I've lost touch with my kids, and I don't know how to fix it.
May 17, 2012 12:17 PM   Subscribe

I've lost touch with my kids, and I don't know how to fix it.

I divorced my husband many years ago, and we had joint custody of our children. For many reasons, he took physical custody of them for about seven years after the divorce until I was physically and emotionally capable of caring for them. However, he married during that time, and his second wife was not a stellar parent. Even though I visited them as often as I could (we lived in separate states and none of us had money), it wasn't until the kids moved in with me after being in her care for about six years that I found out she was abusive both physically and mentally to the kids. My two older children blame this on me because I not only left their father, but I left them with him.

I have bipolar disorder, and for many years it was out of control. This is why I didn't take custody of my children when I divorced their father. I knew being a single mother of four children would drive me over the edge and there was the possibility I could become abusive. I didn't want that to happen. I needed time to get my bipolar disorder under control. But you can't explain that to a child. All they know is that I left them. By the time they moved back in with me, the older two hated me, the younger two were too young to really remember anything. No matter how I tried to make up those lost years, the older two only saw me as the mother who abandoned them.

They spent their teenage years with me. I don't have to tell you that these are the most volatile years in a child's life. Add my bipolar disorder on top of that, and it was a pretty explosive mixture. My two older children moved out early (fifteen and seventeen respectively) and went back to live with or near their father, who had divorced his second wife. I haven't heard from them since. My younger two children stayed with me and I still keep in touch with them.

My older two children are now in their mid-twenties. I think about them a lot. I've googled their names several times over the years but cannot find any information about them. Neither are on facebook or any other social networks, or if they are, they're not using their real names. Their father won't speak to me. I get second-hand information about them through their siblings, but I don't want to put their siblings in the middle of any drama. I want to bridge the chasm that's formed between us, but I don't know how. After nearly a decade of silence and with no contact information, how can I reach out to my kids without putting their siblings in the middle of a family soap opera?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (37 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure how you do this without involving the siblings. Could you perhaps write a letter, give it to the siblings and ask them to deliver or mail it, explaining very carefully that you don't expect the delivering sibling to have any other responsibility - i.e. you don't want to make the delivering-sibling force the recipient sibling to read it. Maybe write on the envelope "please read when ready", to alleviate some of the issue pointed out by liketitanic? that way you're reaching out but aren't being overbearing or stalkerish?
posted by dpx.mfx at 12:22 PM on May 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm sorry, this is all hard. Can you write letters to each of your older kids, put postage on them, and then ask their siblings to post them for you? That way the younger kids won't have given out their siblings information, but it will get a message out to them.

Be very careful about how you word the letters, so that it's clear how much you love them and regret what happened, but that you also don't sound like you're making excuses. I know that's not what you're trying to do here, you're just trying to explain why you had to take care of yourself first. But for a kid it's really easy to hear excuses where a parent sees an explanation.

Once you've sent the letters and have reminded them that you're open to hearing from them any time, let it go. They'll contact you if they're ready. (On preview, much what dpx.mfx said, only in more words).
posted by ldthomps at 12:24 PM on May 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'd like to share a personal story. You can email me from a throwaway account at the address in my profile.
posted by 256 at 12:24 PM on May 17, 2012

I want to bridge the chasm that's formed between us, but I don't know how. After nearly a decade of silence and with no contact information, how can I reach out to my kids without putting their siblings in the middle of a family soap opera?

You can tell the younger siblings that you're interested in trying to reconnect with your two older children, and ask them to pass along that message. That's about it.

It sounds like you've had a long and difficult struggle with this, and I sympathize with you. I really, seriously do. But I also sympathize with your oldest children's need to distance themselves from you.

You can make yourself available, but you can't bridge the chasm if they don't want to meet you in the middle.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 12:25 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

You probably can't fix it quickly, all you can do is let things heal. You'll always be their mother and they'll always be your children. If you do your best with your younger children your older children may eventually remember their love for you more than their hurt during the worse years.
posted by Reverend John at 12:28 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree that the only real way to make contact is through the younger siblings, but maybe you could ask those younger siblings before you hand them a letter or whatever for the older two --- make sure in advance that the younger two are in fact willing to pass along your letter, don't just assume they will, because that kind of assumption may just upset them while you're trying to resume contact with the older two.

