I spent twelve years in the entertainment industry as an actor and playwright, and I had lousy boundaries. Personal and professional lines get blurred frequently in the theatre, and the industry itself is rife with people who think it is just part of doing business to take advantage of others. I spent three years in therapy and two in grad school, learning how to set boundaries so well that I left the industry and became a drama therapist. It took me all of grad school to reject and then reclaim my identity as an artist from the industry. Now I talk about boundaries a lot with my patients. Usually it’s in the context of setting better ones with family, friends, and partners.
Boundaries are often about setting them against the outside world when a new baby enters the scene. When I had a baby, there were no boundaries between her and me. We were one and she was a part of me. I breastfed on demand, bed-shared, and as a single mom, she was my life, my love, my singular focus outside of my job. I recharged my battery with her and we spent our days discovering the world. A new parent may need to set boundaries with eager relatives, who want to help, yet don’t know how, or how much, or in what capacity would actually be truly helpful. We may have to set boundaries with a partner; when we are breastfeeding, it is actually more helpful for that partner to focus on feeding us while we feed the baby. Our culture frequently sends out messages about reclaiming our bodies (the subtext being that it’s not so much for ourselves but for a male partner), getting back in shape (as if the post-pregnancy body is deficient and unsightly), and escaping or taking a break from our baby (when this may be the last thing we need or want, but the perception of some well meaning individuals is that we’re sitting at home pulling our hair out with postpartum depression). Boundaries may also be with that job or career that we love. For many new parents, we don’t recharge by getting away from our baby and back to work; rather we recharge by leaving work behind and spending that time with our baby. Some are fortunate to have a partner who can financially support a single income household for a period of time; others may try to work as little as they can get away with and still pay the bills so they can maximize time with their baby.
With these kinds of boundaries, we are stepping into new roles: mother, father, parent; feeder, sleeper, diaper-changer, one-person show. When we need to explore a new role, it can be necessary to immerse ourselves in it at the beginning in order to flesh it out. Not to the extent of Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man or Heath Ledger in Batman – it’s important to do this on a spectrum between the extremes. The Narcissist Artist at one end needs to practice being the Sacrificial Parent at the other end in order to find the middle ground, the integrated center called aesthetic distance. We can immerse ourselves in parenthood at the expense of the artist initially. Then the time will come, after that role of Parent is integrated, that we can allow the Artist to emerge stronger again. It takes time, and is perhaps more of a battle between the two than a dance, at first. Maybe it regularly goes back and forth between a dance and a battle. The role of Parent may require as much as, or more, creativity than we’ve ever had to access before. When we’re exhausted we may rely on technique.
I am actively struggling to find this balance these days. I want to indulge my artist self, and yet my child’s needs (loudly demanded, with my short-comings and faults pointed out), and my own guilt keep me in a tug of war. My devoted energies are currently dedicated to playing with her, meeting her sensory and developmental needs, and working. I serve others in my work and I serve my child outside of that. I often find myself wondering, where is there time for me? I snatch a few hours to paint and then feel guilty if she comes home in the middle of it and I don’t want to stop what I’m doing. I tried home educating and reduced my work days to three times a week, but four days a week were completely devoted to her (I almost fell on the floor when my father claimed my daughter never had a day off with all of her activities but I got to have four days off – what did he think I was doing on those four days?!). I’ve stopped looking for a partner for now because that would just be one more person demanding my attention, but they would end up being the lowest one on the priority list. I don’t want to resent my child, and I don’t want to feel guilty, and so here we are between that rock and a hard place.
For the moment, I am granting myself this much: It’s okay to let my kid sleep in so I can do yoga for an hour on a Sunday. It’s okay to feel relieved that she chose to go back to school because now I can go to art classes and do some creative work on my (actual, now) days off. I am trying to hold my boundary for keeping work to three days a week so I have two days for me and two weekend days for her. If I’m still working when she comes home, it can be enough for her to watch her tablet for a little while sitting on my lap or at my feet so that we are just in each other’s presence but doing our own thing. It’s not perfect. We have some raging arguments (and she’s only 6, heaven help me when she’s 16). We test each other’s limits, we call each other out on our failings; we also have beautiful moments of coming back together in repair. And perhaps it’s also important to remember that boundaries are not only solid and firm; they can also be fluid and flexible over time. We are evolutionary beings – as artists, as parents, as humans – and our boundaries are evolving as we grow together.
Alexandra Devin (she/her) is a licensed creative arts psychotherapist and a registered drama therapist. She began her professional life in NYC as a performing artist, and is now a private and therapeutic artist living in Beacon, NY, continuing to work with the mediums of theatre, film/video, writing, art, music, and movement. She brings her identity as a female feminist, mother, and activist to her work.
Visit her webite at AlexandraDevin.com