Carolyn Hax: Explaining an unwed mother to a 10-year-old

Carolyn Hax
Columnist February 22, 2012

Dear Carolyn:

We have a wonderful 26-year-old cousin who just announced she is pregnant. My wife and I are very happy and have expressed our joy and support in multiple ways.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

The father is 40. They have been dating for about six months but have not announced whether they are going to get married. She will definitely be a great mom. The dad may be great, too — our family does not know him well yet.

Our challenge is how we handle this with our 10-year-old daughter. We have been and will continue to be fully supportive of our cousin; however, we also would like to impress upon our daughter that we hope that a man and a woman fall in love and then decide to get married, and, through their continued love for each other, they may have a baby.

How can we communicate our values to our daughter in a manner that in no way adversely impacts her views of her cousin?


Father Is Perplexed

You’re less perplexed than you think. In choosing to support your cousin despite a belief that a love-marriage-baby formula makes sense, you have already made the exact calculation that you want to convey to your daughter.

So, you just need to figure out why you’re expressing joy and supporting your cousin, instead of scolding, fretting over or shunning her.

Judging from your comments, you’re not saying, “X behavior is bad . . . unless someone close to us does it, in which case it’s okay.” That’s a good philosophy not to have, because not only does it lack integrity, but it also wouldn’t pass a clever 10-year-old’s eye-roll test.

I suspect your belief instead is that doing right by children is ultimately more important than following a societally sanctioned path to starting a family — and since you trust your cousin to be a good parent, you feel genuine joy at her news.

If that’s your belief, then you have this to support it: Some people raise oops babies beautifully, while plenty who 1. fall in love, 2. marry, then 3. have children in perfect sequence make perfectly awful parents. Good parenting is about maturity, and marriage vows are but one measure of maturity, and a flawed one at that.

But if I’m wrong and your beliefs are more along the lines of, “I think the baby’s conception was irresponsible, but there’s nothing I can do about that now and that baby needs all the supportive family s/he can get,” then that’s a supportable mind-set as well.

However, it also means you need a new goal in addressing your daughter. If you are in fact judging the mother-to-be, then communicating your values “in a manner that in no way adversely impacts her views of her cousin” is a non-starter, lacking both integrity and efficacy.

That’s why knowing your own heart is the first step in teaching values: Unless your heart, words and deeds are all working together, you won’t make sense — and when their parents don’t make sense, kids tend to draw their own conclusions.

Convenient flip side: When parents do make sense, their kids get messages without a whole lot of tortured parental explaining. Why not let your cousin’s story play out, observe your daughter and supply narration only when you see the need?

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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