Cover Story

Maternal Truths

How much about your teenage transgressions should you tell your kids?

(Doug Mindell)
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By Liza Mundy
Sunday, May 4, 2008; Page W10

SOME MONTHS BACK, I was invited to a party with 20 or so other mothers. It was a wine-and-cheese affair, ladies only: The hostess had evacuated her husband and kids to the mall. Gathered around her dining room

table, we talked about our children, and then a few of the women began reminiscing about their own youths, comparing the transgressions they'd committed in their teens and 20s and debating whose were the most egregious.

"I win, I win!" one mother exclaimed. "I was a stripper!"

This contribution came from a woman I have long admired. Smart and good-humored, she has always seemed a veritable supermother, remarkable for her ability to work a full day and come home to direct a range of extracurricular activities for her bright and engaging children. I see them sometimes out for a walk, and always imagine that they are discussing quadratic equations or figuring the velocity of the wind. And now it emerged that, in her salad days, this working mom with a security clearance had removed her clothing, onstage, to the accompaniment of "Pretty Woman."

She and her boyfriend, she told me later, were traveling after graduation, and at one point found themselves broke, sleeping on a friend's floor in New Orleans. An acquaintance was going for an interview at a strip club, and it occurred to my friend that here was an opportunity for some ready income. So she tagged along and was hired. On her first night, nobody told her she was supposed to bring pasties -- though the club required them, it was apparently a BYOP joint -- and the upshot was that she found herself dancing topless while her more experienced colleagues were, nominally, covered. Which was a little unnerving, she remembers, but by then there was no going back. There was a pole, and, in fact, she said, it isn't all that hard to learn to pole-dance.

Laughing, I asked if she would ever tell her children about her short-lived foray into the entertainment business, which ended when she came down with food poisoning the next day. "No, I don't think I'll be telling my kids about that one," she said, although, she added, she would never want to lie.

She probably won't have to. Likely, few children would think to ask their mom if she appeared in her birthday suit, or portions of it, in public, though after this piece runs the women in my little social circle may face some interrogation, and, ladies, I am sorry for that, and good luck to you! But children do ask other, more plausible questions, and it strikes me that sooner or later many mothers of our generation will have some 'splainin' to do. Coming of age, as we did, in the 1970s -- that golden era of basement recreation rooms, Spencer Gifts stores, contraceptive breakthroughs and the discovery that marijuana could be baked into brownies -- many of today's most responsible mothers (and fathers) once engaged in social experimentation that might surprise their offspring. Even if they were not the people naked in the mud at Woodstock, they were probably doing something they are glad wasn't photographed. Ironically, it is these very memories that have turned many of us into hyper-vigilant parents, intent on making sure our children don't get up to the very behaviors our cohort once engaged in with such glee.

"The idea of [my daughter] being so drunk she doesn't know where she is on campus -- I shudder!" one mother, who had just such a memory, told me.

As we pursue the goal of protecting our children from some of our more boneheaded and/or high-risk antics, we face one of the essential dilemmas of parenting: What do children need to know about their parents' pasts, and when do they need to know it?

"IT'S FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK THAT," said Rosemary, the genial woman who answered the phone at the Yale Child Study Center. I had called to see if any of the center's child-development experts could provide an answer. Maybe there has been a definitive study saying tell your teenagers everything, or definitely tell them nothing, or definitely always lie. Maybe there was a brochure with guidelines. I was curious to know whether teenagers view their parents as role models; and, if so, do they model their behavior on their parents' present -- paycheck-earning, soccer-driving, homework-supervising -- or their less exemplary pasts? I also wanted to know whether children are capable of understanding who their mothers and fathers are, or whether they would even want to.

What a coincidence, marveled Rosemary. She'd just been out for cocktails with friends who had debated exactly that issue. These were women with older teenagers, and among the queries they had already received were: "When did you first have sex?" and "Mom, did you smoke pot?" and the dreaded catchall, "What kind of things did you do?" Some of the mothers had answered honestly; some had not. She offered to put me in touch with one of the center's staff counselors, who called back and said, apologetically, "There isn't any one-size-fits-all response to your question."

And that is what I found. Asking experts and parents with more experience than I have, it emerged that there is no road map, perhaps because this was not something mothers of past generations had to deal with, or not quite so acutely. While youthful misbehavior was by no means born with the baby boomers, it seems safe to say that women growing up before the 1960s had fewer temptations available to them, and usually married before they had a chance to engage in much illicit behavior. And those mothers who did have dark secrets -- like Lady Dedlock in Bleak House denying her illegitimate daughter -- knew they'd darn well better keep them hidden. Only lately has it become thinkable that a woman might acknowledge having a less-than-perfect past, though even now you wonder if mothers might be judged more harshly than fathers for youthful indiscretions.

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