Post Magazine: Maternal Truths

(Doug Mindell)
Liza Mundy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 5, 2008; 12:00 PM

Today's mothers of adolescents came of age during a time when women had much more freedom to indulge in youthful indiscretion. Now they have to decide -- how much they should tell the kids?

Post staff writer Liza Mundy was online Monday, May 5 to discuss her Washington Post Magazine cover story, "Maternal Truths."

Mundy writes often about parenting issues. She is the author of Everything Conceivable, a book about assisted reproduction.

A transcript follows.


Liza Mundy: Hello everybody and thanks for joining the chat. There are a bunch of questions posted so I'll begin answering them, and feel free to weigh in as you read. Thanks, Liza Mundy


Arlington, Va. : Great article! But if you did tell your kids about some of the things you did, do you really think they would BELIEVE you?

For example, I did not believe my father -- a stern, balding middle-aged stockbroker -- went to Led Zeppelin concerts in his youth... until he showed me ticket stubs!

Liza Mundy: Thanks. And yes, one advantage that we all have, as parents, is that it's almost impossible for our children to imagine that we truly were young, once. So that provides some leeway. Our pasts may seem so far away and unreal to them as to be almost irrelevant. Or amusing.


Dunkirk, Md.: I do not understand why you felt it necessary to include the anecdote about your friend who was a stripper.

Don't you feel remorse that you 'outed' a friend who felt she was participating in a private group sharing of experiences and discussion of whether or not to reveal them to one's children?

Unless you obtained her permission, it seems an awfully selfish and potentially destructive thing to do.

I find it particularly so because it was hardly critical to your story. It was only there as a titillating bit of color.

Given your explanation of how easy it will be for people who know your circle of friends to determine her identity, you may have created serious problems for this woman and her family. It is virtually certain that she, her daughter and husband will suffer some embarrassment with their friends and relatives.

Seems to me that reporters and columnists should have some type of ethical code that would discourage this type of thing.

Liza Mundy: And hello to you, too. Of course I told my friend that I was writing this article, and of course she okayed having the details included. I told her at the party that I was thinking about writing on the issue, and then we had a second interview about it, to discuss the topic further. I left out any details that would be identifiable and went over everything with her. She was on board about everything and was glad to be included. Sheesh. Readers really do assume the worst, sometimes, I must say.


Arlington, Va.: Liza,

Your article definitely struck a chord with me. I'm 25 now, but I remember my mom and I having uncomfortable talks about sex where she gave me the impression that she had waited until she was married to my dad at age 27 before having sex. Therefore, I felt confident that I too would wait until marriage.

Unfortunately for her, she and my dad were not on the same page about this. I distinctly remember feeling like my whole word was collapsing when my dad casually mentioned that my mom was not a virgin when they married. I started second-guessing my own choices and then wondered why she had lied to me.

To this day we've never discussed it, but I have certainly questioned other things she told me about her past and wondered if she was lying too. (I should mention, however, that despite this my mom and I have a great relationship).

So my advice to parents is: make sure you are telling your kids the same story!

Liza Mundy: Excellent advice, I must say, about being on the same page. It's good to know your relationship survived those uncomfortable conversations. I think it's impossible for any parent to do this perfectly.


DCer: When I grew up in the 1970s I quickly got into punk and totally rejected the hippies' sex and drugs hedonism. I find it odd that people equate the 1970s with drug use when there were many of us who felt drug use was completely nerdy when people's PARENTS would talk about doing lines at a corporate party at Rumors. After about 1975 drugs were for nerds trying to act cool or people with problems. I have a cousin who never touched anything after Altamont!

Liza Mundy: Duly noted. I don't think I really suggested that everyone was doing drugs in the 1970s. I wasn't, for example, and neither were plenty of people I knew.


Washington, D.C.: Hello there,

I always look forward to your articles, as they are uniformly smart, incisive and very well-written. I haven't ever posted to you, and I felt compelled to do so now. Based on personal data you shared, I assume I am not much younger than you. However, growing up and attending public school in NJ, I had a steady diet of sex ed from the time I was very young - and these classes involved plenty of information about contraception as we got into later high school years. Moreover, we had a steady diet through high school of information about the dangers of drinking and driving. I was surprised to read that you didn't get this.

Liza Mundy: Thanks!

Yes, about the sex ed, I don't know what to say or why we didn't get it. I grew up in Virginia. Maybe the South was a little behind New Jersey.


Falls Church, Va.: Why is it "maternal" truths and not "parental" truths? Your article mentions fathers who have struggled with these issues, so why frame it as something that only women struggle with?

