I’ll never forget the day I realized my brothers, sister and I were merely footnotes to the real family comprised only of my mother and father. That we were outsiders. Strangers. Aliens. ‘Red-headed step-children’ within our own family. Electrons allowed to circulate at a safe distance, never to be part of the nucleus.
On that day so many years ago, while we drank our tea, my parents suddenly began discussing going to hospital. I exchanged alarmed glances with my siblings. ‘Mam, why are we going to hospital?’ I voiced the question on all of our minds. Hurriedly doing the washing up, Mam nonchalantly responded over her shoulder, ‘Oh, Nan had a massive stroke this morning’.
We were shocked. Scared. Worried. There were tears. Our mother had no time for any of it. It hadn’t even occurred to her to tell her children that their grandmother was hovering at death’s door, let alone breaking it to us gently.
Now as adults, my siblings and I sometimes compare notes. We’ve discovered that, growing up, all of us felt the same way: like strangers in our own home. Together we puzzle over why our parents chose to treat us in this manner.
We also discovered our father had another child, born out-of-wedlock from a fling before he met our mother, in passing. ‘Clive’. The name kept cropping up in conversation between our parents. We had to ask who ‘Clive’ was. The nonchalant answer, ‘He’s your older half-brother’ shook our world to its foundations.
It never occurred to our parents that we deserved to know the truth. That it would matter to us. That the news should be broken gently; not abruptly, off-the-cuff.
When our parents marriage was rocked by infidelity, we were not told why there were explosive rows. Why our father temporarily moved into his own flat. We are still waiting for them to tell us the truth.
These and more experiences of this kind convinced me that parents should be utterly honesty with their children.
Did you abuse drugs? Tell your children.
Do you struggle with alcoholism? Tell your children.
Did you have a previous marriage(s)? Tell your children.
Do your kids have half-brothers and sisters? Tell your children.
Did you lose a child(ren) to miscarriage, cot death, illness? Tell your children.
Have you been diagnosed with a disease or health condition? Tell your children.
Has your child been diagnosed with a life-threatening condition? Tell your child. I mention this because my friend’s brother has never been told that his life will probably be shortened due to his health problems.
Parents may hesitate in disclosing their embarrassing secrets fearing that their children will disrespect them if they are privy to their human frailties and failings. Nothing could be further from the truth.
On the contrary, they will disrespect a parent with ugly secrets who never had the courage to be honest. A parent whose ego was so weak they didn’t have the confidence to be vulnerable. A parent who so disrespected their own child, they forced them to live with secrets that greatly affected them, while never revealing why the source of the angst, the confusion, the awkwardness.
‘But, but,’ I hear you saying, ‘my child will use my past mistakes and bad choices as an excuse to do the same thing.’ In other words, you fear your son will say, ‘But Dad you smoked weed. You’ve no grounds for telling me not to smoke weed. That’s hypocritical!’
Think about it. If your child intends to smoke weed, they will do it regardless of whether you smoked weed or not. The ‘but you did it Dad’ excuse is just that: an excuse. If they don’t use that excuse, they’ll use another excuse. However, a child will more respect the wishes of a parent who teaches from sad experience rather than one who seems to be merely a knee-jerk Puritan who disapproves of certain things for no particular reasoning.
My siblings and I all agree that what you don’t know, what you aren’t told, hurt you the most. The surprises we experienced by being treated as outsiders in our own family, are some of the most painful wounds we carry to this day, all the more painful because the truth came as a shock. When we discovered the truth, our worlds were turned arse-over-teakettle, over and over again.
Even worse than the surprises and shocks are the secrets. To this day, we all know there are secrets our parents are still keeping. Big secrets that would have changed the entire complexion of our family.
‘But they kept those secrets to protect you, Ivy’, I can hear you saying.
I disagree. My siblings and I could feel the secrets. Life was illogical and convoluted. We were forced to behave in certain ways and even avoid certain words, certain names but never were privy to the reasons behind these seemingly arbitrary demands.
We were actors in a play we didn’t know. No one had the script; some of the characters were missing. Some had the wrong names.
Naturally, this led to conjecture as my siblings and I guessed at what the obscured secrets could be. In the absence of the truth, we may have guessed something much worse than the actual truth. One of my brothers is convinced that the Family Secret is that our father is a closet paedophile. Not a pleasant thing to think. The Family Secret is probably much less horrible than my brother’s assumption, although there are many indications that my brother may be spot on.
Children have acute intuition and will know if you are withholding information from them. They can acutely feel being the outsider, the stranger in their own family. It’s not a pleasant feeling. Don’t let your children feel the way my siblings and I feel: unwelcome strangers in what should have been a warm, welcoming, inclusive family.