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Guest blog: Should we be honest with our children - even if the truth is awful?

(41 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Fri 02-Aug-13 14:36:37

Suzanne Harrington's The Liberty Tree, which was published last month, is a searingly honest account of her first chaotic years as a parent - including her alcoholism, her husband's eventual suicide, and the slow journey to sobriety and an 'emotionally present' relationship with her two small children.

While the book has been widely-praised, some critics have questioned the wisdom of writing it: it's addressed directly to her children, and doesn't flinch from describing her chaotic emotional state in often-painful detail. Here, she explains why she feels that brutal honesty was the only way to heal her family's pain.

Tell us what you think here on the thread - and if you blog on it, don't forget to post your URL.

"In September 2006, my husband, from whom I'd been separated for 18 months, hanged himself. He'd had untreated depression. I hadn't seen it coming, and he didn't leave a note. Our children were three and five when he died. The following year, I told them what had really happened - up until that point, I had said he'd become very ill, and suddenly died. I knew that this would not be a good enough answer for much longer - but I was not going to lie and say 'heart attack' or 'car crash'. I could not dishonour them with a lie that big.

After speaking with child psychologists at Winston's Wish, the charity for traumatically bereaved children, who suggested I tell them right away without hesitation, I went ahead with my gut instinct and told them - in an age appropriate way, using lots of stories (like the story of Van Gogh, in the children's book Camille and the Sunflowers). I told them how sometimes the mind can become ill, just like the body, and that this can make a person's thinking all muddled, and that sometimes in extreme cases, the person can even die. I didn't drop all of this information on them at once, obviously, but slowly built up a picture of the idea of depression, and compared it to having a cold that if untreated can turn into pneumonia.

They got it. The older one asked me if this is how Dad had died. When I said yes, they asked lots of questions about where and when and how, and I was able to tell them truthfully. Gently. Honestly. They said they were glad, because they had not felt clear about things, and now they did. And at no point would I have to drop a terrible revelation on them later in life, like an unexploded bomb - actually kids, it wasn't a heart attack after all - so that they would look at everything else I had ever told them and wonder if that wasn't a big fat lie as well.

Then we got on with life. We recovered, in many senses. I wrote a book about it, The Liberty Tree, which was published last month. In this book, which I've addressed directly to my kids, who are now 10 and 12, but won't be reading it until they are adults (I've told them it's like an 18 film, not suitable for children), I tell them a lot of stuff about the seven years their dad and I were together.

Like how a few months before my husband's unexpected death, I had gone into recovery for alcoholism, and was very newly sober (which as any recovering alcoholic will tell you, is shorthand for 'still mental') when he died. How my alcoholism made me emotionally distant from everybody, including them, even though I was physically present and at home all the time when they were babies. How it took a while to thaw out emotionally, and how angry I was at their dad when he died, and how it took a while to find compassion for him.

They know all of this stuff already, because I have told them - the book is just a more grown up version, that goes into the nitty gritty of addiction, as well as telling them the good stuff - like how lovely their dad was, and the good times we had together before his depression and my alcoholism and our basic incompatibility brought the marriage to an end.

Why did I tell them all of this? Should I have kept my mouth shut, so that they have no inkling that the relationship between their dad and I was one of two ill people seeking rescue in the other, and it not working out at all? Was it self-indulgent to tell them everything? Why did I write the book in the first place?

I'll tell you why. Secrecy and putting on a show of everything being fine ended up killing their father, and would have killed their mother too had I not been lucky enough to have found abstinence based recovery before my alcoholism finished me off. Secrets and lies, emotional dishonesty, sugar-coated reality - nobody deserves that, least of all children. I grew up in a culture of secrecy, of the unspoken, of unanswered questions - even about everyday stuff like where babies come from. When you don't tell a child the answer to their question, even if they are too young to articulate it properly in words, they will feel it. They will sense it. Children are emotionally fluent beings - they have not yet learned to lie to themselves, the way adults do.

Like you, I love and respect my kids above all else. The reality today is that they are happy, ordinary, well-adjusted. The proof of my decision to be honest with them is in their happy, ordinary lives, filled with happy, ordinary stuff like friends, horses, football, sleepovers. They trust me, I trust them. We value openness. Obviously, this openness happens within age-appropriate parameters - blurting stuff out uncensored would be unfair on two levels: it would overburden them in terms of having to be responsible for too much inappropriate information, and it would gross them out. They are still just kids.

And while I have regretted my earlier emotional absence when they were very young, and wish their dad had not died so desperately alone, the reality, the here and now, is this: truth, told with gentleness and love, makes for normal, loving, emotionally close family life. That's my experience anyway."

