HALP!

I Learned About My Married Daughter's Boyfriend Over Christmas Dinner

What do I do now?

by Penelope
Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock

Welcome to Ask A MWLTF (yes, that’s Mother Who Likes to F*ck), a new, monthly anonymous advice column from Scary Mommy. Here we’ll dissect all your burning questions about motherhood, sex, romance, intimacy, and friendship, with the help of our columnist, Penelope, a writer and mental health practitioner in training. She’ll dish out her most sound advice for parents on the delicate dance of raising kids without sacrificing other important relationships. Submit questions here, and keep an eye on our Instagram stories for ways to ask questions, too.

Dear Penelope,

I generally think of myself as an open-minded person. I’m a 68-year-old mother of two, a retired social worker, a lifelong supporter of the arts, and a strong believer in the old maxim, live and let live. People have to find the path that’s right for them, and who is anyone else to judge? These are my beliefs. And yet, last Christmas, I found myself accused of intolerance by none other than my own daughter, a 36-year-old poet, editor, and mother of two. My daughter is a fiercely independent, strong-minded woman. Honestly, it came as a surprise to me when she married her graduate school sweetheart at the age of 24 (why not take your time, see what’s out there, I wondered), but the man she’d found was darling and they seemed deeply in love. Off they went.

Fast-forward to last Christmas. It was the first holiday the whole family was able to spend together since Covid. My husband and I hosted. I spent the better part of the week decorating the house for our multi-generational, secular holiday dinner, planning a menu, taking into account everyone’s dietary preferences and restrictions. All in all, I was hosting about fifteen guests, including my daughter and her family, my son and his partner, my elderly mother-in-law, some close friends, and so on. Everything was perfect as we sat all sat around the table and began serving ourselves. Then, out of the hush rang my 10-year-old granddaughter’s self-assured voice: “My mommy has a boyfriend,” she announced to the table. She was sitting between her mother and father, my daughter and son-in-law, and spoke these words just as plainly as if she were announcing that Santa was bringing her a puppy. I expected my daughter to chide her or ask where she would have gotten such an idea or maybe laugh and make a reference to something she’d seen on one of those apps. But instead she just whispered something gently in my granddaughter’s ear, cast a glance in my son-in-law’s direction, and then they all went on eating as though nothing had transpired. I was mortified.

As I’m sure you can guess, I felt I had no choice but to confront my daughter about the display later that evening, after the other guests had left. She confirmed my worst fears. Both she and my son-in-law were seeing other people and had been for some time. She said they both still cared about each other and had a strong bond, but the bond was not romantic and hadn’t been for some time. They had no plans of divorcing or even separating, but intended to continue on as they were. And furthermore, and here is the part that astounds me, they’d decided not to hide this arrangement from their children. Their children (my grandchildren) had even met their parents’ significant others. We were standing by the sink when she told me this, and I’m not proud to say that I turned off the faucet and and gave her a look that contained both bewilderment and disgust. Then I simply walked upstairs and didn’t call her for several months. We haven’t spoken about the subject since.

Now, it’s Christmas again, a time for family, happiness, and joy. Once again we will sit around the table and god knows what announcements my granddaughter will make. In the year that has passed, I’ve had time to reflect on my strong reaction last year, and while I still believe my feelings are justified, I regret that I wasn’t able to find a better way to express them. What troubles me, I now realize, is not really what my daughter and son-in-law are doing (or not doing) in the bedroom, or whatever arrangement they’ve come to. I know as well as anyone that marriage can be complicated and difficult, not always the picnic we pretend it to be. What bothered me, and what continues to eat away at me, is not her behavior but her brazenness, her shameless-ness, and most of all, the fact that she would expose her children to all this, confusing them, submerging them in this chaos rather than maintaining appropriate boundaries and practicing discretion. After all, isn’t a mother’s job to protect her children from the messier, uglier parts of life whenever possible, to preserve their innocence and their feeling of safety and security? Isn’t this a mother’s calling, even when to do so she must sacrifice her own emotional, sexual, or romantic fulfillment? That’s certainly the kind of mother I always tried to be. Am I wrong to expect the same from my daughter? And how do I navigate our relationship now that she’s made it clear I cannot?

Dear Open-Minded,

Let me begin with this pearl of wisdom tucked into the conclusion of your letter. You write, “I know as well as anyone that marriage can be complicated and painful, not always the picnic we pretend it to be.” I doubt truer words have ever been spoken on the subject. Certainly anyone who’s ever spent more than a dozen years living with or raising children with the person they’ve promised to love and honor for eternity knows as much. It reminds me of the answer Mae West gave to a reporter who asked why she hadn’t wed. “Marriage is a fine institution,” she said. "But I’m not ready for an institution.” If only we all had such self-awareness. I was recently talking to another therapist who began her career as an ordained minister. People were always asking her to marry them, but eventually she started turning them down because she couldn’t stand listening to all the grandiose vows — the self-delusion and hubris of people promising to love the other more each day, every day, until they drew their last breath, yada, yada. My friend found herself wishing couples would inject a bit of humility into their high hopes — something more like, “I love you. I’m feeling pretty good about this today. Let’s see how things go.”

I can’t say I’m surprised she found a different line of work. The fact is, whether you’re 10 or 70, married or not, it can be scary and painful to face the fact that sometimes love ends, and if it doesn’t end, it almost always changes, sometimes in conventional ways (we don’t have much sex anymore but we sure love bowling night), sometimes in ways that remain taboo. Your letter suggests you understand all this, but feel it is a mother’s duty to protect her children from the messy truth, to maintain appearances for the sake of the children, which your daughter hasn’t done. It’s a natural, understandable inclination, and I would be all for it except for the fact that I think it often doesn’t work.

Take the example of another woman I know, probably close to your daughter’s age, a mother of two who was recently going through a divorce. She was finding the process emotionally wrenching but was determined to put on a brave face for her kids in order to protect them. There were moments throughout the day when a strong feeling of sadness and loss would wash over her with a force almost strong enough to knock her off her feet. She wouldn’t fall, but she’d quietly, spontaneously tear up. Whenever her daughter noticed her mother’s tears, the woman would say, “Don’t worry, honey. It’s just my allergies.” She did this for months until one day her daughter asked, “Can I hug you until your allergies stop?”

What I’m saying is: our children see us. They come to see us because they love us and we all long to see and know and understand the people we love. Maybe that’s the thing that motivates people to keep coupling and procreating despite all the chaos it brings. What’s more, as our children watch and see us, and see how we cope with change, loss, the absurd twists and turns of life, they form ideas about how they will do these things themselves. So while it’s certainly good learning for them to watch us hold ourselves together and traverse rough terrain with dignity and healthy boundaries, it’s also interesting to ponder what they learn by example when they observe us pretending, prevaricating, guarding secrets and putting on a show to save face. I think of people I know who grew up watching their parents pretending to be straight when they were gay, or pretending to be rich when they were broke, or pretending to be happy and fulfilled when they were miserable and bored. Mothers, especially, will sacrifice so much to keep their kids safe from pain; an impossible task. Kids are no fools. In the end I think what most of us remember is not the facade, but the shame we sensed beneath it: shame, like love, is taught by example. It sounds to me like your daughter is trying to teach her children something else. Perhaps the best way to heal the rift between you would be to acknowledge to her how much courage that takes.