My dad recently came for a visit, and during his stay we went out for many meals with my almost 6-month old daughter. While she is pretty chatty just like her mother, overall she fairs just fine. Actually, a little too fine. She loves flapping her big baby blues at whomever she sees. As a result, she is a magnet for unsolicited baby touching.
During the dinner when this picture was taken (yes, K is wearing a makeshift diaper held together with a changing pad liner – a story worthy of its own blog post), one overzealous grandma came over to our table and began to fawn over my daughter. While I’ve gotten better with my germaphobia and no longer go into shallow breathing whenever a stranger crosses the unspoken two foot barrier around my girl, my heart did start skipping beats when the woman got close enough for K to touch her chin.
“Oh sweetie,” I muttered quickly, “Mind your manners. Let this lady have her personal space.”
I wanted to snatch her out of my husband’s arms, but my desire not to embarrass him or this woman got the best of me.
When the woman responded, “Oh no, this is exactly what I wanted. She senses that I’m a grandma and love babies,” I thought to myself, “Oh crap. Well, at least it’s not flu season. I’ll just have to rub some extra Thieves oil on her feet when we get home.”
I hated that I was letting my boundaries be violated. But because I had missed my opportunity to establish them just as they were being broken, I figured I just needed to suck it up and recalibrate now that the window for polite conversation had closed. The problem with surrendering like this, though, is that in addition to feeling like crap your boundaries just get broken in more and more places until words are finally necessary. And usually by this point, they aren’t pretty.
The handsy grandma began to stroke K’s face. As K made a beeline for the woman’s fingers (meaning they were going to be made into teething toys in less than 15 seconds), my dad who was sitting across the table from us rather forcefully said, “P-L-E-A-S-E, we’re eating. Get your hands off the baby.”
As I’m sure you can imagine, a supremely uncomfortable 30 seconds or so ensued for everybody. My husband and I froze. The woman got defensive. And K sensed the tension and started leaking out of her diaper.
I teach how to facilitate difficult conversations so that they are daring ones, and yet I still can be my own catalyst for epic fails in this department. As I was reminded in this incident, when you are not direct the moment a boundary is violated, you just set yourself up for a more difficult conversation later on – whether you are the one having it or, as I was, are a bystander in it.
Here’s what I know for sure, even as my behavior is striving to catch up to my cognition.
There is ALWAYS a way to be direct and delicate when a boundary is broken.
Had I simply said compassionately, “We are teaching our daughter not to touch or be touched by strangers,” the situation would have been resolved. No need for my dad to intervene on my behalf. No potential shame spiral for the woman. Maybe spillage out of our last diaper would have been avoided. Maybe?
What gets us, particularly women, out of our power and into paralysis in such moments is our inability to reconcile our desire to say what we want AND protect the relationship on the line. Even if that relationship is with someone we’ll never see again – a lot of us don’t want to anger another. Or in my case, be the cause of someone else’s embarrassment.
When a boundary is broken we need to immediately ask, “What do I want? And how do I say it with compassion – for myself and my needs and for the other person?”
When we ask these simple questions, rather than an action-inhibiting one like, “Can I just blink my eyes and make this go away?” we honor our needs by finding the way to communicate them directly. And as a result of making it easy for the other person or people to understand what we want, we diminish the potential for future discomfort down the road.