*** A message from a COBRA team member to every child, daughter, son, mother, father, friend and otherwise ***
I was 10 years old and it was my first sleepover at someone else’s house. It was my friend from school, and several other classmates were staying over also. We were celebrating my friends birthday and everyone was really excited. But before I left, my mum told me that if I was uncomfortable at any point, for any reason, even if it was in the middle of the night, I could call her. She was very clear. Mum said that even if my friends parents had gone to bed I should knock on the bedroom door and ask to use the phone. I could call her even if it was late. And if my friends parents didn’t answer the door I should just go find the phone and call her anyway. She said it didn’t matter what time it is, I wouldn’t be in trouble and she’d come get me.
I can’t remember why exactly… I think I was being teased about something (it definitely wasn’t just, “I can’t sleep”)… but there was something social going on and that’s exactly what I did: I called my mum to come get me.
My friend’s mum tried to discourage me. She said it was late, I said my mum didn’t care. She said I could sleep on the couch. I said I wanted to go home. She said I was upsetting her daughter, I said her daughter was mean to me. I remember holding the phone and my mum answered. I said, “Hi, mum”. She said, “you want me to come get you?” I said, “yes please”. She said, “ask her mum to help you pack up your things and get your shoes on. I’ll be right there”.
My mum showed up on my friend’s doorstep doorstep in her pyjamas. My friend’s mum kept apologising for me calling. My mum put her hand up and said, “Don’t apologise for my daughter. I want her to know she’s allowed to leave and I’ll be there for her at any time”.
I remember the little crowd of sleepover girls huddled in the doorway that led to the bedrooms, watching all of this confused and silent. And I remember that mum apologising, she just didn’t seem to know what to say after my mum asked her to stop.
I had more incidents like that as I grew up. My mum did a lot around boundaries with me. I remember her marching me down the street to another girls house to ask for an apology in front of her parents. I remember her telling three friends to sit in the front room with their bags packed while they waited for their parents to come get them, after I had told them all to, “get out of my house” for teasing me and bullying me. I remember mum coaching me through what to do and say to resign and leave from a hostile work environment when I was working in the middle of nowhere at a camp for the summer. Mum also offered money to get a cab to pick me and my friends up from the camp after we quit.
I can’t say I’ve always followed my gut on boundaries and discomfort. I can’t say I’ve never swallowed it in order to make others comfortable. But I can say that what my mum taught me was important. It was - and still is - radical.
Its radical to have boundaries. And to exercise them. Three things that were really important in what my mum did that I’d like to share are:
1. She always explicitly said, “you can leave if you want to”
2. She never questioned why or if I was overreacting
3. She showed up
But I think a lot about my friends mum apologising at that sleepover and how that’s the norm, actually. What my mum taught me was radical, what my friends mum was teaching was the norm. “Just deal with it, don’t trouble anyone, go back to sleep, it’ll be over soon, don’t ruin it”. And I still get that message from a lot of places. But my mum taught me that I’m allowed to leave.
I see what a privilege that is as an adult. For some people, for some situations, there is no way out. But sometimes, also, we don’t to leave because we think we’re not allowed.
So, just in case no one ever told you (or you need a reminder), YOU ARE ALLOWED TO LEAVE. You can leave a date, a party, a job, a meeting, a commitment. You are allowed. If you are worried about keeping your word, remember that your boundaries are also your word, your integrity.
I wanted to tell you this story because the message to stay to make others comfortable is so pervasive, that without actively teaching me that I’m allowed to leave, that’s what I would have absorbed. I have still absorbed a lot of it anyway.
As an adult, at that camp job, I remember mum on the phone saying, “what do you want to do?” I did not know, until she said, “do you want to leave?” I said, “can I?” Mum said, “you can always leave. What do you need so you can leave?”
So if you’re a person like me, who was taught that you’re allowed to leave, keep an eye out for those who weren’t. They may need the reminder. They may need to hear that its okay. They may need help. And keep telling yourself that you are allowed. You’re allowed to leave.
While I am obviously a woman and my mother is a woman, there is no gender in this message. There is an understandable and important impulse to teach your daughters this, and I hope that you do. But please also teach ALL children this! When you know that you are allowed to leave, when you exercise that boundary, the idea that others are also allowed to leave comes up. And that’s important.
Boys stay in uncomfortable situations to fit in as well, so they also deserve this lesson. Trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming folks often shrink themselves for the comfort of others around them. They deserve this lesson, too. Everyone is allowed to leave. No one is obliged to be uncomfortable for others’ comfort or enjoyment.
For everyone, everywhere and at all times, please remember you are always allowed to leave ✌🏼