Mother Chooses to Reveal the Past

Parents, especially baby boomers, often have to decide how much to tell their kids about their own pasts. Sometimes the truth has consequences. Liza Mundy wrote about that dilemma in this week's Washington Post Magazine. She shares her story and how she decided how to lift the curtain on her past.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we want to talk about another tough decision. How much do you tell your kids about the wild times in your own youth? This week's Washington Post Magazine cover story explored this issue that's now confronting members of the "Let It All Hang Out" generation. Now that they are parents, do they tell their kids the truth about their youthful, shall we say, indiscretions? "Maternal Truths" is the title of that article and the author, Liza Mundy, is with us now in our Washington studio. Welcome, thanks so much for coming. Ms. LIZA MUNDY: (Author, "Maternal Truths") Thank you so much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Now as you have to know, I'm a big fan of your work, precisely because of stories like this. How did this occur to you? You talk about a wine and cheese party you attended that kind of turned into adult "truth or dare," but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Actually, I'm glad I wasn't at that party but...

Ms. MUNDY: It was a great party.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But how did it - how did the depth of this occur to you? The complexities of this?

Ms. MUNDY: Well, it actually originated in an office conversation a couple of years ago. A colleague came back from vacation and you know, kids always lob questions at you from the back seat when you're not prepared. And her daughter who was in middle school was chatting with her about, sort of, middle school behavior and maybe some promiscuity that she was seeing among her own cohorts. And the mother had a sense that the daughter wanted reassurance that it was OK not to be doing whatever these girls were doing.

So they had one of those long conversations about, you know, it's great to wait, and wait until you meet somebody who you really have a loving and long-term relationship with, and you know, for sexual experimentation or whatever. And at certain point, her daughter said, and you never had that with anybody but daddy, right? And my colleague said, you know, I paused and the pause was a little too long, but then she just said, no honey, I didn't, because she felt, really, like that was the message that her daughter needed to hear at that point. That it was OK not to be doing whatever her friends were doing.

And then, as you said, I was at a party recently and some mothers, it was a women-only party, and some mothers were chatting and we started chatting about our own past. And it was just so funny. A woman I really admire, we were talking about, sort of, transgressions and she said, well, you know, I win this, I was a stripper and it was just so funny. It turned out that it was a sort of a one evening experience when she was out of college and in New Orleans and broke, and I think, considering working in a strip club is less unusual in New Orleans maybe than elsewhere. But it's, you know, the sort of thing that she's probably not going to revisit with her kids.

MARTIN: But one of the things I like about the piece is that for some people, that isn't so funny. There are people who have gone through some things in life that are not just madcap adventures and you've got to figure that out. The question you asked in your article is this: What do children need to know about their parents' past and when do they need to know it? But before we get into that, let's set the stage a little bit. You make the case that this is more of a question now than in previous generations. Why do you think that is?

Ms. MUNDY: Well, I think it's probably fair to say that there is more experimentation in the 1960s and '70s than there had been. Certainly, there were mothers with things in their past that they might have wanted to hide in every generation. The baby boomer generation doesn't have a lock on that sort of behavior, but I think in the past, it would be a woman with anything that she didn't want to admit to, would definitely feel she had to keep it hidden. And I think this generation...

MARTIN: And would keep it hidden. In in fact, I read a small piece in the paper over the weekend about a woman who was the daughter of a movie star who was born out of wedlock. The father being another famous movie star, and she thought that she was adopted.

Ms. MUNDY: That's right, yes.

MARTIN: Had been told this and found out as an adult.

Ms. MUNDY: Yes.

MARTIN: That indeed she was not.

Ms. MUNDY: Exactly. I mean, there were certainly so much more stigma surrounding, you know, all sorts of behaviors that a woman and a man, too, I assume, would try to keep them hidden. And now, of course, there's much more openness and there's much more emphasis on sharing and honesty. And so even as there was maybe more experimentation in the '60s and '70s, I think now there's a fair amount of pressure to be honest and to share.

What was interesting to me is a lot of experts on child development and pregnancy prevention recommend, rightly, talking to your children all the time, millions of little conversations, is the way one advocate put it to me. Talking to them about sexual behavior and social behavior and risky activities and always having your children know that you are what they call a warm, askable adult, who they can come to and talk through these issues.

And I think many parents want to be that sort of person, but what was interesting to me was when I started talking to some experts in these areas, there is really no research on what you do say when the conversation turns around to your own behavior in the house.

MARTIN: I found that fascinating that you called up a number of child development experts, and there really was not a lot of research on the question, and there really was no coherent advice. You know what the first thing that occurred to me when I read that? I was thinking about President Bush, just before the 2000 election when his drunk driving record became public, very close to the election. There was not a sense of how this would affect him and in fact, it is believed that it did affect some voters' willingness to vote for him. He was asked why he didn't disclose it before and he said he didn't want his kids to know.

Ms. MUNDY: Well, that's interesting, yes, I had forgotten about that aspect of it, but yes, that does make it seem more understandable.

MARTIN: I'm curious of why you think that all these baby boomer researchers haven't taken up the question.

Ms. MUNDY: I'm really sort of at a loss, and what was interesting was when they sort of talked for their own experience or gut instinct or personal experience, they differed. I mean, I talked to Brenda Rhodes Miller, the chair of the DC Campaign to prevent teen pregnancy and she was very charming. She said, you know, my kids asked me this when I was growing up and I would say to them, this is not a referendum on me. It's not your business and it's - she said it wasn't something that I felt I had to answer, and she was able to deflect the conversation and move on to, you know, their behavior.

