How do I explain my crazy family without looking crazy?
October 15, 2010 2:36 AM   Subscribe

I had a childhood that, to the casual observer, was pretty damned chaotic, and this causes some confusion when sharing family anecdotes in casual conversation.

I was raised at different times by my biological parents, my grandparents, an aunt, and a family friend (but mostly by my grandparents). I have four older half-siblings who I only met once, two younger half brothers who were adopted at birth, and a younger half brother who was raised in the foster care system after our biological mother lost custody. I also have a cousin and an aunt who are close to me in age and who lived with me with my grandparents and who are, as far as I am concerned, my brother and sister. Lucky for you, I’m not asking any questions here that will require you to say ‘see a therapist’.

Basically, I am having, and have always had, trouble explaining these relationships in a way that doesn’t make me look like an over-sharer and make other people uncomfortable (or morbidly curious). Like, in a casual conversation with casual friends, I might say ‘my mom’ when referring to my grandmother just because it’s easier and it makes sense in the conversation. I might also refer to my cousin as my brother, especially when, for example, recounting the time he tied my ankle to the radiator while I was asleep, woke me up with an airhorn, and attacked me with a super-soaker. It sounds kind of creepy to say my cousin did that to me, but if I say it’s my brother, it’s just normal sibling hi-jinks. If I say ‘my-cousin-who-is-like-a-brother’ that just seems even weirder and over-explainy.

90% of the time, this is all fine, the conversation flows, and when I get to know people better I naturally explain bits and pieces about my family as our friendship progresses, but occasionally when people I know really well are mixed with people I don’t know well, someone might say ‘I thought you said that was your cousin’ or ‘I thought you lived with your grandparents’ or whatever and then I look a little insane. Which I’m not, at all. I’m just trying to pass as a normal person as a normal, albeit confusing, family without getting everyone hung up on the (sometimes very unpleasant) details about why I grew up like I did.

Surely I can’t be the only person who has or has had this problem. How do you deal with explaining your unconventional family without looking like a crazy over-sharer? And if you were on the other side, what would be the best way a casual friend or acquaintance could discuss his or her unconventional family without making you uncomfortable with too much personal information too soon?
posted by Wroksie to Human Relations (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: People will follow your lead on this. They'll give it as much attention as you let them. But you'll also have to be good at discerning which people can handle what level of informedness.

I'm in a very similar situation and it's odd to people when I gloss over something very casually. I've got a lot of explanatory phrases at hand when I'm explaining something and I see the furrowed brow of confusion. It might be something as simple as "Yeah, I know that's unconventional, but for my family, it's the norm" or "I've always called her that" or "I've made peace with that aspect."

Oftentimes people are just searching you out for the appropriate way to react. You don't need to give them details, you need to give them your stance, so they can mirror it and move on.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:55 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My favourite phrase when people ask pointed questions at this point is "something like that." It seems to shut them up - I don't know why.
posted by b33j at 2:59 AM on October 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I have a similarly complicated family, and I too simplify when talking to strangers. When I get "caught" or if someone asks for clarification, I laugh it off with "My family situation is kind of insane" or even just "it's complicated". That usually does the trick, especially if I move the conversation on in another direction next.

Also I have noticed that people don't tend to retain much background information about their friends' families from conversation to conversation, so even if I mention having one brother during one conversation, and say I have three another time, it's rare that someone will call me on it. Likewise when I mention that my mother is single and lives in Auckland, but then another time mention that she is married and lives in Christchurch (yes, there are two people who I consider my "mothers"). People hardly ever so much as look confused. I've also referred to "my brother's parents" or "my brother's grandmother" in casual conversation without anyone asking how come they aren't also my parents or my grandmother.

Tl;dr: People really aren't spending as much mental energy on wondering about you and your situation as you think they are.

(Of course it's possible that all my friends are writing in to ask metafilter to see whether the hive mind thinks I'm a compulsive liar who is always forgetting who I said what to.)
posted by lollusc at 3:07 AM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer:
It sounds kind of creepy to say my cousin did that to me
Not really...
If I say ‘my-cousin-who-is-like-a-brother’ that just seems even weirder and over-explainy
Also not really. People are not going to be bothered by these details very much, on the other hand I think I would notice if someone said they had one brother one day, and three the next. As far as my close friends go, I'm pretty sure I know how many siblings they have, for the most part.
posted by delmoi at 4:15 AM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My family situation is extremely complicated. Now that I'm not a 9-year-old telling my unfortunate airline seatmate my life story, I only have to break out the chart for close friends who ask (one of whom waS delighted, as she has a similar situation and had always wanted a chart but didn't know it till she saw mine.) Not only do most people not pay much attention, most of them are not really bothered by random seeming inconsistencies that they actually do notice. I sometimes say "my California sister" if my boss looks confused, but I've talked regularly about my family with her for two years and that's as far as I've had to take it. The step-God-sister's little brother admittedly is downgraded to "a friend," but this is casual conversation, not an FBI interrogation.

