March 28, 2006

Dear Wendy,

I appreciate your thoughts on modesty more than you can know. I wish I had read them sooner. In fact, I was a modest young woman, determined to remain so, when I entered college. In many ways, I was polluted there with accusations of unease with my sexuality, "hang-ups" and the like, and eventually (due in no small part to my insecurities at the time), I fell victim to this thinking. Even in something so mundane as dress, people were "threatened" enough by my modest dress that I was mocked until I went from wearing cute jumpers and long skirts that I was comfortable in to immodest clothing that I did not feel comfortable in at all.

My life took a turn for the worse that lasted approximately 10 years, until I met the gentleman who is now my husband. During this period of time I not only made terrible decisions with respect to behavior and fashion, but also made decisions that just weren't right for me with respect to career. Even though I knew as a child that I wanted more than anything to be a mother, I invested money I did not have (by way of student debt) in a graduate education for a time-consuming career that would not allow me the freedom to raise children as I wanted. And I was encouraged in this decision by everyone around me--even when I sought advice from family and friends, only a few weeks into the experience, about following my gut instinct to leave the program before incurring any more debt, I was told time and again that I could not throw away such an opportunity, had to stick with the program, etc., and in light of all of this "good advice" that's exactly what I did.

In all of these matters, had I trusted my own instincts rather than the advice pouring in, mostly unsolicited, from all around me, my decisions would have been better ones.

So here's my question. I do not want my children to make the same mistakes. And yet, I am somewhat embarrassed by my own past now. I want to speak frankly with them about modesty and respect, but I don't want them to lose respect for me. Also, while I don't think I should have pursued the particular career that I did, I do have a great deal of respect in general for education and don't want to unwittingly discourage my children from educating themselves in the manner that they desire.

Do you have some thoughts for me on talking to my children in the future about my decisions in the past?

Modest Again


Dear Modest Again,

Many people's lives take a turn for the worse for 10 years, but they never get back on track. At least you did, and you can be proud of that. Rest assured your children will respect the kind of person you are, and not form their entire opinion of you based on one or two wrong turns--especially since we’re talking about a time in life when most people tend to take wrong turns.

I don't see how talking about bad career moves could possible discourage your children from education in general. I think children always appreciate hearing how the majority view is not necessarily sacred, and about learning to trust what they know to be right (unless, of course, they think it’s right to pinch their younger sister).

But my general feeling is that you don't have to say everything to your children in order to warn them against bad decisions. You don't have to say, for instance, "I jumped off a cliff and it hurt" in order to advise them, "don't jump off cliffs." And especially when it comes to something as private as sexuality, I’m not sure it’s children's business how far Mommy went with so-and-so before she met Daddy.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that it isn’t their business. Just because children think they want to know something doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good for them to know it.

My hunch is that a lot depends on your relationship with your children and their personalities. For some kids, “this isn’t about me, it’s about you,” may be what they need to hear. If you are especially close to one of your children, and it becomes relevant, more detail may be appropriate.

What does everyone else think?

So to review, the options before us are: a.) give your children vague but true answers--"I made some bad decisions before I met your father" but don’t get into specifics; b.) say simply, "that's personal"; c.) outright fib; or d.) Tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, even the parts your subconscious has suppressed.

Best answers will be published in April.

"SpudMom" writes in:

It's important to share your wisdom with your children, as well as your humanity. However, I agree that specifics are private, with perhaps a few appropriate revelations at critical times for our children. When our children know that we have faced the same pressures and temptations, and (eventually) overcome them, they can hope that they can do at least as well. In dealing with my own teenagers, it's always helpful to give them strategies that allow them to make good choices without always losing face with their peers. They are always free to use the "My parents would (insert most scary thought) me if they ever found out I (insert bad action)" to give them a good reason to refuse to participate, and they always know that we will come and get them anytime, anywhere, no questions asked.

