Our Gender, Ourselves

The changing American family

What Secrets Do

Glynnis has a secret. A big one.

Glynnis has a secret. A big one. When she was 17, she had a child that she gave up for adoption. Over the years, she came to terms with that, with a confidence that—as painful as it was—it was the right thing to do. As an admittedly immature teenager in an already troubled family, she knows she would have been spectacularly unprepared to raise a child.

But the secret has seeped back into her life. She has a husband of 15 years, who shares her secret, and two girls ages twelve and nine who do not. “I’m really torn,” she told me. “Part of me feels that a mistake I made years ago does not need to barge into their lives. But the older they get, another part of me feels they have the right to know—because I don’t like hiding things from them, and because they have a half brother out there. And I guess I’m also afraid of their reaction to knowing that their mother was irresponsible enough to get pregnant and then give her baby to strangers.” 

The pain of revealed secrets has been headline news with a steady stream of politicians and celebrities, and the media—from tabloid to mainstream—has created a thriving industry in revealing what public figures desperately want others not to know. And time and again, part of the spectacle is the pain on the faces of the betrayed.

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The pain is especially excruciating when the secret is dragged out into the town square by the media. Cate Edwards, daughter of John and Elizabeth Edwards spoke in a Today interview for the first time this year about learning of her father’s secret life with Rielle Hunter. “I was devastated and disappointed,” she said. “I mean these are my parents. I had grown up with a lot of love in my family.” 

Glynnis’ fears about risking that same disappointment are well-founded. It’s said that a secret spoken finds wings. And we never know what direction those wings might take. It’s possible her daughters will process the news, ask some questions, catalogue it as part of mom’s past that doesn’t particularly affect their lives or the family, and move on. She may find support—as John Edwards did when Cate stood by him in court on campaign corruption charges through hurtful details of the affair. But it’s also possible that her past will change their present. They might question her advice about boys and dating. They might wonder how she could give away a child. They might question if they really know this person who has been at their side their whole lives.

What to do?

In Glynnis’ case, there is a practical consideration. A Search Institute study reported by The American Adoption Congress found that 65 percent of adopted American adolescents wanted to meet their birth parents. So there is a chance—as with many secrets in the age of universal information—she might find one day that her secret is on the phone. The same might be true of the surfacing of a long-ago arrest record, or an Internet mug shot. 

But even with the confidence that a long-buried secret will stay that way, there are considerations that go beyond the odds of it being revealed.

One is what happens to keeper of the secret. Internalizing emotions can cause illness—ranging from headaches, digestive problems and, as in Glynnis’ case, a corrosive anxiety.

A major family secret that has not been shared can also set up an alternate reality. Especially for children, a family is built largely on trust. They need to believe. If they find out that part of their belief—say, that dad wouldn’t break the law—isn’t true, then the solid platform of trust can shatter? If this is a lie, then what else is? That open question can lead suspicions and resentments that can follow them through life. 

Parents who choose not to take that chance face a difficult question. What is the right time?

For young children, it’s probably best to wait, since they won’t be able to fully understand what they’re being told—just that it’s bad, it’s about mom or dad, and it somehow involves them or they would be told about it. By adolescence, and depending on the child, they should be able to understand what they’re being told, why they’re being told, and why they haven’t been told before. By adulthood the issue of need to know becomes entitled to know—even at the risk of shaking the foundations of beliefs about their families that have shaped their lives.

In Still Life With Elephant, which centers on a woman struggling with her husband’s affair, Judy Reene Singer wrote: “Secrets are like plants. They can stay buried deep in the earth for a long time, but eventually they’ll send up shoots and give themselves away. They have to. It’s their nature.” Eventually they grow into “a fully bloomed flower perfumed with the scent of deception.”

We can’t change the past. But we can take charge of its ramifications. It’s tempting to keep our failures safely buried. But for our own health and the trust of those around us, and when the time is right, it’s best to expose them to the light of day. 

 

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com

 

 

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and their children.

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