As for the letter itself: make yourself available, and give them all the ways (phone, email, facebook, snailmail, carrier pigeon) there are to contact you, then just wait...... you've now done all you can, the rest is up to them.

All the best to you and all your children.
posted by easily confused at 12:34 PM on May 17, 2012

Advice from someone in your opposite position. At most, send a card on their birthdays and maybe for Chirstmas or whatever through their siblings. Don't say anything that could be perceived as incendiary, or manipulative (including 'I miss you'). Wait for them to contact you when they are ready.
posted by Garm at 12:47 PM on May 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

I would not involve the younger siblings at all, lest you alienate them too. Your older children know how to reach you if they want. I am sorry you have had a hard life, but to your children they probably felt you put your own needs above their needs to be safe. (I am trying not to sound blamey, and I am sorry because I am sure to you it sounds like I am, but that is how a child will percieve your actions).

If you try to insert yourself in their lives when they have clearly shown no interest in having a relationship they will probably feel that once again you are asserting your need (to have a relationship with them) over their own needs. Maybe this will change in time, but for now focus on being the kind of stable, loving mother that an adult child would like to have a relationship with. Continue building a strong relationship with the younger children so you are showing through your actions what kind of mother you are.
posted by saucysault at 1:03 PM on May 17, 2012 [13 favorites]

There are some mistakes we make that cannot be undone.

Your children might never want anything to do with you again, and that is their right. Own up to your own past mistakes by not making excuses for them, but by being the better person NOW that you wish you were THEN. If your eldest get it through the grapevine that you're a pretty OK person then maybe they'll try to contact you. But I'll bet they know how to get ahold of you should they want to. Leave the ball in their court; because, in truth, you can't get that ball back from them unless they want you to, no matter what you do.

Remember how mixed up you were after the divorce, and how you knew you were so unprepared to be a parent that you let your ex have the kids? That state of mind is probably something like where your kids are now - shuffled from home to home, unsure of their surroundings or future, not sure who to trust with their emotions, afraid and insecure. Give them the same space to get themselves back together that you took for yourself.

You never know how a thing like this will play out, though. I made contact with my estranged father and fostered a relationship with him that I now sincerely enjoy, even though he'd been physically abusive and emotionally absent from me when I was a child. It took me until I was about 35 to have the emotional maturity to approach a situation like that with him, and 5 years on things are going well. But there is no way he could have initiated this - he had damaged that trust as a younger man, and I had to forgive him on my own terms before anything else could happen.

At some point your kids will probably have the emotional distance from things to look back and reflect, but that isn't a guarantee they'll sympathize. I honestly think the best thing you can do in this situation is not reach out to them. You made your bed, now lie in it, and once your kids are ready for a relationship they will contact you (or not, but that's not up to you).

I'm sorry if all this sounds harsh - it's not meant to. Everybody wants to have parents that love and support them, and if your kids are just throwing a tantrum over some perceived slight then they'll eventually come around and everything will be lovely. But you have no way of knowing how they really perceived the events that you've described above, nor, more importantly, how they perceived your behavior during those events. Remember, your desires really have no bearing on this situation at all - this is about your kid's feelings, not yours.

And for God's sake, don't use your younger kids a messengers. Everyone loses in that scenario.
posted by Pecinpah at 1:13 PM on May 17, 2012 [33 favorites]

I am also in the opposite situation, and my estranged parent has tried everything, but it has just made me more firm in my resolve to not communicate with them. I think I would feel slightly less negative about them if they had not tried anything at all. Some of the things they have tried: getting other parent and siblings to nag and guilt me and pass on letters, long crazy emails, odd threats, pretending bad things never happened, saying its their own parents fault, blaming society, adding small sad comments to everything from other parents and siblings when they can (like "also from your non-existent parent"), threatening self-harm, and offering money and stuff.