I mean, if some of these people were paying close attention, my "parents" would appear to be schizophrenic superfecund magicians with serious commitment issues. Since hardly anyone mentions that (and oh, the mighty power of the phrase "they divorced when I was little" to explain things that it can't possibly explain, for those that do mention it) I feel confident in agreeing with everyone above.
posted by SMPA at 4:16 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Useful catch-all terms also help here - especially in situations where you are not so much telling stories as comparing notes with other people - e.g. "My parents live in Philly, but I grew up in Seattle" - "Oh, my grandmother-but-she-raised-me-and-she's-actually-my-stepgrandmother lived there." Cumbersome.

I refer to my partner's "folks" because his parental situation is slightly complex, and it seems to minimize the bafflement. "My family", "the kids in my family", "the older generation" and similar can be good ways to refer to these people in general conversation.
posted by heyforfour at 4:33 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think you're handling it perfectly well now. I wouldn't think it was weird if you initially told me a story about your brother and I later found out he was your cousin, as long as you told me that the point of the white lie was to simplify your complicated story.

FWIW, while I have a pretty small, fairly uncomplicated family, I do refer to second and third cousins as just "cousins" (one of them is in her 80s and I'm in my 30s so I do get questioned about that occasionally) and my cousin's wife as my cousin. I also drop the "step" off of my step great-grandmother, as she was the only great-grandmother I ever knew.
posted by amro at 5:24 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In Urdu, this is both easier and harder. On the one hand, the words for "maternal aunt," "paternal aunt," "wife of maternal uncle," and "wife of paternal uncle" are all different, and in regular usage. On the other hand, because the terms for cousin are so convoluted "brother via my maternal aunt," etc, that "cousin" usually just becomes "brother" and no one really expects that everyone who you call your brother is actually your biological sibling.

That said, I think it's helpful to have some continuum in your head about what you tell people when you first meet them, and then to explain the complexities or not, as the relationship does or does not evolve. That way, the people who know you well are never confused. I think referring to your cousin as your brother (in English) makes things confusing, even though you think of him as your brother. Stick to what the relationship actually is, and don't bother explaining the nuance to anyone who you don't know all that well.
posted by bardophile at 5:44 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Lucky for you, I’m not asking any questions here that will require you to say ‘see a therapist’.

Actually, seeing a therapist is exactly what will help you figure out what your narrative about the situation is and how to properly share it with others. You could at least try it.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:11 AM on October 15, 2010

Best answer: I'm in a similar but not so crazy situation. For me, whenever I get close enough to someone to explain, "when I say parent, I mean my aunt and uncle, not my mom and dad. And similarly, two of my sisters are technically cousins," I also say "but this is complicated, so I don't always explain it fully when telling people." So that they know that this is a slightly touchy subject, and that I do use the words interchangeably, and I don't necessarily want to go into details with everyone.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 6:24 AM on October 15, 2010

Best answer: "It's complicated" works unless you're in a situation where people might get suspicious (days off from work, "friends" who are very catty or have reason to think you're a liar).

I just call people what I usually call them and stay consistent, and then if people ask questions I explain.

We have lots of half-siblings with huge age differences in my family (my sisters have a brother that I'm not related to at all). If I'm telling a story about my niece who is my age, I'll just call my niece. She calls my sister and I her aunts. It ends up being a bit funny but whatever.

I find that if you switch back and forth to make stories make more sense, some people with good memories will eventually start to feel a bit manipulated or lied to. "I just said it was my brother because it would have sounded weird to say my cousin, but I usually call him my cousin" is not going to go over well with everyone.

Even if your intentions are good, it can come off as flaky or insincere, and some people are very into super-literal truth. I think 'who cares, it's an entertaining story'. but I'm not the only kind of person out there, so I would recommend against it.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:36 AM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Um... I guess I don't really see why referring to your cousin as your brother in a Super Soaker story makes it sound better. Crazy relative hijinks is crazy relative hijinks.

Well, if you're talking to some person you'll never see again, do what you want, but if you are ever going to interact with the person again (even twice), I'd suggest actually referring to your grandmother as your grandmother. Just stick to the facts, no matter how weird they are. Because your saying stuff like this and then later saying, "oh, no, it was that person," well, it makes me think you're a lot weirder (and perhaps a liar) than you are if you just admit off the bat that your family situation isn't the Cleavers. Weird happens, and most adults that don't live in Cleaverville can figure that out without being massively traumatized. But the fact-fudging to sound "normal" and then later you have to clarify who's who is what makes me think you're possibly crazy/a drama queen. Just be honest. You aren't stereotypically normal, but most of us aren't! Also, a lot of us have crazy families (me too) and uh, we'll understand. And "oversharing" usually amounts to TMI sorts of things.

