Summers of past years included wild activities like leaving the house. Going places. Flying on planes. Frolicking on beaches in huge crowds, bare faces pointed up at the sun. Or simply walking through the neighborhood enjoying the weather, with no specific agenda, and no rush to get back home. Now back home is all we have.
Those lucky enough to have a backyard, or some other form of private outdoor space, can attempt to recreate all the pleasures of outside, as close to the safety of inside as possible. Apartment dwellers with no such option had to get a bit more creative. If you press your face against an eastward facing window and close your eyes, you can mimic the feel of a summer afternoon spent outdoors. A TV becomes a window. A bathtub becomes a swimming pool, etc. Through all of these edits, there is a hopeful, shared understanding that everyone was making the best of this mess, as best as they could.
But, just like every park has ants, and every beach has hidden mounds of dirty diapers beneath the sand, people WILL find a way to interfere with whatever it is you’re doing. And if what you’re doing is in your yard, and you have neighbors, it’s a pretty unavoidable scenario.
Before I attempt to help out with the boundary pushing neighbors in your life in what is now, wholeheartedly, HOT PROBS #4, I just want to put this here: If there’s something you’re grappling with, that you’d like to have me chime in on, you can ask me a question here.
Don’t worry, it’s 100 percent anonymous, and there’s no question, big or small, that I’ll look down on. And maybe I’ll help you, or maybe I’ll just give you that laugh you needed to get through the rest of the day.
The Hot Prob:
I’m a recovering pathological people-pleaser, and we’ve recently moved in next to a sweet lonely middle-aged woman with no boundaries. Near enough every time we go out into the garden with our daughter, she appears at the fence and will stand and talk to us pretty much indefinitely — until either we go inside, or her phone or doorbell rings so she has no option but to leave.
She also keeps giving us toys for our daughter, cakes and sweets, etc. She’s also suggested several times that she look after our daughter so we can have a break, which is kind but completely out of the question as we barely know her. It’s just A LOT and I don’t know how to assert some boundaries in a way that won’t hurt her feelings and/or cause animosity, which wouldn’t be ideal as she lives right next door. Very grateful for any ideas!
I am not personally hardwired to be the type of person that anyone would see as a “people-pleaser,” such as yourself, but I can still very much relate to your issue here. About 6 years ago my wife and I relocated from Brooklyn to New Orleans, and had to get used to a new way of neighborly living pretty quick. In the 6 years I lived in Brooklyn, I never learned a single neighbors name, and my only interaction with any of them was to try and figure out which one was stealing my mail.
When we moved to New Orleans, we met our neighbor, an elderly woman named Miss Jerry, who before the Uhaul was even emptied, gave us a full understanding of her complete biography before dinnertime. Exchanging pleasantries while coming in and out of the house is one thing, but when she started knocking on the door to offer us items of past-their-prime produce from her refrigerator, we had to think up the politest way possible to drive home: “Lady, we really don’t want your old lettuce, okay, we’re in here trying to live our lives.”
As the months progressed, Miss Jerry would do things like scream our names from the backyard until one of us came out to retrieve our mis-delivered mail. Whenever I went out back to sit quietly with my thoughts while having a cigarette, she’d ignore my given body language clues that I wanted to be alone and ramble on about whatever came to mind, which was usually something having to do with talk radio.
We got into the habit of looking outside to see if she was anywhere around before we went out, in an effort to avoid her, and joked with each other about “getting caught” if we overheard one or the other of us getting roped into a lengthy conversation.
It went on like this until one morning when she knocked on the door and told us that she was selling her house and moving away to be closer to her family. And then she was gone.
Now when I think of Miss Jerry, I’m not so much reminded of all the times she inserted herself into our lives, but all the times we might have made her feel not welcome for doing so.
Before you start wringing your hands thinking “I’m NOT a people pleaser after all! I’m an old lady hating MONSTER!” Let me say that while I do feel as though (and I honestly can’t even believe I’m saying this) that it’s important to make time for people who genuinely need time from others, it’s also super damn important to enforce, respect, and maintain boundaries.
Everyone should be able to feel comfortable in and around their home, especially now, when home is the beginning and end of our recreational space.
In your case, your neighbor just might not know what your boundaries are, or that she’s crossed them at all. To me, she sounds lonely, so it’s very nice that you’ve indulged her with your time, and your child, as much as you have. You’ve done a good thing there. To even things out a bit, and make these scenarios a bit less of an emotional drain for your family, I would suggest being up front with this lady the next time she’s chatting your ears off while you’re having family time in the yard.
We, as a society, have been so inundated with the belief that we’re somehow “rude” or “mean” for asking for what we want or need, that we’d put up with almost anything to avoid being seen that way. Your neighbor has no problem with taking what she wants and needs, which, in this case, is your time, so you in turn shouldn’t feel any kind of way about asking for what you need, which is to be left the hell alone.
Really though, try out something small and fairly painless like “I’d love to talk more about this, Gladys [or whatever her name is] but I need to get back to my day now.”
I bet she’ll be understanding, and give you some space, and if she doesn’t, well, then maybe just tune her out and go about your business while she peers through the fence like a caged bird. It’ll feel completely unhinged, but it’s still well within your right to do.
No one should be allowed to steamroll your day, or take away from your time outside. Having these moments to yourself, or with your family, is good for your general mental health, and preserving them is more important than being polite, or seeming nice.
Kelly McClure is a writer who has written for NY Magazine, GQ, The Hairpin, Rolling Stone, and more. Find more of her work here.