The thing about telling our stories is there’s what actually happened, which is always open for discussion, and how you remember it, which is still true. I have always believed that what we remember has its own honesty even when it’s wrong.
Sometimes when my clients say something like, “I don’t know what’s true” and there’s no way of knowing, I tell them that what feels true can be as important as what is true.
Here is one of my true/false stories.
When I was nine years old and in third grade, I met Jenny, who was in fourth grade. The third and fourth grade had recess together but we generally didn’t socialize with one another because in elementary school even a year can make a big difference. I felt like a big shot — and a little bit over my station — to be hanging with her on the playground.
That day was cold and snowy. The kids had worn down an icy path from the doors to the school all the way across the field where the boys would play soccer. All the big fourth grade kids were lined up and they were taking turns running and then sliding across the slippery stretch. Normally this was not something I would do. Normally I would be waiting for my turn at the swings. But Jenny encouraged me to give it a try and feeling adventurous in more ways than one, I ran and slid for one heady moment before my legs went out from under me and I landed right on my tailbone.
The air went out of me. I thought I was dying. I didn’t think it was possible to lose my breath so completely and still live. Somehow I turned over and scrabbled to my knees, trying to crawl away from the kids who were crowding around me. I was dying — I was sure of it — and everyone was just standing around helpless, watching. The playground aide finally got there and knelt down to listen to me wheeze.
“Get them away from me!” I managed to say, embarrassed to be so stunningly incapacitated in front of the big-kid fourth graders. My breath was coming back and I wasn’t going to die but I very nearly wanted to because I was so humiliated. I wanted to go home. But my mom wasn’t home that day.
My mom was always home but that day she wasn’t because she was applying to go to school so she could go to work. And what I remember is that this was good news (for her) and that she was clearly happy and excited about school/work but that this felt like a betrayal because not only was she not home that day, she was happy not to be home that day. I needed her and she wasn’t there and she was happy not to be there. Of course she didn’t know I would fall and need her but this didn’t matter to me. My memory is of being abandoned even though I know for a fact that this isn’t true.
That is how that part of that day is burned into my brain. Sitting painfully at school. Riding the bus home biting back tears. Getting off at the neighbor’s house instead of my own and trying not to cry until my mother came to get us.
Here is the therapeutic take on this.
There are other parts of the day that are missing. Like I am sure that before I fell that I was neutral about my mom being gone because she didn’t enter my mind much except as my mother (i.e., she didn’t exist without me) and going to the neighbor’s after school meant Atari and Hostess snacks — two things that were off limits at my own house.
This day — as traumatic as it was — was nothing outside the ordinary, really. Kids fall down. Moms have appointments. Neighbors step in. But this day looms large in my mind because it’s all mixed up in my mom going from housewife to worker, from wife to single mother. Even though it was three more years before my parents divorced, I’ve imbued that day with heavy meaning, as if it symbolized everything that came after.
Before I could move through my feelings about the divorce (this came up when I went into therapy as a teen), I had to quit trying to talk myself out of the feelings. First I had to face the feelings and then I was able to face the facts. First came the indulgence and the tears and then when I quit trying to explain away my feelings by repeating the Truth all of the time, I was able to let it go.
I was not abandoned but on that day I felt abandoned and this feeling is magnified in my memory by what came after (my parents’ divorce).
When I’m talking to a client who’s saying, “I shouldn’t feel this way” or “I have no right to be so upset” or “I don’t know why I’m so hurt, she was doing the best she can” I ask them to just be with the feelings for awhile. I acknowledge the feelings and ask them to join me in this acknowledgment.
There is time to get to the big picture but before we can get there, we need to stay with the small ones and the feelings that they bring.
Most adoptive parents I know struggle with talking to their children about some aspect of their adoptions. Very often those parents are trying to figure out how to tell specifics that may be difficult or painful but sometimes they are coming to me to get support for keeping secrets. But the problem with secrets is that they’re very nearly impossible to keep if:
- Anyone else on the planet knows it (a best friend, a social worker, a birth family member, a far-flung relative, a neighbor, etc.);
- It’s written down anywhere (in court records, in medical records, in someone’s diary, online, in a safe deposit box, on an internet message board, etc.).
The parents who want to keep parts of the stories are well intentioned; they want to protect their children. Unfortunately, we can’t protect our children from all the pain that life has to offer no matter how hard we try.
I know (trust me, I know personally) that it sucks to be the bearer of bad news. It is a hard, hard thing to have to be the one to face a child’s questions with honesty when you know that being honest will case pain. It’s tempting to fudge a little (or a lot) but our kids need to know that no matter how hard the truth is, no matter how difficult it is to hear, we will be there with them. We need to show them that we will not abandon them to deal with it on their own; we will stand by them.
Secrets should always be told before they’re discovered because as difficult as telling can be, discovering is so much worse. That doesn’t mean every parent has to figure it all out NOW — the when, where and how of telling — but it does mean that parents need to be thinking on it.
On Sunday, September 15th at 2pm I’ll be offering a 2-hour workshop on Talking To Kids About Adoption. Registration is very limited both because my office is small and because I want to be sure that everyone has a chance to ask questions. The cost is $25 a person and refreshments will be provided. Childcare will not be available.
