Sibling Rivalry and Your Sib's Kids
August 29, 2009 8:59 AM   Subscribe

I have a sister that I finally cut off when a friend of mine revealed she had stolen $400 from him years before, as she has done to her siblings. Her daughter was 10 at the time and was very hurt that I disappeared. At the time I felt that it would only make her life worse to explain that I left because I didn't trust her mother. Now that she is 25 I would like to contact her again and at least apologize and tell her I love her, but is that best for her? (BTW she lives with her father after a bitter divorce and has the some of the same feelings about her mother as I do. But I don't want to open up that wound, for sure.) Now that she's an adult, should I contact her again?
posted by PJSibling to Human Relations (34 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd say just don't expect too much, she might not feel that great about you, she might take after her mother, etc., but surely no harm trying. I think people might say "ask her father" if she was under 18, btw.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:06 AM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes, contact her! She might love to hear from you. And an apology or explanation would probably be a big help for her in understanding her earlier disappointment.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:12 AM on August 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

An emphatic yes, from someone who's been in a similar situation to your niece's. Don't get too detailed with your explanation, but let her know that you don't hold her mother's actions against her. If she's living with her father post-divorce, she probably already has a good idea of her mother's behavior. As with any new relationship, start slow and easy and build from there. You may not get the reaction you want, but letting her know that your door is open cannot be a bad thing.
posted by MuChao at 9:21 AM on August 29, 2009

No. This is to make you feel better, not your niece or you would have contacted her much sooner. Where were you when they got divorced and she lives with her father? This now 25 year old woman will be angry at you and it will dredge up negative feelings. Are you planning on being part of this woman's life regularly going forward or is this a drive-by? This was 15 years ago. She is now a grown woman. You may not even like her.

If you feel compelled to contact her, I would contact her father first and ask what he thinks. Maybe a handwritten letter addressed to the niece but delivered to the father for him to give to her. Maybe.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:34 AM on August 29, 2009

I recently got back in touch with an uncle who had a rocky relationship with his parents and his brothers and sisters, including uncles and aunts I have good relationships with. Though we haven't discussed the family drama - it is no business of mine, and it was all decades ago - we've met up recently and stay in touch over e-mail. I am SO GLAD to have done so.
posted by mdonley at 9:46 AM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Can you start the contact slowly? Friend her on Facebook first or what not?
posted by macadamiaranch at 9:46 AM on August 29, 2009

Oh good god, do *not* start out by being a weasel and friending her on Facebook first. To get a sense of why that's such an awful idea, search the archives here and read about people who are confused about what to do when someone they're estranged from has tried to contact them in that way.

Okay, now that that's out of my system... yes, contact her. Get in touch by sending a letter that explains the decision you made, apologizes for hurting her, and invites her to contact you if she'd like to do so. A letter gives you a chance to craft your message carefully and thoughtfully, and it gives her the space to figure out how she feels about you before responding, and respects that she may need that space. Then follow her lead.
posted by amelioration at 9:55 AM on August 29, 2009 [13 favorites]

Oh, what Amelioration said. My aunt from the biological paternal side friended me and then unfriended me on Facebook, after being absent all of my life. It's an incredibly weaselly way to contact an estranged family member.

A letter would be good, because it will let her digest things at her own speed.
posted by Issithe at 10:01 AM on August 29, 2009

You should definitely contact her. No need to contact the Dad, because your niece is an adult. I would start with a letter. Mention that you have always remembered her, and that you regret not seeing her all these years. If you can honestly apologize, you should do so in the letter. I wouldn't dwell too much on the history with the Mom. This is about your niece and you. If she wants to talk about the Mom, let her bring up the subject in a later conversation.

Be very humble in the letter. Invite her to contact you. Include your phone number and email address.
She may not reply.
From now on, be sure to send her a card on every birthday and Christmas (or whatever holiday your family celebrates.) If she has kids, send the kids birthday cards and small gifts.

If you show reliable and appropriate attention over time, your relationship might recover. It's likely she would need to see some constancy from you, before she starts to trust you.

