I have an old friend. I’m going to call her “Helen,” which is not her real name. I’m not telling you her age either, but she’s older than most people think she is, and she's a total badass.
She either walks a few miles outside, or goes to the gym, pretty much every day. This year, she hired a personal trainer to make sure she was doing all of her exercises correctly. When I say something about being old, she laughs in my face. It's hilarious.
I like to visit with Helen once in a while.
She's not sitting and waiting around for me. Helen has other things to do, and -- if I'm honest about it -- the visits are more for my benefit than hers. But she humors me and allows them anyway.
Recently, Helen and I somehow got onto the subject of how divorced parents talk about each other, sometimes near their children, not so nicely. To be clear, I'm not talking about a specific client or clients with Helen (seriously, I would never do that.) We were speaking in generalities.
And she said something that stayed with me.
First, a little background. More than three quarters of a century ago, when Helen was about seven years old, Helen’s mother decided to end her marriage with Helen’s father. As Helen tells the story, there was no arguing that she can recall and she doesn't remember anything bad happening. Her parents just separated, and got divorced shortly thereafter.
If you've done some quick math, you've figured out that Helen’s parents divorced in the 1940s.
I don't know anyone else who was divorced in the 1940s. You probably don't either.
So that could not have been an easy choice for Helen’s mother. It definitely was not socially expected or acceptable. Back then, you actually had to explain why you wanted to get divorced, like justify it with some detail.
It sure as shit was not easy. Helen, then seven years old, had siblings. So, there were a bunch of kids for Helen's mother to take care of, like pretty much by herself.
Helen’s parents were not wealthy people. They worked factory jobs and lived a working class lifestyle. Their living spaces were minimalist at best, and rented. Telephones and vehicles were luxuries enjoyed by other families.
In fact, it was a pretty big deal when Helen graduated from high school a decade after her parents divorced, because Helen's parents and siblings didn't even have the chance to finish high school. College was most definitely not even on the table for Helen.
So, when Helen’s parents divorced, the money that was probably stretched pretty tightly to support one household then had to support two households.
I knew Helen’s mother later in her life. She was adorable. Sometimes I think about how hard it must have been for her to leave her marriage, and that thought makes me sad.
But Helen tells me that, back then -- back when Helen was very young -- her mother was a worker. She totally had it covered and likely did not waste a lot of time feeling sad. Helen's mother knew what she needed to do, and then she just did it. (This might explain some of Helen’s current bad-ass-ery.)
It really was that simple -- it wasn't easy, but it was simple.
So Helen and I are talking recently, this subject comes up about divorced parents, how they talk about each other, and Helen says,
"That is one thing I'll always remember. My mother never said one bad word about my father."
"Really??" I asked Helen, "not even once? Not even one little, tiny little, like under-her-breath-so-you-could-barely-hear-it snarky comment?"
"Not one word. Ever." Helen replied.
Seriously? I thought, to myself this time. Wow. I'm not sure my own kids could even say that about me, and I'm still happily married to their father.
Didn't Helen‘s mother have the urge to defend how hard she was working? Or to get just a little bit of validation from her children in exchange for all she did for them? Especially when her children asked for something that the other kids had, and they just weren't going to be able to get?
Probably. I mean, Helen’s mother was a human person with a human brain. It would have been easy -- justified, even -- for her to answer the urge to seek external approval. I don't think anyone would judge her for that.
Now that I'm really thinking about it, it's possible that maybe even one little comment or gesture slipped out. But if that happened, it must have been exceptional.
Because the way Helen remembers it, her mother never said a bad word about her father. Not one word. Ever.
And I'm chatting with Helen, and in my own head thinking, "holy shit. That must have been really freaking hard."
And that inspires me to really think about what I say -- or do not say -- in front of my kids.
I know it's easy to believe right now that parenting is a thankless job, even under the best of circumstances.
I know that it's easy to think that the other parent should be doing more than what they are doing, or that they should be grateful to you -- maybe, even once in a while, say "hey, you're doing a great job."
I know it's easier sometimes to be critical of that other parent in that moment -- even if it's just one little, tiny little, like under-your-breath-so-the-kiddos-can-barely-hear-you snarky comment.
And when you're judging yourself, you will judge others, likely the people closest to you. Then those thoughts turn into words or gestures that send a message to your children, whether you intended it or not -- a message about how you feel about the other parent -- maybe a message that is not so positive.
You won't execute this perfectly, and that's okay. I know I'm not.
I think it's possible that Helen’s mother did not, but that's okay, too. She must have set the bar pretty high because that's the way Helen remembers her.
So I really think it's okay if we screw this up once in a while. We are human people with human brains that will constantly scan for opposition and seek external approval.
We can also, at the same time, set the bar higher and keep reaching for it. We just have to remind ourselves to hit the reset button every once in a while.
Talk to you soon, my friends. Take care until then.