If you’re unwilling to explain to your children who these people are, stop bringing them around.
I don’t care how many lovers you have or what you do with them. It’s not my business. It’s not your children’s business either.
When I was growing up, conversations about sex and relationships from my mother (my only present parent) were non-existent. She was single for all of the years I was old enough to pay attention. I did not know her to date and by the time I was eleven, she was in prison. Throughout those early years she did have one male friend who was around and provided some support. I don’t know all of the details of their relationship (though I know more than she knows I know) but what I did know still left me in a cloud of confusion. Who was this person? Why were they always around? Why was he trying to tell me what to do? Did I have to listen to him? Did I have to like him?
Nothing was ever explained. My mother did not lend me that courtesy. This wouldn’t have mattered if her friend had not become such an integral part of my life. He drove my brother and I to school, often picked us up, we spent holiday’s with him. Yet, we did not know him at all. Knowing each other did not seem to be a priority. Those questions I had were never answered, though this male friend was around for years, both before, during and after my mother’s time in prison. I remember once when I was in my late teens, my mother’s sister asked me if he was my mother’s boyfriend. I told her I didn’t know. I decided then to ask my mother and she acted as though the question was ridiculous. “I’m too old for a boyfriend,” was her reply.
When Roxane Gay was collecting stories for a collection titled Not That Bad that discussed how we measured harassment and violence towards women, I considered submitting several anecdotes from my childhood. There is no question that my mother’s male friend was misogynistic. I knew that before I fully understood what misogyny was. This meant that things were said to me that should not have been, because I was a girl. For example, once he told me that I would never have a husband because I did not cook or clean. (My mother did not want my brother and I cooking or cleaning because she wanted us to focus on academics. To this day, I am not sure why these things were mutually exclusive. I am also unsure what any of it has to do with being married). I’m still working through a lot of what happened and what was said, which was why I did not end up submitting anything to the anthology, though the purpose of it resonated with me deeply.
Home is where [children] should feel the most comfortable, the most safe. A revolving door of strangers does not nurture these feelings. Even one stranger can take these feelings away.
What I will say is that I never developed feelings of warmth towards this person, though I was appreciative of the various material ways in which he made my childhood and adolescence easier. My brother absolutely hated him. I don’t know what was done or said to him to cause such violent hatred. I suspect in the same way horrible things were said to me because I was a girl, terrible things were probably said to him because he was a boy. Whatever the case, this hatred has not dissipated in any way.
Ultimately there is a level of resentment towards my mother that still lingers for her dependency on this person. There may have been deeper feelings between them but this was never discussed. The material dependency was obvious though. She needed help buying food, paying rent, buying clothing. She needed help raising us. Our father was gone and did not contribute financially to our well-being. She needed someone. This is who the someone ended up being. Though we lived in discomfort for years, we did not starve and I guess that’s that on that.
Maybe it doesn’t matter how many lovers you introduce your children to, as long as you are willing to communicate who these people are and what their presence means.
Now as an adult, I see clearly how my mother’s relationship with this person was damaging to us as children. In an ideal world my father would have provided and cared for us, as was his responsibility, even after his romantic relationship with our mother had ended. My mother would have provided and cared for us, as was her responsibility, but she would have also had time to have a life of her own. During that personal time, she could have dated or spent time with whomever she wanted to. She would have been able to keep us out of it.
Instead what happened was some weird limbo where the male friend was not my mother’s significant other, and yet she needed him there. This dragged on for years and in many ways continues to. My mother never expressed an interest or attempted to define the boundaries of her relationship with her friend. She never tried to guide us in figuring out what our own boundaries with him were supposed to be. If she was unwilling to establish boundaries for us and explain the relationship, the relationship shouldn’t have been shared with us in the first place.
Maybe for my brother and I it was “not that bad”. We only had to deal with this dynamic once. My heart bleeds for children who have to deal with this level of discomfort in their own home, over and over again. Different bodies but the same idea. Home is where they should feel the most comfortable, the most safe. A revolving door of strangers does not nurture these feelings. Even one stranger can take these feelings away. Maybe it doesn’t even matter how many lovers you introduce your children to, as long as you are willing to communicate who these people are and what their presence means. I don’t know for sure. I have never seen this done in a healthy way. I have only seen the opposite. If you’re uncomfortable discussing these types of relationships with your children…how do you think they feel witnessing them?