Facebook is a bad idea. Don't even mention it to her.
posted by valannc at 10:08 AM on August 29, 2009 [8 favorites]

I would suggest a nice, brief letter to her father. I assume he knows why you split, but if he doesn't, the letter should be a brief explanation that there was a time your frustration with your sister made you want to abandon her, but that it was unfair to him and his daughter to do it without explaining it. Say that you're writing the letter both to assuage your own guilt and to let them know that it had nothing to do with them, and you still think of them fondly. Close with a statement that while you're not averse to re-establishing contact, you understand that they might not want to, and they have no responsibility to respond -- you bear them no ill will no matter what.

If he knows why you split, the letter would be identical, but you'll also mention that he doesn't need to tell her this unless he thinks it's something she wants or needs to hear, that he obviously knows her better than you ever could and so you leave it to his judgement.

Finally, be prepared for the possibility that you'll never get a response -- but at least you can put this all behind you -- and also that he'll respond by saying "WTF? We figured you were doing what you needed to do. [my daughter] wants you to come over next week and so do I; up for it?" or anything in-between. Let them be the ones to guide it.

And yeah, no sister-bashing, in the letter or in person. Treat her the way I treat my aunt around my mother (who also has an issue with her); someone who warrants a smile and a knowing nod if she comes up in conversation, but otherwise doesn't get discussed because you have more pleasant things to talk about.
posted by davejay at 10:28 AM on August 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Come on, now. Facebook is not the problem. Repeated rejection would be the problem and that could happen in any platform (unreturned phone calls, ignored emails, etc.).

My deceased father's family was intentionally absent from my life -- at my grandfather's insistence -- for my entire childhood and most of my adult life, until last year when my aunt found me on Facebook. I was very glad to hear from her and did not find it weaselly in any way. We now have a lovely, if distant, relationship that works for us. We are easing into getting to know each other and there are no expectations of a "normal" aunt/niece relationship because we clearly can never have that. There are no obligations, no dredging up the past, no angry finger pointing on my part, no excuses on hers.

I say contact her in any way you feel comfortable.
posted by Eumachia L F at 10:38 AM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would say definitely no Facebook. I have no idea what your relationship was like, but regular relatives on Facebook is creepy enough. I don't think possibly-estranged-uncle on Facebook is the best route.

I like the idea of contacting her father. He probably knows the all-around deal better than anyone. That said, I wouldn't go at it asking permission per se. More like notifying him of your intention and asking what he thinks.
posted by cmoj at 10:43 AM on August 29, 2009

I'd say contact her, but don't start by explaining how it's all her mother's fault that you haven't contacted her in the last 15 years. If she wants to know, she'll ask. If she's as aware of her mother's failings as you suggest, she already knows.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:48 AM on August 29, 2009

This recently happened to me with an immediate family member who, seemingly out-of-the-blue called to wish me a happy birthday and asked me if I'd be willing to see them again, all expenses paid. I hadn't seen them in seven years and even before then things were very tumultuous and in my teens I could have never imagined wanting to ever see them again. We planned the trip for two weeks -- which was both good and bad.

Good because it really gave me time to relax and not feel like we had to rush things, bad because after having not seen someone in so long and not really knowing them to begin with, it can get kind of awkward.

What I ended up doing was getting in touch with my best friend and having them come down for the second week I was there so that we could get out of my relative's hair -- as I realized this was overwhelming and weird for them too, albeit something I think we both felt very necessary.

Overall it was a great experience and I now realize I have a lot more in common with said relative than I'd originally thought.

As someone who is also in a never-ending battle with her mother regarding money and general shadiness, I cannot stress to you how important it is for me to find someone I can confide in and who could emphasize with me regarding this issue. Having a parent you feel you can never trust, especially into adulthood where you are feeling a constant mix between guilt and frustration is absolutely horrible and at 25 she's well aware of her situation with her mother and has likely already figured out why you stepped out of their lives as well.

I encourage you to first reach her via post or email -- a phone call might be a little weird as a first means of communication. Being able to write puts all of your feelings and your intentions right out on the table. Don't be disappointed if your contact doesn't go beyond a few emails back and forth. It has nothing to do with you and she will be grateful. If you do really wish to see her, I'd highly suggest what I did -- allow her to bring a friend or at the very least, make sure it's some sort of family-oriented event where she already feels pretty comfortable or at least welcome.