Here is why nothing will work: they are not talking to me, they are talking to the helpless terrified angry 10-year old who just had the crap beaten out of them (again) for no reason and then had to apologize for it and hug their abuser. I swore they would not get away with it, and I could do absolutely nothing about it then so this is now both my revenge and way to stay sane.

Maybe your kids had it easier than me and you will have a chance one day. I recommend leaving them alone and if you ever get the chance to say anything, just say you are sorry. Don't try justify or explain or promise ponies if they reconcile, just sorry.
posted by meepmeow at 1:19 PM on May 17, 2012 [38 favorites]

This must be very difficult. I am very sorry to hear about this situation.

You could reach out to them by writing a letter in which you acknowledge that you understand why they might not want to speak with you. Do not try to defend yourself in any way in this letter, but don't dwell on pointing out all the difficulties they've had to face, either. Let them know that you do not expect a response to this letter necessarily any time soon.

However, also tell them basically what you've told us: that you always think of them, and that your door will always be open to them. Let them know that you respect them as adults, and so you will not force yourself into their lives; however, if and when they would ever like to get in touch, you will always be there.

Do not threaten them. Do not bribe them. Just let them know that you're an adult who understands the radio silence, but who looks forward to change.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:21 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Concentrate on being as good a parent as you can to the two you're in touch with. Lavish them with all the love and responsible care that you wish you could give the older ones. With any luck they will let you be a grandma to their kids when they have them; love those babies and be good to them too.

The older ones know where to find you if they want to.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:24 PM on May 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

I understand your want to reach out communicate now that you're in a better place, and I agree with others who say keep the younger children out of the role of message bearers.

Have you talked to your younger children about contacting their older siblings? If nothing else, tell you'd like to do what ldthomps said, that you want to provide letters in sealed, stamped envelopes with a return address (and an addressed, stamped return envelope, if you like) to the younger siblings to send along, if they think it's OK.

If it's not, don't pursue this any further. If they're OK, take your time, write your letters, and set them aside. Read them a week later, and see if you want to revise anything. Then pass the letters along, and let them go. If you want to try reaching out again, do so once to twice a year. You can avoid sentimental dates (their birthdays, Christmas, New Years, etc.) if you want to avoid any appearance of tugging on heartstrings, and if you like, keep sending letters on the same date(s). If you plan on doing this, tell them of your intention in your first letter, saying you'd like to keep contacting them, if they'll allow it.

That way, you're not surprising them with random letters. You're allowing them to say "bugger off," and if they do, follow their wishes. You can try again in 5 years.

Otherwise, I agree with fingersandtoes, to a degree. Don't turn the younger kids into surrogates for the older.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:45 PM on May 17, 2012

I absolutely don't want this to sound like I'm blaming you or chastising you, because it's clear from the way you describe things that you've tried in your life to make the decisions that are best for your children, even if the results weren't as good as you hoped they would be. However, it is entirely possible for our best to simply be not good enough, especially when we're talking about parents with problems and young children. And when that, sadly, happens, everyone is left with wounds that may never fully heal.

I think you need to think about what you're hoping the end result of getting back in touch will be. I absolutely understand that you feel anguish about not seeing them and remorse for the way their childhoods played out. But it sounds as though you're hoping that contacting them and building a relationship with them will lessen your hurt. You may or may not be right about that, but you're not the only one in the relationship. What is it that you think they will gain from being in touch with you? What do they need or want that you can provide them now? How will being in touch with you make their lives better?

The problem is that since you're not in touch with them, you don't know the answers to those questions. You don't know what their lives are like now, whether they feel the same hurt you do about being separated from you, whether they need a mother or a friend or any other role you could play in their lives. You just can't possibly know that, given the information you have access to. Which means that there's no way to know whether reaching out to them will help or harm them. And I think that means that the decision about whether or not to have a relationship needs to be their decision, not yours.

