In meeting the daily (and abundant) needs of their children, mothers tend to overlook the self within them that begs for attention. I think most moms do this. Don’t you tend to put yourself last? If you’re nodding “yes” then you should know that neglect often leads to a deterioration of self. That’s right. Your sense of self will begin to wane under the duress of neglect, and before you know it, symptoms such as depression, fatigue, and irritability appear. This is not good for anyone. But before you think about what to do during your “me time,” you must think about boundaries. Boundaries are absolutely necessary for every mother (and father), particularly mothers of young children because young children don’t appreciate boundaries. They don’t know boundaries, they don’t like boundaries, and they especially don’t want their mothers to have boundaries. However, you need boundaries! Without boundaries, mothers cannot have a strong or healthy sense of self.
The most useful boundaries are flexible yet assertive. Having flexible boundaries allows mothers to participate actively in their lives as opposed to passively allowing life (and life circumstances) to happen to them. When children need and demand their mothers to the point where mothers feel overwhelmed and desperate, I find it safe to say that boundaries are being violated. Physical, mental, and emotional boundaries can be violated daily in a mother’s life. For instance, when a mother’s energy is drained to the point where she neglects her appearance and health, a physical boundary is violated. When a mother doesn’t have space to call her own or when noise and chaos consume her, her physical boundaries are violated; when physical closeness between husband and wife breaks down, a physical boundary is dishonored (i.e., if the partners desire the physical closeness and don’t get it). Likewise when mothers do not receive the privacy they seek when using the bathroom, getting dressed, or speaking on the telephone (thanks to their children), physical boundaries are once again violated. Although these may seem inconsequential and perfectly normal in the context of life with young children, they can seriously affect mothers when viewed along with the emotional and mental boundaries that tend to be easily and consistently violated as well.
A violation of a mental or emotional boundary may sound like this, “You shouldn’t feel that way” or any remark that uses the word “should,” as in you should feel, think, want, choose, believe, decide, etc. I know in my own life I have often heard that I should, and as much as I may have agreed or even acted on that should, it usually felt uncomfortable in a way that spoke volumes; a personal boundary was being violated. I also think we violate our own boundaries when we avoid confronting others, neglect to share our true feelings, accept blame unnecessarily, or permit unjust criticism. During many of my interviews, women described how they had been criticized by their spouses, in-laws, children, friends, and family on topics ranging from domestic abilities to sexuality and appearance. It seems that others don’t hesitate to verbalize their opinions on how women “perform” in their role as mothers. And unfortunately, many mothers tolerate it and even buy into it. But make no mistake about it, unsolicited opinions, especially hurtful opinions, are invasions of personal boundaries and cause mothers to move deeper into their loss of self and the experience of MIA as described in my book, Missing In Action: How Mothers Lose, Grieve, and Retrieve Their Sense of Self.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you neglect your children if and when they need you. I’m merely urging you to listen to what you need, want, dream about, expect, hope for, value, etc., and nurture those things through the use of clear and strong boundaries, boundaries that will function to secure the sense of self that is reflected in what you hear.