• At some point, I remembered that…my family was not Australian. (iStockphoto)Source: iStockphoto
I still get jealous when my friend’s mother is coming to visit and books an Airbnb for herself.
By
Antoanela Safca

3 Mar 2020 - 8:20 AM  UPDATED 10 May 2021 - 4:00 PM

I had been living in Australia for almost ten years when it dawned on me that my family back home in Romania was not acquainted with a concept I had become very fond of: boundaries.

I had just arrived for my annual family visit, and a few trespasses of my personal space happened: first, my auntie announced proudly she went through my suitcase when I was asleep to see what clothes I had packed for my visit. She was satisfied with my choices. I gasped, dumbfounded by the invasion of privacy, but I could see that she didn’t perceive any wrongdoing. On the contrary. She had folded everything back nicely.

During that same visit, my mother came into the bathroom while I was having a shower to check that the hot water was running OK. It had been playing up. I stared back, frozen, trying to communicate the discomfort, but nothing registered with her.

During that same visit, my mother came into the bathroom while I was having a shower to check that the hot water was running OK.

Lack of boundaries in my family were not new at all, in fact, they had always been the comfortable and assumed norm. But this time their absence was staring me in the face. Maybe it was my newfound love of psychology magazines, maybe the fresh divorce I had defied my family over. Fact is, it was suddenly obvious I had to educate my Eastern European family on these modern Western concepts.

So, with the acquired righteousness of the overseas relative, I proceeded to explain to both my mother and auntie the concepts of boundaries, privacy and personal space. They listened with effort, not quite seeing the connection, but indulging me.

Still, I didn’t give up. I kept revisiting the topic during those weeks. When I lived in Romania, family boundaries had been a foreign concept for me. I knew better now, and I was going to enlighten my family too. Lucky them.

So, with the acquired righteousness of the overseas relative, I proceeded to explain to both my mother and auntie the concepts of boundaries, privacy and personal space.

Needless to say, none of my frustrated efforts bore any fruit, and I went back to Australia disheartened, but still determined to figure out a way. I spent the next year or so complaining about my family’s lack of boundaries to my at-once amused and commiserating Australian friends. Romanian friends knew very well what I meant, but were similarly stuck when it came to solutions. I was on my own.

I kept feeding my mind with Australian or Western stories of family boundaries. None perfect, but so much better than my non-existent ones. Why couldn’t my family cultivate healthy, well-defined boundaries like my Australian friends seemed to? It was like trying to teach them a new language that they didn’t even know existed, let alone that they needed it for anything. Why didn’t my students take an interest in the extra-terrestrial language I was gifting them with?

At some point, I remembered that…my family was not Australian.

At some point, I remembered that…my family was not Australian.

I spent a lot of time wishing these Western values were easily transferable to my family. But the truth is they are not. Not in a recognisable way, in any case. As much I still yearn for the kind of boundaries I read about, I’m not even sure I want to instil them in my Eastern European family.

Instead, I have adopted another (also Western) nifty psychological trick. Focusing on what is within my control: my own behaviour and reactions, my own private practice of healthy boundaries. My decisions don’t need to meet my family’s expectations, I don’t need to feel guilty about their feelings and reactions, and similarly, I need to respect their own decisions, however puzzling they may seem to me.

Rather than wishing my family looked into my eyes and became fluent in all the Western behaviours I have acquired, I now (try to) live these values quietly, without preaching about them.

I still get jealous when my friend’s mother is coming to visit and books an Airbnb for herself. Or when my friend’s parents refrain from expressing strong opinions about their choices.

Our family boundaries may look nothing like the dictionary definition. They’re about constant negotiation, reassurance, empathy, and acceptance. And never mentioning the word boundaries.

Our family boundaries may look nothing like the dictionary definition. They’re about constant negotiation, reassurance, empathy, and acceptance. And never mentioning the word boundaries.

The harder boundaries to set are about sovereignty over my own choices, views, opinions. But even then, I pick my boundary battles and give myself time to take all the conflicting cultural aspects in. It’s complicated, no doubt, but I need to give certain interactions the benefit of translation, or else the Babel tower of boundaries tumbles in a mess.

I am well aware that families are very complicated organisms, regardless of the culture, so this gentle approach to boundaries may not work for everyone. It’s only just starting to work for me. But let’s talk at the end of the year, when I will return from seven months living very close to my family again. A family boundaries bootcamp, if you like.

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