Dear Carolyn: My grandfather is in his 90s. He’s in great health overall, is mentally very sharp and lives very close to family. My mother has taken to lying to him when she has something planned that my grandfather will not be participating in — a family portrait, for example, or a vacation, at least up until the point that we leave — because my mother says my grandfather has a tendency to lay the guilt on thick.
Part of me is fine with my mom doing what she needs to do, but she asks us to lie, too (“Don’t tell your grandfather . . .”). He always asks about these things. I have told my mom this bothers me and that I don’t like the lying.
I suppose there’s an argument that it’s somehow sparing my grandfather’s feelings when things are going on without him? But I don’t ever see that as the reason for my mother’s actions.
My mom has a larger tendency to tell lies to suit her needs, like, “Tell them you’re sick,” if I need to get out of an obligation, or “Don’t tell,” about something she has done. What do you think?
H.: I think you’re pretty astute.
Good for you on both counts.
Now you need to be courageous, too, to say to your mother, “No, I won’t lie.” Not to Grandpa, not to get out on an obligation, not to cover for her or anyone else.
You’ve gotten close to this in telling your mom you’re uncomfortable, which is promising. You just need to nudge it to “no.”
Just like integrity itself, though, this issue isn’t without nuance. It’s fine to assure her you won’t go around volunteering information to people; you don’t have to be proactively truthful. Just make it clear that when asked, you won’t respond with a lie.
When it’s realistic to, you can also defer questions to her. Presumably you know when and how your grandfather tends to ask things. That means you can be ready with the most logical phrasing of “You need to ask my mom.” I could argue that’s the familial equivalent of suborning perjury; however, it also counts as good emotional hygiene to decline invitations to get in the middle of other people’s power struggles. Your grandfather quite possibly asks you because he knows you’re more forthcoming than your mom, and that’s as underhanded as your mother’s dishonesty. You owe no apologies for opting out of their dysfunction.
If I had to guess, I’d say your mother cultivated her deception skills as a defense mechanism — an unhealthy one, obviously — against the paternal guilt-tripping, which itself was probably an unhealthy defense mechanism for some emotional tendency in his family, and so on.
If this is indeed a family pattern, then breaking it will be hard work, but worth it. Consider talking to a good family therapist if the family’s dysfunction or your discomfort with it runs wider and deeper than this.
Standing by your own decisions even under the worst familial pressure feels better than making things up to appease others, because the former is the act of an adult and the latter the act of a child. Trust that.