Teachable Moments: Tickling and Boundaries

I have been trying to teach Luna about personal boundaries. This is a huge challenge for someone who has never had a good understanding of healthy boundaries, how to recognize, respect, or establish them.

Enmeshment has been the modus operandi for parenting my children and coping with most other relationships. That or complete emotional withdrawal. Either way, boundaries and I don’t seem to play well together.

In my fear and drive to not alienate Luna as I did with Marco and LaLa and my determination to not allow my attachment and bonding issues to affect her, I went from too detached to overly connected. Except, I am coming to believe you cannot be too connected or attached to a growing infant and toddler.

The sense of security, safety, trust, and confidence that their needs will be met are the foundation on which every other emotional and psychological developmental task will be built. Anything less establishes an inherent distrust of self and others and sets the stage for relational and behavioral trauma and conflict.

In a “normal” family where most everyone is emotionally and mentally stable, consistency of structure, and the assurance that housing, food, and health needs are met safety and security needs tend to be automatically met an almost instinctive level and is inherent to the lifestyle of the family.

Personally, I have never met or participated in the lives of such a “normal” family.

Luna was born into chaos and dysfunction, conflict and instability. As soon as I found out I was pregnant I began living in fear of what kind of life she would be growing up in. I didn’t trust myself, her father, or our society to do well by her and be able to provide the supports and nurture she would need.

I immediately found the prenatal care to mitigate and monitor my risk factors. I was a 38 year old smoker who was 100 lbs overweight, chronically depressed, and had two previous macrosomatic babies. Marco was 10 lbs 14.3 oz and 21.5 inches long with a 14 inch head and chest. LaLa was 9.5 lbs, 21 inches long, also 14 inch head and chest.

I stopped smoking, mostly, during the first trimester. I started treatment for the depression, including cognitive behavioral therapy and medication. However, I was concerned about the effects of medication and decided to manage without it. I developed gestational diabetes and wound up giving myself insulin shots twice a day and having to go on early medical leave during my second trimester.

This precipitated a financial crisis and I wound up in a quasi-indentured servant status to the slumlord who had taken over our apartment complex -another story for another time.

LaLa was 14, going on 15 and experiencing a lot of difficulties and acting out in ways that led to legal complications. As always the relationship between Jerry, myself, and LaLa was stressful and emotionally volatile. Despite his best intentions and desires, every interaction between the two of them triggered all of his issues from the emotional and verbal abuse he’d experienced from his older sisters and she suffered even more because of his inability to deal with his issues. So I was consumed with guilt, grief and anger, torn between the two of them and the child growing inside of me. I was on a constant emotional diet of strife, bitterness, and hopelessness.

I was determined that our baby would know she was loved in spite of and in the midst of it all. So, I was adamant that she would be breastfed. Since I live in Portlandia that is the socially progressive choice and there were lots of supports, resources, and tools.

For the first five months of her life it seemed the only time she wasn’t wailing in distress was when she was in my arms and when she was nursing. She screamed for 45 minutes when she was born via planned C-section a week early. The decision to do this was because she measured the size of a 42 week gestation when they took the final ultrasound at 38 weeks. She was 9 lbs 7 oz and the same size as her sister. But I digress.

There was no medical cause that we could determine for her constant crying and distress. She rejected everyone’s efforts to soothe and calm her. It tore Jerry apart inside that he couldn’t hold and comfort his daughter. I suspect that all the tension and stress I was under throughout the pregnancy impacted her, because her cries and physical demeanor were a mirror of my internal psychological and emotional distress throughout the pregnancy.

So, she has been in close physical proximity to me, us since birth. She still sleeps in our bed and is just starting to be able to comfortably fall asleep without physically touching me or her dad, when he’s home.

Now she’s almost four and is a reasonably well adjusted little girl: outgoing, affectionate, energetic, independent, imaginative, and playful. She’s also very determined, strong willed, and very much her own person. While she has a strong sense of self and what her boundaries are, she still doesn’t recognize the boundaries of others, especially mine. I think she just sees me as an extension of herself.

I really try to show her that it’s okay to have and express those boundaries. Tickling was today’s teachable moment.

Luna climbed on top of me and I started tickling. She told me she didn’t want to be tickled, so I immediately stopped. Then she commanded me to tickle her again. I tickled and blew raspberries on her tummy and back until her laughter and giggles sounded breathless and I stopped. She kept having me tickle her over and over, but each time her body language indicated she was at her limit I stopped.

Playing and hearing her laughter is one of the most precious gifts in my life. I posted what happened on Facebook. One of my friends commented that her sister her would tickle her when she was too little to make it stop and that she hated it.

I realized that by honoring Luna’s boundary and not tickling her when she told me not to, she felt safe and secure that I could be trusted to tickle her and keep it fun. Eventually, she will understand that it’s okay to express herself and state her boundaries and be able to expect those around her to honor her boundaries.

Gratitude Day 12
I am grateful for the things I am learning and the progress I am making in my healing and recovery journey. I am starting to recognize and trust the positive and good things. As a result I am enjoying and interacting with Luna and her siblings in better ways.

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