In honor of my mother’s birthday this week, I’d like to share her most influential parenting advice, which is also her best go-to marriage tip. That is how helpful and important the following words have been for me.
Somebody has to be the adult in the house.
The implication is that adult individuals in a partnership can take turns falling apart, but both parties cannot crumble at once. My mom was referring to standard day-to-day life. Obviously in a true crisis, the rules change.
As for the parenting ramifications, my mom always thought insuring one of the adults was acting and thinking reasonably meant that the children would never have to prematurely step into that role. She once told me her greatest accomplishment as a parent was protecting my sisters and me this way. She did not want us to become little caretakers, or to worry that the atmosphere in our home could erupt into chaos at any moment.
This mantra of hers provided a mostly peaceful upbringing, and it shaped the mother I would become. I definitely felt a comfort and security knowing that if my mom was out of sorts, I could count on my dad’s predictability and strength. If my dad lost his temper, I could count on my mom to get things under control.
I know from friends who are single parents and from childhood friends whose parents were divorced that among the many challenges for both the parent and the child is this exact issue: The one adult in the household has all the responsibility of maintaining the family’s calm. As the resident grownup feels the mounting pressure, so do the children. I have enormous respect for my friends who have remained that rock for their kids.
On the lighter side, I remember the discovery long before having kids that my mom’s “be the adult” motto could help me in awkward social and work situations. During my first semester of graduate school, I had received an email from a woman in my small group cohort (I’ll call her Gretchen) who was perpetually angry with me and other members of our group for instances when she felt slighted or left out. In my attempt to prove why her version of each “insult” was mistaken, I drafted a long response outlining why the details from her email were a perfect example of her general propensity to misinterpret events. I also included a list of other times when I’d witnessed her paranoia and victim-status outlook.
I suspected that my letter might be over-the-top and permanently damaging to the working environment in our program, but my exasperation with Gretchen diminished my ability to think straight. I was about to hit ‘send’ when I summoned my last shred of self-control to ask my still-new husband for a second opinion.
I read him the email while he was driving home to which he said, “You cannot send that.” Undeterred, I gave him all the reasons I was justified. “Step away from the computer,” he said. “I’ll be home in twenty minutes, and we’ll look at it together.”
Where was the show of sympathy and shared righteous indignation that I deserved? For that, of course, I could have called any one of my girlfriends, but since I had turned to Bryan this time, I would try to hear him out. He was, after all, the other adult in the house.
“Call her,” he said when he walked in the door. “This discussion doesn’t belong on email anyway.”
He had a point, but I was not calling her. No way.
“Fine,” he said and sat at the computer desk. He read my email draft on the screen while I looked over his shoulder, his finger hovering over the delete button. “You can send an email, but not this one.”
Instead of highlighting whole sections and erasing it at once, he repeatedly tapped ‘delete’ as I watched my excessively reactive words disappear backwards letter by letter. What he left me with were two polite lines that sounded nothing like me, which was why the email I sent was mature and balanced instead of regrettably verbose and filled with numerous explanation marks. I should let the quasi-friendship with Gretchen dissipate with my dignity in tact, he suggested. No need to come off like a bridge-burning lunatic.
In the thirteen years that have passed since then, there have been plenty of other instances when Bryan has removed the lighter fluid and the torch from my reach (usually in the form of convincing me not to send an email). On the flip side, there’s no question that when it comes to our kids, I am the brakes. I’m the one who calls a time out for everyone when things get too heated or when I think an argument needs to stop and continue at a more appropriate time. We work in tandem this way, one adult front and center at all times; one of us is always towing the line. And in those occasional instances when we both have our grownup wits about us, I almost feel bad for our kids who cannot get away with much.
With that, I’d like to thank my mom for giving me her “be the adult” advice more times than I can remember and for living those words along with my dad. It was a priceless gift that I can best pay back by passing on the same message to their grandchildren. I’m certainly trying.
Illustration by Christine Juneau
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