digging into boundary work
as a scientifically curious human, i'm frequently amazed by the tiny synchronicities and parallels amongst and between otherwise unconnected bits of matter--the striking similarity of the trachea, bronchi, and bronchioles to a river delta as seen from space--the way a colorized nebula can resemble the intricate webbing an iris--as above, so below. one of the gifts of this fascination is the ability to think in metaphor, to conceive of "this thing" as if it were "that thing" and to experience a deepened curiosity and an expanded sense of understanding as a result.
one thing that's been on my mind a lot is the idea of boundaries, and i think there are many reasons why this is the case. on a social level, proximity to the holidays means that my social media feeds are flooded with "home for the holidays horror stories" of unsolicited body commentary and expression of judgement or non-acceptance of lifestyle and identity by family members (both well meaning and ill).
if great aunt fanny asked you, "do you really think a second serving is smart?" (complete with suggestive up-down eyeballing), i'm sorry that happened to you. your body deserves to be respected, and she didn't have the right to say that to you.
if creepy uncle george told you, "i just have so much trouble thinking of you as a 'he', so i'm probably going to keep calling you 'she' and using your name--it's just too hard for me, and that's not who you are to me", i'm sorry that happened to you. your identity deserves to be respected, and you owe it to no one's sense of comfort to have to acquiesce.
and while it's true that both fanny and george's responses were completely and utterly self-focused and self-sourced (fanny isn't comfortable in her body, and george has likely never explored his identity very deeply), it doesn't change the fact that you're the one it hurts, embarrasses, and belittles.
i see you, and you deserve better.
on a professional level, i work a lot with people, both as a midwife and as a chaplain, around reproductive concerns. one of the many hurts that people express is a trouncing of boundaries by others in conversation around their lives and their plans for family-building. often, this looks like unsolicited judgment of, or opinions on, their decisions.
"you're going to have your baby at home??? are you crazy??"
i'm brought to mind every time i hear this one of a line from a jim gaffigan comedy special called mr. universe. i think at that point jim and his wife had had 4 kids, all born at home, and he shares the wacky reception and feedback to the idea of home birth:
"wow, you had your babies at home? we thought about home birth but we wanted our babies to live..."
he says it in jest of course, but the struggle is real. i see people navigate it all the time with extended family.
other gems include unbridled judgment of boundaries around who can be at the birth, around who can come visit/when/for how long in the postpartum, and exposure etiquette during flu season (or pandemic epoch). then there's commentary on parenting style, feeding and sleeping routines, vaccination schedules---you name it. people just can't help themselves. i wonder why we're so bad at simply hearing and respecting decisions and boundaries. and respecting doesn't have to mean agreeing with--it can also mean hearing, discussing without challenging if invited to do so, feeling uncomfortable, getting curious about the discomfort, agreeing to participate for the sake of the person expressing the boundary, and then doing the inner work of unpacking that discomfort on our own time (not at the expense of the boundary-setter).
a friend/child/silbing/grandchild saying "i'm not having anyone but my partner at my birth for XYZ reasons" presents us with the opportunity to stop making it about the people impacted by the boundary ("why doesn't the birthing person want me there?? is it about me? it's definitely about me, and i'm going to be offended") and start making it about the boundary setter ("we discussed it, and although i'd love to be there, it seems like they know that they'll will need privacy, not to be a watched pot, and not to need to tend to other people's worries for them in order to be able to do that enormous work!").
we can be uncomfortable and be respectful simultaneously--it just takes intention, comfort with discomfort, and practice!
professionally i also help people navigate this with infertility, mostly in a chaplaincy capacity though sometimes also via midwifery. boundary crossing here often looks like grieving people being told that they don't have permission to feel the way they do ("you have two healthy kids already--i don't know why you're so upset that you can't have another one!") or that there's some sort of wisdom that they just aren't seeing ("there's a reason for everything--you just have to trust!").
if you've been unable to conceive, no matter your past experience with conception, i'm so sorry for your loss. for the loss of your realized vision of the shape you'd like your family to take, of control over your body, and of the ability to choose more bio kids.
if you've been unable to conceive, it's not due to a lack of trust, it's not because you don't deserve it, and you don't have to accept that there's a greater plan if you'd only open up to it. your hopes are valid, and i see and acknowledge the pain that this situation is causing you.
personally, i will simply say that being a pregnant person has given me an interesting introduction into the view from the other side of the coin. now i get the occasional uninvited commentary on my choices and the unsolicited sharing of other peoples' birth traumas upon hearing that i'm pregnant or what my birthing plans are, and as a result, i get to do the interesting and ofttimes frustrating (but crucial) work of building and maintaining my own personal boundaries in this new arena of life. i'm lucky that i don't get a ton of this type of interaction, but i've definitely had a few "oh man, so that's how that feels" moments.
so what on earth, you might be asking as you remember the opening image, does any of this have to do with the human spinal cord?
