Ending the Legacy of Family Secret-Keeping

In a healthy family or relationship, you tell the truth, and you share what you are afraid of. I am dismantling the system of secret keeping, for myself and for my children, one day at a time.
07/30/2015 03:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

2015-07-30-1438228532-3403493-daddyhuffpo.jpgI was sitting on the couch when my son approached me. The afternoon was turning dusky and it was a rare moment of quiet in a household with three young children. He sat next to me and said, "Mama, I feel weird about something." An observant and thoughtful child, my oldest son often surprises me with his concerns, and my curiosity was piqued. "What is it, sweetheart?" I asked him gently. "Someone asked me to keep a secret, but you told me that I should never keep secrets from you."

I immediately felt the hairs raising on the back of my neck and a flush moving up into my cheeks. With effort, I calmly asked him to tell me who had asked him to keep a secret, all the while feeling aware of my heart beating in my chest. He paused, and in that extended moment every possibility ran through my mind. Did someone touch him? Is he being bullied? Is he in danger? Finally, he said, "Yiayia." The Greek word for grandmother hung in the air and dropped into my lap. I suppose I should have felt relieved that it was my mother and not a sleazy perpetrator, but the history was too much. "Yiayia gave me some candy. But she told me not to tell you. She said it was our secret." While the candy might seem sweet and harmless, initiating secret-keeping and building alliances left a bitter taste in my mouth.

When I was growing up secrets tainted the air like the stench of heavy rotting fruit dropping from tree branches. The secrets hung from every twig, twisted every leaf, bored holes into fruit, and destroyed it. A common precursor to countless sentences was, "Don't tell your father." I have taught my children that it's bad to keep secrets. That if anyone tells them to keep a secret - especially from me - that they should come and tell me right away. I try to teach them the difference between secrets and surprises. Surprises are when you want to delight someone and you always intend to tell them. Secrets are something that you hold in your chest with heaviness and fear others knowing. Surprises make you feel happy. Secrets can make you feel scared and uncomfortable.

Looking at my son, I felt a sudden grief. His level of discomfort and confusion with the secret was much larger than a candy bar or lollipop. My heart grew heavier with each question he asked. "If secrets are bad, why would my Yiayia ask me to keep one? Am I bad that I kept the secret until now?" I assured him that it was Yiayia who'd made the mistake when she asked him to keep a secret and I would tell her never to do it again. I assured him that I was so proud of him for coming to me and telling me. I thought about my mother and the way secret-keeping had originated as a way to protect herself, but had become a habit she was barely aware of. I imagined her telling my sweet son, "Don't tell your mother," and I could barely contain my sense of furious betrayal.

When my older sister was a little girl, my father would sit her on his lap. He always kept hard candies in the pocket of his red plaid flannel robe. He would extend a candy to my sister and ask, "What did your mother do today? Did she talk on the phone? Who did she talk to? Did she stay inside the house? Did anyone come here to the house?" My sister would be so tempted by the candy that she would report my mother's activities to my father, and he would reward her with the sweet. He cultivated her to be his miniature spy. She was too young to know what it all meant. Too innocent to know what the candy was buying. The more my father spied on my mother, the more secretive my mother became, and that is how the phrase, "Don't tell your father" became so important in our domestic sphere.

I don't know that my mother ever did anything to warrant the suspicion, the distrust, the surveillance, but I do know that no one deserves to live their life under that kind of scrutiny. Her secrets became a survival tool, because if my father didn't like what my mother had done on any particular day, there was hell to pay. So we all learned to play the secret keeping game.

There was no real reason for the majority of the secrets we kept, except for fear of my father's interpretation, or tyrannical reaction. Keeping the secrets made me feel as if I never had solid footing, that I could never keep track of all the lies told in the name of self-protection. The secrets kept the tirades at bay, but they also fed his suspicion.

Once I grew up and left my family home I never wanted to keep secrets again. I never wanted to tell lies, or even to hide my opinion. I became confidently outspoken, sometimes to a fault. But recently, I've realized that the habit of secret-keeping dies slowly. That I have an ingrained belief that sometimes withholding information is a way to keep safe. In the context of my upbringing, it makes sense that I would hold that unconscious belief. But I sometimes withhold information that is entirely benign. It's like a tic in my personality, the compulsion to withhold details. To hoard the truth. It was part of my family culture. It brings to mind the times I have compulsively eaten in private, each bite a secret, perhaps fueled by a desperate desire to feel safe. But both of these behaviors--withholding information and eating in unhealthy ways, leave me with a heavy feeling in my chest and fear of being found out. So just like I try to teach my children, I am trying to teach myself. In a healthy family or relationship, you tell the truth, and you share what you are afraid of. I am dismantling the system of secret keeping, for myself and for my children, one day at a time.