It’s seven months since Juliet Bridges and her husband split up and he moved out, but why have they decided against telling their daughter, nine, and son, seven?
- Juliet Bridges @ The Guardian
“He had to go,” I said brightly. “He’s so busy these days.” Soothed by the not-quite explanation, she jumped into the empty side of the bed. My seven-year-old son followed shortly. He never questions his father’s absence. To him, that’s just the way it is.
The truth is that my husband moved out last Christmas, but we haven’t yet told the kids. We had been talking about splitting up since July and had been leading separate lives. In fact, the split happened so gradually, I barely noticed. His periods of absence grew longer and longer until, one day, he just didn’t come back. At least, not to stay. He continues to return twice a week on his “babysitting nights” and every other weekend, so his contact with the children hasn’t really changed. If anything, he sees them more regularly. And though he is always gone by the morning, even that isn’t unusual as his disappearing acts have been the one constant in our 15-year marriage. The children have never known a “normal” family life.
So we play out this charade of happy families and most of the time life trundles along much as before, more or less happily. We spent Christmas and Easter together, with his parents. We have one family meal or outing a week. We are even going on a family holiday this summer, the first in four years.
But I do worry that in trying to protect our children, we are somehow setting them up for an even bigger fall. That all this tiptoeing around the subject – the half-truths and out-and-out lies – will somehow backfire. So why haven’t we told them? We don’t want to upset them. And because once we’ve done that, there’s no going back.
The one time my daughter asked me straight “Are you and Daddy going to split up?” I couldn’t fob her off any more. My answer, I felt – after talks with our Relate counsellor and my husband – should open the way for discussion. “I don’t know, darling,” I said. “Sometimes when people fight, it’s better that they don’t live together.” The results were cataclysmic. “There won’t be a happy-ever-after,” she wailed over and over. My little boy simply refused to believe it. “Don’t be silly, Mummy and Daddy will never split up,” was all he would say.
My husband was furious and now we have agreed to keep up a united front until after Daisy has started her new school. The feeling is, at least from my husband’s side, that the stress of exams together with the stress of a parental split will be too much for her. I think he could be right. But still I’m uneasy.
We are not the only parents being economical with the truth. One of my friends, Charlotte, diagnosed with breast cancer last summer, hasn’t told her 10-year old daughter the full diagnosis. “We don’t mention the C-word. Too alarmist,” she tells me. Since she was initially diagnosed with pre-cancerous cells and offered a mastectomy, Charlotte felt a positive spin was the best way forward. “Sophie knew I had a sore breast, as she’d sometimes knock it when we were larking around. I was able to tell her, quite truthfully, ‘the doctor can take out the hurty bit, which is great.’ It all felt very manageable. It didn’t seem necessary to give her any more information.
“I was really led by her and how much she was able to handle, in the same way as I did with Father Christmas and the tooth fairy. I think you have to respond to your own child; you know what they can handle.”
When the tests revealed invasive cells, Charlotte took the decision not to elaborate. “I didn’t want her to hear that word – cancer – and think, Mummy is going to die,” says Charlotte. “Or other mothers talking to their children about it and them reporting back to Sophie.”
“I never felt I was lying. She knew the basics. At the beginning, she asked, ‘Is it the thing Kylie had?’ And I was able to say, ‘It would be if we didn’t get it sorted out.’
“When I had the treatment she saw my scars and that I was losing my hair. And we would talk about it. I would say, ‘This is to make sure the naughty bits don’t come back.'”
Charlotte’s treatment, which included chemotherapy and surgery, has finished now. Her prognosis is good and her daughter seems to have come through largely unscathed. “We’ve tried to be very positive and keep things as normal as possible and she has definitely been reassured by that,” says Charlotte.
When her daughter is a teenager, Charlotte says that she will have a more adult conversation about it, but until then she sees the whole truth as surplus to requirements.
My friend’s sensitive approach paid off and probably saved her daughter a lot of unnecessary pain. I imagine that’s what my father hoped to achieve, by keeping my own mother’s illness a secret. She had gone to hospital with migraines when I was nine. I only discovered how sick she really was three months later, when I was called to the front of the class at school, to be told by the teacher – a terrifying sergeant major character – that he was “terribly sorry” and I was welcome to cry in the toilet. That night I learned she had died.
It wasn’t until four years later, aged 13, that I discovered the mystery illness that killed her wasn’t a headache but a brain tumour. To this day I haven’t talked to my father about what happened. It would only upset him. The unspoken message was loud and clear: “We don’t talk about cancer, and we don’t talk about Mummy.” My father thought he was being kind, but it only prolonged the grief. It was an incredible burden to carry and I think it stopped me opening up to friends and boyfriends. So why am I employing a similar, “What they don’t know, won’t hurt,” approach with my own kids?
I’m not alone in adopting this duplicitous parenting style. Many parents lie to their children as a matter of course, a study in the Journal of Moral Education suggests. Even parents who place a high value on honesty, regularly use white lies to control their children or present more palatable versions of the truth, with more than 80% of parents lying occasionally.
Professor Gail Heyman, of the University of California, San Diego, who conducted the study, concluded that even small white lies undermine the parental bond. In short, if you tell children that lying is the worst thing you can do, what will they think when they find out that you have lied to them?
If the tooth fairy has the potential to undermine the parent-child relationship, I hate to think what will happen when my children eventually twig, as they surely must, that things between Mummy and Daddy aren’t as they should be.