Be the best parent you can to your other children. Build the happiest life you can for yourself. Give back to your community and take care of your health and love those around you as much as you're able. Make sure that everyone in your life knows that you're open to your other two children if and when they're ready, and make sure that you're visible enough that they can find you if they want to. But don't intrude into their lives in hopes that it will make you feel better. Because the best thing you can do right now is to make clear that you understand that it's not about what you want and need; it's about what's best for them, and now that they're adults, they have the right to decide for themselves what's best for them.

I wish you peace.
posted by decathecting at 1:57 PM on May 17, 2012 [16 favorites]

A letter that says this? Seriously, I don't get my mom and dad now but Lord knows I think of growing up with them as my divorced parents and try on what they might have been thinking.

Even if no immediate result is yielded, they deserve to know how you feel/felt later and how you wish you could be there, reliably for them.
posted by discopolo at 1:59 PM on May 17, 2012

Please, do not use your younger children to go-between you and your siblings. Do not do this. I know you hope it goes well, but consider that if your older children are not ready to hear from you, all you will be doing is making it hard for them to have a relationship with their siblings. This is a real thing.

I have never been so mad at my sister as when she relayed a message from my father. I could hear him in her words, and I was furious at him and not ready to talk to him. My sister didn't make me any more ready to talk to my dad: she just made me not want to answer the phone when she called, either, because I didn't want to hear from him. Not directly, and not through someone else, either.

If you absolutely have to send a message this way, please tread very carefully in doing so. The message should be something like, "is it okay if I give you a message from mom?" And then please -- as tough as it is for you -- please be willing to accept and respect their answer.
posted by gauche at 2:02 PM on May 17, 2012 [9 favorites]

I think your only option here is to ask the siblings to pass along a message that simply says that you'd like to reconnect, along with your contact information. You need to assure the siblings that you will ask this of them once and then never, ever bring it up again unless they do, and you have to keep that promise.
posted by Ragged Richard at 2:22 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Something about your language in describing this really sounds a bit ... off. You describe the stepmother as 'not a stellar parent' and that she abused them physically and mentally. You say you didn't take custody because you were concerned that having 4 children would have pushed you off the edge and you would have become abusive.

I mention this because I think this language, this framing of these experiences is key to your children's distancing of you. There is something ... minimizing in how you describe their suffering. To me their suffering sounds profound and terrible and beyond bearing.

I think you need to get your head around this - around the depth of their experience and their suffering. Only then will you be prepared for contact with them. They are very angry (rightly!) for abaondoning them, at the time that they needed you. But when you minimize their suffering, you abandon them every time they interact with you.

On the what to do, why don't you start writing them letters and saving them? Make little videos and recordings and save those as well for your children. When they are ready to engage with you again, you will be ready.
posted by zia at 2:37 PM on May 17, 2012 [13 favorites]

I have bipolar disorder...This is why I didn't take custody

Do the your children know this? Not clear from the question. (Also not clear if there's any way to pass this information along to the two oldest.)

I needed time to get my bipolar disorder under control...Add my bipolar disorder on top of that, and it was a pretty explosive mixture

It does sound like they would benefit from hearing the truth if you do re-connect. If things were not under control on your end it -- in my view -- would be best to come to terms with that, and to be very forward with information about the bipolar disorder issue; no sugar-coating, no blaming adolescents for being adolescent. Have you apologised to the younger two, have you discussed your mental health with them? Are they in a spot where they think the older two should talk to you?

Advice to work on bettering the parts of your life that you have the ability to better is spot on. If you have the means, start a trust fund for grandchildren, even if you're doing so without knowing if you'll ever even find out about them. You can't fix the past, so (from experience) -- take the lumps, and work with what you can work with.
posted by kmennie at 2:53 PM on May 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

If I were one of your older children, the only thing you could do to convince me you were worth talking to would be to demonstrate you could be a stable, loving, un-manipulative parent to my younger siblings, for a long time. When you feel betrayed, words don't mean anything compared to actions. Hopefully you're already on this path, so just continue being as good a mother as you can be to the kids you're still caring for.
posted by emyd at 3:00 PM on May 17, 2012 [9 favorites]

I think you should absolutely write to them and tell them that you love them, think of them often, and that you truly regret mistakes you made when they were children. Don't try to explain why you made the decisions that you made (in the initial letter, at least*). No matter how sound your reasoning at the time, it's likely to come off as an excuse. If possible, ask someone else (a family therapist would be ideal) to read the letter to verify that your words convey what you want them to.

