"How do you explain to your daughter that you and your boyfriend live together without being married?"
That was the question put to me recently by Sharon, who is more of an acquaintance than a friend.
The question surprised me -- in three ways. First, I was surprised that an acquaintance would ask a question that personal. Second, I was caught off-guard by the suggestion that there was something about Clint's and my relationship (other than our age difference -- he's younger) that needed to be explained. And finally, I was surprised by the fact that I was surprised. It honestly hadn't occurred to me that Clint living with us was something that people would think I would need to spin or justify to my daughter.
But while I was surprised, I wasn't offended. The simple fact that she asked the question made clear that Sharon thought our living arrangement was unconventional. But I didn't interpret her tone as being accusatory. I saw it kind of like this: If Clint and I were married but didn't wear wedding rings, Sharon might have asked why. And while that question might reveal that Sharon is forward, it wouldn't necessarily mean she's judgmental.
But Sharon's question made me come face-to-face with the realization that even in 2012, there are people who think living together without being married is wrong -- and these folks probably would not judge my parenting kindly.
Don't get me wrong -- I am no stranger to judgment. It's just that I am more comfortable on the passing end of it, rather than the receiving one. Raising my kids is something I take seriously. And the notion that some might think I was sending my daughter a morally confusing message with my living arrangements was not easy to take.
But in order for me to owe an explanation to Hannah I would have to be raising her with the idea that it's wrong for adults to live together without being married. And that's not a belief I've instilled in her -- mainly because it's not a belief I hold.
That's not to say I don't have plenty to tell her when it comes to my take on right and wrong. She is subjected to my editorials on a wide array of issues in the course of any given day. If I had to boil my messages down to a few central themes it would be these: People should be honest, treat each other with kindness and dignity, keep their word and finish what they start.
There are plenty of times I fall short of these goals. And when I do, that's when I have some explaining to do. In my view, living with Clint without being married doesn't violate any of these core principles; but getting divorced from her dad after promising to stay together forever sure did.
Which brings me to the real question people should be asking: Why do grown-ups set kids up for disappointment and heartbreak over their adult relationships? And why do they saddle their kids with outdated social mores that sentence children to feelings of guilt and failure when they themselves grow up?
My number one responsibility is to provide Hannah with a healthy home. I can't see the future, but I do know that one in two marriages ends in divorce. Married or not, promising Hannah that a relationship of mine will last forever could eventually force me to choose between keeping that promise or delivering on my responsibility to provide a stable home. What Hannah needs to be assured of is this: If my relationship goes south, I will jettison the relationship and not allow my love life to compromise her home life.
This doesn't mean I believe in modeling an easy-come, easy-go attitude about relationships to kids. To the contrary, I think parents should be exceedingly cautious about coupling up, not casual or careless. Before making any introductions, they should take the time to get to know a person well and be reasonably certain that the relationship will last a significant amount of time. But once an introduction is made -- and even after getting married -- parents should think long and hard before promising kids that a relationship will last forever.
There are plenty of nonsensical items on the list of society's rules about adult relationships that I have to explain to Hannah -- like why most states deny certain adults the right to marry at all, while permitting other adults to get married and divorced as many times as they want; or why people in abusive or toxic relationships stay together. I'm not going to add to this list by making promises I might not be able to keep, nor am I going to pass on to her out-of-date rules that set up a false choice between dysfunction and guilt.
When Hannah's all grown up, I don't want her to feel like she has any explaining to do if she decides to live with someone without being married, nor do I want her to feel like a quitter if she ends up getting a divorce from someone she does marry, when in either case, that might be the wisest decision she can make.
So, getting back to Sharon's question, at the end of the day this is what Hannah needs to understand about my relationship with Clint: We love each other, we treat each other with kindness and dignity and we keep our word to one another. She can count on those things continuing for as long as we are together. But I don't need to explain any of that to her because she sees it in action every day.
But there is one thing I should explain to Hannah: You know the proverb that says people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones? Just like contemporary attitudes about adult relationships, that idiom could use a little modernization. People shouldn't throw stones no matter what kind of house they live in -- glass, brick, single-parent, two-parent, gay or straight. Because throwing rocks just isn't cool.