On Being The Adult When Your Parents Act Like Children

03/30/2015 11:38 am ET | Updated May 30, 2015
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My father recently rang to ask for advice about his online dating profile five minutes after I finished a call with my mother. Mom had called for the sole purpose of informing me, yet again, how sexy her 60-year-old boyfriend's body is. Neither parent asked if I wanted to have these conversations, which I didn't. Unfortunately, this is my new normal. As both my parents informed me, I am "an adult now." This means, apparently, since their divorce, that I am privy to everything.

My parents had always been less than stellar when it came to boundaries. When I was a child, they didn't bother to close the doors as they fought throughout the night. My nightmares always involved a lot of yelling. The discord didn't occur only at night, however. Car rides were a constant source of drama. As she drove me to school, Mom would rail against how inconsiderate my father was. "He never opens the door for me," she'd sigh. My dad, when he wasn't out of town on business, would drive me to a sleepover and spend the ride complaining about my judgmental mother. "She never asks about my day." Both my parents informed me that I was their confidante -- with my mother, in her weaker moments, going as far as to tell my eight-year-old self that I was her best and only friend. While my parents remained vague in the specifics of their disharmony, I nonetheless knew enough to realize we weren't like other families.

So I grew up fast.

At birthday parties, I watched my friends' smiling parents serve me cake and wondered if they too fought, if this dad also went on long business trips or had a secret locked drawer. I wondered if the mom with her perfectly applied makeup also cried in the shower. The happier the parents looked, the more I doubted the veracity of their love.

From a young age, I thought I knew it all. I knew that just because people were married it didn't mean they were happy. I knew people could fall out of love. My own parents certainly didn't like each other very much. That wasn't a secret. I just didn't realize how deep those roots of acrimony had grown.

Then I turned 30.

Everyone had said I'd feel different when I turned 30. "You feel more mature," friends who'd recently entered their third decade claimed. "You suddenly know what you want in life. You start to feel -- and act -- like an adult."

The morning of my 30th birthday I woke up smiling at the house my boyfriend and I had rented in Joshua Tree. I stretched and smiled. They were right: I did feel different. I felt at peace.

Then my phone rang. It was my father. I assumed he was calling with felicitations.

"Happy birthday," he began on the heels of my answer, proving that particular assumption true. But he didn't stop there. "I hate to do this on your birthday, but you're an adult now. I've decided to divorce your mother."

Happy birthday to me.

There are countless books with advice for parents on how to talk about divorce with their child. The problem is the child in question is usually a child. There aren't guidebooks -- at least not one my parents are reading -- on how to talk about a divorce to your adult daughter or son.

When I went to college, my mother confessed how happy she was that she could talk to me like an adult. Our testy relationship -- which had become increasingly strained during my teenage years and my subsequent discovery of boys -- grew more calm and loving. I would call my mom and talk about my boyfriend and not lie about whether or not he'd slept over. Our jokes became a tad more risqué. We were close. There were no secrets anymore between us.

With the divorce, however, the closeness has become too close. Some things are better left unsaid. Some secrets are better left hidden.

Turning 30 was my parents' new excuse to no longer parent. They no longer bother to filter their thoughts. I'm hearing things about their past -- and subsequently my own -- that no adult would ever tell their young child. Family vacations, old birthday parties, and reunions have all been cast in a new light thanks to my parents' sudden need to unload years of pent-up hurt and frustration. My father will take me out to dinner and tell me over grilled salmon about some hurtful thing my mother did 25 years ago. "You're 30," he'll always say, reassuring himself that this is appropriate. "You're old enough to know the truth." Mom will call crying about a mean email my father sent, and then bring up some old transgression. I nod and try to stay supportive. I love both my parents, after all. So there I am, caught in the middle, trying desperately to stay neutral, trying to remember how to breathe.

Ironically, my 28-year-old brother is still babied. "Don't tell Chris," my parents will add before we end our calls, "this would upset him." It'd upset anyone, I want to scream, anyone who was born of this marital union that's made you miserable for 30-odd years. But I agree, nonetheless. If my younger brother can stay out of it, that's one less unhappy member of our family.

Now I am parenting my parents. When a woman doesn't answer my father's eHarmony message, I repeat the wisdom my own mother once told me. If they're not smart enough to recognize how special you are then they certainly aren't good enough for you. When my mom has a fight with her boyfriend and calls me sobbing, I talk her off the ledge. I listen to them both complain about loneliness and bite my tongue when I think of telling them just how lonely these conversations have made me.

Sometimes I wonder if it would have been better if my parents divorced when I was a kid. Certainly they would have worked harder to keep me out of it. But then I realize that as an adult I at least have the maturity to cope. They're right about one thing -- even if I felt like an adult in the past, I am most definitely one now. When I went to my dad's apartment after my mom fled, her stuff still littered about the dining room table, her room still smelling like mom, I cried. I let myself cry for a good half-hour. Then I pushed my shoulders back and stared at myself in the mirror that my mother and I once used when she did my makeup for prom. I let myself feel my grief, and then I took a deep breath. I reminded myself that we all still had our health. That in the long run, this was for the best. Perhaps my parents would finally be happy.

I'm not sure I could have done that quite as easily as a child. I certainly wouldn't have stopped crying as easily.

The hardest thing about being an adult is the realization that, really, all adults feel like children. All that's keeping adults from acting like them are their experiences and responsibilities. I once read that the notion of childhood was a concept created by modern society that only started to take hold during the Enlightenment. Before that, children were pretty much treated as miniature adults. Later, writer and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau described childhood as a brief period of sanctuary before people encounter the hardships and perils of adulthood. I yearn for a return to that sanctuary, and then realize that even back then, the signs of my parents' discontent were knocking on the doors, whispering through the cracks, attempting to enter. At least now I can face my persecutors head on. Deep within me, there's the knowledge that, if things get truly scary, I can still call out for my mom and dad, and they still could rescue me. The difference is, now that I'm an adult, I can also rescue myself.

This post originally appeared on The Bold Italic.