The Liberty Tree, published by Atlantic Books, is available here.

swallowedAfly Mon 05-Aug-13 00:16:26

yes but if they haven't had that, it's all been a mess and there is nothing secure under their feet then truth, ownership and explanation is as good as it gets imo.

we're talking as if we are on about dropping bombshells on otherwise idyllic childhoods when the reality of the context is a fairly shit situation with adults behaving confusingly and weirdly and then disappearing off the face of the earth (dead).

in some situations the status quo is better than truth in other the status quo is so fucked up that the truth is a million times better no matter how fucked up things are.


swallowedAfly Mon 05-Aug-13 00:18:42

simple example - would you rather spend your life wondering if you were an unlovable inadequate creature who made your mother hate you or would you rather, once better, she explained to you that she had had depression and was so sorry and sad that she had been unable to be the mummy she wanted to be at that time?

it's not enid blyton or tim burton it's dark situation that is terrifying with no explanation or some explanation and understanding it wasn't you.

ZingWidge Mon 05-Aug-13 13:06:43

when I had an MC we told the kids. they asked lots of questions and we answered everything truthfully or just admitted that we had no answer.

honesty is the best policy and however much the truth hurts, lies are way worse.

swallowedAfly Tue 06-Aug-13 08:47:56

i don't know if lies are way worse all the time but i do know that a vacuum is dangerous for kids. as in they know SOMETHING happened, is wrong etc but they don't know what. humans don't like uncertainty so will try to fill that vacuum and what they can come up with themselves may be far worse than the reality.

it's like kids blaming themselves for their parents divorce - i assume this happens when they haven't been told the truth and been able to talk about it and been helped to understand. so they fill that vacuum with 'it must have been my fault'.

ZingWidge Tue 06-Aug-13 09:34:21

swallowed the vacuum things it true - but then there's such thing as omission of truth, which is also lying.

(you know when in court people swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? the "whole truth" means that they are not allowed to omit anything or they would be lying!)

there are plenty of things we don't share with our kids, because it is simply none of their business (say our sex life) or we are in a process (say looking to move - they don't need to know just yet etc) or a "secret" (say what they are getting for Christmas) so of course we don't tell them everything.

but they should be informed and explained stuff that affects them directly and especially emotionally/physically IYSWIM.

on the other hand I do think that some parents over share when they are distressed, hurt , scared and are not thinking clearly. that's understandable and forgivable and although it might be scary for a child at the time, I think it is still better for kids to see their parents' emotional side and that they are real people with real feelings than to grow up with no emotions or explanations ever.

swallowedAfly Tue 06-Aug-13 09:45:29

i agree with all that.

weregoingtothezoo Wed 07-Aug-13 11:43:24

I can't disagree with anything in that post - that some very tragic things have happened, and the children now have their explanation for it.

But I get envious when I read it - my daughter was removed from me and adopted as a result of my alcoholism, whereas the way this is written about, it's as if it's perfectly ok and normal for two small children to remain with their actively alcoholic mother after the separation from their deeply troubled father. And ok, she got into recovery before he died - I was 9 months into recovery before social services actually placed my daughter for adoption - not with me, her recovering, and longing to parent mother, but for adoption. Children should not be witnesses to active alcoholism. I agree with that. The children's needs come waaaay before the parents, however hard they are trying or however much pain they are in.

In terms of her knowing that "mummy being too ill to look after you" was actually "mummy was an alcoholic" - that's done gradually in safety, and I get to do some of that, in recovery, in my letters to her every 6 months.

So forgive me for thinking that this doesn't quite ring true. And that the book is self-indulgence. Now I blog, sure, but without any of my daughter's identifiers in it, so that I can use my experience to help others, but her life remains private and her truth remains hers. I don't really see either of those things going on here - like someone said, the children's teachers and friends get to know way too much about them, and it's naive to assume they won't read it, and think, why did my mum need to tell the world this stuff about me.

swallowedAfly Wed 07-Aug-13 12:35:10

for her to be removed and put up for adoption there was more than just drinking going on no? every situation is assessed differently.

Lilka Wed 07-Aug-13 14:16:08

The truth is important, mosst especially when the 'secret' is having a direct impact on the child, or is about the child. She did the right thing by telling them in an age appropriate manner.

My 3 children are adopted and whilst my two older children have memories of their early childhoods all 3 have needed and (for my under 18's) will need more explanations of the why's. They need to be able to understand what has happened in their lives, so they can move forwards.

It can be really hard to work out when and how to broach various things (for instance in foster care/adoption sometimes things like sexual abuse, incest and murder need broaching) but luckily we now live in an age where telling children the age appropriate truth (whether that's about suicide, depression, divorce or anything else) is encouraged and there are resources for many situations out there.

And these resources are essential because parents may need lots of support in order to tell their children, and the children themselves may need support with it. There's nothing wrong with needing support and help to do it.

