The kind of family boundaries I like (for it is a matter of taste, and I can imagine a compatible mother-daughter pair who prefer restrained affection and a moratorium on unpleasant subjects) are designed to foster intimacy and mutual respect, to forgive and recover from the inevitable trespasses, to treasure the good and let go of the bad. (And if there's too much bad, it's time for civility and polite distance, and if there's way too much bad, it's time to find yourself a surrogate mother or daughter.)

There are two kinds of families that work out their boundaries with a minimum of distress: the very healthy and the truly crazy. I aspire to the former, but sometimes when you see those crazy families in which you can hardly tell who's the mother and who's the teenager, in which everyone's tears flow and everyone's artifacts and accomplishments belong to everyone, in which the outside world is a horror and only the chaotic inner world of the family is safe—you know that you are seeing loving ties that bind and hold, even if no one's getting ahead in the mental-health marathon.

Good boundaries don't mean that we never hurt each other's feelings. Nor do they mean that my daughters don't feel free to comment on my appearance ('That's an old-lady jacket'; 'I think the gray has to go') in ways that I don't about theirs; it doesn't mean that I only offer advice when asked (I wish to God I could say that's how it is, but it's not, and my children would laugh themselves sick if I said it was), it doesn't mean that we don't have to cry and rage ('How could you...?'; 'I never meant...'), sorting out and talking through disappointment and hurt and misunderstanding and all of the other warts and bumps of being human. It means that we don't take undue advantage of each other in ways that demean or hurt the other, it means that mothers are not 'owed' anything but decency and their grown daughters do not have to be 'allowed' anything, and it means that one is allowed to keep the most private things private without being accused of withholding, and one is also allowed to share them without repercussions. Good boundaries mean the love is greater than etiquette or obligation but that love requires both—and that the rules for family life come from the heart as well as the head.
Amy Bloom, novelist and essayist, continues to struggle with boundaries like everyone else.

More on Mothers and Daughters

How close is too close? 
One woman's up and down relationship with an overbearing mother
Mothers and daughters share what they've learned from each other


Next Story