I don't believe that the fact that they haven't contacted you necessarily means anything. Given the "explosive" circumstances when they left home—and that you haven't tried to reach out to them since—perhaps they figure you are OK with the distance/lack of contact.

Re the younger children, I actually think letting them know how much you miss their siblings, about your regrets, and about your desire to have a relationship with them would be a good thing. (Assuming this is delivered as a sincere matter of fact. Taken too far, this could appear to be an attempt to "get them on your side".) Unless the older children have already told the younger children that they do not want any contact with you, I can't see why asking them to address and mail the sealed envelope would be an issue.

Try to prepare yourself for a hostile response (or no response) and, of course, don't push too hard.

*I'm wondering why they seem to be holding you responsible for the rotten living situation/abusive step-mother, when their dad was right there at the time. If they aren't aware that you were dealing with mental health issues, they should eventually be told.

I wish you the best.
posted by she's not there at 3:25 PM on May 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

My situation is a little like yours, on both sides of the equation.

Sometimes parents make decisions that are incomprehensible to children, and possibly your older kids are still thinking about this with a child's understanding. When they've made a couple of right, but heartbreaking decisions of their own, they'll understand better. If I was you, I'd be scrupulously honest about my motivations - and if you did really leave them with their dad for their benefit, you need to be able to express that. If you find that your decision wasn't made entirely with their interests in mind, you need to be able to admit that to them, and apologise, sincerely.

I think their anger and disdain is at least partly tempered by a desire to be close to you again, but I think they are probably leery of getting involved with a parent who they might perceive as being likely to put their emotional well being ahead of theirs. I think you should absolutely reach out to them - if your younger kids are in touch with them, I can't believe they would refuse to pass along a letter - and I think kmennie has it exactly right, to apologise and explain, without any dodging the issue. You can't ever be weird or guilt trippy about how you feel now, although apologising and expressing your continuing love and concern is fine. I think you totally should send them birthday cards just to tell them you love them, and hope they have a happy day.

Ultimately, how could you have possibly imagined that their dad's new wife would abuse them? I don't think you can possibly be responsible for that.

Bah - on preview, I agree with kmennie, and she's not there :)
posted by thylacinthine at 3:34 PM on May 17, 2012

emyd If I were one of your older children, the only thing you could do to convince me you were worth talking to would be to demonstrate you could be a stable, loving, un-manipulative parent to my younger siblings, for a long time. When you feel betrayed, words don't mean anything compared to actions. Hopefully you're already on this path, so just continue being as good a mother as you can be to the kids you're still caring for.

Wish I could favorite that one a million times.

I am that older child, and every day, I wish my mother would be the mother to my younger sisters that she wasn't for me.
posted by MuChao at 3:38 PM on May 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

To get around the issue of using younger sibs as go-betweens, but to make clear to your kids that you were thinking of them all along, write a letter each month from now until they contact you. Don't send the letters. Just keep them in a special place. Then, if they are ready, say "this is what I wanted to say to you all these years, but I wanted to respect your privacy." That shows your kids you didn't just "give up" on them, but also demonstrates that you respect their wishes and their siblings' integrity.
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 3:49 PM on May 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

Suffice to say I had experiences growing up that were similar to your children's. My reaction has been the same.

I would like to enter into the discussion the notion that even when a child of that circumstance grows into adulthood, and can consider it from an adult perspective--recognizing that the parent had an illness that they would have given anything to have been spared, recognizing that parents are human, flawed, make mistakes--that even from that position of relative understanding and forgiveness, it can still be the best choice to sever ties and keep distance.

