Dad's a drifter with a secret

I found out my father's having an affair. Should I tell my mom?

Published March 11, 2009 10:35AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I've thought about writing you before, but until now my problems have been more abstract. Now those same problems are clouding my current judgment.

I'm in my early 20s, living back with my parents, taking an indefinite hiatus from college. A quick background on my family dynamics: My mother has always been the provider; she works two jobs and is very dependable, honest and kind. My father has literally been a drifter for his entire life. As a folk musician he has gotten away with this, leading the romantic life and whatnot. A decade ago, he abandoned my family for a year; those wounds have been healed and he and my mother have a compromising relationship: They need each other's companionship but don't get along wonderfully or go on dates or so on.

Recently my father has been taking extended trips to "play music." He comes and goes to his whim, and enjoys the house my mother owns and her frustrated affection. As he returned from his last trip I came across some e-mails of his and found evidence that he and some woman are having sex.

I think my mom deserves to know, but fear it would be the tipping point. My teenage brother and I are both addicted to weed and jobless, and I suffer from a recurring depression. My mother has few close friends and will depend on my father for her sole companionship when I move back out. She is stretched to the limit, and the truth would wreck her. I don't believe my mother would have the will to find another companion, and I feel it is unfair of me to stir up turmoil when I myself am a drain on the family at the moment. I'm also struggling with my own issues and truly wish I could just forget what I saw.

Personally, I particularly resent my father and have always had a deep empathetic connection to my mother, so my instinct is clear. My father is a friendly, though misguided, man, but I felt that he was unfairly sponging off my mother before I found this out.

Confused, Morally and Otherwise

Dear Confused,

The age-old simple fact is, there are things you can change and things you can't. Things you can't change include the weather and your parents. Things you can change include basically yourself and the oil in your truck.

I think if I were in your shoes I would not tell.

What I might do, however, is offer my opinion. Even that is dangerous. But it's just an opinion.

If it were my opinion, for instance, that my mother would be better off divorced, I might offer that opinion. Or at least I might have a frank conversation with my mom about her options. I'd try to find out what she might be contemplating doing. I'd try to find out if there is some kind of help I could offer her, if she was thinking of making some changes.

But getting involved to any extent is psychologically treacherous. You are not in such great shape yourself. So, on principle, if I were to keep it simple (and I'm kind of making it complicated by straddling the fence), the most important thing I could advise you to do is to get yourself in shape. That means -- well, you know what that means. It means getting some help for your pot addiction for one thing. There are groups you can go to. Some people will tell you groups suck, that they don't help. I disagree. I think groups are great. You go somewhere and you say, Hey, man, I'm a pot addict! Just that alone can help. Just even telling me probably helped a little bit. It gives you a bit of distance on it. At least you're not hiding it. You know what kind of situation you're in. And the same with the job thing, and the depression. You get some help. You do the plodding, day-by-day work of it. You hunker down.

It's hard, man. I know. It's hard to have a dad who isn't pulling his load, and it's hard to see your mom being mistreated, and it's hard to see her buying into it. It's hard to be in a family where you can see so clearly what's the problem but you can't do a thing to fix it. It's hard.

But listen. Getting high every day doesn't really make it all that much better. It makes it worse. It robs you of the energy and focus you need to change your situation.

You know that's true. You wouldn't be telling me you were a pot addict if you didn't sense there's something wrong with that.

Maybe the basic deal is this, that you're in one of those situations where you have to step up and be the rock. Nobody else will be the rock. So you have to. Your dad won't be the rock. Your mom isn't the rock. Your little brother isn't the rock. So you have to be the rock.

Maybe that's the real reason you're home now. Maybe this is what you're supposed to do right now, be home and try to contribute, add some stability, help out, try to get a job and sort of fill the vacuum.

I know how tempting it is to try to fix your family. I also know how easy it is to get burned trying to fix your family. So beware of trying to fix your family. Just help out. Stick around. Do what you can. And if your mom really wants to make some changes in her life, be available to help her make them.

Got family? (There's stuff in here about that.)

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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