It is so great that you wish to continue your relationship with her despite what your sister has done to all of you. My best wishes on your endeavor.
posted by june made him a gemini at 11:23 AM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Eumachia, let me explain why I think Facebook would be weaselly in this instance, which is very different from your own. In your situation, your aunt had been kept from forming a relationship with you by an outside force (your grandfather). Neither of you were responsible for the estrangement. Facebook thus provided a neutral ground on which to meet after that outside impediment was removed.

In this instance, however, the OP deliberately removed herself from her niece's life while fully aware that it caused her niece pain. This may have been fully justified and appropriate and the unfortunate collateral damage of a necessary decision, but what is relevant to the issue of rapproachment is that the OP actively and knowingly chose a course of action that caused the niece significant distress at a young age. A Facebook connection, after 15 years, would be a) shocking, b) intrusive of her niece's social sphere, and c) disrespectful of the gravity of an attempt to renew a connection and address the issues caused by the OP's choices. Facebook would be a casual treatment of a serious situation, it doesn't allow for nuanced communication, and such casual treatment could serve to significantly unsettle the niece.

To put it another way, if I imagine myself as the niece in this situation, I would want to know that the hurt and confusion my ten year old self experienced was being respected -- even if I already understood why it happened. An out of the blue friend request would send the exact opposite message.
posted by amelioration at 11:31 AM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

You might as well try. The worst that could happen is that she doesn't respond.

I agree with some of the answers above in that you should make your first contact through e-mail or letter. Getting a phone call from someone you haven't heard from for 15 years could be quite jarring for her.
posted by reenum at 11:31 AM on August 29, 2009

I guess you could say I have a remarkably similar situation. My mom's lifelong best friend left our lives when I was a kid, maybe 12-ish. I'm 27 now. I'd love it if she were to reach out to me.

I'd honestly be a little offended if she went through my dad, unless she didn't know another way to contact me, or she for some reason would want to reconnect with him too.
posted by lampoil at 11:33 AM on August 29, 2009


Why does everyone advocate hiding or ignoring the truth about the sister/mother from the niece?

It sounds like the niece has been through a lot, and it might be refreshing if someone (like an aunt) was willing to discuss the truth with her.

(FWIW - I often think it is the polite lies that families tell each other which helps bad situations such as abuse, neglect, or bullying, persist.)
posted by jbenben at 11:58 AM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I was 7 years old, my mother and aunt got into a huge fight and my mom took great lengths to avoid my aunt's family for the better part of a decade. Unfortunately for my sister and I, my mom enforced these rules on us so I didn't see my aunt and uncle for the better part of a decade even though we lived in the same town. I loved my aunt dearly and, frankly, I couldn't understand why the fight was so long-lasting.
One day, when I was 18, out of the blue, my aunt saw me at a local Wal*Mart, stopped me, and chatted with me. That was the first I had seen her in nearly 10 years. Let me tell you, that was one of most awkward conversations I've ever been through. My mom had always made it seem like my aunt was the bad guy, so I was a little wary of our conversation, but I'm really glad that I could judge her person from my own experiences and not my mom's. My aunt and I are good friends now, but I think a letter would have been much easier to digest then suddenly stopping me in the middle of a store.
posted by nikkorizz at 12:15 PM on August 29, 2009

A quick reality check for the nay sayers : If two coincidentally estranged people feel like contacting each other, but both feel it might be inappropriate, should they just drop it forever?

I'd say (a) no harm in trying and (b) yeah going through dad is insulting. I'd avoid facebook more from facebook's general lameness & complications, like maybe her facebook friends are all druggies like her mom, who knows. I'd just write an email or letter like a normal person.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:55 PM on August 29, 2009

Why does everyone advocate hiding or ignoring the truth about the sister/mother from the niece?

First, not everyone is advocating that. I certainly didn't.