And - but I talked to other people in the same field who said, you know, if you did something at 15 or 16, if you felt like you experimented too early and you regret it and you are honest with your kids about it, teenagers we've surveyed find that to be a very powerful conversation. When their parent, you know, speaks to them seriously about their own past and admits to having made mistakes. So those were two pretty strongly different viewpoints.

MARTIN: Well, there are parents whom you interviewed who actually didn't think they'd made a mistake.

Ms. MUNDY: Well, that's interesting, too. I mean, several experts said, well, it's OK, you know, if you tell your children, I did this or that, but I regret it now and I don't want you to do it. But what if you don't regret it? As you say, I mean, there are some very serious situations of addiction, you know, where parents really have to think through how to talk to their children. But if it was more of a madcap, kind of 20-something experience and you don't really regret it, well, that's hard, isn't it?

MARTIN: Well, the circumstances are different now, as you point out in the piece. Some of these drugs that were kind of considered soft recreational drugs are a lot more - stronger now. The legal consequences are very great. I don't know how you say, well, back then, it was different. Times were different. I don't know how well that goes over.

Ms. MUNDY: Well, that's right.

MARTIN: You give an example where there's - of parents - a parent who was very open about his own rather liberal recreational sort of drug use and then his own son became a very serious addict. And then the question became, is it because I said too much?

Ms. MUNDY: I know. I know. You know, I think it really varies child to child and I think this shows us something, you know, with parenting, it really depends on the situation and you have to assess your child and how they're going to process this information or are they - you know, there are some children who are born arguers and they may, you know, they - when they are trying to make their closing argument, you know, they're going to use anything they can find. And if they say, well, look, mom, you did it. There are some kids like that and there are some who wouldn't do that.

MARTIN: If you are just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with Washington Post writer Liza Mundy about whether or when to talk to kids about your wild past. So, Liza, truth or dare?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You - tell us about the flaming shots.

Ms. MUNDY: Oh, the flaming shots. That's so funny. My daughter played in the basketball league and there was another team called the Flaming Shots and I thought that was a really funny name and - but - so therefore, I found myself in one of those conversations where I had to explain first to my kid what a shot was and then my son, you know, like days later, you know, this information kind of sinks in and we were talking. He said, mom, do you do flaming shots? And I could honestly, in this case, say, I don't do flaming shots. I've never done a flaming shot.

And as I said, I went on YouTube and looked at a couple of videos of people with their mouths on fire and their shirts on fire and it turned out to be a pretty good instructional lesson. I was able to give a very stern warning about flaming shots based on what I saw on YouTube.

MARTIN: What about this - I think a fairly common scenario, which is perhaps a first marriage that didn't involve children, right? And the kids, they want to know, well, daddy is your one true love and there was nobody before me and there was no life before me, but you've got that other wedding dress in the basement and you've got that other photo album in the attic someplace. What do you do?

Ms. MUNDY: Yeah. That's an interesting question and I did - when I - I had to talk to friends about this, right? I had to use proxies in this essay, rather than talking about my own experience. And there were people who I talked to who brought up, you know, how do you talk about messy family situations? And I don't think there was any one answer there, although I do find in my own experience, you know, my daughter is pretty interested in sort of any kind of drama - her antennae go up. I find that we can talk about that pretty honestly and she has a mature understanding of that. I think a first marriage, you could explain away your youth in that sense.

MARTIN: So did you come away thinking, you know, this lying thing is not so bad?

Ms. MUNDY: Yeah, actually, I talked to - I think that joking and humor are actually sort of a good solution in these cases, too, but I came away thinking that you know, human civilization does rely on a certain amount of dissembling, and I think you get to deflect some questions and it takes some kind of tact and neat conversational turns, but I don't think that parents are obliged to tell their children everything and I was talking...

MARTIN: But is that a quandary for you as a writer? I mean, that the title of your piece is "Maternal Truths," and one of the things that distinguishes your work is rigorous truth-telling of really hard things.

Ms. MUNDY: That's true. That's true. I think it depends on the child's age, as well. I do think that when they are, you know, when - as parents, we all tell little fibs for our children's lives as they are growing up when they ask certain questions around the holidays and things like that, and I don't advocate lying to your child but I do think you get to say to them, you know, I'm not going to talk about that, or it's not a referendum on me. And I think that that's important in parenting, in my own experience.

That it's a referendum on them and their behavior and we're their parents and it's not our job to give them permission to experiment or to usher them into iniquity. They can find that on their own.

MARTIN: Yeah, on YouTube.

Ms. MUNDY: On YouTube, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: On your Facebook page.

Ms. MUNDY: On your cell phones. Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: Instead of lying, I prefer the term shaping the narrative.

Ms. MUNDY: Shaping the narrative? That's lovely.

MARTIN: I think shaping the narrative is the way to go.

Ms. MUNDY: That's exactly right. Yes.

MARTIN: Liza Mundy is a writer. A very fine writer, I must say.

Ms. MUNDY: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: Her article, "Maternal Truths," was the cover story for this week's Washington Post Magazine. If you want to read the piece in its entirety, we'll have a link on our web site npr.org/tellmemore. Liza Mundy was here with me in the studio. Thank you so much.

Ms. MUNDY: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, the story of the so-called "DC Madam." Deborah Jeane Palfrey made headlines from beginning to end. She threatened to out her big-named clients and then apparently killed herself rather than go to prison. But we wanted to know, what about the real life behind the headlines?

Ms. ANNIE LOBERT (Founder, Hookers for Jesus): I was a high-end, high-class prostitute. I saw politicians, government officials, the whole nine yards, stars, and it's been going on. It's just that lately, I think that there's just more sex workers and there is more greed involved.

MARTIN: Two sex workers tell us their stories about why they started and what might make them stop. I'm Michel Martin and you are listening to Tell Me More from NPR News.

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