If my 20's taught me anything, it's that life rarely ever goes as planned or envisioned, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Over the holidays, my husband and I moved in with my parents as we prepare to bring our son into the world, and it's certainly not how I ever envisioned growing my family. However, when we found out we were pregnant, we had a lot of discussions about a lot of things, and eventually moving in with my parents made the most sense, not only financially, but also because of the strong support I will have, not just from my parents but friends in the area. I certainly had my reservations and discussed my concerns with friends and my therapist, and the number one thing everyone told me was to set boundaries. Boundaries, in general, are important in every relationship, but how does one set boundaries in a family that knows no boundaries? Asian families, or at least my Asian family, don't have boundaries!
As I write this post, the world is captivated by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's decision to "step back from 'Senior Royal' duties." That's drawing a major boundary between them and the Royal Family, and I have plenty of thoughts on this, but let's save that conversation for tea time.
That being said, there are many ways to draw boundaries and many factors to consider. I actually didn't realize that not having boundaries was an "Asian" thing until one of my Korean-American friends laughed when I mentioned setting boundaries, and exclaimed something like, "Boundaries? Asian families don't know boundaries!" Her sister apparently one time rearranged her entire kitchen while she was in bed recovering from an illness or surgery (I forget exactly what), and while her husband was out. No one asked her to, or mentioned rearranging the kitchen, and while it was ultimately for the better, it was weird for her husband to come home to a suddenly unrecognizable kitchen. I suppose if you're not used to it, that kind of behavior may feel like an invasion of privacy. Hell, even when you are used to it it can feel like an invasion of privacy. I know, because my mom has totally done the same thing to me in the past. Still, I felt relieved to know I wasn't alone and that maybe it's not my fault I still hadn't figured out how to set boundaries with my family ahead of our move. I can also think of a few other cultures that probably face the same issues.
Here are some of the challenges I have found when it comes to setting boundaries with family. If you have any experience or tips on this subject, please do share!
1. Parent-Child Dynamic
Inevitably, one of the greatest challenges of moving back in with your parents as an adult is the balance of the parent-child relationship versus the adult-tenant-but-still-child-of-your-parents relationship. It's a dual dynamic that is complicated, and often over-powered by the parent-child relationship. The parent-child dyanmic will never go away, no matter how old you are. So the way I try to approach this is understand that I have moved into someone else's house, and therefore should respect their rules and expectations when it comes to certain things like keeping things clean and organized in the way my parents like to keep things clean and organized. For example, my mom has four different sponges and scrubs in the kitchen sink, each intended for a different purpose (e.g., a sponge for greasy dishes and a sponge for non-greasy dishes). While at first it may seem like a bit much, it makes total sense and I fully support that approach. I always feel weird scrubbing a greasy pan, and then going to clean a glass that only previously contained water with the same sponge. The initial challenge was remembering which is for what and not getting yelled at for mixing them up.
Things get a little muddled and fuzzy when it comes to food and mealtimes for us, though. One example a friend gave me as a way to set boundaries was that when her brother and sister-in-law moved in with her parents, they set up a standard of sharing a meal together once or twice a week, but every other day the couple prepared and ate their meals separately from the parents. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that on a normal weekday, my family has never been great at sitting down together for dinner, and that's due to differing schedules. However, when it comes to food and my family, there are especially no boundaries and it feels strange to set boundaries around food. That being said, we have stated several times, both my mother and I, that my parents (more so my mother), need not go out of their way to cook for us; but that's where she doesn't even know how to respect the boundaries she draws. She's a Chinese mom--she can't not cook just for herself. And Chinese people have this thing about making sure no one ever goes hungry in your home. In second grade, a classmate cried a puddle on our dining table because my mom wouldn't stop asking her if she wanted to eat a little more. Needless to say, I never invited that girl over again. So while even my parents have tried to draw a certain line between us as adult tenants, they still ask us ten times a day if we're hungry and want any food. And even when my mom says she's not here to cater to us, her Chinese mom genes prevent her from realizing Chris and I have both lived on our own and know very well how to take care of ourselves and cook for ourselves.
I guess the big challenge here really is not about drawing boundaries, but sticking to them.
2. Moving in as a Married Couple
One of the things my husband has always loved and appreciated about my family is our closeness. However, I can only imagine how that closeness can still take some getting used to, especially when he comes from the opposite family dynamic and very much so has and needs boundaries with his family. Moreover, the closeness and boundary-less dynamic of my family extends to my extended family. On the other hand, my parents have their way of doing things and since we have moved into their home, I think it's difficult for them to see and understand that not everyone does things the same way, and that there isn't always one right way. However, to keep the peace (or as much as possible), again, I've tried to not be the difficult and rebellious teenager I may have once been, and simply respect their way of doing things and adjust to that as much as possible. Rebelling at thirty-one would just be embarrassing.
The closeness of my family is very important to me, but at the same time, it is equally important for me to set certain boundaries around my new unit with my husband and son. When Chris and I attended the Catholic Engaged Encounter Retreat that many parishes require of couples intending to marry (and which I highly recommend to every couple in general), one of the most valuable things we discussed there was what values we appreciated from each of our upbringings and wanted to bring into our new unit, and what things we may want to leave behind. So, it's boundaries around these values that are most important for me to set, such as how we communicate, and how we approach and handle certain situations. Chinese people are very loud and my house can often feel like a telenovela. While I appreciate the vibrancy and the positive side of that, there are certainly communication issues that I am still working on for myself, and now especially for my son, because I want him to know what healthy communication is.
3. A Multi-Cultural Household
Anytime you bring two people together, even if they grew up in the same town and in similar circumstances, there is a learning curve and challenges that come with the distinct ways we have been brought up. Within my own Chinese-American upbringing, there are a plethora of cultural and generational differences that have presented challenges between myself and my parents. Now add Chris's French upbringing into the mix, and it makes for a very interesting sociological and cultural study. So, there are numerous times I've noticed things get lost in translation or misinterpreted. Not to mention, we all have different personality types, so how we approach the differences can also be a challenge. It's something that Chris and I constantly deal with even between ourselves, being opposite personalities, while also coming from different cultural upbringings and family dynamics. Now mix in my family and sometimes it can be overwhelming.
The thing is, each family is different, and what boundaries you set, how you set them, and how you respect them will all be different. Perhaps some families are able to sit down ahead of time, have a proper family meeting (or a Summit like the British Royal Family does!), and lay down the rules. Maybe we should have done that, but we didn't. Especially being pregnant, and trying to create the most warm, positive, and loving environment for my son, even while he's still in my womb, has really pushed me to practice more patience, breathe more, and sometimes just walk away when necessary. No matter what, we never would have moved in with my parents had I felt like my son would not be born into the most loving home he could possibly have. This boy will want for nothing, and I feel confident that no matter the differences and boundary issues I may have with my parents, my son will be safe and loved in this home. It all takes patience and time, and continues to be a work in progress as we get used to living with each other and respecting each other's space.
Have you had success setting certain boundaries with your family? If you have thoughts on this subject, please do share!
Stay postively jawesome!