Liza Mundy: Actually, I did include references to fathers in the piece. For example, there is a discussion of Beautiful Boy, a journalist-father's book about his son's addiction. But it's true that it focuses more on women's experiences. Part of this is because I have more conversations about this with women, and I do think that for women, some of the issues might be slightly different. There may be more stigma and judging. For example, some of these postings refer to daughter's perceptions of their mothers sexual activity; I haven't yet gotten one about children's curiosity about their dads. Maybe I will. Also, next weekend is Mother's Day, and to a certain extent the essay was pegged to that.


Chris, Frederick, Md.: Your story seemed very timely. I'm from San Diego and a big story there is about a lady who had escaped from prison in Michigan due to drug charges over 20 years ago. She raised two grown-up children and was, by all accounts, a wonderful wife and mother. She was arrested about two weeks ago and is headed back to Michigan. I would think this is something you could tell your children about once they had turned eighteen or older. I also this is sort of the extreme version of your anecdotes. What do you think?

Liza Mundy: Yes, if you have spent time in prison, and escaped, this certainly does seem like an issue that might affect your kids.....on the other hand, I can understand why she, optimistically perhaps, kept it hidden. IT does seem quite an extreme example.


Vienna, Va.: So, you outed a mom in your social circle as a former stripper. You didn't use a hypothetical and you didn't (it appears) get her permission to share her story. Instead, you took a story from a private conversation and shared it with the world. (Meanwhile, you really didn't share much of anything about your own past.) I guess I don't have a real question, other than wondering how this fits within the code of journalism ethics and everyday ethics.

Liza Mundy: See above.


Too soon: I dated older boys when I was a teenager and probably went too far for my age. I also had sex early. I took a break from dating and met my husband just before going to college and we've been together since. I consider him my first real relationship and wish I had waited. I don't want to divulge my dating history, but my sense of regret makes me feel that it's a good teaching tool for my daughter. How do I walk this fine line of saying "don't do this" without saying "I did this"?

Liza Mundy: Gosh, that's a hard one. As I mention in the piece, the experts are divided on this. Some say to err on the side of disclosing as little as possible; others say that children can find an honest conversation about what you did, and the fact that you regret it, quite powerful.

Personally, I think that parents have a right to privacy. I don't think you have any obligation to reveal your own history if you don't want to,and the fact is, your daughter may not really want these details. I think that it's very likely that you are going to be attentive to these issues with your daughter, and that you will talk to her early and often about sexual activity and promiscuity and whatever is or is not going on in middle school or high school when she gets there. I bet that you will be the "warm, askable adult" that people say we are supposed to be, and that your daughter will feel comfortable opening up to you. That's the important part--helping her through her own decisions. You aren't obligated to talk about your own, I think, unless she really asks you point blank or the situation otherwise calls for it.


Washington, D.C.: This story clearly demonstrates why moms are so darn hot. Who knows, that friendly attractive mom sitting at the bench on the playground could be a former stripper.

Liza Mundy: Exactly!


Savannah, Ga: No question here, I just wanted to let you know that not everyone assumes you are an awful person who mines your friends' most intimate stories for material. I assumed that with so much obviously identifying material that you had cleared the stripper story with the friend. It was a great bookend for the article and very funny. I'd have to say that I wouldn't want to find out my mom did anything like that until... well I'm 30 now, so I'll let you know when I'm mature enough to hear that from Mom.

Liza Mundy: Thanks. Actually, the details were not identifying.


Washington, D.C.: I'm not sure about the "role model" theory. Probably the biggest reason I was never tempted to smoke was that both my parents did - and I was painfully aware of how un-cool they were.

Liza Mundy: Yes, the question of whether our children copy our behavior, or rebel against it, is a complex one and I'm sure varies from child to child, or even from one developmental stage to another. I do think they watch us very carefully, though, and make constant judgments.


Falls Church, Va.: Earlier comment: "When I grew up in the 1970s I quickly got into punk and totally rejected the hippies' sex and drugs hedonism."

That commenter's kids are still going to have some questions after they rent "Sid and Nancy." I don't think punk rock has some sort of squeaky-clean image.

Liza Mundy: Yes, there is always something they can get their parents on. Being punk, not being punk, being too cool, being hopelessly uncool.....


