Respecting My Limits

volunteerism, group activities, life lessons

The hair nets were an extra special bonus!

Swallowing four uncoated Advil without water was a bad idea, but I was desperate. An hour into our family’s volunteer shift at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, I’d already lost my battle with back pain and wasn’t about to admit I couldn’t keep going. Apparently those peeps who wrote the Proverbs verse “Pride goeth before a fall” knew what they were talking about.

Our task at the Food Depository was straightforward:  box up endless husks of corn to be sent to area food pantries and soup kitchens. Along with 50 other volunteers, we scooped up armfuls of corn and carried them over to boxes lining a nearby conveyer belt.

Our efforts would ensure hundreds of local families had fresh corn to eat over the next few days. Two hours of bending and lifting would ensure I’d be in traction for the same.

The assembly line work was fun at first. I started off in my natural “can do” enthusiast mode, chatting up the other volunteers and striving to be a good team player. While my older daughter rolled her eyes at my eagerness, I felt proud of myself – “Look at me in a group, being a people person.” I enjoyed watching how other people approached our joint task and admired the power of a group in action.

An hour later, I’d lost my joy. My team spirit and positive attitude quickly followed. My neurons screamed for me to stop bending and lifting. I felt cranky and old, yet we still had another hour left to our shift.

My patience with teamwork disappeared like the memory of a sexy dream and soon I was picking people apart in my mind, no longer appreciating our varied humanity, instead fantasizing about who I could lose my shizz at first.

Would it be the sweaty man next to me who grunted like a over-muscled gym rat every time he bent into the corn bin? Or the woman who spent all her time straightening the corn instead of boxing it?

I needed an attitude adjustment and the ibuprofen burning my esophagus wasn’t going to cut it.  I was done but didn’t want to admit it.

I hate having limits. In my mind, I’m still as lithe and supple as the twelve year old across the bin from me who bent over at her waist repeatedly like a deranged drinking bird. Doesn’t she know she has a limited lifetime allotment of pain-free hinges, and she used up at least seven years worth that day?

drinking bird via scientificonline

“For the love of god, girl, bend at your knees!”

Looking over at my husband and daughters working diligently, I tried to convince myself that I’d done enough and had nothing to prove. I could stop whenever I wanted. Right?

But where would we be if everyone stopped whenever they wanted? Don’t we need people who push through pain to accomplishment, Annie Warbucks-style?

I had a choice. I could save face by ignoring the signals my mind and body were sending and pay the price later. Or, I could respect my limits and sit my ass down. Hiding in the bathroom was an option too.

Have I mentioned how much I hate limits? After picturing all the starving homeless people who would be denied corn if I stopped and swallowing my pride (it stuck in my throat right next to the Advil), this time I chose to honor my limits and not hurt myself to prove my worth. Instead I spent the rest of my time handing out hair nets and hand sanitizer. My pride took a beating, but my back appreciated the loving choice.

Limit Setting for the Squeamish

One minute they’re debating whose Barbie sleeps in the Diamond Castle, the next they’re giggling over the cute members of the band One Direction and planning sleepovers. Such is the life of our tween, Ava, and her friends. Gone are the days when the toughest limits I set were how many gummy worms or Disney Junior episodes she ingested before dinner. Now we negotiate limits on appropriate app and music downloads and how much I’ll spend on a pair of jeggings. Before we graduate to the big issues of dating and driving, I need a remedial class in limit setting. Or maybe a private tutor.

On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, Ava had an unexpected play date at a new friend’s home, whose parents my husband and I had only briefly met. The girls go to the same school and play basketball together, but until recently had never hung out. An hour before pick-up, Ava called to ask if she could sleep over at her friend’s house.

The easy answer was “yes,” and my brain quickly reviewed the perks of choosing easy. Not only would a “yes” thrill Ava, it would mean I could avoid a long car ride in traffic to pick her up. I also salivated at the idea of an unanticipated evening alone with my husband once our four year old fell asleep. “Hell, I’ll put her to bed right now,” I thought, imagining the romantic time we would enjoy.

“I’ll call you right back, honey,” I told Ava. “Let me talk with your Dad, and we’ll make a decision together.”

I took the issue to my husband, he of sane thinking and generous sensibility. Mike is the “yes” man; usually I hold the overprotective parent mantle for both of us.

I knew in my gut that I wouldn’t relax for the rest of night if we said yes to a sleepover, but I secretly hoped Mike would tell me I was being overprotective and let me off the hook.

“Tempting, isn’t it?” he said when we discussed the option.

“Tempting, but troubling,” I replied. “I don’t feel comfortable with a sleepover on New Year’s Eve, especially with people we don’t know.”

“I agree,” Mike said.

Surprised and relieved by his response, I knew instinctively this decision was right for our family. And I immediately feared telling Ava.

“I’m not telling her. You tell her,” we joked, the truth of our discomfort apparent to us both.

We decided we would offer Ava and her friend options:  her friend could spend the night at our house or if her parents agreed, they instead could have a “sleep under,” which includes the movies, junk food and staying up late of a typical sleepover, but usually ends by 9 or 10 pm.

Loathe to disappoint our daughter, but eager to appear a strong, decisive parent, I chose to call Ava back with our decision.

From the moment I heard the expectant optimism in her voice, I knew I wasn’t up to this task. Rather than say “no,” and offer our options, I started explaining. And then explained some more. While I believe Ava deserved a short explanation (e.g. “We don’t know your friend’s parents so a sleepover won’t work tonight”), by trying to make her understand and agree with our decision, I unwittingly put the burden of setting the boundary on her rather than shouldering the discomfort myself.

As my lips parted to promise a rescheduled sleepover the next night, I shut up, put the phone on mute and called Mike over.

“I am fucking this up. Please handle,” I said.

Mike calmly and confidently restated our decision and relayed the options to both Ava and her friend’s parents. They agreed he would pick up Ava at 10 pm so the girls could have the giggling, movie watching and staying-up-late experience without the full monty.

I was in awe of my husband, always a heady feeling, and proud of myself for turning the conversation over to him. And the evening worked out in my favor. After cuddling and watching a movie, Mike left our cozy couch and drove across town to pick up our daughter while I chatted for an hour on Twitter and Facebook. Thrilled with her New Year’s Eve experience, Ava got enough sleep to avert a crankiness crisis in the morning.

Although I recognize that setting and keeping firm limits is a skill I need to improve, I think I’ll put off that particular resolution for another year. Or two. Mike is in charge.

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