“I’m going to dress up as a unicorn this Halloween!” my youngest child tells me, glitter-eyed. I don’t think this is really in the spirit of Samhain, the ancient Celtic festival of the liminal, when ghosts and spirits walk among us. But it’s not as bad as the year she wanted to go as Twilight Sparkle.
“A My Little Pony?” my mind screamed in horror. My mouth stayed closed, though. I’ve learned the hard way that my children are not interested in my opinions about Hasbro products.
But, as a devoted horror movie fan, I very much wanted to draw a line there. I like drawing lines; it makes me feel as if I’m parenting actively. The (many, many) people who give parenting advice like them, too. “Set firm boundaries,” they’re always saying. “They make life easier, and children feel more secure.”
The thing is, though, that so many of those lines are actually quite arbitrary, and they keep needing to be redrawn. Rules change as children get older, or circumstances shift, or new information comes to light. For example: Imagine that one night you find yourself sitting at the dinner table, short on patience and long on the vegetable soup that your youngest won’t even taste. She’s eaten and loved it a hundred times before, but tonight it “looks funny.”
You restrain yourself from mentioning that you once saw her take a far funnier-looking sweet out of her shoe, pick off the sock-fluff and pop it into her mouth. No. You, calmly and firmly, establish the boundaries; you draw the line in the sand. You point to the piece of buttered toast clutched in her fist.
“If you don’t take that toast and dip it in that soup and eat it – and swallow it do not spit it on the table – then there will be no dessert for you.”
So far, so good. But then the other child casually mentions that that piece of toast has just been retrieved from under the table, where the cat was chewing on it.
Suddenly you’re waving your arms around, sand is flying everywhere, and the line is lost. “No!” you shout, visions of toxoplasmosis dancing in your head, “Don’t put that toast in your mouth!”
The younger child, whose life-soundtrack could have been written by Rage Against the Machine, is understandably annoyed. How can she not do what you tell her, when what you’re telling her to do now is the exact opposite of what you told her to do two minutes ago? It’s difficult to rebel effectively under these circumstances.
So…lines, boundaries. Pfft. Parenting itself is a liminal state, if you ask me. Things keep shifting and changing shape all the time. There have been moments – of rotavirus and broken washing machines, of reflux, of tantrums, of being so tired – when I’ve said, “That’s it. I cannot cope with one more difficult thing.” That line in the sand, again. But then one more difficult thing happened, and I coped.
Or I pegged out my boundaries, clearly: everyone has her own place to sleep and needs to fall asleep in that place and stay in it. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent putting little girls back to bed after nightmares, trips to the toilet, or visits to my bedside at 2 a.m. to stare at me creepily until I wake up. Night after night, over and over, I have walked them back to their rooms, tucked them in, and then tried to fall asleep again myself. Until one brain-fogged night I gave up, and let one into the bed with me. She immediately kicked her father in the ribs, he decamped to the spare room … and everyone slept! Right through to morning! And we kept doing that until, about six months later, everyone miraculously started sleeping soundly in their own beds.
The thing about boundaries is, they keep you safe, and they give your life structure, but too-firm boundaries make it hard to grow. And…look, here’s another metaphor! You absolutely need a flight plan, but if you can’t course-correct, you’re going to crash.
So, at this time of the liminal, I’d like to put in a good word for blurry boundaries, for the shadows that soften hard lines, for making exceptions and parenting porously, and for all the little unicorns that will brighten the ghostly streets this Halloween, shedding glitter as they go.
By Robyn Goss
Robyn is a part-time writer and full-time slave to her two young daughters. Originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, she now lives in a little cow-rich village in Switzerland. She spends her free time making To Do lists of things she’ll probably never get around to doing (have the car cleaned; vacuum under the bed; run a half-marathon) and putting the finishing touches to her third novel. To read more of Robyn’s writing, click here and here.
Illustration by Laura Munteanu
Laura studied journalism and advertising, and has worked as a journalist and an illustrator. She has illustrated for magazines, websites, charity and diverse campaigns. She lives in Zurich with her husband and nine-year-old daughter.