Fran and her husband have shielded their 13-year-old daughter from every marital drama, including his brief drug addiction and her affair. Now she is inconsolable at discovering her father was married before, for a couple of years. How can they help her?
Secrets in the family are bad enough when they're shared by everyone in it, and kept from the outside world; when they're kept from others in the same family, particularly children, who have emotional antennae about 8,000ft long and covered with quivering nerve-endings, it's downright cruel.
I'd say this poor child has been aware of enormous difficulties in her parents' marriage for ages. She may not have known exactly what was going on during the drug-addiction phase, or about her mother's affair, but she sure knew that something was deeply wrong. She has no doubt been comforting herself, subconsciously, by telling herself that at heart her parents are stable people who have been married a long time and won't break up. Now, suddenly, she discovers that her reassuring hunch was only that - a hunch. It turns out her father was married before - and for only two years! Her parents' marriage, it follows, could go down the drain at any moment. Small wonder she feels so utterly confused.
I am not saying that during the drug addiction and the affair her mother should have explained precisely what was going on. There's nothing more unnerving to a child than being treated as some kind of girlfriend - "tee- hee, your dad's addicted to drugs, the bastard, so I'm having an affair to get my own back; don't tell a soul, I'm relying on you to cover up for me". That confession is too much for a child to bear. But her mother could at least have acknowledged the problems. "You've probably noticed that things don't seem quite right at the moment," she could have said. "Well, they're not; Dad and I are having problems." If nothing else, this reassures the child that her antennae are in full working order, and her intuitive findings are validated. Fran could have asked whether her daughter wanted to ask any questions. At which point her daughter, who would be no fool, however young, would probably have come up with all kinds of stuff about Dad sniffing things or injecting himself or smoking funny cigarettes, and asking who the strange man was who kept ringing up. Again, her mother could say that these were part of the problems, and that however they did sort themselves out in future, the daughter's happiness would always be the most important thing in her parents' minds. No, it wouldn't make her daughter sleep easy at night, but it would be better than living in a miasma of secrecy and lies, which is what silence, sometimes, can be. It can, too, lead to terrifying fantasies.
What worries me, however, is, first of all, why the husband's first marriage was never mentioned. Is it because this in itself causes Fran to be worried, and that by shielding her child from this very ordinary fact - after all, about half the children around these days have parents who've been married before - she's trying to shield herself from something she's never come to terms with? Or is it because from the start she has always been worried about the stability of her own marriage?
In other words, could her child's antennae be on to something from which even Fran has blocked herself off - that the marriage is not by any means intact?
Fran should sit her daughter down and explain everything, past and present. Secrets always come out somewhere, leaked out under toenails, seeping through hair-ends, dribbling through the sides of the eyes ... and the worries resulting from them should be claimed by an honest adult, not shoved on to the shoulders of a childn
Don't be ashamed of your mistakes
Amazing that any marriage should be considered unimportant! This teenager must feel a strong sense of inadequacy that The Truth About Her Dad could not be revealed to her.
It is crucial that children learn personal and family information from us and not from family outsiders. Discovering that one has been kept in a state of ignorance is, perhaps, one of the most effective means of ensuring that, when older, children will treat parents with contempt.
There is no such thing as childhood innocence, just as there is no such thing as adult perfection. Never be ashamed, Fran, to let your daughter know that her parents have made errors and that not everything has been perfect.
Children are wiser than you think
What makes you suppose that your children don't discuss you privately just as extensively as you do them? There is ample opportunity for the after-bedtime conference and for listening half-way down the stairs. "Something's up," my brother would say, and "A bit fishy, that," was my opening gambit for our detective work into the secret world of grown-ups. In the secret world of childhood and adolescence much is apprehended; though it may be misconstrued.
For a daughter at puberty to discover her father's previous marriage is enough to make her distrust all you have ever told her. So the trust has to be built up all over again; and this time by complete truthfulness in every aspect of your family life together.
You don't say if she's your eldest; if she is she must wonder what/if/when to tell her younger siblings. That also must be discussed. Although it seemed unimportant to you, silence is deception rather than "economy with the truth".
You don't want her to see you warts and all, but at the moment she can see only the warts; therefore give her the "all" as well, in your love and openness.
Anne Crocker, Bath
Never underestimate children's feelings
As a secondary teacher/counsellor with some 20 years of experience, I am still puzzled at the frequency with which adults seem to confuse physical size with depth of feeling. Repeatedly I have seen small children or adolescents treated with an insensitivity bordering on callousness over bereavement, family breakdown and serious illness.
Fran may wish to delude herself that her daughter failed to observe Dad's drug addiction and Mum's adultery, but it's hardly likely. She may think that by attempting to conceal family problems she is protecting her daughter. The girl's reaction to her father's previous marriage proves that this is not quite the case. Here is yet another issue of concealment and exclusion. In the past this youngster has had to cope with the possibility of losing her father to drugs and her mother to another man. How is she to know that there aren't more, and worse, complications to her security? Suppose, for example, that another family has claims to the father's affections, or his financial support? The thought of family breakdown is pretty scary stuff for young people, dependent on parents for virtually every aspect of their existence.
Tina R Stockman
The truth would have helped me
I remember all too well the day I and my two brothers were told that our dad was "going away". I was eight years old.
He was supposed to be returning home after two months. Eight years and three houses later he is still not back. I think that I gave up hoping after about eight months, although it was not until I confronted my mum and asked her when Dad was coming home that I was finally able to start coming to terms with it. Had I been told that he had gone to live with another woman, I wouldn't have had to go through eight months of false hope and I wouldn't have been left with the emotions that accompany lies and have proved so harmful in the long run.
Julia (aged 17), North London
What readers say
Next week's problem: my partner won't travel on the Tube
For the past year I've been going out with a man whom I love very much, but we live in London and for some reason he refuses to go on the Underground. Yesterday we waited in the pouring rain for a cab and eventually I insisted we took the Tube, as it would get us back quicker, even if a taxi did arrive, and though he eventually agreed to wait for a night bus, he still wouldn't go by Tube.
I find this incredibly irritating, as we share costs and he's not well off, and nor am I. I also rather hate going by taxi, seeing my money disappear by the second. Buses never come, and get held up in jams.
He won't give any reason for all this, just that he doesn't like the Underground. We're starting to fall out over it, as it just seems so unreasonable to me.
Does anyone have any ideas about how I can persuade him?
Yours sincerely, Liz
Letters are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax 0171-293 2182) by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, please let me know.