would recommend? Please let me know in the comments below.