If someone is asking about family issues, you can stick to the bare minimum of information about the situation if you like, but be honest about exactly how they are related to them if
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:46 AM on October 15, 2010

Best answer: er... you are ever going to talk to them again.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:47 AM on October 15, 2010

Best answer: I’m just trying to pass as a normal person

You *are* a normal person. As you can see from the other comments, there really is no such thing as "normal". Most everyone has something quirky in their extended family, or if not, then in their circle of friends. For me, its my grandfather, who died before I was born. I didn't find out till I was in my twenties that he wasn't actually my biological grandfather - it seems my grandmother fooled around in the 1930's, and my biological grandfather is actually someone she introduced my father to once at a train station. To this day, all we know is his ethnic background and his nickname. So yeah, I agree with everyone else - do't worry about it too much. No one's keeping a scorecard.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:09 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I feel your pain. My family is complicated as well.

I was raised by my grandmother for a good part of my growing up. Sometimes it needs to be mentioned that "we are very close, I lived with her for awhile and she is like a mother to me." (One of my grandma's friends raised her granddaughter from the time she was a little girl, and she refers to her grandma as "Mom." When I run into the granddaughter she asks me how my "mom" is doing. I was confused for a bit until I figured out she doesn't realize I don't call Grandma that. I don't bother to correct her.)

I have a brother who grew up with my dad. I have two half-brothers by two different fathers (which means I also have stepfathers* 1 and 2, plus a third (and a fourth, who I refer to as "my mother's husband" as he is a jackass and I never lived with him anyway.) The various fathers (other than my own) are referred to as "so-and-so's dad" rather than "my second stepfather" to avoid confusion.

I took my two half-brothers in to raise as foster kids while they were teenagers. I refer to all my brothers as brothers rather than half-siblings. Occasionally for clarity I need to mention "my youngest brother, the one who lived with me when he was a teenager." The other half-brother I sometimes jokingly refer to as "carnival brother" since he ran away in his teens and does indeed travel with a carnival. (It adds an amusingly trashy element to the story that I sometimes like to milk for comic effect. If you don't laugh, and all that...)

My dad has lived with a woman for so long (over 20 years) that I think of and refer to her as my stepmom, even though they never married. It's less of a mouthful than "my dad's long-term live-in girlfriend."

I've been married three times. My daughter was fathered by my second husband which seems to throw most people (they always assume that kids come from the first marriage, for some reason.) I've taken to referring to the second ex as "S's dad" when talking about him, and "my first husband, not S's dad" on the rare occasions I speak about him. (The first one was evil and I don't want to cast my second hubs in THAT bad of a light.) When keeping the relationships straight is not crucial, such as when I'm answering a relationship AskMe, I'll often just say "my ex" rather than specifying "my first husband" or "my second husband" because it makes me sound like ZsaZsa Gabor.

I was estranged from my mother for over 17 years. Sometimes when I would mention going home for a visit, someone who was unaware of that would ask me if I was going to see my mom, and I would just casually say, "oh, we haven't spoken in years." If they looked quizzical, I would just chuckle and say, "we have issues." Nobody ever asked for details.

Basically, I have simplified versions of all these relationships and family situations for talking to acquaintances. Anything else comes out on a need-to-know basis ("need" being loosely defined as "the details are part of the story I'm relating" or "a new person to the group I'm more open with is confused.")

I find that it really helps to have a sense of humor about your situation, rather than being defensive or embarrassed or obviously emotionally scarred. People for the most part don't want to have to deal with your painful disclosures unless and until they become close friends.

I think the worst part of being on the receiving end of an overshare is not knowing how to respond. So mostly they don't mind if you are casually vague enough that they know they don't need to say anything other than "oh" before the conversation moves on. They can generally take a little more detail if you are amusing enough about it so that they can chuckle with you rather than feeling obligated to hastily think up something sympathetic and non-offensive to say to you in response.

*Heh... I just realized that I simplified the brothers and stepfathers saga in the first paragraph without even thinking about it. The details of my mother's love life and the resultant spawn are a bit more complicated than I want to go into here.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 7:35 AM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: As far as someone on the casual listening end, I think a liberal use of actual hand waving is called for. Wave me off if something is too complicated to quickly explain. I might care about the detail, but I probably do not care at that moment in the midst of a conversation. Details can be covered later.

