Mending Wall is the title of one of my favorite poems by Robert Frost. (scroll down for full verse) There are two seemingly contradictory lines in it that I love. The first: “Good fences make good neighbors,” which means when we stay on our side of the fence, we’re being a good neighbor, and the second line (which is also mentioned, in part, at the beginning): “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall — that wants it down.” The title itself can be read two ways: Mending (or fixing) a wall or that walls can mend (heal).

This paradox is evident in all of our lives, but especially in the lives of women. It’s a continual balancing act — the desire for intimacy vs. the need for boundaries. As girls, we’re raised to value relationships and to value intimacy in those relationships. When we open ourselves to intimacy without boundaries, we make ourselves vulnerable, which opens us to hurt, which causes us to erect walls, which because we value intimacy makes us want to tear down. How exhausting!!

I know that in all my important relationships I have sometimes been unclear about where I end and others begin. For example, in the case of my mother, who died from cancer at her age 46 and my age 21, I carried her in my head for years, her opinions becoming mine. In the case of my daughters, if I was cold, I made them wear a sweater (literally and metaphorically). Keep this up, and before long, you feel responsible for the whole world and only too willing to shoulder the blame when something or someone is not working.

So, how to balance the need for intimacy and still maintain boundaries. Again, Frost said it better — “Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.”

Instead of walls, Brene Brown, the psychologist, prefers the term “boundaries.” She defines boundaries as “what’s ok and what’s not ok,” and feels that people who have very clear boundaries are free to be loving, compassionate and empathetic, whereas those who don’t have clear boundaries are more likely to feel put upon, critical and judgmental.” Take a moment to watch her explanation.

After you’re finished, think about the boundaries in your life and whether they need to be adjusted. Perhaps it’s time to mend your wall.

Mending Wall by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The work of hunters is another thing:

I have come after them and made repair

Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

We have to use a spell to make them balance:

“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,

One on a side. It comes to little more:

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,

But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather

He said it for himself. I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

He will not go behind his father’s saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”