by Vicki Larson
It had been a rough week, and faced with cooking the last meal of the week for my kids before I shipped them off to their dad’s for a week, I decided to treat them — or was it me? — to dinner out.
They happily agreed.
The only condition was that we walk the mile to our local sushi spot; when you’re the one paying, you can throw your weight around that way. It wasn’t so much to get some exercise for the dog and me — although, granted, we need it —but to have an extra 15 minutes with my boys to talk.
This is how you communicate with boys: you do an activity with them — the sweatier the better — that keeps you from having to actually look them in the face while you talk to them. Sitting around the table at a Japanese restaurant just isn’t going to cut it. That’s custom-made for daughters, not sons.
As we made our way past the familiar houses along our regular route downtown, I asked them how their day went and was delighted when one of my sons asked me how I was doing. Honestly, I wasn’t doing all that great. And then came the verbal diarrhea; work stresses, my parents’ ailing health, my own faltering health, the bills that needed to paid, the domino effect of things around the house that were falling apart, not to mention the new tires and brakes my car desperately needed — no disaster or anxiety was spared.
“Uh, Mom,” my oldest son, who’s almost 20, said. “I don’t think you should be talking about this with your kids. Shouldn’t you be telling this to your boyfriend?”
My boyfriend? He knows a little about my daily stresses, but I certainly don’t want to dump all THAT on him; it’s not really very sexy.
So I was a bit taken aback. Now that I am a divorcee and no longer have an unconditionally loving partner at home — if I ever had one, that is — who can I verbally dump on?
Obviously, not my kids.
But my son’s right. Kids shouldn’t be a parent’s confidante, but so many of us turn them into one anyway. Especially mothers. Especially divorced mothers.
Not because we want to. Typically, we look to other adults in whom to confide, often a spouse. When that spouse is gone, it’s slim pickings.
There are other adults, obviously, like your friends. But friends will only indulge you for so long — no one wants to be around a downer, especially once you’re past the appropriate mourning time for a divorce or breakup. I’m sure someone somewhere has come out with an equation for that depending on how long the couple was together, but math hasn’t been my strongest subject since I was the only one to ace the 10th-grade math midterm.
There are co-workers, but you don’t want to tell them too much of your personal stuff; you can only count on them if you have a mutual dumpee, say, the Supervisor From Hell or another co-worker who spends more time updating her Facebook status or texting her new flame than doing her job.
Of course, your parents will always be happy to listen to you, but then they’ll want to give you advice, too, which if you’re like me you’ve most likely been trying to avoid following all your life.
And then there are the kids.
It’s a tough spot to put your kids in, even if it’s perhaps an understandable one. You don’t want to paint an inaccurate picture of the real world, which is often messy and painful and filled with too many unhealthy things we try to substitute for the healthy ones. But how much of your problems should you share?
Not too much, experts say.
First, they have their own problems to sort out, and with not a lot of life experiences to guide them. They can barely handle algebra, zits and that cutie they’d like to ask to the next dance, let alone your silly issues.
And in these troubling economic times, more of us have more issues than ever before. It’s OK to talk in general terms, psychiatrists say, but we shouldn’t get into all the dirty details of our personal drama. Sharing TMI with our kids just because we naively believe they “get it” is a “recipe for systemic disaster,” or so says child psychologist Benjamin D. Garber, one of many researchers exploring "emotional parentification" — in other words, parents who expect kids to meet their emotional needs whether as a confidante, mediator or family decision maker.
Now I “get it.”
So when I came home recently, tired, frustrated and needing to verbally unload, no one was around but the dog, a rescue mutt who — unlike my teens — is always happy to see me. I plopped myself down next to her on the floor and started telling her my woes.
She immediately rolled over on her back, a not-so-hidden indication that it was time for me to rub her belly.
It wasn’t quite what my son told me — TMI, Mom! — nor was it quite what I wanted. But it did make me feel better.