I give you permission to say no.
I grew up with a superhero a superhero momma. She gave us haircuts or perms more than once the night before school pictures when we begged. Sewed our Halloween costumes, patched our clothing, even hand sewed on hundreds of beads onto my prom dress for me and made a purse to go with it my senior year. She showed up to every sporting event for all 5 of us kids, and even let me move back in with my daughter while I was going through a divorce years ago. I learned how to be a devoted mother from my mom, I learned how to create a calming, love filled home from her. My biggest lesson however came from my mother as we picked up the pieces after she passed away.
Somewhere in her my mom associated her value with the sacrifices she made for all of us around her. I watched my mom put each of our needs above her own. I watched her take on caring part time for my nephew, watching my daughter when she could, I watched my brother come home with a dog (even after my mom told him he couldn’t have a dog in their home) but she gave in and let him keep it because she couldn’t say no. I later watched this dog cause thousands of dollars in damage in her gorgeous, beautifully decorated home. Thousands of dollars in rugs with holes in them, a solid wood, carved dining room table with the legs chewed around the bottom, she bought a steam cleaner so she could keep up with the pee on the carpets, on and on. Plus then my parents bought the food for the dog, cared for the dog and my mom pretty much eventually stopped going out of town because she knew my brother wouldn’t care for the dog and it would cause more damage. I watched my adult brother still living at home as if he was a child, my mom still giving him spending money and letting him pursue his dream of being the next Eminem rapper with God knows who coming in and out of their basement recording on the sound system set up down there. All hours of the night these creepy people would be coming in and out with names like Shadow and stuff. Can we just all agree that this in INSANE!!!! Somewhere along the line I watched my mom blur the line in being loving and caring with enabling and not setting healthy boundaries.
When I was an adult and was back living in Minnesota again I thought it was great that she was going through a wine and cheese phase. . We’d watch movies together and have different wines and cheese and crackers or breads with different dipping oils. It was so much fun. Pretty much any movie that included a Christmas scene or a house with fun decorating was always our favorites to watch. What evolved in the years following however none of us saw coming.
Rewind to 2002 My mom was the peak of health, obsessed with vitamins and cooking healthy. She looked great, my sister and I had just had our first babies and our family was at such a fun place. I was back down in Dallas from 2003-2004 and when I moved back in 2004 things were starting to be a little different. My mom had a knee replacement and was working on recovering from that, at the same time my youngest sister moved out and started college. My brother was facing ongoing legal battles still haunting him from his wild teenage years and me back home with my daughter going through a divorce. And then menopause hit. It was a perfect storm. Had any one of these hit I am confident she would have made it through relatively unscathed. However that’s not how it happened; the drinking increased secretly, (we didn’t find this out until later, I have since found out that increased drinking is very common during the menopause years) she became more depressed and from that showed even fewer healthy boundaries. She was so busy trying to make sure we were all okay and helping us fix our problems that she didn’t take the time out for herself. What she needed then was to start saying no. No to the dog, no to spending money as an escape, no to all the relatives, no to us kids, no to trying to solve my brothers legal issues, no to paying for those legal issues, no to watching our kids so much… on and on. I literally watched my mother’s inability to set healthy boundaries and her selfless act of helping others around no matter what it cost her ultimately kill her. Her actual cause of death was pancreatitis but I know deep down that the world sucked her dry.
Oh how I wish I could go back and give her permission to be the bad guy a little bit. Tell people occasionally to fix their own shit, find that dog a new home so she could go take a vacation in peace. In fact tell my brother to go find a new home so she could regain her comfort in her own home. Tell all of us that she is not a daycare center. I would make sure she knew that it’s okay to say no to organizing another event and she needed no other reason then because she needed a night to curl up and watch a much needed movie with my dad. Sometimes you have to put yourself first; your life can literally depend on it. I wish I could tell my mom that she wouldn’t be letting us down if we had a small Christmas without all the gifts, gourmet meals and amazing décor. I wish I could tell her that we would still know that she loved us even if she would have just said what she felt instead of feeling guilty that she might be a bad person because she felt resentful about trying to hold the world together for all of us. I wish I could just hug her and tell her that we love her for her and not for the things she did for us.
I’ve really been working on having healthier boundaries myself since she passed. And just as important; giving myself permission to not have to justify my every moment or decision when setting those boundaries, speak my mind more when I am feeling resentful and explain more why some things I allowed to go for years no longer work for me. Example: “I wish I could watch my sweet nephews every day of the week but I can’t do that and build my career. Dad, I wish I could continue helping you with your company for virtually free but it no longer works for me. I wish I could give away my artwork anytime someone says they like it but that won’t pay my bills. Sorry brother but until you help yourself by doing steps 1,2 and 3 don’t call me again. Once you do those things I will happily help you with step 4 but I don’t want to have one more phone conversation with you telling me I need to fix your problems and hear about your life falling apart when you haven’t even completed the first fucking step !!!!”
I have learned that there needs to be an equal exchange of energy in any transaction otherwise one person won’t feel satisfied. How often have you helped someone with something that really put you out. Only to later realize they really didn’t even appreciate it? I did this with my ex; I would try to fix his problems, invest a ton of my energy, time and problem solving only to later be bitter that he wasn’t grateful. Finally one day I realized that he hadn’t even asked or wanted my help. Light bulb moment.
So now I give you permission also to say no, speak your mind and tune into your inner knowing. You can be loving, classy, kind and giving and still have effective boundaries. You are not bad if you decide you don’t want the neighbors kids showing up at your home at all hours looking for entertainment. You are not a bad person if you say no to someone who wants to borrow money and you know in your gut that the money will not help them or it will cause you to not to be able to cover your own bills. I give you permission to just say, “Sorry, that doesn’t work for me”. It may help build the no muscle to start with, “sorry I will have to get back to you after I check my schedule.” This will buy you time to really decide if something is a good decision instead of saying yes immediately and then later regretting it. Or for example say, “that day doesn’t work for me to watch your dog but if you are able to do help me fix my garage door tomorrow that will free me up to be able to come over and pet sit for you this weekend when you’re out of town.”… you get the idea. It’s sometimes helpful to think about if you’re going to feel resentful after doing whatever it is that has been asked of you, if you are then maybe you’re better off saying no or changing the terms of the agreement. I’d love to hear any of your stories about how you’ve learned to improve in these areas or times you wish you had.
One of my favorite memories of my mom is her last Christmas just 3 weeks before she passed, my husband, daughter, my mom, a few others and I were all quietly chattering and taking in the peacefulness on a late stroll down her dark, quiet dead end street on the Christmas night of 2008. The snow peacefully falling on us, we were all together and we were all so happy and content. It was simple, free and fair for all us. It was also a moment that she didn’t have to sacrifice her own happiness or feel guilty in order for us to be happy.
Added 7/24/2012: I feel the need to add one more thing to this post. The reason I’ve chosen to share this incredibly personal and private story is because I know that it was something we as a family never talked about while it was happening. It was one of those things that was off-limits. There is shame so often felt when we are going through a rough patch. But if this could happen to my happy, articulate, loving family then it could happen to any family. And even more importantly if my mom could go through this so could anyone. She was (is) a shining soul, loving and supportive person. She radiated love and light to all around her. I share my perspective of her journey with a goal of helping other fabulously loving women see another side, another voice outside of their own homes and give them a reason to value themselves and their space, their dreams and cherish them.