Week 17: Setting Boundaries

Last night, I kicked my eleven year old daughter out of the office she had converted into her room, making her move back in with her little sister. She was not happy.IMG_20130309_191824

I needed the space.

Until yesterday, I’ve worked in the kitchen on a round table around which Paul and the girls must navigate to get to the door to the garage or the laundry room. This “crossing” also acts as an invitation to ask me a question, which probably stems from different motivations: it’s convenient, I want Mom’s attention, I want my wife’s attention, I want to make fun of her incoherent answers and noncommittal uh-huhs, I want to get a quick yes to something that might bring a no if she were to fully concentrate on what I’m asking, etc.

What I’ve finally concluded is my family does not respect my work and neither do I. I’ve failed to set boundaries about it or to them. They’re cute. I love them. But they’re interfering.


I don’t know if I’m putting the cart before the horse because I don’t make a lot of money in writing (as if money is the only way to assign value). But … I know I will continue to make very little money in writing if I accept interruptions during work time. Each interruption takes far more time away from the work than the time it takes to ask. I don’t switch gears easily. This is how it goes —

They ask a question. I ignore it. They repeat it along with some jokes about my intense focus. When that gets no response, they repeat it with a “Mom!” cutting across the air or dry, sarcastic remarks from Paul including the term “your mother” which always clues me into his annoyance. I reluctantly pull my mind from my work and turn to the questioner without being able to focus. The questioner mistakes eye contact for coherence. I give a non-coherent answer. The questioner laughs and repeats the question. I give a blank stare. Eventually I tell the questioner I am unquestionably listening this time. I take in the question and quell the anger stemming from realizing they interrupted me to answer an unnecessary or unimportant question. I answer the question. I unreasonably hope the questioner will see how ridiculous it is to interrupt me for such a question. I return to my work. I quell frustration that I have lost my thoughts. I try to gather the thoughts I was thinking, and return to my work.

Total time of the actual question (when I listened) and answer period: ten seconds. Total loss of time at work: three minutes. Multiply this event by three or four times and the pointlessness of trying to work becomes clear in which I stand up, exit out, and do  the tasks which are clearly more important to my family — folding their laundry and cleaning up after them. This is much more agreeable to all of them because I can fully interact with them while doing these tasks and they won’t called upon to do them.

The martyr in me tells me my work can wait. It is not that important. Being at my family’s mercy is more important. And… after insisting on declining full-time work so I full time mother, there is some fairness in demanding my full attention. Yet, I am beginning to wonder. Is this really fair, right, and good? Is this the best way to be fully me? I believe mothers should give their family the very best of themselves. I’m not so sure they should give them everything. Surely, I can reserve some of it for other callings? Do I not owe it to them to not extinguish any part of myself? Shouldn’t I allow them to solve things for themselves?

Setting boundaries is creation. All of us are creating a life. Our lives are a sum of our choices — what we choose to do and not to do — we are where we are now because of boundaries that have or haven’t been set.

God divided the light from the dark. He divided the sky from the water. He gathered the waters in places to show the land. A painter picks a canvas — a limit of space on which to paint. A writer chooses a word and not another word. A musician plays a note … or doesn’t. Without division, separation, boundaries, things are without form and void.

When my family comes to interrupt my work, I want to quote from Job with a voice like God and with the power to control the great seas:

I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place,11 when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’

Truly, it would take a voice like God to halt them. Yesterday, as I worked in my new studio with the curtains drawn, Paul was also drawn to the quiet and fell asleep on the floor in front of my chair so I couldn’t sit at my desk. Twice, Elsa opened the door to ask advice about something. And Ingrid grumbled incessantly about why I needed to kick her out — she didn’t like the bunk bed, she was cold, and Dagne talks too much.

Hmmm. What does it take to consecrate a place and make it sacred? How can I and my work get some respect?

I can see Paul rubbing his fingers together and saying, “Show me the money.” (He wouldn’t ever actually do this; I’m projecting this attitude on him. It’s how I wrestle with my writing).

But is there value in what I do even if I never get paid? I believe so. If no one reads my words or gains from them, I gain from writing them. This faith in what I do must increase. And the family must learn to respect it.

This hard, settling knot of knowing who I am and who I am not is at the very core of living the simple life. Being able to say ‘yes’ to the best things and ‘no’ to good things is what it’s all about. I must know myself and have courage in it — even if it means being a little at odds with my family. I believe that following my path will help them to discover theirs. It is a gift to all of us, though sometimes we have trouble recognizing it.

What do you think?

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  1. Well, I read your words and certainly gain from them, for sure. Your writing is fantastic.
    I work from home and although there IS money involved, setting the boundaries for a home office was difficult. My partner is only home on the weekends, and I work weekends. For a time, she would pop her head in every 15 minutes or so to ask me a question, or simply to chat. Like you, it was very difficult for me to get started again, and I would sometimes completely derail altogether. We finally had to install a time limit and a code word. If the door is closed, I am to be left alone for no less than 45 minutes. (Long enough for me to accomplish something and also need to get up and walk around any way). If she feels it’s something really important, she will knock and I will respond with either “come in” or the code word. The code word means “not now, I’m way into something.” It gives me a chance to finish whatever I’m working on, or find a stopping point so that I can go ask what she wanted-without all the irritation. This has created a better sense of harmony for us. 🙂


    1. Excellent ideas here! And it’s somehow comforting to know that it’s not how little I earn that causes the problems. Thank you for sharing these ideas. I’ll try to implement some of them with my family.


  2. It never ceases to amaze me how much your words reflect my own life! Countless times I have been deep in thought and my children ask me some simple question, yet it takes them quite a few repititions to pull me out of my zone. Then I try to look in their eyes and give my full attention. I give my answer but it is usually something that could have waited and I then struggle to figure out what I was processing in my head. Even as I type this, I have been interrupted 5 times!


  3. This is a brave thing to do. No one else will treat your work like it is important if *you* don’t treat it like it is important. If you can show your family that you can be more fully present with them during the time you are available, and enforce the boundary (even if they successfully derail or annoy you, it doesn’t mean you are coming out of the office to pay attention to them), over time you’ll get equilibrium where you can work.


    1. Yes, I agree. If I’m going to set boundaries with my family about work, I also need to set boundaries about work with my family and be fully and completely with them when it’s their turn. Hopefully, this will give me the balance needed to really be creative with both my loves!


  4. I absolutely feel your pain. I read once that one famous author never wrote when his kids were awake because he didn’t want them to ever think that his books were more important to them. On the other hand, I’ve heard that work-at-home parents need to have a place set aside where they can look like they’re working–and actually work–so that their kids can see that they are productive, and what they do is important. Personally, if I want to get things done, the early morning before anyone else is up is usually the best time, although my older son will usually leave me alone enough to do something when the little one naps. I find that creating a structure and letting the family know when I need to have my time works the best for me.


    1. Excellent points. I think creating a structure is the first step, and letting the family know is the second. Third would be to actually work and not get side-tracked by emails and bills:) Thanks for commenting. I love reading your comments and blog!


  5. Kudos for taking the first hard step of kicking your daughter out of the room! I think it’s a universal difficulty for good moms – finding the balance between “taking care of me” and “taking care of my family”. While they’re the center of your world, they don’t need to be there 100% of every waking and sleeping moment. One day at a time, one situation at a time, reaffirm your boundaries with them and they will get it with consistency. Good luck! 🙂


    1. Amen! They are the center of my world, but it would do them some good if they got the hint it might not be this way forever:) A few doses of reality, given in consistency, is probably health.


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