August 1979, thirty-five years ago this month, was the first time I felt I was more of an adult than my parents. After my husband and I graduated from law school and took the bar exam, he had to go on his two weeks’ annual training with the Naval Reserves, and I went to visit my parents.
My parents were typically rational people, and they’d known each other since high school. I thought they didn’t have any secrets from each other. (I’d only been married twenty-one months at the time—I hadn’t yet realized that a few little secrets are good for a marriage.)
During my trip to see my parents that summer, I learned that each of them had a secret they were keeping from the other. A big secret. And they each told their secrets to me.
My mother needed a hysterectomy, but she said, “don’t tell your father.” The surgery would require several weeks of recuperation, and my mother was my younger siblings’ chief chauffeur, as well as doing everything needed to keep the family’s home running smoothly.
My father was considering taking a new job across the state, but he said, “don’t tell your mother.” Any move from the house my parents had occupied for seventeen years would obviously impact the entire family.
In the wisdom of my twenty-three years of age and newlywed status, I knew these were secrets my parents needed to share. “Don’t you think you need to talk?” I told them both, in separate conversations.
Well, my parents did talk not long after I left to return to my home. My mother had the surgery and recovered just fine. My father took the new job, and the family worked out the transition to new home and schools.
And I learned that even responsible adults sometimes need a sounding board.
In the intervening years, I have encountered many more occasions when people I relied on have needed my attention and concern. My mother, as she declined with Alzheimer’s in her last few years. My father as he cared for her and now faces her estate issues. My husband as he dealt with his own disappointments in life. Bosses, who may have wanted to seem omnipotent, but needed to bounce ideas off someone they trusted before making information public.
The trick to being a good sounding board, I discovered, is to listen. I’m told I interrupt my family members too often. But I hope when it counts, I can listen.
I hope also that I can let others come to their own realization of the appropriate next steps. Sometimes they can use a nudge. But most people appreciate the opportunity to develop their next steps in their own time.
I can’t say my husband and I have always been completely open with each other in our thirty-seven years of marriage. We’re both introverted and like to think things through on our own. But I have always remembered those conversations with my parents in August 1979, and tried to be sure I didn’t keep big secrets from my husband.
And he’s usually a pretty good sounding board for me.
When have you served as a sounding board for others? When have you needed a sounding board yourself?