Thursday, April 18, 2024

Carolyn Hax: When do parents tell their children about Grandma’s side room?

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Dear Carolyne: My mother-in-law is having an affair. She is still married to my father-in-law but goes away for a week at a time about every two months with her current boyfriend.

My children, 3 years and 5 months, see her often. When she is away, they ask questions about her. They always say Nana is out of town. I won’t lie for her (“Nana is sick”, etc.) — I was lied to growing up, and it broke me when I realized the truth about my parents. But I also don’t want to over-disclose things that aren’t really age-appropriate. I want them to be close to their grandparents – and my husband wants them to be close to his parents. How/when should I start fixing this?!

Nana is not in town: To quote a classic cartoon: How about never – is he ever good for you?

I don’t see when it becomes anyone else’s business that two people have what seems to me to be an open marriage. Grandparents are also sexually autonomous people. It’s between Nana and Pop-Pop, and others they choose to include.

The end. That’s all the answer to your specific question. But your question raises other questions.

Because either you have an extremely precocious 5-month-old there – already asking where Nana is! – or you are extremely premature in worrying about what your dear children will think about something they may never have reason to know.

Or are you projecting your discomfort onto the children because you feel better with an approach that protects the innocent?

Whatever your motivation, I am now motivated to write about the responsibility of parents to teach children what is and is not their business.

People can certainly say why they don’t come, if they want to – “I sniffle, otherwise I’d like to see you” – but they are not accountable to us and have no need to explain or even apologize unless they hold us accountable. I am really sorry. “Alas, not today.” This is a complete and acceptable release.

SO. I understand you have a neat dodge when Nana is out of town. But when Nana is simply absent, not absent, there is no need for explanatory alarm; you don’t need to find another truthful explanation to cover it. “Nana has other plans today”, “Nana is busy”, “Nana couldn’t be there.” That’s enough whether she does things you find objectionable, does things you don’t find objectionable, or arranges her socks alphabetically.

If your children ask for more information as they get older, then respond by modeling boundaries: “I miss Nana today too, but we don’t need to know why someone isn’t coming.” Let’s respect people’s privacy. Normalize this through repetition – applied to everyone, not just Nana.

Either way, it’s a good thing for parents to prepare for, if only so you and your husband can clarify your approaches before your one-day-old teens invite you for multiple cycles privacy, secrecy or no, it’s not okay to sneak around. -talk-around-and-lied-to-my-face-(even-though-I-did-that-to-my-parents).

And while we’re here: your children’s education on how to be part of a loving, trusting relationship is already well underway – even the baby’s this time. That’s why it’s wise to pay attention to what you show them. However, it will be especially helpful if your children notice that the adults in their circle are experiencing more than one of the many variations on the theme of trust. Always remember honesty – tempered with tact, respect, intimacy, a need to know, and lots of deep, cleansing breaths – and everything will more or less work out.

(It’s a Bob Mankoff cartoon.)

Dear Carolyne: I left an abusive marriage two years ago and I don’t want to date anyone. My children have started making comments and expressing pity about my loneliness, but I don’t know how or even if I want to do anything about it. Should I force myself to go back there or enjoy the peace of being alone?

Anonymous: Oh, no, no forced pairing. One day of an abusive marriage is enough for a lifetime. More … than.

Solitude, however, is not a good alternative; I’m with your children there. So I hope that you will work on a friendship network. And/or a network of interests, goals, fulfillment, common senses. Build relationships without dating them – when you’re ready and for as long as you need. Only date someone when there is no doubt about what you want.

It takes time, effort and thought to build good relationships, and even more time. Additionally, a willingness to pay close attention to your own feelings when spending time with new people, so you can determine if they are healthy for you. You’ll know they are when you feel safe around them – that is, without fear of triggering them.

This is how you (re)build self-confidence after abuse – that and solo therapy, when possible.

When you are confident, you can: 1. Differentiate between healthy and unhealthy attachments. 2. Walk away when someone’s company leaves you feeling worse about yourself. 3. Dealing with a painful breakup is peace. The peace of solitude And the peace of trustworthy friends.

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