Last Sunday, I was very excited. Will, my husband, was turning a bunch of overripe bananas into banana fritters. Our whole family had loved them the last time he made them. When the first batch was ready to eat, our five-year-old daughter and I were seated and ready to enjoy.
I was inhaling the fragrance of the hot fritter on the little plate in front of me when I heard a declaration from my left. “I only want the insides.”
“What,” I said flatly, rhetorically. She rephrased her request, “I don’t want the crust.”
I became aware that I was fighting to suppress a strong reaction. “But. It’s a fritter,” I stated the obvious. “It’s a little round doughnut.”
I wasn’t explaining myself very well. I was trying to convey that, in my albeit limited experience of fritters, the fritter is by design a ball of crust. The crust is a defining attribute of a fritter.
Then came a torrent of unhelpful thoughts, such as, how can I have raised one of those children who don’t eat crusts, and how can she not appreciate the joy of this whole, hot, fresh fritter, and how am I supposed to excise the interior from the exterior, and why would I even do that, and doesn’t she know that the inside isn’t GOOD without the crust?! And also, STAY CALM.
I became aware that she had hopped off her stool to fetch a steak knife. Now she was back and sawing ineffectually at the top of the round fritter on her plate with one hand. I foresaw it flying off, leaving marks of oil everywhere. I grabbed the knife and performed a very wrathful dissection. So much for “stay calm.” I wanted to pitch a fritter across the room. “So you don’t like banana fritters,” I said, meanly. “That’s what you’re saying. Why don’t you just not eat it.”
Needless to say, she started crying—as she nevertheless ate the soft fritter insides, while I hoarded the crusty fritter outsides—and I immediately felt like the most terrible parent in the world.
Halfway through my second fritter: “I’m sorry.”
She seemed to accept my apology and started breaking off little crispy peaks of crust from all the new fritters that had materialized on the serving plate. I felt both vindicated and completely exasperated. A-ha, I thought, now you remember that you LIKE the crusts!
“I don’t know why I got so angry,” I said to Will later, after she’d had her fill of fritters and gone off to play. He had been only a few feet away, frying fritters at the stove, and he was frying the last batch now. “Yeah, it was kind of funny to see you getting hooked,” he said. I frowned. “It was just such an annoying request.” I paused here, in case any validation was forthcoming, then sighed. “But if I had been in a different mood, maybe I would have said, ‘Sure, I love the crusts anyway, so, win-win!’”
He shrugged, “I guess she just wants banana bread.”
For some reason, the Banana Fritter Incident had me considering anew my relationship to anger and—given that anger can be a signal that one’s boundaries have been crossed—boundaries. Why does it feel so hard sometimes to know where or what my boundaries are?
For me, it’s less an issue with Big Boundaries, which feel more clearly delineated by personal values and some hard-won accumulation of self-knowledge. Those seem more akin to the stark outline of a continent on a map. What’s harder to discern are the fainter, more porous boundaries. The ones that are apt to change and contort themselves. The ones that feel in constant motion and under constant, internal gerrymandering.
And what makes it so hard is that, as coaching colleague Suzanne Weller points out here, the person I am constantly negotiating these more challenging boundaries with is myself (recognizing that my “self” includes everything I’ve internalized to date from external influences).
In my parental role alone, I feel exquisite pressure over the course of one week (or maybe one rough Saturday morning) to say yes. To say no. To be flexible. To go with the flow. To take a stand. To take it easy. To perfect something. To shake imperfection off. To be a more loving parent. To model being my own person. To prize a moment. To pretend it didn’t happen. To persist. To take a break. To avoid conflict. To avoid a child’s tantrum. To welcome a tantrum as an emotional release. To avoid the work of communicating a boundary. To avoid the discomfort associated with having a boundary in the first place. Above all, to STAY CALM, i.e., to stay regulated and be a “good” parent who can help my children co-regulate.
If my boundaries are constantly being tested and re-negotiated under all these pressures, how do I define them? If I can’t define them, how do I possibly protect, let alone communicate, them?
In this tenuous space, my clients are good company. They wonder where their boundaries are, too, when life seems intent on breaching them.
Perhaps we should stop pretending that we can define ourselves with so much precision: that if we hibernate long enough with our own selves, we’ll be able to draw in all our lines and map all our boundaries, thick and thin. In Sharpie. And, moreover, that we’ll be able to share a detailed map that is navigable by others. That sounds like unending, exhausting, impossible work.
Moment by moment, word by word, fritter by fritter—the world changes us as we live in it. Our mountains erode. The sea level rises. A river changes course slightly here. A little earthquake rumbles there. A drought ends over there. A storm passes through.
Let’s keep exploring, with compassion, without expectation or judgment. Let’s see clearly what is (here, anger can be a refreshing lens), take note, take a break—and then let’s see what happens. Trust that, one day, when you look back, you’ll have witnessed your own, remarkable transformation.
P.S. When all else fails, maybe ask yourself whether you should stop trying to make the banana fritter work for you. Maybe, you just want banana bread.
P.P.S. Or maybe the real lesson is, if you want banana bread and you have only a banana fritter, don’t let someone else tell you you can’t make it work.