When people think about family, usually words like "love," "caring," and "supportive" come to mind. But for a large number of people a slew of very, very different words come to friend. Not everyone has a close relationship — or a relationship at all — with their family members, including their parents. So, when you become a parent yourself, how do you describe your estranged parents to your children? Do you tell them the good, bad, and ugly? Do you make up stories until they’re older? Do you simply ignore the matter altogether?
I'm lucky, in that I have managed to maintain a relationship with my family members throughout my life. While I do distance myself from a few relatives when we clash on social issues, I know they love my son and I know they love me. My relationship with my in-laws, however, has always been a bit more complex. My son has only met them a small handful of times, and has gone years without speaking to them at all.
Most recently, my partner and I have re-opened lines of communication, which certainly was confusing for my 4-year-old son. He knows about his abuelo and abuela (his maternal grandparents), but he was surprised to learn that you can have more than two grandparents. The only explanation my partner and I could give our son was that we don't always get along with the people in our lives, and for now that explanation works. Eventually, however, we know we'll probably have to describe, in more detail, why we've kept our distance. I know I'm not alone, either. So with that in mind, here's how the following moms describe their estranged relationships to their children:
“I cut off all contact with my biological family when my second daughter was born. I haven’t talked to them in over six years. My oldest child had a transactional/material relationship with my biological family until they were 5. After my second child was born, I was treated very badly and those people didn't even come to see the new baby (despite living 30 minutes away). Because child one had a prior relationship, I did have to explain as time went on that those people were disrespectful and irresponsible and that broke the rules in our home. The second child has never met them and I didn't even know if they are aware of my third. In the six years since, if/when it has ever come up (very infrequently, and usually only in relation to school ‘all about me’ type projects) I maintain the same thing: they are who they are and I am different. They didn't treat me respectfully and so they don't get to be part of my life. We have loving and involved grandparents on my partner's side and they enjoy their relationship with them. I feel no loss on the children's behalf, and I don't think they even realize there should be a ‘relationship’ there. I talk about my childhood and the good and bad things there (censored, of course) but I am not vituperative because I'm trying to break the cycle of toxicity.”
“I am estranged from my father, but we live in different countries. When we come to visit family, my father is invited to the group barbecue on my mother’s side of the family (they are divorced) so he can see the kids if he wants. I use my large family as a buffer to limit any potential unpleasantness since he is uncomfortable surrounded by his ex in-laws. My children are 7 and 9, and I have told them that we don’t see grandpa often because he cares more about himself than others. I have given a few more details, and I will probably give more as they get older.”
“My children have never met their grandparents, because they were horrific abusers of myself and my eight younger siblings, and I've been no-contact for over two decades. My children were fortunate enough to have people step in many times for Grandparents Day at school and such.
As they grew older, I explained to them that Mommy's mom and dad were very mean and hurt Mommy. As they grew older, I explained a little more in ways they could understand (they hit Mommy a lot, they didn't let Mommy have food when she was hungry, they kept Mommy locked in the house and Mommy didn't get to go to school or have friends or see a doctor when she was sick, etc.) I was raised in a cult, so I omit the really bad abuse. But they understood well enough. They understand family is not about who you share genetic material with, but who loves you and treats you right and is there for you!”
“My dad was toxic. I never said anything about it. My son never asked questions. However, one day when my uncle and his wife came over to my house, after they left my son asked if that was his grandpa. There was no hole to fill and I just said, ‘No.’ When my dad died, my son was about 15. I took him to the funeral to give me support. When he was mature enough, I told him the truth about his grandpa.”
“My two girls (almost 5 and 19 months) have never met my mother. I've been estranged from her for 20 years. My father died a few years before I had kids, and my only sibling died four years ago. My oldest asks a lot of questions and we've consulted with a therapist. We explain that mom's mother is sick in a way that makes her treat mom badly. It's been tough because my daughter is incredibly sensitive, bright, and anxious. I see the wheels turning when she asks questions, which is often. My father remarried when I was older. His wife is in our lives and my girls call her nana. My family of birth was far less than ideal, but I've been incredibly fortunate with my family of choice.”
“My in-laws are toxic. We don’t see [them] because they placed their biological grandkids over their adoptive grandkids.They don’t ask. They’re old enough to get it, so it’s just sort of their normal I guess. Occasionally they see a picture of them and ask. I just say that’s dads mom and dad, Grandpa X and Grandma X. I say they aren’t able to see us right now until they get healthy (because it’s rooted in mental health).”
“I don’t speak with or see my dad. I haven’t seen him in almost 20 years. When my kids began asking, I explained that he never learned how to love and we should pity him. He only loves money and not people and because I couldn’t teach him to love, he can’t be around them. I told them I only want them to be around people who know how to love and give love. When my father-in-law died, they were very sad of course because they knew to their bones he loved them. They would like another grandpa, but we have other good chosen family who grandparent them.”
“I have no relationship with my mother. Every now and then I try, but then she gets drunk and tells me I'm awful, so I go a few years before trying again. But my daughter (20) and her do have a relationship, and always have. She was, maybe is, good at being a grandmother. But now that my daughter is older, she sees all the crap that I see; only its not aimed at her it's still aimed at me. So she'll drink too much and tell my daughter how awful I am. It is in no way unsafe, and has been great for conversations with my own daughter about toxic relationships, drawing boundaries, why I have the ‘issues’ I have (do not ever get drunk around me), etc. Got a great text from my daughter this summer, who was on a trip with my mother (my family tries to buy love) saying, ‘Please, for the love of god, never let me leave the country with your mother again.’ A few years ago, also out of the country, I got ‘Mom, it all makes so much sense now. I love you.’ (My kid is old enough, strong enough, speaks enough Spanish and has emergency credit cards. She's totally safe, before anyone jumps on that).”
“I literally don't discuss [my mom] with my children. They have no clue she exists, and I'm fine keeping it that way. They know grandpa and they know Jane is Mommy’s step-mom, and they call her Jane/grandma.”
“My kids knew my mom before she made her exit. They ask about her from time to time, and I just explain that she made the decision that she wanted a different life and she’s the one missing out on them, not the other way around.”