When pandemic-related shutdowns started, many people rushed to the rescue of their loved ones. They rallied to meet an extraordinary situation and extended themselves in deep and loving ways. They welcomed home adult children with open arms. They jumped to babysit for their grandkids. They volunteered to shop for neighbors and elderly relatives.
“At first, I thought, this is going to be great,” said Nancy Graham of Plainfield, Illinois, about sheltering in place with her husband and their three adult children. “I bought puzzles. I bought stuff to make candles. I was like, let’s watch a documentary a week! Let’s learn something!”
Six months in?
“It’s awful,” said Graham, a real estate agent. “It’s been years since we’ve all been under the same roof for more than a week. I want to kill them, they want to kill each other, and my husband hides in his office.”
Indeed, with no end in sight, many people are wearing down. How long can they keep this up? Can they dial back their level of commitment, be it a pledge of time, money or emotional support? And why is it all so hard?
“As a social species, we have this powerful, powerful need for emotional closeness,” said Michael Kerr, a psychiatrist and the author of “Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families,” based on the research of Murray Bowen, who viewed the family as an emotional unit. “And at the same time, we are allergic to too much of it. Therein lies the dilemma.”
Create healthy boundaries
“People are afraid to set boundaries, because they think it risks the relationship,” said Karen C.L. Anderson, author of “Difficult Mothers, Adult Daughters: A Guide For Separation, Liberation & Inspiration” and a life coach specializing in family boundaries.
“When you want to say ‘no,’ to a loved one, you’re afraid that they’re going to make that ‘no’ mean that you’re a bad mother or grandparent or friend. You figure, I’m just going to say ‘yes,’ so I don’t have to feel guilty later,” she said.
“Boundaries create a context for the preservation of love and peace,” said John Townsend, a psychologist who is the co-author of the Christian-themed book “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life” and host of the “Dr. Townsend Live” show on Crowdcast.
“If you don’t have boundaries, you’ve got chaos,” he said. “Boundaries create an organized structure that people can go, ‘I can live with this. I can tolerate this. I can feel peaceful and still love people.’ ”
For many people, that’s a lot more easily said than done.
Be a conduit, not a lifeline
Jenny Lynn is a wife and the mother of two teenagers in Novato, California. Besides managing the pandemic’s extra toll on her immediate family, she has been providing an intense level of daily support to her divorced and separately sheltered parents, including handling their health and financial affairs.
“I feel constantly pulled by everyone’s needs, and it’s never enough,” she said. “My version of boundaries is if my dad calls six times in a day, maybe I don’t call him back right away. There have been days I wanted to get on a plane and go away. Not for good, but just for a break.”
When you feel overwhelmed, Townsend recommends that you create a list of all of your responsibilities and then identify what you alone can do and what can be outsourced. Ask a friend to share errands or shopping. Take turns venting.
“You also have to determine that just because Dad’s calling me six times a day doesn’t mean I’m the solution,” Townsend said. “You’ve got to have thick skin so you don’t personalize other people’s misery.”
Keep a relaunch in sight
Jessica Gerber, a senior adviser for a national nonprofit who lives in San Rafael, California, has been working to establish good boundaries. “In four days, we went from being empty nesters to three generations of six adults,” Gerber said. “Our adult kids moved back. My 87-year-old parents moved in. That’s 18 meals a day. It’s like running a boardinghouse.”
Establishing ground rules was the first priority. “I had to be the sheriff,” Gerber said. “People behave better when they know what’s expected of them, so I said, No. 1, we all have to be kind to each other. No. 2, Grandpa needs to wear hearing aids. No. 3, everybody cleans up after themselves. Sunday’s cleaning day and you’ve got to scrub the toilet, and I’m sorry if you’re 87, you’ve still got to do it.”
These boundaries may be helping, but if she ever intends to re-empty the nest, Townsend recommends creating what he calls a relaunch vision. “You say, ‘Hey, we know that you don’t want to be here forever,’ ” he suggested. “But what can we think about to give you, and us, a vision for how great it’s going to be for you to feel autonomous and free and empowered?” The resulting conversation can help the younger person map out steps toward a relaunch.
Many people made promises to loved ones back in March, not realizing how long the pandemic might last.
Now that so many schools are opening remotely, what if your working adult children want you to babysit for your grandkids full time? Or what if you’re ready to retire as your elderly aunt’s or neighbor’s weekly grocery shopper? How can you create a new normal where your own needs are part of the equation?
The first step, according to Anderson, is to realize that it’s OK that your needs have changed. “We can always renegotiate our boundaries,” she said. “Just because we’ve agreed to something in one moment doesn’t mean we’ve agreed to it for life. Remind yourself that you get to change your mind.”
Next, get clear — with yourself first — about exactly what you’re still willing to do. Then go into the conversation with kindness and clarity. “You say you’ve been happy to help so far, that we all thought this would be over by now, and it’s not. And then you tell the truth. ‘I can’t be at my best at this level, so I need to cut back,’ or ‘I need to take a month off,’ or whatever it is you really need,” she said. “You let them know, without defensiveness, without guilt, that you want to help them come up with a different solution that works for them, because this one isn’t sustainable for you.’”
Anderson says it’s important to make space for your loved one to feel heard. “They need to feel how much you see and care about their needs, and that you are still there for them, even if it can’t be just the way they want.”
And that elderly aunt who needs groceries? “You let her know that you’re still going to be there for her, but the model needs to change,” Anderson said. “You’ll help her sign up for delivery. Or you’ll organize a few others to rotate duties.”
Tell the truth, then let go
“All you can do is be truthful about what you need going forward,” Anderson said. “And ask yourself, ‘Do I want my kids and grandkids to love me because I do something I don’t want to do for them? Or do I want them to love me because I’m honest and I’m being myself?’”
Re-establishing boundaries might not be easy, but the rewards can be rich. “Boundaries done right help people be more clear and more intimate, because there’s not the unspoken expectation, like, ‘of course you’re going to keep doing this because you’re my mother and I need you to do it,’ ” Anderson said.
“When you can have the conversation without that baggage, you have the space to see each other as fuller human beings, not just the roles you play. It also helps you get to an outcome based on what’s really best for both of you.”
So how do you let go if things don’t go well, despite your best efforts?
“It’s OK to be upset,” Anderson said. “Tolerating uncomfortable feelings builds emotional resilience. And standing in our truth is hard, but it’s the key to honest relationships. It’s also the key to creating healthy boundaries.”