Annandale, Va.: I am for open communication with children, but see no need for parents (mothers OR fathers) to provide excruciating detail of their past indiscretions. It is common sense. We can admit to some minor things such as, "...I drove too fast when I was your age and paid the consequences (as I should have) and you will bear the full consequences of you behavior without my help if you drive too fast." To suggest that parents NEED to provide details of their past suggests that parents who do not have such backgrounds do not have the credibility to provide guidance.

My parents were such good role models that I never once asked them about their past indiscretions, and I do not recall our daughter asking my wife and me what kinds of things we did. Yet, nearly every day, as part of normal conversation, we talked with our daughter about issues and how to make wise choices -- and of course -- accepting the consequences for our actions.

I do not recommend parents spilling their guts about their past such that they undermine their dignity and authority. The objective is to be a role model and teach kids right and wrong -- not go to confession with our kids.

Liza Mundy: Well put, I think.


Omaha, Neb.: Interesting article... though I was a bit disappointed that more attention wasn't paid to gender issues. E.g., while you mentioned a few sons, ("Beautiful Boy") most of the stories involved moms deciding what to tell their daughters about drugs and sex. Earlier generations lectured their daughters about the evils of sex, while their sons were told to always use condoms. I'm curious as to if this dynamic has changed at all. And it seems you consciously focused on moms as opposed to dads (based on the title of your article). Was this because you had immediate access to moms rather than dads, or was there a different reason? Thanks for taking my question.

Liza Mundy: Yes, I'm sure I could have explored the gender issue more. And the article could have been even longer!

I do suspect that there is a difference, still, in the way parents talk to daughters and the way they talk to sons,at least when it comes to sex and relationships issues--maybe it's the same when it comes to drinking and driving and cigarettes and drugs, I don't know. There also may be some difference in the curiosity kids have about their mothers versus the curiosity kids have about their dads. Possibly it may depend on who drives them around more; they always lob these questions from the back seat, so I personally think that mothers, who still (I think this is fair to say) do more of the playdate driving, are more vulnerable. But feel free to differ.


Omaha, Neb.: FWIW - it never once occurred to me that you would have published the information about your friend's "stripper" past without her permission. It's just common sense that you would get the permission of your interview subjects; not only because journalism ethics require it but because the personal repercussions would be too great for you (no more invites to wine-and-cheese gatherings). I'm frankly a little surprised that you had (at least) more than one reader question your integrity. Everybody take a deep breath, please!

Liza Mundy: Yes, cleansing breaths! Just as you say, preserving friendship is paramount here.


Richmond, Va.: The only thing that my parents did not tell me that I wish I had known was that my mom's dad committed suicide. In their generation I think it was a taboo subject. Someone else told me, but I couldn't verify it.

I haven't told my own children yet, and they are grown. So sometimes family past should remain that way, perhaps?

Liza Mundy: Well, that's a powerful question. The fact that someone in the family committed suicide is an important family truth, and I do think that important family truths should be shared with children, and carefully explained and put in context. Otherwise, like you, they feel like they have been cut out of the conversation.


D.C.: I was the kid who asked my parents point-blank questions, and then followed up on every detail. To their credit, they answered every question, explaining not only what they'd done but why, its short- and long-term effects, and why they'd stopped. I learned a lot of useful lessons to apply to my own life that I might otherwise have stumbled through first-hand, and perhaps not have survived as well as they (luckily) did. Had they lied or refused to answer, it would have shattered my trust in them (and my willingness to trust them with my own confidences). If a kid is old enough to ask a question, they're old enough to get an answer -- a true and complete one. If a parent isn't willing to give it to them, why should they ever expect their child to be truthful to them?

Liza Mundy: That's really interesting. You make a very good point and your experience is convincing. On the other hand, do you really think that parents are obliged to answer every single last question? Kids just get to ask and ask, and parents always are obliged to answer, in full? What about when your child is just messing with you? I wonder what other readers think.


Falls Church, Va.: Its funny that this article ran. My boyfriend and I were just arguing about this sort of thing because I got into all that trouble as a teen, never severely, but he was totally straight and narrow. He doesn't want our future kids to know anything, but I think some honesty is important!

Liza Mundy: This may say something about the people I run with, but it's funny how often I talked to women who had been much more experimental, in their youths, than their husbands. This may be purely anecdotal. I was talking on the cellphone with one friend, and she was in the car with her husband, and going on and on about her youth, and he was saying, in the background (with amusement): "What did you do?"

Anyway, sounds to me that it's good that you and your bf are having these conversations. Unfortunately I don't know what the answer is. But you might reference earlier post about being on the same page.


D.C.: You made slight reference to the "Dad double standard", but then seem to apply it throughout the piece.

