Try­ing to help friend build a life out­side par­ent­ing, but does she need fix­ing?

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - Carolyn Hax Me

Hi, Carolyn: What’s a nice way to tell some­one she needs to have a life out­side of be­ing a mom? Is such a thing even pos­si­ble?

The per­son in ques­tion had plans to go to grad school. She was go­ing into a very com­pet­i­tive field, and af­ter a cou­ple of rounds of re­jec­tions, she was feel­ing a bit at sea. She got mar­ried and got preg­nant on the hon­ey­moon. Four kids later, she’s do­ing the stay-at-home­mom route . . . which is a fine thing. My mom stayed home for my early years, and I think it was re­ally good for me. I’ve just no­ticed signs that my friend is un­happy.

She’s made re­marks about not know­ing who she is any­more, how she hasn’t used her (very ex­pen­sive pri­vate) col­lege de­gree, and has won­dered aloud about what she’ll do when they’re out of the nest. Sev­eral times we’ve talked about what she could do, rang­ing from tak­ing classes to get­ting a va­ca­tion by her­self to re­viv­ing some of her old hob­bies now that the kids are school age. Noth­ing has come of those talks.

Another mu­tual friend and I even ar­ranged for her to come visit us (we live sev­eral states away from Mom Friend), work­ing out some child-care ar­range­ments with the hus­band, and she seemed ex­cited by the idea. Mom Friend never went through with it.

She talks about not know­ing who she is any­more be­cause she’s just Mom . . . and then she goes and buys a 12-pas­sen­ger van so she can do more car­pool­ing for her kids’ ac­tiv­i­ties.

It’s kinda heart­break­ing. Her com­plaints aren’t in­ces­sant, but when they do hap­pen, it’s very clear that I’m watch­ing stuffed­away feel­ings leak out — like she just can’t keep up ap­pear­ances any­more.

Me: Re­ally? Granted, I’m just read­ing your ac­count of what she says, and that’s quite dif­fer­ent from lis­ten­ing to her di­rectly, but I don’t see any­thing “very clear” about what you’re wit­ness­ing.

In fact, the only thing clear to me is how un­clear her mes­sage is. She’s say­ing one thing while do­ing another, which is con­fus­ing enough to some­one try­ing to read her feel­ings and mo­tives, but the do­ing part is in­deed “in­ces­sant” while the say­ing is only on some oc­ca­sions. That seems like a mean­ing­ful twist.

As does the com­bi­na­tion of her ex­pen­sive de­gree and her past am­bi­tions and your readi­ness to val­i­date both of these as relics of some lost bet­ter ver­sion of her.

Give all of these their proper weight, and isn’t it pos­si­ble she uses her de­gree con­stantly, just not in the way she ex­pected? Stay­ing a step ahead of four kids, emo­tion­ally, de­vel­op­men­tally, lo­gis­ti­cally, fi­nan­cially and of­ten just phys­i­cally, is a le­git­i­mate in­tel­lec­tual chal­lenge.

Isn’t it also pos­si­ble she feels right in her cur­rent role and wor­ries she’ll be judged for that among her more pro­fes­sion­ally in­clined peers? Or even judges her­self for it be­cause it doesn’t align with how she al­ways saw her­self? This kind of stress cer­tainly isn’t un­usual from peo­ple who wind up on Path B when they told them­selves and ev­ery­one else they were dead-set on Path A.

Isn’t it also pos­si­ble that this is who she is, and it’s the old ca­reer am­bi­tions that were the poor fit?

And: Isn’t it pos­si­ble that she doesn’t need or want her friends to keep try­ing to fix her, wellmean­ing though they may be?

She’s not just an adult, but also ed­u­cated and of means — at least, suf­fi­cient to fuel mul­ti­ple ac­tiv­i­ties and a truck to car­pool there, on one in­come. She might not be rich in easy op­tions, but moth­er­hood has not swal­lowed her agency whole.

So please con­sider re­spond­ing to her ac­cord­ingly. “Yeah, the empty nest will be hard. But you’re re­source­ful, and if you ever want to bounce around ideas, I’m here.” Or, “Are you kid­ding? Your ed­u­ca­tion helped make you the par­ent you are.” Or, “I hear you — some­times I can’t rec­og­nize my­self. But if it helps, you’re still [friend’s name] to me.” Who, af­ter all, hasn’t felt sub­sumed at times by a large, mul­ti­year com­mit­ment?

None of this is to say you’re wrong, nec­es­sar­ily; her com­plaints could well be the un­happy truth leak­ing out from be­hind a fa­cade. But that’s not the only pos­si­ble sce­nario here, nor would it nec­es­sar­ily be a call to friendly ac­tion even if it were.

So take a step back from pat con­clu­sions and in­ter­ven­tions and just lis­ten as she tells her way through her own story. When she’s down and lis­ten­ing doesn’t feel like enough, ask her what she’d like from you in­stead of jump­ing in with what­ever you think she needs.

Also re­flect back to her what­ever strengths and beauty you see. “That sounds re­ally hard. I ad­mire you, though, for go­ing all in, and you’re great at it.”

This is a nice way of vol­ley­ing the life-get­ting sug­ges­tion back to you. You ob­vi­ously mean well, but you need to trust that she’s got this, un­less and un­til she ex­plic­itly asks for help— and see where that takes you both. Write to Carolyn Hax at tellme@wash­post.com. Get her col­umn de­liv­ered to your in­box each morn­ing at bit.ly/hax­post.

Join the dis­cus­sion live at noon Fri­days at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ con­ver­sa­tions.

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