I grew up in L.A., thoroughly Chinese-American—Chinese food, parents and relatives who spoke Cantonese, Chinese-American Christian churches. So it was a big shock when my mom told me and my older brothers that she was half-Mexican. I was 13 years old, and it had never occurred to us that she was anything but 100% Asian. True, she has olive skin, a strong brow and cheekbones, and deep set, double lidded eyes. She looked different than my aunts and other relatives, but we never noticed. We simply saw her as more beautiful, more exotic.
There was more to mom's story. She had been abandoned as an infant and adopted by a Chinese couple (the orphanage was right near the house they used in Six Feet Under). Her brother and two sisters were adopted as well.
I don't remember what prompted her to finally tell us, but I do remember my reaction. First, confusion. "So Uncle Bob isn't a blood relative? Grandma and Grandpa too?" Then outrage. "How could you not tell us all this time? Didn't you trust us?" I came to understand why Mom kept it secret—a mixture of shame, a sense of protectiveness toward the only mom and dad she ever new—but it wasn't necessarily the best strategy. As Elizabeth Foy Larsen points out in her piece in the October issue of Family Circle:
At first thought, it can seem sensible to keep your own counsel. You have a right to privacy, and there certainly are things your kids really don’t need to know. But the truth has a way of revealing itself, and when that occurs in an unplanned way—a relative blurts it out, a conversation is overheard—there can be lasting damage. A child who stumbles onto a parent’s lie is very likely to feel betrayed, or at least more skeptical about everything he’s told from there on, according to a University of San Diego study. “There are some kids who will feel deeply hurt for a long time,” says Gail Heyman, Ph.D., who conducted the research. “They’ll think, ‘If she lied about that, what else isn’t she telling me?’”
My hurt and anger quickly faded, and I've completely forgiven mom for her, well, let's call it a sin of omission. And sure enough, once we knew the facts Mom could tell us all sorts of stories she had kept quiet about, which drew us closer.
Still, I'm doing things differently with my 11 year old. Full disclosure here--once I knew about Mom, I became determined to adopt a child of my own; my daughter is from China. Anyway, she pretty much gets the complete lowdown (age appropriate, of course) on what's going on, past and present, in my life. And when she hits those crazy teen years, I plan on being honest about my own, missteps and all. I just have to make sure I don't commit the sin of TMI.
What about you? Tell us your stance on coming clean with family secrets in the comments below. And read more about sharing family secrets here.
Paula Chin is a senior editor at Family Circle.