Consider the aging frat boy whose escapades now need to be translated as his son begins to form opinions on women or, worse, for his daughter explaining why she deserves better treatment than all of his early girlfriends. Or those dads whose behavior still isn't all that responsible when they get with the guys.

If kids consider past parental behavior formative, what about current parental behavior?

Liza Mundy: Well, I certainly didn't mean to perpetuate any double standard. It's hard to incorporate every possible viewpoint into an essay. I for one would welcome an essay from an aging frat boy reconsidering his attitude about women, and I wouldn't feel left out if he didn't include my experience in it.

But I do think your point is a really important one: a man's view of women, and how he treated them, or how he regarded them, and the question of how to talk through all this with his son. I think that's crucial. Father-son conversations on the topic could do so much good and every woman would thank a father for even bringing this up with his son and (one hopes)urging him to treat women with respect and affection. What an important conversation to have. And I do think that if a father was regretting his own long-past behavior, this would, indeed, be a powerful conversation. Please, dads, have it!

I also think that present behavior is way, way more important than what one did in the past, when, after all, one was a different person. Purely based on my own instinct I think that present behavior is 99.9 percent of what children are affected by, and watching.


Washington, D.C.: You should definitely share with your children anything that could be considered medical history, and that includes issues like mental illness, addiction and suicide. Children should be aware, for example, that while it is appropriate for adults to drink occasionally, there are adults who cannot do so, and that it's possible based on family history that they could be one of those adults.

Liza Mundy: Yes, absolutely. Thank you for saying this so clearly and cogently. Addiction is one thing and must be addressed. Madcap misbehavior is, perhaps, another.


Annandale, Va.: I do not agree that if a kid is old enough to ask a question that they deserve an answer. Answer yes, but not necessarily what they want to hear. Sorry if they are "crushed."

Liza Mundy: I'll just post this, to share another viewpoint.


Obligated to answer: I think the poster who wrote that parents should answer every question truthfully had great parents who were able to 'read' their kid and decide their past could make a positive impression on him/her. But not every kid is like that. My middle-schooler is VERY sensitive and has a lot of anxiety. My past experiences would be too much for her to handle and she would end up scared. Maybe things will change as she matures. I will certainly be open to being more open, but I think being completely revealing is not always the best choice.

Liza Mundy: This is so interesting. It reaffirms my belief that every child is just so different from every other child, and that good and loving parenting involves understanding your child's personality and what's right for that child, and that family relationship, at that moment.


Re: Answering Every Question: I don't think being someone's kid entitles you to every single detail of that person's life. We all have our spheres of privacy which we can define as we like. But maybe that's a teachable moment, too- honesty about not answering the question. I do agree that if you lie, and that lie comes out, it can do some serious damage to your credibility.

Liza Mundy: Point well-taken. Just FYI, though, one mom I spoke with thought that it's possible to say one thing to your child in middle school, and another much later, in college. I.e., she thought it was possible to "dissemble" when her daughter was in middle school, and then, later, explain why she had done so. It worked for her.


McLean, Va.: I've got to tell you, I was a bit disappointed in the timing of the article so close to Mother's Day. I don't suppose we'll have a more heartwarming story to follow next week. Oh, stay tuned! I am looking at Sunday's issue right now and there is a great Mother's Day article coming up... - Elizabeth (producer)

Liza Mundy: Yes, actually, heartwarming story to come!


Metairie, La.: Re: the grandfather's suicide

I'm of the opinion that information should be shared with children not just because it's part of the family history, but because it's part of the family MEDICAL history. Had I known that pretty much every woman in my family suffered from clinical depression and anxiety (though very rarely was it identified as such), I perhaps would have sought help before I hit bottom.

Liza Mundy: Yes, absolutely, I agree.


Falls Church, Va.: Regarding the kid from DC who expected "true and complete" answers from her parents, is she reciprocally willing to answer their questions about her life in every detail, with nothing held back?

Liza Mundy: Very interesting question. Kid from D.C.--any response?


D.C.: In our home, Father will be handling discussions of drugs (I don't think pot is that big a deal, but my husband does and given the meth and other horrors of today's scene I'm willing to defer), and Mother will be handling the sex discussion (my husband was a virgin when we married, and while it's a good choice, there are some things our son should know regardless of choice). The party line is that we agree 100% with the parent that is speaking. And we're not ever discussing why the labor was divided this way.

No one has to lie!