If you’re in central Ohio and interested in getting help in talking to your child about his or her adoption, please register.
The other day I was headed to a meeting, listening to NPR in the radio. Fresh Air was on and Terry Gross was interviewing Sarah Polley about her new documentary, Stories We Tell, which is about Sarah examining the story she was told. Sarah’s mother died when she was eleven and she died without telling Sarah that her husband was not Sarah’s biological father. Sarah discovered this as an adult and she was the one who ultimately had to tell her dad that they’re not biologically related.
I stopped and listened because the parallels to closed adoption and parents who don’t tell their children when they are conceived donor gametes are so similar (except that in those cases one can assume that both parents know the secret).
In the featured quotes pulled out from the interview, Sarah says she doesn’t regret her mother choosing to keep this secret.
“To be honest, I don’t see what the point would have been [of] telling me when I was a child about this. I mean, I was growing up as a member of the Polley family and I was very much a part of that family, and I’m not sure what the point would have been in adding all this confusion.”
When I heard that I thought about the many parents who will take that and hold it tight to justify their own secret keeping. But note that her mother died when she was eleven. And note, too, that the story is complicated by the fact that Sarah was conceived during an adulterous affair.
I wonder if/when Sarah’s mother would have finally told her. By keeping the secret, Sarah’s mother gave away her opportunity to be the person to tell her daughter, to ask her for understanding, to explain herself. She also made the decision for Sarah to not know her own truth and the decision for her husband and Sarah’s biological father to not know either; she gave away their opportunities, too. And she saddled Sarah with the responsibility to keep the secret since Sarah knew for some time before she told her father (her hand was forced when a journalist confronted her with it).
That is a lot — A LOT — to put on your kid.
I haven’t seen the movie and I don’t know why Sarah’s mother made the decision she did although I am sure her intentions were good.
Parents keep secrets because they want to protect their children but the secret-keeping can do more harm than the secret itself ever could. Because when the child (or adult) finds out the truth they have to contend with this truth and also their feelings about having that truth kept from them.
If you’re trying to figure out how to talk to your child about his or her adoption or conception story, please think of giving me a call. Maybe I can help you sort through the muddle.
It’s a cliche about men and women — women want men to listen and men want to fix the problem — but the truth is that most of us could do a better job of just listening and reflecting back. Which leads me to this short, funny video:
It’s Not About the Nail from Jason Headley on Vimeo.
It’s so so so frustrating when the problem is obviously right there and the person gets angry when you point it out. It’s especially frustrating when that problem is becoming your problem, too (there at the end of the video). But if you can reflect first and reflect well, sometimes the person you’re talking to will relax enough to let you state the obvious. If they feel validated they may be able to see your good intentions instead of assuming you are trying to dismiss them and push them to a place that they’re not ready to go.
In any case it’s worth a try seeing as how it sure doesn’t work the other way.
One reason we have so many disagreements with each other is that there is Big Truth and little truth and we get mixed up over which is which.
There is the Truth (I walked towards you) and the truth (I lunged at you aggressively, I simpered as I tiptoed to you, I drunkenly veered your way). We both may agree on the Truth (I did indeed move from one end of the room to the other end of the room where you were standing) but we may violently disagree on the truth. You might say I deliberately tracked mud onto your just shampooed carpet. I might say that I was in a hurry because the phone was ringing. We might both be right. We might both be wrong.
Clearly, truth telling can create a lot of conflict.
So much of our struggling in our relationships has to do with telling our truths and denying your truths. We get hung up on specifics and never get to what’s really wrong. We are so busy defending our truth (You did call. You did not call. You never call. Well, you’re never home.) and so we argue argue argue but we never make any resolution.
A long time ago there was a woman at the shelter where I worked who was a liar. She had a very complex, very disturbing story about abuse and it was clearly not true (nor was she delusional). One of the case managers got a little obsessed with trying to get this woman to admit that the story wasn’t true but the rest of us felt (and told the case manager this at the weekly staff meeting) that what was True was that this woman felt victimized and harmed and wanted/needed attention around that. Now mind you, we were an emergency shelter so it was not our job (or our expertise) to counsel but we felt that what was more important than forcing this woman to shed her truth was to figure out how to help her within that truth so that she could get to the next place — secure housing, real therapy, etc. This haggling over details wasn’t getting anyone anywhere.
So the truth is not always True and the Truth doesn’t always matter.
Sometimes counseling is mucking around in truth and listening hard and honestly? To me it can feel a lot like writing an essay. If you’ve done any writing then likely you know how you write into what you know that you didn’t know you knew. (My favorite quote about this is: “How will I know what I think until I see what I say?” That’s E. M. Forster.) That’s how counseling can be, too. Just as we write to understand ourselves and the editor helps the writer (myself or others) in the process, so in counseling there is that storytelling structure.
So you can show up at a counseling office without any idea of what you’re thinking because part of finding out what you think is seeing what comes out of your mouth.
The counselor is a lot like an editor helping you make sense of your story. You don’t have to understand your story when you come to the counselor because she’s not listening for The Truth, she’s listening for your truth and seeing the big structure so she can ask the questions that will help you understand your experience.