Reality Mom: Don't ask, don't tell
My parents are the opposite of helicopter parents. On a high school trip to a foreign country, all of the students lined up at the hotel’s only pay phone while I read a book.
“Don’t you need to call your parents?” a friend asked.
“No, I replied. “My mom says ‘no news is good news.’ I think it would worry her if I called.”
Without ever explicitly stating them, because that would involve talking, our family has several untouchable topics. The most recent one is my divorce. For two years, I have circumnavigated conversations around any area of my life that is “post-divorce.” Kids and work are always safe topics. I can even talk about my ex, who my parents still see regularly, as long as it’s not connected to the “D” word.
I knew I was reliving my adolescence when I first separated from my husband. Having terrorized my parents the first time around, I thought it was only fair that I spared them the second time. I’d occasionally dare a “ha-ha” dating story, but never mentioned the man’s name or insinuated at an actual relationship with him. “He” remained nebulous and the point of the story was usually “obviously that didn’t work out.”
My assumption was they would ask if they wanted to know and they’re assumption was probably that I would offer information when I was ready. I had very clear “no mixing” rules between the men I was dating and my children, so tried to view my parent’s “don’t ask don’t tell” tactic as a mere extension of my “no mixing” rule. But actually meeting someone is a world of difference from the mere mention of any reference to a social life and at times I felt as if I was trapped in the longest game of Taboo ever. Or as if I was living in New York, but not allowed to ever mention “the World Trade Centers, terrorists, 9/11, Iraq, Bush, oil, Osama Bin Laden,” or any other word related to the Middle East.
My parents were far more adept at not asking than I was at not telling. They proved their veteran status when I asked them to watch my kids for me for a few days while I was in Puerto Rico. You would think I jet set around the world on a frequent basis, rather than the truth, which is I rarely leave Ballard, by their no questions response. Not even a “who are you going with?” or “when will you be back?” They were completely unbreakable.
With my recent plans to go back east, they remained their tight-lipped selves. Trying to get to an island off of the coast of North Carolina with my children and then up to Philadelphia to see my ailing grandmother was proving to be more complicated than a trip to Timbuktu. To further complicate (or perhaps actually simplify, I couldn’t tell) matters, my boyfriend was going to visit his parents in Philadelphia at the same time. With yet another version of my plan, I called my parents to fill them in.
“Hey Dad. So, I think I’m actually going to fly to Philadelphia rather than drive.”
In a rare moment of opinion inserting, my father said, “You don’t want to do that kid because you’ll have to rent a car and …”
“Actually, I have a …. (search for right word here) friend who could pick me up and take me to grandmas.”
“Oh, OK.” Veteran father responded with no further questions.
“But if I do that,” I continued. “I’d probably stay in Philadelphia for two nights rather than one, are you ok to watch the kids for that long?”
“Sure, no problem.”
Just as he was hanging up the phone, I broke our code of silence by blurting, “It’s not a friend Dad, it’s my boyfriend and I’d stay another night to meet his parents.”
I breathed a huge sigh of relief as my friend Dave’s coming out story came to mind. I couldn’t remember if he used a “breaking down the wall” metaphor or “the veil was lifted,” I knew it had nothing to do with a closet, that would have been too cliche. I let go of the forgotten metaphor and recalled the point of his story, which was about the relief he felt to finally be able to speak about his private life. I prepared myself to answer several questions and looked forward to sharing a part of myself that I had kept hidden from my parents.
But rather than inquiring about my plans or romantic life, my father said, “No shit kid? I’ll have to hear about that some time, but I’m off to a planning meeting, bye”
The wall certainly didn’t crumble, but I do believe a tiny fissure was created. And if I have it in me, I may be able to shake it again to see what comes loose.
Corbin Lewars is the author of Creating a Life: The memoir of a writer and mom in the making, which was nominated for the 2011 PNBA and Washington State book awards. Her essays have been featured in over twenty-five publications including Mothering and Hip Mama. She has been a writing coach and instructor for over fifteen years and currently sees clients in the old Carnegie Library Building in Ballard. Contact her for details.