As far as the mommy track goes, I can tell you that my physics degree has been useful in the following ways:

  1. It gave me a career choice that enabled me to support my husband through med school;
  2. It gave me the research skills to be an informed, articulate citizen;
  3. It came in very handy when my kids were at the 'why' stage;
  4. It has enabled me to successfully homeschool a couple of extremely bright sons (like the 12 year old in Algebra II;)
  5. It has helped me keep up with my husband's work so I speak like a peer among his colleagues.

Even though I 'retired' from employment 18 years ago, I have never felt that my education was wasted. However, I am now counseling my own daughters to make career choices that can be set aside for a few years or switched to part time or free-lance in order to better accomodate motherhood. I know too many women who wish they had learned to become music teachers, interior designers, and such when their current skills are only able to be used in a 9-5 corporate setting.

"Lauren" adds:

I don't know, I think I agree. I feel that children really don't want to know about their parent's sex life, they really don't.

There has to be a way of guiding children where they can see you truly value what you're telling them, without having to get into the details.

"L.B." says:

At the same time, spudmom, parents should be careful not to steer girls into flexible, often low-paying careers simply because they are female. I was encouraged to become a teacher so I would have summers off with my children--but I have no interest in becoming a teacher, and I probably won't have children.

Not all women are destined for marriage and babies. Even some of those will become widows or divorced single parents and need a means to support themselves and their children.

Back to the point, though, sometimes I wonder if children are destined to rebel against what their parents teach them, unless those children grow up in an environment where there are no other options, and the only way to raise children who believe in modesty is to completely shelter them from mainstream culture. I'm a cynic, though.

"Anon" adds:

As I read the letter from "Modest Again" I was getting all fired-up to give my opinion -- but then I read Wendy's response and all I can say is, Ditto. This happens to me a lot!

So I guess I would answer a: "give your children vague but true answers--'I made some bad decisions before I met your father' but don’t get into specifics."

But I would also add that the image or map that your children have of you is something that is constantly evolving. That they see you as perfect when they are 5 seems to be important but they will learn over time that you are not perfect and that map of you will evolve some more. So evasiveness when they are young can lead to more disclosure, if appropriate, later on.

One last thought. I think that a lot of times we feel like we can't tell kids to not do something that we did ourselves for fear of being a "hypocrite." It was such a bugaboo term for the baby boomers but I usually think that what most people call hypocrisy is just people learning from their mistakes and not wanting their children to make them too. That isn't hypocrisy it is actually wisdom, in my opinion.

Another "anon" writes in:

I have to disagree with Lauren. My mom was open with me about her own failures and mistakes in all areas of life. From her I really learned about the emotional consequences of premarital sex. At a time when I faced pressure, her stories, her encouragement and her past openness with me, helped me to turn to her for guidance and support. It is a wonderful gift to give to your children. And who would you rather they took advice from? You or their peers?

Posted by: | March 31, 2006 at 01:23 PM

Erin Palazzolo concludes:

What a great letter and worthwhile conversation! I am 26, single (but dating a wonderful man), and I haven't yet experienced the joy and trials of marriage & motherhood. But I hope to:)

I agree with Wendy about being open and honest with your children, but also drawing boundaries that are important to preserve their well- being. My future husband will know about my previous relationships, but that's not something I'm going to describe in detail to my children. They will know about my courtship with their father, but they will not need to know how each date was spent. The question I suspect I will ask myself is: What is best for my children? Not what is best for me (to get off my chest).

The question of education/hi-powered careers for women & if this can infringe on their modesty is a good one worth more exploration. I don't see things as black & white in this area, but women need to be encouraged to respect their intuitions and not seriously compromise their values in the workplace whether their career is "high-powered" or not. I graduated in the top of my high school and college classes and pursued a Master's degree. I am Still unsure of what comes next and am Still discerning a good fit for my career. I'm learning the best thing I can do is be honest with myself -- strengths, limitations, preferences and all. I'll want to encourage my daughter (s) to study and work hard, cultivate their passion/talent, and make ambitious but realistic decisions regarding their career. Of course all the while praying for God to help them along the way with their vocation, whatever it may be:)

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