When my daughter was little she didn’t keep secrets. She told me everything. Once when she was four, she told me that she and her friend snuck candy. She told me even though she knew she’d get in trouble for it. As she got older she began to sensor what she told me. She didn’t want to get in trouble and she didn’t want to hear my perspective on what she or a friend did, even if it wasn’t bad.
Over the years my daughter has shared past-kept secrets with me. When she was fourteen she shared with me the true extent of the bullying she experienced a few years earlier. Sometimes she’ll share a memory from when she was really little — like how she thought her imaginary friends were actually real, just microscopic and only she could see them. She told me she kept this secret because she didn’t want anyone else to know they were actually real and try to see them.
My daughter is sixteen now and she has lots of secrets — big ones and little ones. She has a vibrant, active social life. She has a car and a driver’s license. She is independent and on her own most of the time. When she comes home I want her to tell me everything. But she rarely does. If the mood is right she might share a few details about a party or some other activity she did, but I know the big stuff, the important stuff she mostly keeps inside.
I’ve noticed that eventually, my daughter will share things about her life with me. She shares her secrets once enough time has passed that I will no longer have a strong reaction — negative or positive. I get it. She wants to preserve her secrets, to keep them precious, like sterling silver pieces wrapped in thin felt, in the dark, away from the ozone and hydrogen that will tarnish them. She is still processing the experience herself, figuring out what it means to her, how it feels in her own body.
It’s smart. She knows that if she tells me I will have a feeling about it. It might just be the subtle reaction on my face. Or I might have a lecture to give or a personal experience of my own to share. Her secrets stay inside until she is ready to make them public, to hear the outside critique, the oohs and ahhs, the possible judgment and disappointment.
Recently my daughter shared a secret with me that surprised and shocked me. When she told me, I saw her from an angle I had not yet seen. In hearing her secret I felt like I knew her a little bit more but simultaneously realized that there is so much more that I do not know. There must be so many more secrets.
In the moment after my daughter shared her secret, I felt closer to her. I felt happy and grateful that she had shared it with me. But I also felt the sense that I knew her a little bit less. With every secret my daughter holds onto, mulls over, churns around inside, with her friends, in her own mind, she is coming to know herself a little bit more.
As my daughter’s sense of knowing herself grows, so too does my sense of unknowing her. I think this is the point. In the old days when my daughter told me everything, I was in charge of her life. I made all the decisions. I planned all the activities. I was always there to moderate playdates and meltdowns.
But that’s not my role anymore. My daughter has to figure out most of that stuff on her own. She has to build her own interiority of wisdom that she can draw from to navigate her life. This begins with her secrets, the life experiences she holds, processes, deciphers on her own before she lets them out for review from me or anyone else.
When my daughter shares a secret it is like she is making a little crack in the armor — I can see inside just a tiny bit, a glimmer of light shining from inside out. I want to get a knife and wedge my way in, to make the crack bigger so I can see more, know more.
This longing is familiar. It comes with being a parent of a teenager. Standing outside trying to look in, there is so much more I want to know. But I know that this is part of the process — my unknowing of my daughter becomes her knowing of herself. I know she will share her secrets when she is ready, but for now, they are all hers.