I want to tell you that the loss of a mother is profound, profound, and so painful. I understand that you wish you could repair that. But in the scenario you describe, your kids' experience with you is shot through with even more chaos and pain, and it may simply be necessary for their own best chance at equanimity as adults to keep their distance.

In my case, I sorely, sorely resent people who helpfully try to mend fences even after all these years. Someone who was a childhood friend occasionally pops up on facebook to pass along information or try to reconnect me. This only serves to guarantee that I never want anything to do with her either. Dont put your younger children into this position.

I'm really, really sorry you are in this situation. Your kids too. You must know that it's very common for people with severe bipolar illness to often end up estranged from family because of the devastating nature of the illness. I offer this to let you know you're not alone. I wish I had an answer for you. Good luck.
posted by Sublimity at 4:49 PM on May 17, 2012 [7 favorites]

I want to bridge the chasm that's formed between us, but I don't know how.

Do you know why? It takes a great deal of effort these days to be invisible and anonymous online, and your older children are making that effort. If your presence in their lives causes them distress, why do you want to bridge that chasm? What's in it for them? Please consider honoring their choice to remain separate from you before searching for unlocked side-doors into their lives.

After nearly a decade of silence and with no contact information, how can I reach out to my kids without putting their siblings in the middle of a family soap opera?

By leaving them out of it. Tell them you love them, tell them you love their siblings, but do not put them in the position of advocating for you, or ask them to carry messages for you.
posted by headnsouth at 5:05 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree WHOLEHEARTEDLY with the people above when they tell you that the single best thing you can do to repair your relationship with your two older children is to be a good, stable parent to your two younger children. Do good things for them. Be kind. Listen. Be supportive. This information will trickle down to the older ones and they may reconsider their position. Live your life as well as you can and let them come to you. If an attempt at reconciliation comes your way, embrace it with everything you've got, TAKE ALL THE BLAME, and accept the level of relationship that they are comfortable with. Things like this take time.

Do not attempt to ferry information or attempts at reconciliation through your younger kids.

I cut off my (abusive, inappropriate, alcoholic) father when I was 16. My younger brother still saw him and would parrot back at me the kind of manipulative guilt trips that my father would lay on both of us in order to get his way, to try to get me to talk to him again. This would send me into fits of anger at my poor blameless little brother, sorrow that he was put in this position, BURNING WHITE-HOT RAGE AT MY FATHER and I would always feel more sure of my decision.

I wish you luck and patience in this situation. I really hope it works out for all of you.
posted by Aquifer at 5:35 PM on May 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

You don't mention how old your younger children are. This would make a difference in my answer.

If they're under 18 and/or are still dependent on you for housing, college funds, etc. then I would not ask them. I am an 'estranged child' with a young sibling who keeps in contact with the parent and I would be royally pissed off if my parent tried to get to me through my sibling, because of the power differential.

If they are young adults and have more independence from you, the most I would do is say "I'd really like to get in touch with (older kids), if you felt comfortable could you ask if they'd be willing to read a letter?" If you do this:
1) Make it 100% clear that if they feel uncomfortable even asking, that's OK, and if the older kids say "no", you won't ask them to be the liaison again;

2) Ask younger kids to ask older kids if they'd be WILLING to get a letter first. Again, I would be pissed if my sibling was pressured into giving me a letter I didn't even agree to, and I would feel intruded on if it was assumed that I even wanted it.

Frankly, I think if your younger kids are still in communication with the older kids they have probably picked up cues from them about the situation. My sibling and I have a pretty Don't Ask/Don't Tell policy about each others' relationship with Estranged Parent. If your younger kids keep pretty quiet about the older ones, they've probably inferred that Older kids want it that way.

