My 4-year-old is a liar.
She tells me things like, “I don’t need to go to the bathroom,” and, “I already blew my nose.” The way she curls her lip, puts her chin down and looks off to the side gives it away, so I’m still safe. But just as she will learn to swim without swimmies, she will learn to lie without a giveaway. This may be the thing I fear most.
Once that happens, I’ll no longer trust anything about life. Every single stop sign and expiration date and bank statement will feel like a farce. Because without knowing the truth about my daughter, I can’t really know the truth about anything.
They will say to make her feel loved, and accepted. I will nod and think, yes, yes, that’s what I will do. That’s what will separate us from them: the parents with loving, honest children, and those with liars who steal and struggle alone and become addicted and estranged. But beneath my nodding and hoping, I know this isn’t the case. The love I give her is pure, and strong, but it comes from me, and I am flawed. And the love I give can’t vaccinate her from her own desires, or the way the world carelessly shapes who she will become.
But here is my secret: I am a liar too. Or I was, for much of my life. I remember the moment when I realized that I had a hand in what type of reality another would live by. That I could carve out my own secret nook beneath others’ expectations and exist in that delicious, sovereign space. In second grade, I put it to use for the first time: I would ask to go to the bathroom, grab the big wooden pass, and then take a walk around the hallways, beyond the yellow GIRLS and BOYS doors and the metallic hand-washing fountain in between. I would climb up the stairs, and with every step feel the medal of my self-proclaimed freedom, protected by the benefit of the doubt of every person I passed. No one would think that an 8-year-old would be wandering the halls; and they didn’t. I could smile, and wave. How are you? Good morning.
One day, I told Jeremy Spitzer (a small, red-faced and deep-voiced classmate) my new method for living. He looked at me stunned: What? he bellowed, sounding more like an angry old woman than an 8-year-old boy. You mean, you don’t go to the bathroom? No, I told him, thinking he would thank me for passing along the secret to life. The next time I returned from my covert hallway trip, Ms. D’Adamo was waiting in the hallway for me, hand on hip, foot tapping the vinyl floors.
I’d been caught. Once my heart rate came down, the lesson had been learned: lies are like chewing gum. They shouldn’t be shared.>
They say not to tell your child she is being a bad girl, but to tell her she is doing bad things. Looking back at my life, my instinct is to classify myself as a “good person.” Then I look closer. I was kind to others, except when I was not. I was honest to my friends and my family, except when I was not. I was true to myself, except when I was not. So what kind of person was I? I wasn’t a good person, but a person who did good things. And I wasn’t a bad person, but a person who did bad things. Perhaps that’s what’s inside all of us: good and evil spinning round and round in a dance with each other like two figure skaters, each waiting for the other to go off on a solo performance, or to fall.
So my daughter is not a liar, but she lies, and I cannot blame her. There are so many lies I have lived in my life: some of them small, like walking the hallway instead of going to the bathroom, and some of them bigger, like hiding a bottle of pills in my pocketbook for much of my adult life. I’ve lied about things that gave me the room to be myself, and things that threatened to take me away from it all. I’ve lied about lying, and in the darkest of times, when it was only me and my pillow and some shadows on the ceiling, I tried with everything I could to lie to myself, and be believed.
When I met my husband, he gave me the space I have always craved with the love I have always needed. And from him I learned to trust, and be trusted. I would keep that trust safe at all costs: like the subtle sides of a twisty slide, holding us both in while life rushes and bends, protecting us from the rocky ground.
But even that isn’t what ended up saving me from all of the lies I was willing to tell.
The day that Clear Blue told me I was pregnant, I opened a little orange bottle and flushed my biggest secret down the toilet, deciding to come clean. And it’s been the sweet little face of my now 4-year-old daughter, with those wandering eyes, lips pursed with obvious culpability, that I have learned the importance of living an honest life. Holding dishonesty this close–in the precious package of my very own daughter–I can finally understand the way it stabs at the intangible goodness that lives between us all, slicing so much of life’s promise to pieces. But no one could have taught me that any sooner, not Ms. D’Adamo, not my mother, not myself. So I needed her, this sweet angel and her little white lies, bouncing around doing the pee-pee dance, to make an honest woman out of me.
An honest woman in her prime, good and ready to be lied to for years and years to come.
Previously published on Thought Catalog