Alcoholism affects people very differently so I can see how a child could be removed for alcoholism in one person, but not in another person. It also sadly seriously affects the children. My DD2 has suffered permanent problems due to alcohol exposure in the womb. Another truth to explain

swallowedAfly Wed 07-Aug-13 15:39:49

that was much better put lilka than i managed.

my point was that i have known a lot of women with alcohol problems through having attended aa for a while when i was concerned about my drinking. the vast majority of alcoholic women there had not needed their children to be taken away from them. the couple i met who had were the first to admit it had been necessary and it wasn't just because they drank too much but because of the way their drinking had led them to treat or neglect their child or the dangerous decisions and behaviour they had partaken in that had endangered their children and/or because they had a long history of repeatedly continuing said behaviour despite warnings.

many alcoholic women go on providing all the basics needed for their children and keep them safe, cared for etc but later realise they were emotionally absent for periods or just didn't do as well as they could have been doing for their family had they been sober but do not stray over into abuse, neglect or endangerment.

some need their children taking away for a short period during their recovery as their rock bottom realisation moment was public or messy or loud enough that social services had to step in and take the children for a short while whilst the mother began her recovery, proved herself able and then had the children returned.

for children to be removed and adoption to be resorted to implies a lot of serious issues in the parenting that weren't considered to be remediable or where many chances had been given to remedy them and all of those chances had been squandered.

i don't think it's fair to give the impression that an alcoholic woman will have her children taken away - that deters people from seeking the help they need and is for the vast majority completely innacurate.

swallowedAfly Wed 07-Aug-13 15:41:22

also to get to the point where adoption is even possible for more than one child from a chaotic background implies a long stretch of time. it's not an overnight thing.

weregoingtothezoo Wed 07-Aug-13 20:54:34

No, "just drinking", and less than a year. Never missed school, or went unfed, unclothed. I was a single parent working in a professional job. Most women in AA - and I went for a good while - haven't had their children taken away because they got away with it. Nothing happened, nobody noticed or there was a second parent in the family. The extended family usually collude to make sure social services don't notice.
But "just drinking" is too much, I had blackouts where I couldn't remember putting her to bed, and we muddled through the days at weekends. I was drunk in front of her at times. I was erratic in my emotional availability. No toddler should have to see that.
You're right there there is usually more of a problem, and usually people don't get well, and usually family don't collude with social services. But there are cases that aren't usual. I agreed that I wasn't good enough, and that is bloody difficult.
I knew this would hurt. The story is here:
I am glad the lady in the initial post had the chance to keep her children with her, and write about it in this way, but... at what cost, I wonder.

weregoingtothezoo Wed 07-Aug-13 20:55:19

Sorry, that should be

swallowedAfly Thu 08-Aug-13 07:38:06

ok so black outs with the child around, drunk in front of and in charge of a toddler etc and in a way that drew attention and with no other family around so all of this in front of the child.

so yes more than drinking. i don't know if family 'collude' - that's an interesting word you've chosen over the word 'support' or 'buffer' for examples. it does of course make a difference whether the woman in question has an extended support network able to also offer the children input and stability. even if social services were involved they would take that into account. i don't see that as 'collusion' but as being a family and it gives the impression you have a strange sense of family to call it collusion.

when i said more to it than drinking i didn't mean you had to be beating them or something but that there would have to be more factors involved to make the decision to take a child into care and for them to be adopted rather than fostered right off the bat.

i am really sorry that you lost your child through your disease but i do think you need to be aware that talking as if that is the automatic consequence would put women off seeking help for alcoholism and they already do as mothers because of extra stigma, fear the children will be taken away etc. so whilst not meaning to hurt you i think it's important others speak up to counter what you say with the broader context which is that seeking help for alcoholism will in the vast majority of cases not lead to losing your children. in fact it is 'not seeking help' or being engaged with services that will tend to be more of an alarm bell for SS if they are forced to get involved.

sewingmummy Wed 14-Aug-13 11:27:30

this is such an interesting thread and topic...I'm currently mulling over explaining to my 3 year old why she hasn't got any Grandpas (my Dad died in 2006 and my father-in-law died in 2011). At the moment she's only asked me one question "where does granddad live?" and I chickened out of giving her an honest response.
I need to read around a bit and see what 'age appropriate' means and then I'll tackle it head-on!
I think the author was right to be honest with her children, secrets rear their head years later and can be more painful then. Children who are sheltered from everything grow up with a skewed view of the world that can't be healthy in the long run...

working9while5 Fri 16-Aug-13 07:56:25

There is a massive difference depending on why you tell the truth. If you are inappropriately using it to seek support or approval from your children for adult matters, that is deeply wrong. If you are sharing because they will always have questions without this information (and they will of they have lived through this), then the truth can heal.

I've had both. My father was physically and sexually abused and leaned far too much on me and far too often, in fact, shared his story as a manipulative way of challenging any issues I had with his bad behaviour. I learned that other people's pain was always to be prioritised over my own and I was ungrateful and lacking in understanding of what REAL suffering looked like. How could I be upset about walking over his passed out body or having had him chase round the house roaring at me for being a narcissistic bitch etc when he never even hit me, let alone raped me?

Motivation is everything. I don't have an issue with a parent writing their story. It is important though never to compare a child's distress to adult experiences or to deny or minimise their suffering.

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