Finally, if you write a letter, I would actually not focus on how much you love them and miss them. This can easily come across as "let's just put the past behind us". Focus on being apologetic and acknowledging that there was some major shit and you understand how painful that was.
posted by nakedmolerats at 5:42 PM on May 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

And in regards to my #1 point above, make sure you can actually stick to that. If you ask younger kids to be the liaison once, and it doesn't turn out the way you want, it will be really, really tempting to ask again in one year, five years, etc. Do not put your kids in that position.

I think it would be really hard to open the door once and then deny myself later. If you think you won't have the self-control not to ask again if the first try doesn't work, then I wouldn't open the door at all.
posted by nakedmolerats at 5:49 PM on May 17, 2012

I say start a blog. Or a tumblr. I'm not talking about a power blog that is eager for followers and viral linking and book deals, but the kind of blog that used to be written to keep in touch with family in another country while the author is on a missions trip or something. Low-key.

It's more passive than a letter, and also more flexible. You don't have just one shot to communicate, but can add a little bit at a time, and they can come back weeks later to see you're still at it, devoting time and energy.

Strategize with people you trust about security/anonymity/anti-indexing/etc to keep it intimate and genuine. (if the tone is wrong, or the structure too "community oriented" it can look self serving.) Spend a little time each week communicating with love and care to your estranged children about your life; mostly now, with a few carefully considered memories thrown in.

After you get the hang of it, show your non-estranged children and ask them to share the link with their sibling, but don't pressure them to, and don't follow up (or obsess about page views). They will know exactly what they're passing along, of they do.

Make it like a sketchbook or journal that your kids can peek inside. Don't pour your heart out. Don't overly romanticize the past. Don't write super long posts. Do be honest. Do be introspective, humble, and humane. Do write about your life now, your projects, your interests, your small challenges and accomplishments. Do wish your kids happiness on birthdays and holidays. Don't ask them for anything.

Keep it up for at least a few months, documenting your own life, then see how you feel about the journal. It's probably not something that will have immediate results, but it's a way to show yourself as a steady, stable person, and your ability to have a no-pressure, opt-in relationship, even if it is one-sided.

To avoid pressuring your kids, frame it, even in your own head, as introspection and self-exploration for your own benefit. And your children are invited to learn about you as you introspect. Two birds with one stone. :)
posted by itesser at 5:54 PM on May 17, 2012

No matter how I tried to make up those lost years, the older two only saw me as the mother who abandoned them.

They spent their teenage years with me. I don't have to tell you that these are the most volatile years in a child's life. Add my bipolar disorder on top of that, and it was a pretty explosive mixture.

So your children behaved the way traumatised adolescents do, and you responded in ways which were 'explosive'? I'm sorry, but there's every possibility your children have experienced your behaviour as abuse. Don't assume they're only angry at you for leaving them with their stepmother. You may have hurt them in ways which don't really register on your conscience, because you were so unwell at the time that you believed your actions were justified.

I am estranged from my mother. She probably was and is mentally ill, but I experienced her behaviour as abusive and she has never taken responsibility for it. Here are some things she's tried which do NOT make me want to have further with contact her:

- Vague apologies for "whatever she did to upset [me]" and exhortations to please just "put it all behind us". I might be willing to listen to an apology which demonstrated genuine insight and reflection about her behaviour and clear assurances that she will behave differently in the future. Apologies which amount to "Fine, I'm sorry, now COME BACK SO I CAN ABUSE YOU SOME MORE!" are not welcome.

- Manipulative attempts to tug on my heartstrings. I don't want to know that I'm breaking her heart or that she won't be alive forever or that she was so distressed by my coldness towards her that my father had a heart attack from the stress. (Yes, actually she tried that one. It didn't work). The reason I have strict boundaries with her is that her emotions are not my responsibility.

Please don't contact your kids until you're able to completely accept their version of what happened. Be prepared to apologise sincerely for things you don't remember doing and take full responsibility for situations in which you yourself felt wronged. Be humble. You were the adult, they were the children. Yes, your mental illness is a mitigating factor, but it doesn't absolve you of your responsibilities as a parent. None of what happened to them was their fault, and you have to believe that before you even think about reaching out.
posted by embrangled at 6:18 PM on May 17, 2012 [33 favorites]

her emotions are not my responsibility.

