September 7th, 2014
I kept a lot of secrets from my mother—and not just the ones you might imagine, the ones that could have gotten me into trouble. When I got my period at 13, I didn’t tell my mother. Other girls were laughing about how their mothers gave them a surprise congratulatory slap on the cheek followed by a long hug (a tradition) or took them out for fancy lunches or engaged in buying-of-the-feminine-products rituals or gave them “today you are a woman” speeches with tears in their eyes.
I walked to Kaminsky’s Drugstore and bought a box of Kotex (tampons were reputed to de-virginize you, according to intel gleaned from the wall of the girls’ bathroom stall). I hid the box under a spiral notebook I didn’t need, waited until Mr. Kaminsky went back to the storeroom to check on something, and quickly made my purchase from Mrs. Kaminsky, who was only slightly less intimidating (and looked uncannily like her husband, including the discernible mustache). It was my moment. My uncomfortable, semi-terrifying, I’m-a-grown-up moment. For me, getting my period was an intensely private time, a time not to share but to be silent, to go inward.
A few years later, when I learned I would be receiving a writing award in high school, I kept it to myself. Eventually, I told my parents. But that moment, that day, all that week until the letter arrived in the mail, I walked around empowered by my secret. Maybe a little smug. It felt like a time to savor, to expand, to grow just a little into the kind of person I might become.
That person was a secret, too. Oh yes, I talked with my parents about colleges and potential majors. But this was exchange of information not personal disclosure, not a revealing of self. Inside I was busy trying to figure out who I wanted to be when I left home.
So a big reason I kept secrets—not the I-drank-at-a-party-and-threw-up kind of secrets (which, of course, I also kept)—was that I needed to feel a sense of ownership over my own life. Though, I certainly wouldn’t have expressed it like that back then. It seemed, at 15 or 16 or 17, that nothing really belonged to me. Everything was someone else’s domain, someone else’s turf. Someone else called the shots. My room, my clothes, the food I ate, the schedule I kept, what I could and couldn’t do, what I was supposed to care about and when—were all determined or heavily influenced and overseen by other people: my mother, my father, my teachers.
But my secrets … they were my own. I had the power to grant access or not. Most often I chose not. I think this helped forge my independence. I believe, in retrospect, that it nurtured my sense of self-worth. But it also created, maintained—and widened—the distance between my mother and me.
She kept her secrets, too. I knew almost nothing about my mother other than that small sliver of her life she lived in my presence. Maybe she needed to preserve something as well, something that was not mother or wife. Something that was just her, unknowable, untouchable. We were two secret selves living our lives on parallel tracks. Parallel tracks don’t cross.
And now, a word from the teenage daughter:
You know that party I went to on Saturday? No parents. Yes, booze.
Remember when I was upstairs last night doing my homework? I was chatting on Facebook while surfing YouTube.
You think I eat that packed lunch at school? Not since 5th grade.
Yes, your teen keeps secrets from you. Yes, I keep secrets from my mom. That’s just the way it is.
We keep secrets about our bodies, our friends, our love life, what happens at school, risky behaviors, bad choices. Why? Well, most of the secrets have to do with things we’ve done wrong, and we know they’re wrong so we figure we’re going to get in trouble. Like yelled at, grounded or lectured. Lectures are the worst.
We also know that if we tell you, besides being punished we will be disappointing you. And even though you might think we don’t care about that, we do. And here’s something else that I never really thought about until sitting down to write this: When you tell your mom a secret and say it out loud, it becomes real. You can’t rationalize it away in your head. And teens do that all the time. So your secret is out there and you’re admitting it, and that’s scary.
And then there’s just some things that we don’t tell our mom that have nothing to do with being “bad.” Like doubts we might have about ourselves or things we’re unsure about or hurtful comments others make. Why? Because we just don’t want our moms to know everything.
So how do you talk to your teens about secrets they may be keeping? Imagine yourself in their shoes. Imagine how they might be feeling. Like, scared. Can you find a balance between being interested in their lives and not prying? Can you find a balance between relating to them and telling some endless story that begins, “When I was your age…”
Have lots of casual conversations in everyday life. Have a basic idea about what your teen’s life is like. Having some BIG talk when something seems to be wrong or troubling is a really bad idea. And hey, don’t trap them at home or in the car because they’ll feel pressured and the whole conversation will feel like an interrogation.
Do this in a public place! No teen wants to make a scene in a public place.