Trying to help friend build a life outside parenting, but does she need fixing?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at bit.ly/haxpost.
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