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Is it ever ok to lie to your mother?

Posted in Life & Love

My mother is a witch. Of the good kind variety: she has an unfailing lie radar. It’s impossible to lie to her, even with a continent and an ocean between us. She will spot minor variations in my voice which will lead to pointed questions, trying to get to the heart of the matter.

I inherited her radar, often surprising my step-children with knowledge they thought they successfully kept from me. I suppose our witchcraft is nothing more than attuned intuition.

It would never occur to me to shield my mother from my most life changing events although, two years ago, I toyed with the idea of not telling my father I had cancer. He was already frail, I reasoned, and the worry would have upset him. I lived so far away and I could easily concoct a good story on why I was not going to Italy for Christmas as I had planned. My resolve lasted the whole of two weeks.

In the end, I felt that, had he found out by accident after the fact, he would have been crushed and, anyway, family members, even when scattered around the globe, are supposed to rally around each other in times of difficulties. It was a good decision: yes, he was worried, but through weekly conversations in which he heard me positive and upbeat, he charted the steps of my recovery and was reassured all was well. And, in the process, even in his diminished physical capacity, he felt he was still relevant.

It’s the relevance of older people I have been considering in the last few days, since a woman, in her 90s, attending one of the classes I take, complained of American society pushing the elderly aside, not to be heard or seen (never mind that this particular woman has a mind and a memory that put mine to shame).

More pointedly, an acquaintance called me a few days ago, to discuss her breast cancer diagnosis. When we got to dissect her surgery, I suggested she had her mother come stay with her (they live in different cities) to help with cooking and chores. “I am not planning on telling her” the woman told me. Her reasons have to do with not putting undue worry on her 80-year-old mother, who seems to spend too much time worrying in general. “I am afraid it will be such a shock she will never recover from it.”

I held my tongue, just suggested she thinks about it clearly, and tried not to be judgmental. After all, this woman is, unselfishly, trying to protect her mother’s well-being.

But I did ask myself when it is right to shield our parents from painful truths, the same way they did when we were children; at what point is sparing them certain realities productive? Is it just a way to infantilize them, making them less relevant, pushing them to the margins?

In the absence of diminished mental capacities, like dementia, or serious illness, is it beneficial to cut them out from our most difficult decisions? Is bliss ignorance preferable to, possibly, unmanageable worry?

I wonder if, at the core, keeping our mouths shut also carries the selfish benefit of not having to manage one more problem while juggling a serious issue. It is certainly true that dealing with elderly parents also means long conversations, detailed explanations, a good dose of soothing and a bottomless well of patience. Still, I can’t help thinking that keeping an adult relevant to the life of his or her family is a bigger kindness than providing a worry free life. Then again, I am not so sure. Thoughts?

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21 Comments

  1. Come figlia, volevo proteggerli e non appesantirli, anche quando non erano così anziani (ma a me sembrava di sì). Come mamma, vorrei sapere tutto.

    December 10, 2017
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    • I miei figli (step-children) sono convinti che abbia occhi sul retro della testa e spie dappertutto.

      December 13, 2017
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      • ah ah! quanti sono?

        December 13, 2017
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  2. My mother never wanted to know all the details of my life. Ever. She was reserved and not comfortable with conversations that involved emotions, so I often lied [by omission] to her. Then as she aged and became frail, the conversations all revolved around her so not telling her things was easy. I suspect that the answer to your question is not universal, but lies in the dynamics of each individual mother/daughter relationship.

    December 8, 2017
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    • You are right, it does depend on each individual family, especially when it comes to mother/daughter relationships. But I do think we should tread carefully when we feel compelled to treat elderly family members as if they could break or, worse, as children. When you say that, as your mother aged and became frail and the conversations revolved entirely around her rang very true. I noticed that many older people tend to talk about themselves a great amount – I wonder if it is a product of life getting smaller as we get older.

      December 9, 2017
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      • I think that you’ve nailed it about why older folks talk about themselves so much. Many times their worlds are tiny– and anything beyond their worlds is beyond their understanding. Not always, but often.

        December 9, 2017
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  3. If I was in a similar situation, I think it would definitely cross my mind to keep it from my parents. But I’m not very good at lying, and often my inner thoughts and feelings manifest on my face without me realising, so I’m sure I wouldn’t keep it from them for long.
    As for my reasoning… I suppose it’s much the same as what you and others have mentioned. Whether it is justified or reasonable, I’m not so sure…

    December 7, 2017
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    • I can be a decent liar if I want to but never with my mom! She always picks it up.