Neil Austin, a consultant child and adolescent psychotherapist at Great Ormond Street hospital in London, says that chronic lying and secrets are rife in dysfunctional families. He cites one 14-year-old depressed patient whose mother blithely announced, “Her father’s not her real dad, but please don’t mention it” – thus inviting him to collude in the family’s secret. “The question one always has to ask is ‘who is the lie for?’ A temporary withholding of information or white lie is understandable, even helpful, if it is to protect the child from something they cannot make sense of or emotionally manage, but at some point the child is going to need help understanding and knowing about a difficult fact, and this process requires a cautious and sensible approach from the adult.
“On the other hand, keeping the secret usually leads adults to increasingly elaborate lies and this is, more often than not, for the adult’s benefit. The difficulties they may have in facing up to their own actions, perhaps stemming from guilt or a very low sense of confidence in their own ability to take responsibility, can lead to damaging consequences in the child’s emotional development and for their relationships.”
The other problem arises when pieces of the jigsaw don’t quite fit together. “Children fill in the gaps with fantasy,” says Austin. “They need to make sense and have a narrative that explains what’s happening around them. They need to believe their parents are ‘good’ – and that means not lying.”
What is more, in the child’s self-centred world, they are all too ready to shoulder responsibility. When, for example, there is an alcoholic in the family, but everyone denies it, the child may blame themselves for the parent’s erratic and aggressive behaviour. In our own situation, I hate to think how this might translate – maybe, “Daddy’s not here because I’ve been bad”?
When I run this hypothesis by my husband, he is incredulous. His attitude is: “What could they possibly imagine that’s worse than that their parents are splitting up and can’t live together?” He doesn’t buy the idea that our kids are suffering, their school work has never been better and they are a lot more sprightly, he points out, since he moved out.
In The Secret Life of Families, the family therapist Dr Evan Imber-Black says that family secrets can freeze development, divide families and deter new relationships. It’s not really what I want to hear. Imber-Black says that secrets can cause trouble in different ways. They divide family members; discourage individuals from opening up to anyone outside the family, inhibiting intimate relationships; and they can freeze development at crucial points in life, preventing the growth of identity. However, he also believes that if cultural norms once made shameful secrets out of too many things, the assumption that telling secrets – no matter how, when, or to whom – is morally superior and somehow automatically healing, is equally deluded. His experience has shown that revealing secrets in the wrong way or at the wrong time can be damaging.
He cites the example of one client, who came to him aged 34, listless and directionless, seemingly stuck in an almost teenage identity. It later emerged that his mother had visited during his first term at college with her longtime lover and confided that this was his sister’s real father, not her husband as she’d led them to believe. Shortly afterwards, his client dropped out of university, returning home to “protect” his sister from this terrible family secret. The ill-timed revelation not only stalled his own bid for freedom, but also stunted his identity.
So where does that leave me?
“Your white lies are more gaps in the story,” says Austin. “Not fully fledged lies, but it’s only a temporary position. Eventually the truth is always needed. If you are withholding information to protect the children, you can only do that for so long. If a lie becomes entrenched it will be damaging. Children are very insightful. I’m sure your daughter is on to something.”
He’s right, Daisy has recently started saying things such as “Let’s have a family hug!” Or: “When can we have a ‘family’ day?”, which would seem to indicate that she knows something is amiss.
And, as Austin points out, children must eventually learn that in real life endings aren’t always happy. “Where anything disappointing or difficult is turned away from, you develop a child who can’t deal with reality. Children need help to cope, otherwise you are storing up problems for relationships and their careers.” One pathological outcome is an adult who copes by perverting the truth whenever things don’t turn out as they would like.
“Secrets are terrible things,” agrees the child psychologist, Kathleen Doorbar. “They are infectious and destroy families. You develop a culture of keeping things to yourself. Secrets are something all child abusers rely on: ‘Don’t tell Mummy, or something bad will happen.’ What you’re doing in this situation is trying to protect them, and you’re doing it for all the right reasons, but in the long-term it doesn’t work.”
She doesn’t, however, believe that our family charade is necessarily a bad thing. To my relief, she says that what we are doing is probably the gentlest approach. “A gradual process is quite kind. You can say, ‘Daddy is away, he’s got a lot to think about.’ Then, ‘He loves you and cares about Mummy, but he is staying with friends for now because he’s feeling worried,’ says Doorbar. The ‘cut-throat’ way of breaking the news: ‘Daddy’s gone and he’s not coming back,’ tends to be more traumatic. The first stages should be gentle. You don’t want to plunge your children into an unknown world. The fact that they are seeing a lot of Dad is great. It’s kind and compassionate.”
Overall, her advice is reassuring. There are so many children whose parents are separated, she says, that it will be a temporary trauma and not a long-term scar. “What you are doing isn’t extraordinary. Children are very resilient, all they really want to know is that there are two people who are very interested in them.” She suggests buying my daughter – who at nine is more aware of the world and likely to be worse affected – a pet, a cat or dog, or even a rabbit, she can “confide in”. Not something that would delight my husband, unfortunately, who believes animals belong in the wild and should not be kept as pets.
On her advice, I’ve dropped the pretence that my husband is always working. Yesterday, when my daughter inquired about her father’s whereabouts, I said he was staying with his friend. When she asked why, I said because he has his own room there. ‘Oh yes, she said, because he does snore doesn’t he?’ and carried on brushing her teeth.
It’s not the full story, just the version of events I’m comfortable with at the moment. As my friend Charlotte says: “At a deeper level, it’s about telling Sophie the version I can handle. It’s as much about reassuring that scared child inside of me.”
And that’s the crux of it. If I’m honest with myself, I’m just not ready to give up on “happy ever after” any more than my kids are.
All relevant names have been changed
Taken from The Guardian: Life and Style, Family . July 2010