What I think you're missing is that people are suggesting she should focus on re-establishing contact to reform the relationship, not to turn it into a blame game thing. Otherwise the daughter might find herself defending the mom, even though she likely knows she shouldn't, and that will drive a wedge between them at a time when re-establishing a relationship will require diplomacy and patience.
posted by davejay at 2:15 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Why does everyone advocate hiding or ignoring the truth about the sister/mother from the niece?

I suggest not making it the immediate focus of the reunion. If the aunt and the niece are going to build a relationship, it needs to be about them, not about how much they mutually hate her mother, or about how one of them hates her mother and the other defends her mother, or really about the mother at all.

Certainly the aunt can and should discuss the situation with the mother if that's what the niece wants, but if I were the aunt, I wouldn't be the one to put it on the table.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:21 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Leave the father out of this. How can people seriously suggest contacting him?

How fucking demeaning is it to contact the father of a twenty-five year old grown woman as a prelude to rekindling an old friendship? Treating this adult like a child for your very first envoy is not going to go over well at all. It's exactly that sort of behavior that would make me, were I the young woman in question, assume that you would be incapable of respecting me as an adult and therefore not really worth my time.

In fact, that's the number one rubbing point between my older relatives and myself: I'm twenty-five, and if you treat me like I'm still eight, like the last time you saw me, I have nothing to talk to you about.

Just write her a letter. Addressed to her. Inviting her to write back, to email, or to call.
posted by Netzapper at 3:19 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would contact her, but be easy going at first and, if she indicates (even by non-response) if she doesn't want to be in touch, respect that. My mother is estranged from several relatives, which has lead to my sister and I being out of contact with them as well. We have very much differed in being approached by these relatives as adults on facebook--my sister ignored their overtures, posting status updates on how she'd never want to be in touch with these relatives. I approved them as contacts and have said hello. Different strokes for different folks.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:27 PM on August 29, 2009

It sounds like the niece has been through a lot, and it might be refreshing if someone (like an aunt) was willing to discuss the truth with her.

(FWIW - I often think it is the polite lies that families tell each other which helps bad situations such as abuse, neglect, or bullying, persist.)

I can't favorite jbenben hard enough. The contents and message of your letter (the best option if you want to handle this with care) should be determined by how much you suspect your niece was directly damaged by your sister's actions, if the damage was ongoing, or if you know that your sister was capable of mothering well, in spite of thieving (for an addiction? it would help if we knew more.) If your niece was emotionally, physically, situationally abused during her childhood and adolescence, she probably felt cruelly abandoned by you. If this is true, then she might wonder, okay so you left b/c my mom was a lowlife, but what did that have to do with me? Why did you leave me? And why on earth are you contacting me 15 years later? If my assessment is at all accurate you need to prepare a long mea culpa and don't blame it on your sister. Anything else would be selfishly motivated.
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 5:41 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thank you all for your comments. This is my first Meta Filter question, and your answers are sooo helpful, especially from those who were the abandoned ones.

My sister just loves money, married and divorced for money--no addictions. My niece still refuses to stay at her house because of her own problems with her. But still, she's her mother and they have a relationship. I did find her in Facebook, and lots of other family members friended her and she said yes to me but that's all. It was only then I realized how much I must have hurt her.

I don't have her address so I think an email there might be the best. Not to her Dad, I agree. I just want to apologize to her and tell her I'm glad she has grown into such a lovely woman with a full life; I should have tried to make it work somehow I guess but at the time I did what I thought was best (the road to hell and all that). NOTHING about Mom! I am not going to suggest a relationship because my sister would go ballistic! And then just leave it at that.
posted by PJSibling at 6:26 PM on August 29, 2009

I think your plan sounds pretty good.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:52 PM on August 29, 2009


How does PJSibling explain her familial absence without mentioning the sister-mother's, ummm, "character flaws" and the conflict that caused the split and absence from the niece's life?

BTW, I am in no way advocating trash-talk! But there must be some middle ground? Some way to convey that the situation was serious enough to warrant a severing of relations?

I'm thinking PJSibiling should approach her niece from a place of truth, with an open and genuine heart.

"...NOTHING about Mom! I am not going to suggest a relationship because my sister would go ballastic!..."

