Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

Should You Confess Your Secrets?

Telling lies—or hiding painful truths—within a family can be dangerous.

Does your family have a secret?

I remember the strange way I learned that my mother had had an abortion. I was in my twenties, writing a short story about a made-up dark secret in a made-up family, when I turned to my mother in the kitchen and said, "Did you ever have an abortion?"

To me, it was a moment following the workings of memory and fantasy. I had been discovering that when I wrote I would unconsciously pull up details from a layer of memory I couldn't otherwise tap. I'd make up a detail and then learn that it was true—from another part of my life. 

My current story involved abortion in some way.

So I guessed that somehow some part of me "knew" that my mother had had an abortion.

I did not expect her reaction.

My mother turned white. "What makes you say that?"

"I don't know. It just popped into my head."

So the true story came out, making my mother cry. She didn't want the abortion and was ashamed of it and angry about the circumstances more than 25 years later.

At the time we both thought it was peculiar and meaningful that I had guessed something important about my mother that she never wanted me to know. But in retrospect, there's a simpler explanation.

Many women have abortions and don't tell their children about them.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 3 in 10 American women currently will have an abortion by the age of 45.

My mother's occurred in the 1960s, in Puerto Rico, because abortion was illegal in the United States.   The yearly rate of abortion (as a percentage of pregnancies) here peaked in the early eighties at around 30% and has been declining since to around 17%. 

Psychologists say that painful secrets can hurt an entire family’s mental health for a long time. Some children are highly perceptive and sense that something important is hidden. Young children may feel that they are personally responsible for the "bad thing" or they may simply be afraid. If a secret is maintained by lies, the discovery may lead to distrust. That distrust can grow into a sense of unreality—of not knowing what is real in your world and what is not. Stressful secrets can lead to illness—symptoms like anxiety, headaches, backaches and digestive problems—for the person with the secret and children who are close by and pick up the stress.

All this suggests that if you have a secret in your family, and your children are now old enough to understand, you might consider breaking your silence.

Still, I'd also invite you to respect your own privacy. 

Was it good for my mother—or me—that I learned this truth about her?

I don't know. I could argue either side. We already were close. We were both pro-choice, but agreed that abortions were sad and should be avoided. I believe my mother felt invaded by my question and humiliated. We didn't find a new openness. When I brought up the idea of a "missing sibling" once later on, she was furious. I never mentioned it again.

She is gone now. Is it wrong for me to be betraying her secret? 

Your reaction to that will tell you something about how you feel about secrets. 

My mother would have agreed with me in principle that no women should be ashamed to admit that she had an abortion. Hence this post. But the complex reality of secrets is that you need to pick your moment, your audience, and the right circumstances to shine light in the dark place.   

Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.

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