Seems very similar to someone stopping to explain their corporate org chart in the midst of a story where "my boss" and some hand waving would do.
posted by alikins at 7:46 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Well, my family isn't complicated at all, but it is very small - I only have 1 sibling and 2 first cousins. I did however grow up around (meaning saw them at family get-togethers and such) 2nd, 3rd, 4th cousins, my grandparent's siblings (parent's aunts n uncles) blah blah blah. Whenever a description of one of these people gets to be a mouthfull, or in your case could be confusing (like refering to your biological cousin as a brother sometimes) I just refer to them as "my relative ___" like "my relative sabrina". to casual aquaintances. If they ask how we're related, I just say it's complicated and noone ever presses.

BTW - I don't think it's wierd that your cousin would pull jokes like tieing you to a radiator and squirt gunning you. I know a lot of families where the people of the same generation are all close like siblings regardless of the biological tie. My boyfriend's family is like that.
posted by WeekendJen at 8:01 AM on October 15, 2010

Best answer: I'd take a cue from the Italian-Americans I know. In their world, everyone's a "cousin" or an "uncle" - even and especially people who aren't related.

The important thing is to get the connotation right, or really to express what the level of closeness actually is. One of my (not-Italian-American) friends has a slightly younger uncle, which is unusual - but not impossible. He refers to him as his "baby uncle" and that's all he feels he needs to convey.

Just mention who they are to you, or add a short qualifier like "my very close cousin". If people want details, they'll ask. But, you'd be surprised how often they don't.

If anyone wants really wants to you draw out the graph, just give them fair warning first that they're going to need to use Visio or something to keep it all straight. :)
posted by Citrus at 8:37 AM on October 15, 2010

Best answer: someone might say ‘I thought you said that was your cousin’ or ‘I thought you lived with your grandparents’ or whatever and then I look a little insane

As someone who uses the phrases "my mother," "my father's ex-wife," and "my parents" in reference to three different women...I get it. Either everyone involved requires their own epithet (which is taxing, to say the least) or you just use the most simplified term appropriate to a given situation and (if "called out" on it) you just say "oh, I didn't want to bore you with all the specifics." People get it.
posted by kittyprecious at 9:15 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My general response to being "called out" on how I've referred to relationships is "yeah, that, too!"

A: Have a lemon square!
Me: My mom always used to bake those lemon squares - I love them!
Husband: I thought you said that was your home-town-best-friend's stepmom's recipe?
Me: Yes, she's that, too.
posted by aimedwander at 9:50 AM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You are the only person I've ever "met" who has a family history more complicated than mine. I brush mine off in conversation by joking, "It's complicated; I'd have to draw you a diagram." People don't really care to know or remember all the trivia of other people's family trees anyway.

I would stop referring to your grandmother as your mom and your cousin as your brother. Then there's no discrepancies between what you've told different sets of people (just different levels of detail). It's the actual factual inconsistencies are what make you sound like you might be a crazy person who is just making stuff up.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:24 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I have just blatantly marked you all as best answers because every answer was awesome/funny/helpful/beautiful or some combination of those things, and I've just had a little cry reading it all. Thank you so much.
posted by Wroksie at 2:00 PM on October 15, 2010

I feel your pain and have no advice. Although it can be entertaining to hear the twisted version of your family history when it gets around the gossip circle...
posted by Lesser Shrew at 11:31 AM on October 16, 2010

I live in an area where people have rather large, tight-knit families. If someone refers to a 2nd or 3rd cousin just as a "cousin" I wouldn't be offended. Similarly, a crazy story about cousin-harassment wouldn't seem weird.

Here the "Aunt" and "Uncle" monikers are pretty common, even when you're not related to someone. Like your mom's best friend might be your "Aunt Patty."

FWIW, I don't know a ton of people who lived primarily with grandparents, but I don't think it's weird either. Also having aunts and uncles who are close in age to you is pretty common. Sometimes I'll tell a story about my dad and his Uncle Danny, and I'll throw in "they're only a few years apart and they lived together during the war," which is a succinct explanation and helps set up whatever crazy story I'm about to tell. However I always refer to him as Uncle Danny, because really, why not?

One thing that might help when you are talking to people who know you better, is to use the person's connection and name: "Oh I was hanging out with my brother Joey" or "my cousin Katie" which helps people place the individual you are referring to. For all the step-, adopted, foster and half-sibs, I think the description depends on how close you are. If your adopted sister is super close to you and you lived like siblings, refer to her as your sister. But if you have an older half brother who you met once, "my way older half brother John" is an appropriate description.
posted by radioamy at 10:07 PM on October 16, 2010

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