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‘I Picked Up The Other Line And Heard My Father On The Phone With His Mistress’

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affairWhen Elizabeth M. was nine years old, her mother suddenly scooped up both she and her brother and fled England. The American family had formerly lived in Molesworth where her father, a navy captain, was stationed. But following some revelation, her mother brought the kids back to South Carolina where both she and her husband had grown up.

Elizabeth tells me that she became aware of some fundamental shift in her family, but the circumstances remained unclear to her. Then, while her father was visiting the family, the self-confessed “nosy” child says that she heard her father fighting with someone over the phone and picked up the other line. She then says that she heard her father talking to a woman with whom he had been having an affair.

“She was still in England and she was very upset that he was staying with us,” says Elizabeth. “Of course I told my mom everything when she got home.”

She recalls mostly hearing a lot of cussing on the line but says that she didn’t connect the dots when explaining the phone call to her mother. Elizabeth adds that she assumed her mother didn’t know about the affair at the time, but looking back, she clearly did. The knowledge of the affair had prompted the young mother to suddenly split from her husband and take her children back to the United States.

Elizabeth’s mother and her father had been considering reconciling at the time of the overheard phone call. As a coworker of her father’s, the other woman was even someone that young Elizabeth had previously been introduced to.

“He was sleeping was a subordinate from his job. That is a big deal in the military, apparently,” she remembers. “I remember meeting her. She came to dinner at our house, once.”

She remembers both of her parents discussing the phone call with her afterwards. She tells me that she is certain that her mother “said some comforting words,” but her father did share that he had been “seeing someone.” Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, a marriage and family therapist and author of A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage, says that when explaining infidelity to children, less details tend to be best for the child to avoid traumatizing them. Yet, even children who take infidelity in their parents’ partnerships “in stride” can become confused later on.

“Parents need to understand that eventually their kids will come to know quite a bit about the infidelity, ” says O’Neill. “Parents need to frame any discussion by the age and temperament of each child and be guided by their questions.  Never provide more information than what has been asked for — plus keep in mind this is not a time for you to unload your guilt. It is not about your needs.  Some kids can be traumatized by such parent behaviors, and others will take it in stride in the moment.  But be prepared to see them change course and become very confused.  And, unfortunately, you need to be prepared to feel defensive and confused yourself, knowing that you have to stay above your emotions.”

Elizabeth’s parents did officially divorce, which she describes as “very dysfunctional and very difficult.” Her father eventually married the woman with whom he had the affair and the “notorious” phone call. Her mother advocated therapy for both her children following the divorce, but Elizabeth resisted until she was 15 years old. Now in adulthood, Elizabeth credits her mother for her honesty and her ability to parent both she and her brother during an emotionally turbulent time as a single parent.

“My mom has been very open and honest with me about events that occurred during that time as an adult and it has helped a lot,” she says. “The fact that my mom got us out of that situation was the best thing she ever did for us. She became very independent after the divorce…she’s super woman — mother and father to my brother and I.”

She admits that her father’s infidelity has shaped her a bit in her adulthood which she cannot change, adding that:

“As a child, it’s crushing to put the pieces together and it becomes a little part of who you are and how you approach relationships. As an adult, I feel like you know and understand so much and it’s not very pleasant to face certain realities about your parents at that age, either.”

(photo: Shutterstock)