I can see how an initial contact should be neutral. But maybe an honest acknowledgement regarding why the split occurred might come off as more genuine and agreeable from the niece's perspective?

FWIW - My long lost favorite first cousin wrote me a brief email a few months back, just to get in touch. I didn't respond back because his email was SO brief and SO vague - I didn't know where to pick up the conversation, or if I even should.
posted by jbenben at 8:45 PM on August 29, 2009

If she asks me, I maybe would say something like, it's just family stuff, like so much in our big family, and it's nothing to do with you. Your mother does love you, so my wish is you just know always that you are loved and you have a great life. (Like I say, she knows her mother's personality too.)
posted by PJSibling at 10:16 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

OK, PJSibling. I totally think that would do for a first conversation. And I think it is great that you have a response prepared.

You propose saying: "it's just family stuff..." - um, I think that may be a really bad phrase to use the first time your niece asks a direct question. I think it inadvertently conveys you might think what happened was normal and that abandoning folks is OK. Your niece was abandoned (in a sense) and her mother has issues - this is not OK. I can tell from your ask you don't think anything that happened was appropriate. You stood on principle once, so don't play the dysfunctional family apologist now. (and trust me, your niece has had enough of that by this point in her life, anyway;)

"it's nothing to do with you..." a little better, as it starts to show your niece more respect as an adult and an individual. My advice? Expound on this.

Please read hellboundforcheddar's answer, above. She nails it and I can't nth or favorite hellboundforcheddar enough on this! Your niece is 25 years old now. She's old enough to parse some of her family history, even the things that were kept from her when she was young.

You want to do something really great for your niece? Treat her like family matters to you (it does!) and acknowledge that she is a respected adult with every gesture you make.

And for you own peace of mind, try to remember that your niece is her own person, and not your sister's property.

posted by jbenben at 7:38 AM on August 30, 2009

Why does everyone advocate hiding or ignoring the truth about the sister/mother from the niece?

No one does. There is nothing in this thread that advocates hiding or ignoring anything. What people are saying is that when one adult reaches out to another, there point is that here and now it might be nice to be in touch and that should be the focus of the initial conversations.

I cannot not think of anything good that could come from the aunt going to the niece - totally out of the blue from the niece's perspective - and bringing up specific problems with her mother from 15 years ago. Not one thing.

PJSibling , just adding to the choir suggesting a simple letter saying you would like to get in touch.

If you are concerned that the girl's father thinks you are cut from the same cloth as your sister or trying to create in "in" for her to do more damage, and so would not want you in contact with your niece, you might want to reach out to him as well.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:23 AM on August 30, 2009

I should say that I sent her birthday cards and Christmas presents, never heard back, and just gave up when she was in high school. Who knows if my sister even gave them to her when she was still living there. I also saw her at a couple of big family events over the years, but that's it.

She lives in a different state from both her parents, so I don't think I need to contact the dad.

Thanks, all. Really helped.
posted by PJSibling at 12:59 PM on August 30, 2009

I have a similar story, it sounds like, to the poster's niece. Throughout my childhood, adults (relatives, family friends) came and went, knowing that I was in a bad situation. When I was 19, one of these relatives contacted me via simple letter, out of nowhere, saying she wanted to be in contact, and went on to describe ups and downs and this and that and how was I doing.... I was unmoved.

The ONLY thing that would have motivated me to write back would have been this statement: "I should have helped you." Specifically, " Your mother was unfit and I should have found a way to intervene, but I was too afraid to rock the boat and allowed your situation to carry on. I really regret it."

Your niece might be different, but I'd suggest that opening with an acknowledgment of and apology for the past betters your chances of a reply. Anything else seems like denial and avoidance- and she's probably not interested in more of that.
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 12:12 PM on September 1, 2009

Well, her mother is not unfit, she's just neurotic. My niece moved in with her Dad a couple of years after the divorce, so that was the best thing. I had no idea she would miss me that much or feel hurt. I kind of thought I was just another relative to her. But that was dumb.
posted by PJSibling at 9:18 PM on September 1, 2009

« Older How can I embed HTML into my Powerpoint...   |   What is the source for this Maya Angelou quote? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.