Liza Mundy: Well handled. Except, do the duties have to be divided? Isn't it important for a father to have some kind of conversations with his son, say, about relationships and sexual behavior and how to relate to women? (See above.) And if the drug question is put to you, presumably you'd give some answer. I definitely agree that the important thing is being on the same page and it's admirable that you have compromised so successfully. But I'm not sure that children will necessarily observe your careful division of labor!


Baltimore, Md.: I wanted to ask whether the general sentiments described in your article -- fear of adolescence, or attempts to prevent or restrict teenage experimentation -- are a cultural or gender-based phenomenon. In terms of the first factor (culture), as someone born in another country, I've noticed that Americans are far more fearful of teenagers than other societies, and constantly bombard students with the kind of anti-sex, anti-alcohol propaganda that may surprise a foreign visitor. But also, in terms of gender, I've noticed that women are far more concerned and emotional about these issues than men, who tend to be somewhat more objective and tolerant (e.g., teenage experimentation is a healthy and normal part of growing up). Your thoughts?

Liza Mundy: Interesting. Are people not "fearful of teenagers"---i.e., concerned about potential teenaged experimentation--in other countries or cultures? Seems to me there are some cultures where teenaged experimentation is closely paid attention to and guarded against. Are there really countries and cultures where everything goes? Maybe the fabled northern European countries. But among the young people I interviewed were some German au pairs, and their attitudes were much she same as that of Americans.

As for women being emotional about teenaged behavior, I really wouldn't agree on that one. Not to perpetuate stereotype or anything, but historically, fathers have been known to be quite protective of their daughters, just to offer one example. I do think that discussion of all these issues with children more often falls to mothers, but people may disagree. I really admire the father, above, who is thinking about how to talk to his son about relationships with women.


Yes, VA: In regards to answering a kids direct questions fully and honestly, I had a REALLY bad experience with that one.

My eight-year old wasn't ready to give up that Christmas magic. I wished I had come up with my own version of "Yes, Virginia. . ."

Liza Mundy: Exactly.


Rockville, Md: While I am guilty of partaking in sex, drugs and smoking, those actions weren't what caused years of discovery anxiety. What I never wanted my kids to find out was that I repeated the 4th grade. I preached and preached about the importance of school work etc....blah, blah, blah. One day my mother visited and one my kids told her how tough I was regarding their school responsibilities and she said, "that's interesting considering your mother repeated a grade."

As you can imagine, I was eaten alive. As my kids feasted on the revelation my mother turned to me and said, "I'm ninety, there's nothing you can do."

Liza Mundy: OMG! Great anecdote. But I don't think you are inconsistent. Perhaps the fact that you repeated a grade, and the impact it may have had, made you all the more determined to encourage your children to work hard, get ahead, etc etc. I think it's rather consistent, that you would have been motivated to make them take their school responsibilities seriously.


Raleigh, N.C.: I disagree that children should be told about suicide and depression further back in a family, unless it's specifically impacting them at the moment. I think, worst case scenario, it can lead to kids who think it's part of their destiny. Just my $.02.

Liza Mundy: That's interesting; I am not an expert, but I'll post this viewpoint. Do you think it's possible to have a long, nuanced conversation in which a child is helped to understand that depression, say, has affected other family members and should be taken seriously, but that it's by no means a given?


Washington D.C.: I'm 35. I have no idea whether my mom had sex before she married my dad (at 29). Dad was married once before (which I didn't learn until I was 16 - not sure why, but aside from a few weird weeks back then, it didn't affect me), so I suspect he did. And . . . now I've just thought about that prospect way more than I have ever wanted to or, I suspect, ever will want to, regardless of how old I get. I guess that talking to your parents about sex may be a necessity, but talking to them about their sexual experiences is something I don't want a part of!

Liza Mundy: Yep. Many teenagers I talked to said the same thing.


ongoing lines of communication: I was a little disturbed about fudging the truth about your life because does that meet the need behind the question? Obviously being caught on the hop happens, but I heard no real discussion mothers having ongoing dialogues so that they're less lightly to be caught on the hop? My mother, who has a huge variety of friends in all walks of life, did a fantastic job of talking to me about their various emotional and physical situations. She did this, toned down and in a age appropriate way, before I was a teenager. These conversations my mother had with me gave me valuable insight and also helped create an atmosphere where I was comfortable discussing topics more relevant to me and what I was going through. This helped impart to me her values and why she had them without her having to write her memoirs.

Liza Mundy: Thanks for your posting and your insight, and with this tribute to a mother, I'll sign off. Ongoing dialogues, yes, absolutely.


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