thinking about boundaries, to me, means thinking about amazing body structures like the meninges, the lining that envelops and protects the brain and spinal cord. most people have only ever heard of it in the context of a disease (which can be viral, bacterial, or fungal) called meningitis--literally, an infection and inflammation of the meninges. nasty stuff--no bueno.
the meninges is made of three layers: the pia mater, the arachnoid mater, and the dura mater. oh man, if there's one thing i love about anatomy, it's the magic of latin anatomical names. the translations of the layers are the "soft mother", the "spider mother", and the "tough mother". so cool! these "three moms" are what keep germs out, facilitate transport of nutrients and wastes, and keep precious cerebrospinal fluid in your central nervous system. they are the ultimate tripartite boundary.
closest to the delicate brain and spinal cord is the pia mater, the soft mother. this mother is thin and translucent. they selectively let substances pass in and out, they serve as a gossamer latticework for tiny capillaries, and they secrete about a third of the fluid that bathes and surrounds delicate nerve tissues.
to me, the pia mater is analogous to what i'll call "implicit boundaries"--those boundaries that, though often unspoken, surround and protect us on the most basic, fundamental level. these boundaries are developed culturally (i wouldn't greet someone by sticking my finger in their nose), familially (some families kiss on the lips, some don't), socially (in my friend group, there's so such thing as tmi, or 'too much information', while others might be horrified at some of our conversational topics), professionally (midwifery clients shouldn't call me in the middle of the night with questions about the best prenatal vitamin), and personally (please don't come over to my house unannounced).
implicit "soft mother" boundaries differ from person to person and place to place, and instead of being spoken, they usually make themselves known organically by context clues. no one told me in india not to make eye contact with men in public, or in england not to smile at strangers on trains, but i picked it up pretty quickly through experience and context clues--through dipping in and out of the perforations in that delicate boundary and, in doing, noticing that it existed at all (and how different it was from my own).
have you ever gone in for a hug in a family who aren't huggers? (or vice versa?). that's a collision of pia mater energy. those are the varied implicit boundaries that we navigate.
one pia mater challenge is that sometimes the things that we feel are (or should be) implicit aren't perceived/respected as such by others. similarly, we may have very different soft mother boundaries than others and then accidentally (or intentionally, if we don't accept them) trounce theirs as a result.
another pia mater challenge can occur when we let our thin, permeable implicit veil become too thin or permeable, or even non-existent. have you ever heard of "doormat syndrome" or of people who "let others walk all over them"? these folks tend not to respect or acknowledge their own boundaries for the sake of accommodating the desires and expectations of others. when pleasing people and being liked take precedent, we're ignoring at least part of our pia mater. if i could introduce you to myself in my 20s, i'd show you how i know this to be true.
while those softer implicit boundaries exist and are navigated almost constantly, they don't really serve as clear and distinct fences or road signs. they aren't proclaimed. they aren't explicit. moving outward from the pia mater, we reach the arachnoid mater, the "spider mother" so named for the weblike protrusions that connect the layer to it's delicate pia neighbor. the spider mother is a true discerning barrier for the cerebrospinal fluid secreted by the pia mater. it says "this part has to stay in, and this part (and this part only) is allowed to pass outward and into the bloodstream". it's complex, obvious, and fully on display. it's a crossing guard saying "yes, this. no, not that."
spider mothers are spoken or otherwise outright stated boundaries. i use big spider mother energy when seeing a healthcare provider for the first time: "my weight is not something i'm open to discussing." boom. spoken barrier.
spider mother boundaries can be very hard at first. before going in to my obgyn office in 2018 to start the conversation around fertility struggle and possible infertility treatment, i had hours of intrusive argumentative conversation in my head about "the weight conversation". i imagined, based on past experience mind you, that my declining to being weighed would be taken as a personal affront by the doctor and would result in some sort of coercive tactic use ("you know your insurance won't pay for the visit if we can't get complete data." this, btw, is a lie.) i went over and over in my mind how i would "defend" my boundary, and i worked hard to mentally establish the resolve to refuse to let it remain a point of debate.
"this is important to me. this is an explicit boundary and a condition of my participation in care with you."
i was, frustratingly, ready to be disrespected.
i psyched myself up, i built a big spider mother web, and then when i said with heart absolutely racing "i decline to be weighed, thanks" to the nurse, she just smiled and said "ok, no problem!"
folks, we expend so much energy defending our spider mother boundaries. it shouldn't have to feel like some momentous win when another human says, "ok, no problem!". because when it is a problem, it isn't our problem--it's their problem. we've set a boundary that's uncomfortable to them. and that's ok, but it's their discomfort to work through. they can ask if you're open to discussing your rationale for the boundary (you can say yes or no, because that's emotional labor), and they can be uncomfortable with it and still respect it.
my anxiety leading up to the encounter with my obgyn office was born of a young adulthood of providers focusing on my weight and peddling plans that are evidence based to be effective less than 5% of the time. when i went to the student health center at my college with whooping cough in grad school, the doc asked me if i'd considered losing weight. i shit you not. that and myriad other encounters had introduced me to the idea that my spider mother had better be obvious, aggressive, and ready.
folks, that's exhausting.
and it's at the maximal point of exhaustion that we encounter the outer later, the dura mater, the tough mother. the dura mater is the outermost layer of the meninges. it's thick and fibrous and sturdy--the outermost barrier. it lines and protects larger blood vessels that care for the brain and spinal cord. it's the stone fortress around the most delicate tissues in your body, and it admits entry to the spinal nerves that move information about sensation and movement to and from your brain.