      December 8, 2017
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  4. I had never thought about it this way. I hid a major depression from my parents when I was a teenager, and my mother only found out one day due to a slip of mine. I’d grown very good at pretending. The result was that, 20 years later, my mother still worries about me (I’ve promised to never hide this sort of thing from her, or any of my close loved ones). At the time I only thought about not worrying her “needlessly,” not sparing a moment to think about her feelings if she ever found out.

    However… I think we’re talking about two different things here: one being hiding things out of concern, the other out of dismissal. The latter is in my view the worst kind, but I now wonder if the first isn’t as bad in some ways…

    You’ve given me food for thought.

    December 6, 2017
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    • I don’t have an answer but, often, mothers are sensitive enough to feel something is wrong. I feel that worry can be better managed if the truth is out there, in full. But that is me. I need to know everything. Maybe it really is just a case of using one’s best judgement and evaluate each single situation.

      December 6, 2017
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  5. Sharing difficult news is always… well, difficult. I guess because once we tell them to someone who is important to us it makes them real.

    December 5, 2017
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    • You are right. I chose to tell everyone about my breast cancer in part to make it more real, more quickly.

      December 6, 2017
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  6. Ellie
    Ellie

    Oh……this is such a difficult one. I really do agree with you about keeping an adult relevant. I think we can be very selfish otherwise – especially when illness is involved.
    I know I always told my mother everything but reget not telling her about her illness because I – mistakenly – thought that if she didn’t know if was life-threatening then she would be better able to face the operation and fight it. But it was me I was protecting, from the fear and heartbreak of my life without her. She was lucid and completely in possession of her faculties right to the end. There’s a lot to be said for losing it – and why drug use should be kept for our final years, and never wasted on our youth !!
    I didn’t really know any of my grandparents – they were all dead before I was born or by the time I was 6 – but I used to search out all the old people I could find to benefit from all the stories they could tell me, that I felt I was missing – cherish the old as we do the young. That’s maybe why we live so long after our child-bearing years are over – to talk about our experiences and love one another for longer – ideally……
    My mother-in-law is 89 and she is superb – with a lot to say for herself, stories to tell – she lives on her own and drives a little yellow Panda – and yes we do avoid telling her things that will unduly worry her – but they are white lies for now – so the point is when do you step in and really start not to tell her things, or tell her her driving days are over (what’s the age limit in other countries?) , or that she can’t live on her own anymore. For now she is a pleasure to behold !!! Taking independence away is a very serious thing – but we must all know when the time is right and it is kinder and more generous to do it than not ……….for ourselves too….not an easy task.

    December 5, 2017
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    • I think taking independence away is a slighter different issue and the point might be when one’s safety (or the safety of others) is clearly affected. In the US, after a certain age, you are forced to take a driver’s license exam every few years (and after the age of 85 it might be every year – annoying but probably the right thing). I have always been drawn to older people – I never thought it might have something to do with not having had any grandparents. Great point.

      December 5, 2017
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      • Ellie
        Ellie

        Hi you’re right – I left an important bit out – I believe we lie to children (Father Christmas, ‘I’ll tell you when you’re older ” etc) because they can’t be independent until a certain age – we lie to adults and we take their indpendence away – the distancing from reality that Inesdoesfashion pointed out.
        White lies on the other hand can sometimes be a precaution – my boyfriend tells his mother that he’s travelling by train when he’s actually going by car just so she doesn’t worry. I think he’s right, less hassle – but I wouldn’t do it myself. My mother always said ‘always tell me the truth, I can handle the truth’ and I always did, about myself – but when it applied to her, I didn’t. If I were to go back I don’t think I do it again. A lie can cause more pain than the truth.

        December 6, 2017
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        • I think it was quite commonplace, until a decade or two ago, not to tell patients the full extent of their circumstances. The family decided. I think it’s getting rarer, unless a person has clearly limited mental capacities.

          December 6, 2017
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  7. Winston Moreton
    Winston Moreton

    After a lifetime working and raising children it is hard to accept demotion from family leader. Especially when you see the kids reinventing the wheel and treating you as a semi invalid not allowed to climb ladders or drive long distance. The blessing in my case is g/ children. I’m allowed to look after them by myself and they are non judgemental

    December 4, 2017
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    • And that is why the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is so vital to both: there is a lack of judgement that benefits both.

      December 5, 2017
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      • winstonmoreton
        winstonmoreton

        A “lack of judgement?” Took a double take and then thought, ‘Wow! That is profound’

        December 9, 2017
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  8. It depends so much on the person’s relationship with their parents and their cultural history of closeness as a family. As for the relevance of older people in society, I have found it interesting that they are mostly ignored in the realms of corporate marketing and digital technology.

    December 4, 2017
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    • The marketing for older people seems focussed only on endless medications. I never thought about digital technology but you are right. There seems to be two camps: those who embraced it as is and those who just rejected it flat out.

      December 5, 2017
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