Lynn Beisner didn’t mean to teach her two kids that the only way to find security was in a relationship.
The great thing about having adult children is that you not only get to worry about how you’re screwing them up now, but you also have front row seats to watch the results of how you screwed them up when they were younger.
My son just went through a bad break up. As I listened to him talk about what went wrong in the relationship, I discovered that the lessons he had taken from my marriage had given him completely unrealistic expectations about what is “normal.” I also realized that both of my children had developed an unhealthy need to be in a committed relationship based on what they saw of my relationship with my husband.
Here is how my children see our family’s history: Their biological dad and I broke up when they were so young neither of them has a clear memory of us being together. They remember the years that followed as chaotic hell. I had a serious accident, and was struggling to recover. Doing even the simplest things was exhausting and overwhelming. To add to the problems, I was impoverished and had very few marketable skills. Their father had joined a polyamorous family and used people in that family as childcare so that he could continue his program of non-involved parenting. The only place they got their emotional needs met was with me, but I found that the daily business of parenting strained my limited physical resources to the breaking point.
Everything changed when Pete came into our lives. He brought enough financial stability that I could focus on the children and then go back to college for an education. When we married, I got medical insurance that allowed me to finish rehabilitation for the injuries related to my accident. I went from functionally disabled to relatively able-bodied. He introduced stability into our environment just by carrying part of the load of parenting two young children.
We tried to disabuse the kids of the idea that Pete had “rescued” me. In support of this effort, Pete told them what his life was like before we came into it. He describes it as sterile and monastic. He says that his world was like a black and white movie and we introduced technicolor.
We also emphasized to our kids how we continue to balance each other out. He is the plodding stability to my writer craziness. I bring spontaneity and joy into his otherwise dull life. We thought we would defuse the “fairy tale” bomb by being clear how mutual and equal our need for and love for each other is.
We tried to emphasize that relationships are work. Our marriage has had all the ups and downs that most marriages have. We have had spells where we were probably one serious fight away from splitting. And we would usually tell our kids about the tough spells (mostly after the fact, to keep them from worrying). But for the most part, we have been each other’s best friends and true partners.
At some point, our relationship became the stuff of legend. I think that it was because in the small southern town where we ended up raising our children, we were quite the oddity. To hear our children and their friends tell it, we were the only happily married people for miles. I am not being hyperbolic when I say that kids would come over to our house just to see how parents who liked each other behaved. At times, it felt we were an exhibit at the zoo: “Happily Married Couple, thought to be extinct. See them in their native habitat.”
What neither of us realized is that we were giving our children the wrong message, and it is one that unfortunately our culture is more than happy to reinforce. Inadvertently, we taught them that they need a committed monogamous relationship in order to feel safe and secure. The world is a terrifying place for them if they are not in such a relationship.
The result is that, six months ago, my daughter, at the age of 22 married Christopher, the exceptional young man that she had been dating for three years. (No, she is not nor has she been pregnant.) And my son is looking for the same thing at 20. Not surprisingly, he is having difficulty finding it.
I never, in my wildest dreams, thought that my feminist daughter would marry at such a young age. But what we did not anticipate is that our children would be convinced by what they saw in us that the only way to find stability is in a committed monogamous relationship. They associate all that is good with our love, and all that is bad with my being single and their father’s polyamory. We never encouraged them to see the world this way, they drew their own conclusions based on their rather limited observations.
I suppose that there are worse ways I could have screwed up my children. But in truth, I consider this a pretty big screw up. While I love the young man my daughter married, and am truly glad that they have each other, I am sad that my kids seem determined not to spend their youth exploring their world. It grieves me to see them forfeiting some of the great privileges of youth: freedom and nearly unlimited options.
If I had it to do over again, I would have done more to meet and get to know people who are single by choice who lead full lives with or without children. I would have introduced them to my friend Linda who travels the world with the Peace Corp. I would have encouraged them to spend time with Elizabeth who chose a sperm donor and is raising a son very competently on her own. I would have asked if my single friends were willing to spend time around my children rather than relegating them to “girls night out.” I would have been clear that the problems they experienced with their bio-dad were not because he was in a polyamorous relationship, and that while such a relationship does not work for me, it often does for other people. I would have examined my attitudes and what I communicated to be sure that I was not sending messages of judgment based on a person’s relationship status or even on how healthy their marriage looks to outsiders.
Above all, I wish I would have told them and shown them that there is no such thing as a “safe zone.” Love, like life, is full of risks. I wish that I had given them more examples of people taking those risks, struggling, and yet living a rewarding life on their own terms. Instead, they spent their childhood watching a parade of countless people slogging and sobbing through lives that they defined as “ruined” by bad relationships.
Perhaps the greatest gift and irony of parenting is that we can never guarantee how our children will turn out. We can raise them in a sex-positive home with a condom cookie jar and a mom who is OK with them losing their virginity in a three-way, and they can wind up living very conservative lives. But there is one thing that I have learned from this: What matters isn’t what we say as much as what we model. The moral that they take from the life stories of people around them are more formative than the morals that we try to teach.