Virginia Ironside's dilemmas: Am I wrong for telling my goddaughter about her mother's first marriage?

"Those pictures were taken in order for them to be seen by all her friends"

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The Independent Online

Dear Virginia,

The other day I took my 14-year-old goddaughter shopping. Afterwards, to amuse her, I showed her a photograph album, which included a photograph of her mother with her first husband – the marriage only lasted a couple of months. But she seemed very upset and after I’d dropped her home, her mother – my friend – rang, furious that I’d shown her the photo. She had never told her daughter that she had been married before being married to her dad. I feel terrible, but at the same time, isn’t it her fault for not being honest with her daughter?

Yours sincerely, Linda

Virginia says...

I can quite understand your predicament. After all, if you had any photographs of you and your goddaughter’s mum cavorting in the bath at eight years old, presumably it would have been OK to show those to her. You wouldn’t be castigated for showing her pictures of you both as teenagers at a party, holding drinks in your hand and leaning affectionately against two strange boys. That would have been OK. It would have been fine to show her wedding pictures of your friend and your goddaughter’s dad. Yet for some reason – that hadn’t been made clear to you beforehand – you weren’t allowed to show her pictures of her mother with her first husband.

Weddings are public affairs. When her mother got married to her first husband, she was saying: “I want the world to know that I love this man and want to spend the rest of my life with him.” Those pictures were taken in order for them to be seen by all her friends. You can’t undo them. The wedding wasn’t some hole-in-the-wall affair. And, like you, I’m amazed that her mother would have kept this perfectly innocuous mistake secret from her daughter. It’s no crime to make a disastrous first marriage. It’s not as if you had shown the daughter a photograph of her mother emerging after a long stretch in Wormwood Scrubs after stabbing her lover to death with a kitchen knife.

I’m on your side, Linda. If there’s anyone you should always be honest with it’s your children. However “bad” you think the secret is, your children will be completely forgiving if you’re open with them. But if they discover that you have kept a secret from them, how can they trust anything else you say?

But do you want to be right or do right? In your heart of hearts, you know – and I’m sure your friend knows, too – that she should either have told her daughter or warned you to be completely discreet.  After all, you could just as easily have mentioned it in conversation as shown her the photograph.

But at the moment, everyone is upset. Send your friend a bunch of flowers and a letter of apology. Once she calms down she will realise that it’s her own fault, and that secrets like these can never be kept, so it’s far better to be open and honest before someone else, like you, is open and honest by mistake. After all, you would never have shown your goddaughter the photographs out of spite, or because you wanted to hurt either her or her mother. It was a genuine mistake. I’m sure that your friend knows this and is only lashing out at you because she feels so guilty herself.

You have just stumbled into one of life’s many pitfalls. But I really don’t think it was your fault. And the bruises, on both sides,  will, I’m sure, pretty soon disappear.

Readers say...

You have done nothing wrong

Your friend is within her rights to keep this a secret from her daughter, whether or not you agree with her decision to do so.

However, I feel that if she was intent on keeping this from her daughter, then people who knew of her marriage should really have been informed. A marriage tends to be something that is common knowledge, so you usually wouldn’t think that you might have to keep it a secret unless you are expressly told to do so. She may be angry that her daughter now knows the truth, but her anger should not be directed at you.

Tell your friend that you’re sorry that her daughter now knows about her previous marriage, but that you would have never shown her the photo or mentioned the marriage had you known that she was keeping it from her. This gives the apology that she possibly wants without actually apologising. You have done nothing wrong.

Jodie, by email


Let the dust settle

Your friend may be ashamed about her previous marriage, but she has nothing to be ashamed of. Children’s reactions can be a bit over the top and no doubt your friend could not cope with the emotional load – not only her child’s part but her own – and someone had to be the bad guy instead of her. Hence the projected fury at you.

Let her vent, and then let the dust settle and take her for a coffee to apologise and explain clearly that you had no intention of upsetting her.

Louis Nel, by email


You owe her an apology

Look at this from your friend’s point of view: many parents would see no need to reveal such things about the past because they would want to forget and move on; others would worry that such knowledge could spoil a child’s image of their family  – and it sounds like it has.

This girl would probably have found out the facts sooner or later, but this revelation came suddenly, from the wrong person at the wrong time, and you must make a sincere apology to both her and the parents for the upset you have inadvertently but thoughtlessly caused.

A serious error of judgement was made in showing your goddaughter that photo album and you should acknowledge that.

Emilie Lamplough, by email

Next week's dilemma

My son has just got engaged and recently he’s been bringing his fiancée back here to get to know the family. Our problem is that we can’t feel anything for her. She is from a completely different background to ours, which we don’t mind, but it does mean she has different values to us. She also has quite a temper and can go into a sulk if things don’t go her way. She recently snapped at my husband, which upset him very much. My son seems oblivious to all this, but I wonder if I should mention it to him so that he knows our feelings before he actually gets married? What do you think?

Yours sincerely, Deborah

What would you advise Deborah to do?  Write to Anyone whose advice is quoted or whose dilemma is published will receive a box of Belgian Chocolates from