It was with great trepidation that I approached telling my sixth-grade son that his best friend's parents were separating. I was afraid his reaction would be one of pain and disbelief.
Instead he astounded me by saying, "I'm not surprised."
I asked him what he meant. "Well, when a bunch of us were at Brian's birthday party, we told him that it looked like his mother was having an affair and he'd better deal with it."
The small group of boys, aged 12 and 13, based this conclusion on observation: The mother was not where she was supposed to be a lot of the time - including that particular weekend, and didn't hide her enthusiasm for a certain man who was a frequent presence in the household. It seemed blatant to several of us adults as well, but, well, we weren't as direct as the children.
We wore our smiles and continued in our polite way, pushing any queries out of the way and presuming the best.
These are not boys who are hanging out on their own, cruising the streets, or ingesting a steady diet of films and television shows with adult subject matter. These are the children of protective and alert parents who monitor their activities, and work hard to ensure that their schooling and other aspects of life are age-appropriate and nurturing. (Yes, even the straying mother.)
It seemed that after this knowledge was out, my son and I ran into a number of acquaintances who were having marital problems. While waiting at the dentist's office, I asked a man I knew how his wife was and he said, "Oh, we haven't been together for awhile." One of my son's teachers announced to the class that she would not be returning to school next year because she was getting divorced.
My son's initial matter-of-fact response had jarred me into the reality that he was not naive about the adult world of relationships. I tossed and turned at night wondering about these events and their cumulative message of instability.
I know that despite my son's worldly and blas response, his heart is that of a child who does not like to think that home and family might be challenged by a sense of impermanence. I know this, in part, from his hyper-vigilance when there is some tension in the household - a vigilance that is out of context with reality.
The presumed stability of other eras is often no longer in evidence. As a parent and a wife I find this a challenge. For my child, I strain to find the middle road: I don't want to dig in my heels in self-righteous judgment of others, or pretend that relationships do not require artful and diligent navigation with some times being rougher than others.
I also do not want to convey a message through silence that the dissolution of relationships doesn't matter.
In our society there is full knowledge of adult issues, ones that ideally should unfold to our children slowly, as they develop the ability to put such issues into the context of life and their values.
But this instance shows me the importance of my reliability as a parent. It reinforces the need to be practical and realistic. I am grateful now that I raised the issue with him first. And I vow to be less secretive about things I suspect he has no knowledge of - or in my mind, shouldn't yet - and more alert and respecting of what he does know.