I think a lot about the topics of safety and agency in the body. It's central to how I work with clients and how I explore what's going on in my own body.
How can I create more safety to invite in a new experiences?
Where do I have power to effect change?
Especially as I approach birthing this second child, both of these ideas have come front and center.
But birthing isn't what I want to write about.
Today, I had an encounter that reminded me that our experiences of safety and agency are often being overridden by those around us and how that experience begins at a very young age.
My family headed out for a hike today and, as we got out of the car in the parking area, a woman was finishing her hike with five dogs, who were all off-leash and began wandering throughout the area. We made some friendly small talk as my six-year old son jumped up into my arms to get away from the large dog who was coming toward us both. After a moment, the dog moved on and I put my son down and headed toward the trailhead.
The dog-owner made some comment about how we wouldn't want to raise a child to be scared of dogs and then moments later, another kid-height dog came trotting over. My son, freaked out, began clambering up my body and I picked him up again.
(Now, I want to interject here. I don't know why my son is so scared of dogs at the moment. He had some rough experiences as a toddler, but has generally been pretty enthusiastic for the last couple of years. This morning is the second time in the last week that I've noticed a renewed fear.)
As I worked to get my kid settled around my giant, pregnant belly, the woman hollered over, "She just wants to be pet!"
I replied firmly, "But my son doesn't want to pet her."
To which she said, sarcastically, as she came to leash to the dog, "Oh yes, m'lady. Yes, m'lord. Of course." Adding, "New Mexico isn't what it used to be."
As we walked away, I found myself drawing parallels to this experience and ones I've experienced throughout my life and ones that I see all around me. Here's what I saw happening:
1. This woman believed that her beliefs about what should happen to my son's body were more important than his (or mine).
2. She refused to read the non-verbal signals that were forms of clear communication.
3. She was unwilling to alleviate the apparent discomfort (of my son or of me) by calling or leashing her dogs.
4. When the boundary was firmly stated, she took offense and ridiculed the boundary and the person stating it.
This way of being isn't all that uncommon, although it's often hidden in language or with a tone that is less direct and can therefore be more confusing. I have found that women, especially, are expected to change their boundaries in order to please others. This is why there's the #metoo epidemic and a crisis of care for women in medical environments. Not only does "no" apparently not mean no, but communicating one's "no" doesn't always equal an honored boundary and, quite often, becomes a source of ridicule or worse. Just as often, because of decades of exposure to this sort of dynamic, women hear, "She just wants to be pet," and get confused about the fact that they don't actually want to do any petting.
I don't know what works for you in your body. Maybe you need to avoid large dogs. Maybe you need to sit with your back to a wall and not have it exposed to the room. Maybe you can't be kissed in a certain spot. Maybe you don't want to have a vaginal exam while you're in labor. Maybe you're not actually willing to do that hip or heart opening exercise in yoga class. Maybe you don't want to have that medical test done. Maybe walking at night by yourself isn't an option for you.
What if you were to honor that boundary, despite what the lady at the trailhead says?
As previously stated, I'm not sure what's going on with my son and dogs. My husband and I will work with him, perhaps play some games where we pretend to be dogs, see if we can help him find some safety in the midst of our canine friends.
But you can sure as hell bet that I won't be reinforcing his experience of non-safety and powerlessness by making him engage with dogs just because a stranger thinks he should. Just because ANYONE thinks he should. If he wants to clamber up my body and I have arms to hold him, then he'll have a safe spot right next to my heart.
You, too, okay?
See what you can do to create safety and agency RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE by noticing and honoring your boundaries, even if they don't make sense to you, even if they don't fit your idea of yourself, even if there's push-back from others. When that "no" rises up inside you, it's really, really important to listen. You can work through your fears, your old stuff, your traumas and maybe that will change what you're willing to do with and in your body. If it doesn't, that's okay.
I trust you. You can, too.