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Carolyn Hax: Her friend immersed in being a mom

DEAR CAROLYN: What’s a nice way to tell someone she needs to have a life outside of being a mom?

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-home-mom route … which is a fine thing. 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 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. And then she goes and buys a 12-passenger van so she can do more carpooling for her kids’ activities.

Her complaints aren’t incessant, but when they do happen it’s very clear that I’m watching stuffed-away feelings leak out.

Me

DEAR ME: Really? 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.

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?

And: Isn’t it possible she doesn’t need or want her friends to keep trying to fix her? She’s not just an adult, but also educated and of means. She might not be rich in easy options, but motherhood has not swallowed her whole.

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.

So take a step back from pat conclusions and interventions, and just listen as she tells her way through her own story.

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.”

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.

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