The Vine: March 26, 2014
My ex-husband and I have been divorced for 12 years, and I have custody of our 13-year-old son.
I am remarried, and my son visits his father somewhat irregularly, but often enough that they have a close relationship. He has his dad on a pedestal, and I'm careful to remain neutral-to-positive when I talk about him.
His father is about $30K behind in child support, due largely to the fact that he is unable to keep a job. He has been evicted from more than 10 apartments in the last 12 years, and is currently homeless. When my son visits him now, he stays at my former mother-in-law's house. My son knows his dad drinks, but doesn't tie the alcohol to Dad's other problems. My ex always has an excuse for why he lost his apartment, job, girlfriend, etc. and my son just believes him.
I am still close to my former in-laws, who have completely written off my ex, and only see him when my son is visiting, because he has stolen money from them, lied to them, etc. so many times that they've just given up. They're going to start going to Al-Anon meetings and have suggested that I take my son to Alateen meetings, but to do so, I'd have to say, "Hey, your dad's an alcoholic," and I don't know if that's my place to do so. We have candid talks in our family about addiction, and he's very aware of what an alcoholic is, but certainly does not see his dad as one (and his dad does not see himself as one).
I don't know if it's my place or my right to "out" someone as an alcoholic to his child, but at the same time, it's also MY child, and he has the right to understand this part of his familial history, and at 13, we're not that far off from the age of curiosity about alcohol. I harbor a lot of resentment towards my ex (that's why I provided the context about the child-support arrears, so you'll know I'm not exactly objective) so I'm having trouble approaching it from an unbiased perspective. While I'm well past the baggage that caused the divorce in the first place, I'm already biting my tongue when I hear about what a great dad he is and how Dad just bought whatever expensive thing that I know is going to be in a pawn shop in three weeks.
So I'm struggling with making a good decision about the appropriateness of an "I think we should talk about what's going on with Dad and why he's been going through a rough time lately with jobs and stuff" talk, and would be grateful for any advice you have, and any advice or experience from your readers. Thank you!
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Your son probably knows. Kids know this stuff; they can sense things, disturbances in the Force, ways grown-ups smell and speak that don't line up quite the way they should. Kids don't always have names for these things they sense, or strategies for managing the emotions they feel in response, and that's the sticking point, from where I sit — no, you don't want to sell out your ex, because whatever he has or hasn't done, he's your son's father, and in the end, people of all ages have to learn things for themselves about their parents' imperfections, so on the one hand, it seems like leaving it alone while making it clear you're there to listen is the best strategy.
But on the other hand, having an alcoholic parent can feel profoundly isolating to a child. Whatever the booze mutates the parent into — physically abusive, persistently flaky, broke, sick, socially inappropriate, a dim sum of these — the offspring often ends up feeling as if he's the only one who got the shit end in the parent department. He's embarrassed; he's hurt and disappointed; he's furious; he's exhausted from constantly trying to anticipate which parent he's dealing with this time, and/or managing the drunk one. Everyone else's family seems delightfully, unreachably normal, while his is broken, and in the absence of any other explanation, often a child will conclude that he's the problem or catalyst, because this is the only part of the situation he can control — the part where, somehow, he sucks.
It's likely less intense for Son given that he doesn't live with Dad and isn't cycling through these emotions on a daily or weekly basis, but he has picked up that Something Isn't Right — maybe from his grandparents, too — and while he may in fact still believe that his father hung the moon (or not want to let go of that belief), he may also say these things for your benefit, because if he doesn't say it out loud it isn't real, or for whatever other reason. Naming bad things is usually a relief but it never seems that way beforehand; maybe that's what's going on.
Allllll this by way of saying that, if he is aware of his father's disease and is struggling with it, you should say something, because he shouldn't have to feel alone with it on top of the other bullshit it creates for him…but you also occupy a unique (and annoying) position in that he may not consider you a safe space for talking about this particular issue. I think a good start is to tell him that you're always there for him whatever he'd like to talk about — but you know that, if he has things he wants to talk through about Dad, he might feel weird, in which case you're happy to bring him to a meeting he might find interesting, or an adolescent therapist. Because what's important isn't so much that he knows his father has a problem with alcohol, but if he does know, how he can set good boundaries and not feel like it's a secret or shameful to himself in some way.
And you ask how his visits go, and you occasionally check in with Dad's parents to see what they're seeing (if you have that relationship with them), and if he seems fine or he's looking at you all "why are we talking about this, freakshow," you drop it and come back to it in a few months.
But he probably already knows. Your job, then, is to make sure he's not trying to carry it around all by himself, and if there does come a point where you have to put that ahead of the diplomacy you usually practice re: Dad, well, that's more important and it'll work out.
Good luck. It's a tightrope; let us know how you're crossing, if you can.
Tags: health and beauty kids the fam