As a single mom taking her decidedly city-oriented son to her boyfriend’s remote 10,000 acre ranch for the first time, to spend a weekend “cowboying,” I was naturally nervous. I worried that my child, raised in what I thought was the ever-supportive cocoon of our loving, open-minded, liberal household, would clash with The Cowboy, who was raised somewhat differently and has, as a result, very different expectations of how a boy should behave.Imagine my surprise when the biggest offense of the weekend turned out to be committed not by my son, but by me.
There we were, sharing our first dinner together—pulled pork sandwiches The Cowboy had made with meat he’d roasted a few days before, and which he’d gamely dubbed “Sloppy Alexanders” in honor of my kid—when my son mentioned his biological father’s girlfriend. This is a woman I have mixed feelings about. My son likes this woman because she, unlike me, will teach him things like how to burp on demand.
I rolled my eyes at mention of her name, and said something snarky. This sort of reaction, unfortunately, was not unusual from me at that point.
The Cowboy shot me a look across the table, his brows creased, and said, quietly, “Don’t.”
His eyes then moved with sympathy to my son, who looked down at his sandwich, his appetite suddenly lessened. My child said nothing.
I tried to handle my boyfriend’s newest criticism of my parenting skills in stride, fighting my usual impulse to defend myself and get angry.
Why, I wondered, was he silencing me? I my eyes, my ex’s “girlfriend” was clearly in the wrong.
After my son went to bed, The Cowboy and I discussed the incident from dinner, in hushed whispers.
“Why did you do that?” I asked. “Alex knows what’s up with his dad.”
“I don’t think he knows as much as you think he does. He’s not old enough, dear.”
“He’s smart,” I protested.
“Babe? You shouldn’t bad-mouth the other adults in your son’s life,” he said. “Not to him.”
“But…” I protested. “I don’t want her around him. She disgusts me.”
The Cowboy looked at me, his eyes narrowing in thought, before answering.
“Alexander is only ten years old. He doesn’t have enough life experience to understand. It’s unfair to throw all that at him. That’s the first thing.”
I listened, my heart crushed because this wasn’t the first time I’d heard something like this. My own father often reminded me to stop telling my son so much grownup stuff—about my divorce, or his dad, or even my relationship with The Cowboy.
“Second,” The Cowboy continued, “I’m not a psychologist or anything like that, but it seems to me that a boy hearing bad things about his father is probably going to internalize a lot of those things and feel badly about himself. Not his dad. Himself.”
“But what if those bad things are true?” I whined. “Shouldn’t Alex know what he’s dealing with in those people?”
The Cowboy shrugged with a frustrated but supportive smile. “He’ll figure it out on his own soon enough. What he doesn’t need is you dragging him into your drama. Keep your discussion of his dad simple. Don’t lie. Just don’t say too much. Talk to someone else about your problems. Talk to your friends, or to me. Not to your kid.”
I realized, with terrible embarrassment, that I’d been doing something a lot of single moms do—confiding in my child about the hardships I was dealing with post-divorce, and the issues I had with the child’s father. Having this new set of eyes on our lives revealed my mistake.
“You’re right,” I told The Cowboy.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I don’t especially like your ex, okay? But he’s your son’s father, and your son loves him, and he’s going to get a lot of his sense of self from that relationship. For that reason alone we both have to be very careful when we talk about him.”
Since then, I have made Herculean efforts to bite my tongue when my son mentions his father. I’ve kept my comments vague, or just listened and asked questions like, “How does that make you feel?”
My son, sensing the change right away, looked at me in surprise the first time I altered my approach.
“But I thought you hated my dad,” he said, and my heart broke. Yep, I thought. I had absolutely told him too much.
“I don’t hate your father,” I replied, mussing my kid’s hair and kissing his forehead. “After all, how can I hate the man who brought me the most wonderful gift of my life? You!”
My son thought about this for a moment, and nodded, accepting the simplest answer to this most complex issue.
Just like The Cowboy thought he would.