Sleep-deprived and cooking a meal to feed my hungry offspring, I was also trying to configure a mental schedule of when I’d be able to finish organizing the extra living room that seemed to have become a default storage room for all things miscellaneous. I was flustered but doing my thang when an unexpected, unannounced guest arrived through the informal side door of our house and right smack dab in the middle of our make shift storage room.
It was my mother- and father-in-law. Bless their hearts, they must have forgotten how to use a phone. No surprise there, as they’ve been doing this our whole marriage. Looks of distaste overcame my mother-in-law’s face as she began to dramatically step through the living room as if she were walking through a marshland avoiding awakening an alligator napping in the midst of the Everglades de Miscellaneous.
As embarrassment took over, I began to feel as if my home was not my sanctuary. Anxiety stirred and took over. I was no longer a believing Mormon but I was suddenly taken back to the days of the frantic responses to random door knocking via obnoxiously ill-timed visiting teachers. It was as if their monthly assignments to visit me also included reporting results from random home-cleanliness testing. Short of having to pee in a cup for them, I was always left with a sense of shame, a sense of never measuring up and a bout of anger due to being disrespected.
The rest of world seems to understand appointments and the purpose they serve. What is the point of having a get together when half of the party isn’t expecting it or prepared? Is this a sick game of one upping each other? Am I on a game show? If this is foreshadowing of how well I will be prepared for the 2nd coming then I’m screwed. I do not pass go and I certainly do not collect my $200.
One of the first things I learned about when leaving the Church was this odd concept called boundaries. I admit that I lived 30 years of my life not knowing that such a thing existed. After leaving, I read about how the Church as a whole and at the individual level abuse personal boundaries. It was no wonder I experienced such a visceral response to people dropping in unannounced.
So there I was, frantically scrambling to finish up dinner, rein in my anklebiters, and welcome my unwanted guests into my chaotic abyss. I couldn’t close the door to the mess – they had walked right into it and, unlike Jesus, they didn’t knock and wait patiently for me to answer. I must see about installing a knobless door, I thought.
To make matters worse I have this tenacious need to feed people who visit, yet I hadn’t planned for this and was now desperately trying to find a way to turn a noodle dish into fishes and loaves. And then it hit me – this is my house! Just because my mother-in-law does not require the use of her own doorbell and feels it rude to expect manners at her own home does not mean that all homes must abide by this. So I said to myself: “Self, it’s time to try out those boundaries that you’ve been reading about on exmormon forums.”
I collected my thoughts and attempted to get my pounding heart out of my throat. What I wanted to say was, “GET OUT!!! My house is a mess and I know you’re loving this! Use my front door, not the damned side entrance! And this, here, is a doorbell. USE IT!” But what came out was, “[MIL], I know that to you it doesn’t matter if people walk into your house unannounced but would you and [FIL] mind calling first so I can make sure we are available to visit with you guys?” I was sure my antiperspirant had either expired or the manufacturer had never met my mother-in-law. Maybe I would write in and suggest a new line called MIL-Proof.
She gave no response but a look of confusion and then I dared to add my current, larger pet peeve: “And would you mind using the front door? This door enters a room that I’m embarrassed to say isn’t functional right now.” My heart had relocated to my ears now and my vision blackened and tunneled, so I am not able to recall how she responded. I just wanted it over. I had stood up for myself. This was the beginning of Miss O establishing and vocalizing her boundaries. Had I known it would later deem me an even bigger “bitch of the family,” I may not have attempted it – but I’m glad I hadn’t thought yet of the repercussions of a woman scorned and armed with tools of passive aggression.
Later that month I was working in my garden when I received a call from my mother-in-law asking if she and my father-in-law could pick up my oldest to go eat ice cream. Now that wasn’t that hard, was it? What a beautiful thing, this contraption called a phone and a behavior called respect. I felt great. It appeared that we had safely entered the uncharted waters of respecting boundaries. Thirty minutes later there was a knock on the door. A knock! Oh how it’s the little things that make life enjoyable and fulfilling. Feeling valued, I opened the door to see my mother-in-law standing there with a stern smile (yes, there’s such a thing). I greeted her and stepped back to welcome her in while I called out for my daughter to finish up and get going. “Oh no, I’ll wait right here outside the front door.” Silence.
Although I thought I had approached this issue very respectfully, I realized my efforts were not filed away in the respect cabinet but in the offended cabinet. Everything I had observed about my mother-in-law’s behavior flashed before my eyes. Oh my God!!! Now when she sits around the table with whomever will tolerate her gossip, it is me she is going to be babbling about. Telling her side of things as the martyr always does – turning something small into something newsworthy and heinous.
Would I be in the next month’s ward examiner piece as an example of what losing the Spirit does to one’s ability to interact with others? Would my attempt to declare my humble boundaries be slandered around the table at homemaking night?
Boundaries are frowned upon in the Church culture. They are seen as confrontational and are avoided in fear of being ostracized as punishment for not staying in the fold, for not doing as I’m doing – follow follow me, and other conforming ideas meant to keep the masses from being individuals. Surely asking for a heads up when coming over and not just walking right in seemed liked an uncomplicated request, no? Leave it to a Mormon woman to teach me a lesson for imposing how I want things in my own home upon her.
After catching my breath from the shock and realization of what she was doing, I said, “Ok,” and walked off leaving her there. I wasn’t going to forfeit my efforts that were about a decade late. I was not going to dance her dance by submitting to her and learning the lessons she gave through passive-aggressive punishments. Boundaries became my new focus – how many more of these have I neglected to implement?
Fast forward to the present, 4 years later, and I have successfully taught my mother-in-law how to treat me (my father-in-law took a lot more effort – that’s a whole other post). I have also learned not to play in any reindeer games with her or any other members whose tool box is lacking anything constructive and only contains a travel-size torture kit labeled with a sharpie: Passive Aggressiveness. We are our only advocates. Combating the culture of our LDS family members often requires setting and sticking to boundaries, even if it’s uncomfortable.
Be strong; stand your ground – your sanity is worth it. It may take a few tries and many tear-filled evenings before you have a breakthrough with your LDS family members. What I now call “telephone first-then please knock” was my first attempt at setting boundaries, and I am happy to report that I have since established many more. Unfortunately in the process I was deemed the uncooperative bitch of the family, but I’ll take it. I’d rather be a bitch and be at peace than conform and be despondent. Setting boundaries is a tricky thing, but opening your mouth is the first step. Teach others how to treat you.