THE BLOG

What We Don't Tell Our Mothers, Usually, on Mother's Day (But Perhaps We Should)

21/03/2014 11:22 GMT | Updated 21/05/2014 10:59 BST

Over lunch at work recently with an assorted group of women, I heard one say of her eighteen-month-old daughter, "If she doesn't like her food, she already knows she can feed it to the dog."

Another colleague observed dryly, "You do know that you're giving her an easy mechanism for lying."

With Mothers Day coming up, for various reasons I'm especially aware this year of the concealments of daughters like me, probably all over the world.

Children learn to lie at the age of two, if not earlier. Researchers tell us that for the young, lies fall into two types, both important in learning to form relationships. The first break moral codes, are used for personal gain, and are generally labelled anti-social; but we offspring tell the second to help or protect rather than harm. Under the age of about ten, we find it harder to employ this "prosocial" kind than the other, and rate the practice negatively, but by adolescence there's a change: by then, we can see such lies as handy, feelings-saving devices. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2864928/)

In a straw poll of my adult female friends, the same topics for secrecy and lying to their mothers, even if they have what they consider a solid bond, come up again and again. Daughters cover up how broke they are; that suicide attempt; the loathed Christmas or birthday present; that their own relationships, or their children, are in trouble; that they've had a miscarriage, or are worried about their health. One friend whose parents divorced acrimoniously thirty years ago still can't tell her mother when she's seeing her father; another mate does, but edits the stepmother from her anecdotes.

Then there are my friends with a wobbly mother-daughter link. Take those who, even in adulthood, talk about controlling mothers, as they judge.

Flic reports, "I used to hide my beige, middle-aged woman's ankle wellies in a hedge on the way to school and instead put my shoes on, which got drenched in the rain.... I was also a late developer, and the humiliation of having my vest showing through my school shirt was too much, but Mum was unconcerned, determined not to help me, so I secretly bought a Mary Quant bra and before I arrived in class filled it with tan pop sox. I had to wash the bra kit and dry it under my pillow." She laughs. "That school journey was a very busy time."

This fibbing trend can start early, then maybe the pattern is set.

What about parents' reactions to our infant mendacities? Academic studies reveal that when they suspect them, they often pick, pick, pick verbally away at us, at them; and when they do catch us out, apart from the wrong or sadness that we have been keeping under wraps they focus, maybe even obsess, more on the fact that we've lied to them than on the possible invidiousness of lying in the first place. (Onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-9507.00220/abstract)

Besides, as my wise young friend Sharon says, "If you lie, it tends to come out some time, in bits and pieces, anyway," a drama she's recently witnessed between her own mother and grandmother over a criminal offence that her sister had committed.

The social media are aids to discovery, of course. I have a friend who deduced from her daughter's FB pages, that leaky sieve of parent-child secrecy, that she was severely overspending. Mother stole daughter's credit and debit cards, cut them up, and used all kinds of blackmail to stop her applying for new ones. They've been trying to rebuild their relationship ever since.

So if we're haunted by mere childish fears of being scolded for hiding the facts, or if we want to make as light as possible of our misdemeanours and tragedies, perhaps we should reconsider, at least sometimes, whether it mightn't just be easier to start with sharing more truth.

Which is why I'm planning a few gentle revelations to my own dear, loving mother of eighty-two. We're going to spend Mothers Day together; maybe that's as good a time as any. I have a novel coming out soon, and for me developing that particular story, with its themes of singledom and childlessness, has been a life-saving means of coming to terms with those realities in my life. To spare her the pain of my pain, as I thought, in all the years I've not discussed these with her. The book too concerns a woman who never quite confides her feelings to her mother, or her suspecting mother hers in return. A deep if narrow crevasse.

I've started to prime the pump. I've shown Mum some pre-publicity, and my blog on similar themes. Time, then, to accept the researcher's findings, and my friends' experience and advice. After all, mothers lie to protect their daughters just as much. When I talk, if I stress that I've now started to overcome my childless grief I'll likely discover that, all this time, Mum's been struggling to hide her sadness at her lack of my children, too.