(fun fact: an epidural ("over the dura") numbs by anesthetizing certain nerves as the exit the dura)
when i think about the dura mater, about the tough mother, i think about the question "what do we do when people won't respect our boundaries?" when folks don't pick up on or choose not to accept both the soft mother implicit boundaries and the spider mother explicit boundaries. how does the tough mother show up to help us find the hard stop?
here's an example of what i mean, where person A has the boundary and person B feels challenged by it:
person A: i'm having a home birth (implicit boundaries include that decision being in keeping with other aspects of this person's life and their general philosophy with healthcare. may be perceptible or not to others depending on familiarity).
person B: that's so dangerous! what if your baby dies! (B felt uncomfortable with A's decision and didn't respect it enough to stop and get curious about their own discomfort).
person A: i appreciate your concern, but that choice is right for our family. we think/feel/know XYZ to be true about home birth and about our best approach to the birth experience. (A connected and provided rationale to B towards better understanding of decision).
person B: don't you care how i feel about it? suzy q had her baby last spring, and it would have died at home! (from a place of love/concern but self-centering and using trauma dumping and incomplete or oversimplified information to coerce).
person A: of course i care, but this is the right decision for us. (hoping the soft mother boundary is perceived).
person B: i just don't see how you can do this. it's so selfish. (soft mother boundary is invisible or ignored).
person A: the truth is that this is our decision, and i'm not really looking for outside opinion. (arachnoid mother--firm, explicit boundary).
person B: well i'm giving one. it's a bad decision! (explicit boundary ignored).
person A: this is not something i'm willing to discuss. i'll talk to you later. (hard boundary, and end to conversation).
person B: i hope you've thought more about what i said. i really worry that it's not a good idea, and i don't want you to do it. (B has disrespected A's implicit, explicit, and hard boundaries around not discussing the choice and brought the topic up without consent or invitation from A).
i'll stop the conversation here to give your heart rate and blood pressure a chance to normalize (no matter whether you identify most strongly with the frustrations of person A's or person B's predicament).
the truth is, we all navigate these types of conversations with varying degrees of success, and, it's important to note, with varying degrees of safety. i'd like to sidestep for a moment to acknowledge incredibly clearly that moving into spider mother (explicitly stated) or tough mother (stone wall hard boundary) territory isn't safe for everyone in every situation. while boundary-building around the decision to vaccinate your kids might irritate someone, boundary building around identity respect for a trans person can in some instances lead to life-threatening violence. this is not an even playing field, so what i share is not a directive in every situation. your priority is safety and self-preservation, always.
so when it is safe to do so, how do we move from explicit boundaries to the hard stone wall? what does that even look like? (tiny let-down: i don't have clear and definitive wisdom to share here--i'm just wondering and curiously exploring with you).
when it comes to explicit boundaries, depending on the person, i'm generally willing to remind someone once or twice about a boundary before going full door slam:
"as i've said before, this is not something i'm interested in discussing"
"you'll remember me saying that this is not up for debate..."
not surprisingly, the closer someone is to me, the more likely they are to get some grace here. strangers, on the other hand, are likely to run smack into tough mother.
regardless of which approach you decide to take, if you're at all stumped for what language to use, i highly recommend those of you on tiktok check out @kami_orange, a boundary coach who shares tons of amazing spider and tough mother boundary phrases. kami also sells boundary phrases as flash cards here.
as we're thinking about tough mother energy, i invite you to consider, what do you do when someone doesn't respect an explicit boundary? what are examples of this in your life, and when have you handled it in a way that felt safe and productive? what's an example of a time where it feels like you handled it poorly? what emotions did you notice while setting a boundary? did it feel natural and easy, or did you have to get brave and uncomfortable?
another interesting aspect of both explicit and hard boundaries to consider is this: was the boundary you set really a boundary (about you and what you would do) or an ultimatum (about them and what you needed them to do)? here's an example:
"you know that discussions about XYZ are a boundary for me. if you insist on bringing it up, i'll stop coming over" (boundary: based on what you will do to stay ok or safe)
"you have to stop talking to me about that or i won't come over any more" (ultimatum: based on the other person having to change)
it's a subtle distinction sometimes, but both explicit boundaries and the tough mother consequences for breaking them should always be centered on you and what you will do. you are, after all, the only part of the equation you can actually control. if you give ultimatums, the boundary holding is dependent on the actions of another person--something that, frustratingly, you cannot control.