Speaking Truth about Home Life

A mother brought her almost two year old to our parent and toddler group the other day, full of hard stories of life at home. Badly overworked, mad about too little relaxed time with his family, never even-tempered at the best of times, her husband had been yelling, slamming doors, picking fights--generally blowing off steam loudly and visibly. Now I know what a good man he is, how much he loves his wife and daughter, how much they love him, how safe they are from real danger. I wasn't worried. But I also know that this was hard on all of them. While the little girl was greeting friends and finding playthings, I listened to the mom--just giving her a chance to tell about her morning and cry a little bit about how hard it was.

Then it occurred to me that the daughter had had a similar morning, and perhaps had her own story to tell. I sat down on the floor beside her to play, and when she said something about her dad, I said, in a conversational tone, that I heard he'd been yelling and slamming doors that morning. She nodded and said something about the kitchen, which her mom interpreted as the place of the loudest fight. I said it sounded as if her dad was having a hard time--mad about having to work so much, and mad about not being able to be with his daughter that he loved so much. She said something about mad. I said we all get mad sometimes. I get mad, she gets mad, her mom and dad get mad, and it helps when someone can listen and not worry.

She didn't seem to have anything more to say on the topic, and after playing a while longer I moved on to other people. I knew we had a context for talking about being mad, since she takes the opportunity to be mad a lot in that group. But there was no other feedback from that little conversation, so I had no idea what effect, if any, it had on her. I felt that there was more here than met the eye, but didn't see anything else to do. Only later, as I was talking about it with a friend, did I think how helpful such an interaction would have been to me as a child.

What would it have been like if an adult who knew and liked my parents had chatted with me about what it was like living with them? They might have mentioned how difficult it was for either of my parents to say directly what they wanted. They might have commented that it could be hard when you knew your mother or father was angry but they pretended everything was fine. They might have wondered out loud what a child would to, in such a loving family, with the unloving feelings she must have sometimes, as everybody does.

Even if they had done no more than that, it would have been a great service. Loving my parents, and trusting them to interpret the world for me, I was at a loss for how to make sense of some of what went on, how to fit it into a coherent world view. When things don't make sense or don't fit or don't have an explanation, what can you do besides assume that everything is crazy, or that somehow it's your fault?

Having another adult see my reality, and frame it in a way that I could understand, would have been an enormous relief, especially since it was clear that they were on my parents' side as well. Letting me know that it was okay to have the feelings that I had might have transformed my experience of childhood.

I think we rarely take this step with other people's children. It feels like intruding on other people's very private affairs, invading the sanctity of the home, breaking solidarity with our fellow parents. But if we have a real relationship with the parents and a real relationship with the child, and care about them both, there may be no greater act of caring.