How to explain my husband to my kids?

Their father has some issues. What should I say?

By Cary Tennis

Published December 6, 2007 11:15AM (EST)

Hi, Cary:

I'm the mother of an infant and two young school-age boys who are creative, loud and active. Possibly hyperactive, although I bristle at the thought of a clinician confirming my suspicions. My God, though, I've never been so acoustically accosted by children.

They are loud -- louder than I was, for sure. Generally, this doesn't matter. If they get too loud and active, I send them outside. We live in a small city where it's still possible to send your kids to play outside. When I get notes from their teachers saying how loud and active they are, I make them run relays before school. All this I can cope with.

My problem is my husband, who gets depressed sometimes. It's usually his job that brings him down; sometimes it's simply a lack of sleep, too much caffeine or one too many beers. He's not an alcoholic (but he is the adult child of two physically and emotionally abusive alcoholics and brother to one); he seems to have a sensitive constitution. Two beers in an evening might make him cranky the next day. Too many decafs in a week can do the same thing. His depression definitely seems chemical and stress related. He acknowledges this and has all but stopped drinking coffee and rarely has more than a beer in an evening (averaging about one or two six-packs per month). The depression manifests itself as general poor behavior, the kind I don't tolerate from the children, stomping around, saying "shit" and "fuck" and not listening to me when I'm trying to talk to him. (Instead he walks from the room while running his fingers through his hair, as if I'm causing him physical pain.)

I used to walk on eggshells when he got depressed; for years I did. Then I stopped. I started standing up for myself when he was being crazy, and although it doesn't necessarily make him less crazy at the time (after a good night's sleep, for instance) and sometimes makes him meaner, the next day he's glad I did it.

Here's my question: How much should I talk with the children about their dad's poor behavior? I'm always telling them that they can't speak rudely just because they're tired or hungry or whatever. How much can a little kid understand about his dad's (very possible fatal someday -- as in heart attack) flaw?

Thanks for any insights you may have.

Mom of Loud Kids and Wife of Depressed Dad

Dear Mom of Loud Kids,

When I think back to being a kid, I can't think of a single time I didn't feel weird when one of my parents talked to me about the other parent.

They would say things like, Your mother is this way, your father is that way.

I don't want to hear that if I'm a kid.

If my dad would take me out and talk to me about my mom, I would feel closer to him in a way, not in a healthy way, but in more of a conspiratorial, "let's see what we can put over on Mom" kind of way. If he was telling me about my mom's troubles, even if he was doing it in a sympathetic way, it diminished her in my eyes, and created an uncomfortable bond between us, a secret we were keeping from her. And similarly, when my mom would talk to me about my dad, she would diminish him in my eyes, and I would feel guilty when I saw him, knowing what I knew -- that he had these weaknesses my mom had told me about, and which I was not at liberty to disclose to him.

So, speaking just as a kid, I would vote against talking to them about your husband's troubles when your husband is not present.

Instead, I would sit down together, you and the dad, and talk to the kids about specific behaviors. I would have your husband ask them directly if anything he does ever scares them, or harms them, or hurts their feelings, and I would have him hug these kids and tell them he's sorry and he's trying to not do that, that he's trying to be better. And then he would actively work -- as I suppose he is -- to keep improving his behavior.

Otherwise, for a kid, such a situation can be a real bind. If you have this conspiratorial relationship with your parents, in which each has confided in you the flaws of the other, then you are predisposed to avoid expressing the flaws of either. And yet, being the child of both, you possess the flaws of both. Knowing precisely what those flaws are, having been catechized in them, and fearing their appearance in you, you have little choice but developing a false self.

That is the danger, I think, in confiding to your kids the shortcomings of their father: They are his flesh and blood as much as they are your flesh and blood; you do not want to put them in fear of becoming who they are. You do not want to make them fear that if they display parts of his nature -- that is, if they display who they are! -- you will reject them as you are rejecting him.

Instead, I think what you want to get across to the kids is that we are accountable for our behavior, and we are capable of changing our behavior. So if Daddy has done things to hurt the kids, or scare them, or make them think there is something wrong with him, I would want him to own up to what he did and apologize and promise to change.

About your husband's various other troubles, and his family history, I can only say that it sounds familiar, and that much has been written about the effect such a family history will have on a person. But I just wanted to stick to the one question about how to talk to the kids and say, from my own experience, I think you'd be doing them a favor if you talked to them together.

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