I’m a grown man, happily married (more or less) for the past 15+ years to a confident, professional woman who has many, many good and admirable qualities. We have two kids, a boy and a girl, in the tweenager range. Both are beautiful and wonderful beyond description. I’m a very lucky man.
A couple of years ago, my mother revealed to me and my brother, that in the years before she met my dad, she had had a relationship with a married man. As a result, she gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, and had given them up for adoption. The girl, now a woman with her own grown son, somehow tracked my mom down and wanted to establish a relationship. Her own adoptive parents had both passed away and she was no longer married to the father of her son.
My mom was thrilled to welcome the daughter and, by extension, the son she had given up years ago back into her life. I was less sure of my feelings but was happy to see my mom be happy. However, my wife has never been comfortable with the revelation. As parents, we have been careful about what our children have been exposed to. By openly acknowledging my biological half-sister and half-brother, eventually we will need to explain the nature of my relationship to them. It’s one thing to provide a moral compass for your kids so they know what kind of behavior is expected. It’s another thing to introduce them to an uncle and aunt who’s background you can’t explain easily without getting into facts of life about their grandmother they may not be ready to fully understand and put in context.
Now I’m feeling trapped. My wife has been unmovable on the topic and is dead set against any relationship. My mother (who lives far away and we see infrequently) has taken every opportunity to bring my half-siblings into her life – including them in every family occasion. I’ve met my half-brother – he lives near my mom and he has been at a couple of the holidays at my folks’ house. The kids have met him, too. However, I have a *large* family (50+ cousins) so the relationship has been left amorphous for now. I have only spoken with my half-sister on the phone. She lives farther away with her son but has been out to see my mom about three times a year. As far as the kids know, my half brother is just another “cousin” who has been at family gatherings. My hints at the tension this situation has caused have been ignored by my mother. I have always tried to be the dutiful son – but I can’t do that at the expense of my family. I’ve even explained to my half-sister that I don’t have room in my life for a relationship with her. However, she remains undaunted.
Is there a way out of this? I’ve been struggling with this for almost three years but it seems hopeless. — Bio Hazard
The first thing you need to do is figure out your own feelings in regards to your biological half-siblings and your mother’s past. You say that when you found out them, you were happy for your mother for welcoming them back into her life, but you were less sure about your own feelings. I wonder if, three years later, you’re any more sure. If you aren’t, then the source of tension in your life is actually a little more in your control than you think it is. Because if you’re ambiguous about your feelings, then of course it’s going to be difficult for you to take a stand in this familial situation. Instead of deciding for yourself what kind of relationship you’d like to have with your half-siblings, it’s easier to let your wife or your mother decide for you … except they have differing viewpoints, which complicates things. So, get to the bottom of your own feelings through counseling and then take a stand, deciding for yourself what you want the status of your relationship with your half-siblings to be.
Your wife doesn’t have a right to dictate the status of your relationships with family members. That’s absurd! And she only remains “unmovable” on the topic because you aren’t trying to move her. You aren’t trying to move her because you’re ambiguous about what kind of relationship you even want with these new family members. And if you can’t be sure what kind of relationship you want, then how can you know what sort of relationship you’d like your children to have with them? Figure these things out and then push for what you want.
In the meantime, I don’t see why there’s any rush to decide anything. If you’ve never even met your half-sister, and you live far enough away from your mother and half-brother than you’ve only seen them a handful of times in the last three years, why not keep up the whole cousin facade until you’ve figured out a good way and a good time to explain more to your children? And don’t think you have to give them the whole story at once. Just because you decide to tell them that they have an aunt and uncle doesn’t mean they have to know those people are products of their grandmother’s extramarital affair. Dole out the information in bits and pieces as they’re able to process it.
And, look, providing a moral compass for your kids is fantastic, but revealing that a family member hasn’t always led a perfect or pure life isn’t exactly going to turn that compass on its side. Part of teaching kids important life lessons includes the idea of redemption, and illustrating that people make mistakes but that those mistakes don’t have to define them as people or ruin their lives forever. One of the very most important things you can teach a kid is that people are still lovable even after making mistakes — that just as you love your mother despite decisions she may have made many years ago that you don’t agree with, you love her as much as you always have, just as you’ll love your kids when — not if, but when — they make decisions you don’t approve of. Providing a moral compass for your kids doesn’t mean drawing them a direct map to their destiny, avoiding every potential pitfall and roadblock along the way; it means giving them tools to make smart and guided decisions and the ability to handle themselves when they don’t always succeed. It seems to me that your unique family situation provides a perfect opportunity to teach your kids that even detours and wrong turns can lead to wonderful destinations.
*If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, send me your letters at email@example.com and be sure to follow me on Twitter.