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Mothers, Guard Your Heart: The Importance of Boundaries in Motherhood

February is World Heart Month

There is nothing more celebrated than the heart of a mother. From Shakespeare to Hallmark, the message is clear — the limits of a mother’s boundless love can never be reached. 

That’s a lot of pressure. 

The expectation to be everything for everyone is so ingrained in our idea of motherhood that we often fail to set proper boundaries for ourselves. Our natural inclination to nurture others, coupled with societal expectations that are driven by everything from the media to our own mothers, can push us into a constant cycle of selflessness that quickly becomes exhausting.

It’s counterintuitive, but a constant gift of self is never the most loving option. As our well is drained, we have less and less to give to others, and the positive impact of our actions decreases proportionally. We may find ourselves suffering exhaustion, loneliness, and resentment as we start to feel the effects of our well being emptied — and not being replenished. 

We don’t ask our body to perform for us without nourishing it through sleep or food, and we shouldn’t demand that from our hearts, either.

On this Valentine’s Day, take a step back to ask yourself what is being done to fill your well, and decide how you are going to lovingly and firmly prevent others from taking advantage of your mother’s heart. 

Find a balance

If you’ve spent your life giving to others, it’s going to be hard to set new patterns. While it can be tempting to pull a complete 180 and go to the opposite extreme, that’s not the most loving option either. Moving from always saying “yes” to never saying it can lead to confusion and hurt on many counts. 

Instead, make yourself a balance sheet for your heart — it can be in your head, or in writing — just so you’re calculating and keeping track somewhere. Before you agree to do something for someone, check the balance — are you in the red or the black? Remember that you can’t give of yourself if there’s nothing in the bank.

Keep an eye on the friend or family member who is always withdrawing love but never depositing, and call them to account. Explain gently and firmly that their actions make you feel taken for granted. Speak in “I” statements and avoid accusations —- after all, it may be that your failure to lay boundaries made them think it was okay to take advantage of you, and they may be doing it unconsciously. 

Let your “yes” mean “yes” and your “no” mean “no” 

Nobody likes to say no. In fact, even when we know that we can’t or won’t attend an event, we say things like, “I’m really hoping to be there!” or “I’ll try to make it!” This has the combined negative effect of creating guilt in you, and undermining other people’s trust in your word and disappointing their expectations. 

Cut out all those negative consequences by giving a hard “yes” or  “no” right from the get-go. Chances are, people will understand if you have to turn down an invitation, and they will respect your honesty and boundaries, whereas they are more likely to take your response personally if you initially express enthusiasm and then seem to change your mind. 

If you say “yes”, make sure your heart is in it. Sometimes we commit to things we don’t want to do out of obligation or love for another, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do them with joy. If your gift of commitment is accompanied by grumbling and resentment, then it’s not truly a “yes”, so take the time to evaluate your feelings and check your well before you commit.

Respect your own boundaries

We can’t expect others to respect our boundaries if we don’t set the example ourselves. If we draw a line and then allow others to cross it, we enforce the idea that our boundaries are negotiable. Conflict isn’t easy for anyone, but when the alternative is exhaustion and resentment, it’s important to stand up for your needs. 

And setting boundaries doesn’t have to mean conflict. To avoid feeling like you’re always saying no, offer alternative choices to the people in your life that do align with your needs. For example, maybe you’ve decided to keep baby names a secret before the birth — instead of caving to the pressure to reveal them, find something that you are comfortable sharing, like plans for the nursery.  

Above all, remember that your decisions have value, and holding firm to them reinforces that to the people in your life. 

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