Exactly. I'm in touch with my parents even though I was badly abused as a child. The way I look at it is that it's my choice how I interact with them and I would have nothing to feel guilty about if I chose not to. My parents weren't there for me when I needed them, so why should I be there for them now? Any selfish reasons my parents could give me would simply get laughed at. I'm in touch with them because I enjoy having them in my life now that we're all adults, and that's the only reason.

So my advice to you for now is just to work on yourself as much as you can so that you can have the best chance of being the kind of person they'll want to have in their lives if they do get back in touch. If you can find a way to contact them (not through their siblings) then you could write to them and tell them how much you love them and how much you hope they're happy and that you're there for them if they ever want to reach out. What I wouldn't do is try to excuse your behavior or give them selfish reasons about how much it would mean to you to be back in touch. Because to be frank they don't owe you anything. I'm sorry as that must be painful to hear but it's the truth.
posted by hazyjane at 10:42 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I put about the same amount of distance (10+ years) between me and one of my parents. Near the end of that period I was starting to want to reconnect, but didn't know how and didn't feel I could. (I knew where to get the number/contact info, but I didn't the other stuff, like what to say,do etc...)

He called me out of the blue one day. (I'm pretty sure he got the number from my sister. There was one time that she brought him up with me and seemed like she was trying to gauge my reaction, see how receptive I would be.) We didn't talk about the past, just the present. That first call was maybe a half hour, can't remember for sure. We were both nervous and awkward, to in the water kind of stuff. Now we talk a lot. Not often, but each phone call ends up being like around 8 hrs long.

I didn't want to, but being able to put the past behind me helped me so much with myself. It was holding me back as a person, and I'm glad he reached to me, because I couldn't. We have never talked about the past at all. I think the first call might have included one "I'm sorry" "I'm sorry, too" in it, but that's it. If there was anything more, it would only upset/frustrate me, and would make things worse. Not talking about it is the best way to acknowledge that nothing could be said to make up for it.

I hope my experiences help you proceed in the right direction.
posted by BurnChao at 12:21 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm also the adult child of a parent I haven't been in touch with in 15 years or so. My father was an abusive alcoholic who ended up living on the street for many years. When I left my hometown to go to school I never spoke to him again.

About 4 years ago there was a front page article in my hometown newspaper about him, talking about the fact that a police officer friend had helped him clean up and get off the street. Leaving aside the rage this wildly fictional attempt at 'journalism' set off in me, one line contained the fact that my Dad's "next plans were to try and find the daughters he lost touch with."

Everyone I knew thought I would be thrilled to hear how well he'd been doing, and almost everyone asked "Will you contact him?" And my answer was a resounding NO. Why should I make the first move? He's the one who abandoned me through his actions, not the other way around. Besides, I am ridiculously easy to find. One google search and you've got my contact info.

So I'm sort of two minds about whether you should make the first move or not. While on one hand, I totally get what everyone else is saying about showing respect for them. But on the other hand, they may well be thinking like I have been -- "If she wants a relationship with me, she can make the first move!"

It's a tough situation, because part of me is still annoyed that after all the fluffiness of his front page article my Dad never bothered to try. Maybe he's trying to respect my privacy/need for space/whathaveyou as well. It's certainly possible. But it still feels a bit like "Can't be bothered".
posted by aclevername at 6:30 AM on May 18, 2012

My mother was a drug addict and alcoholic who abandoned my half-sister and me when we were young kids. Based on some further information I've learned as I've grown up, I now know that she was bipolar. I grew up with my dad and my step-mother, who were extremely emotionally abusive.

I guess I never blamed my mother for abandoning me exactly, but it messed me up pretty badly, as did the abuse I suffered growing up. I went on to have a pretty dysfunctional marriage myself for many years.

I always wanted to reach out and talk to my mother after I grew up, ask her why she left me, why she did the things she did, why she didn't love me enough to be a good mom, but I was afraid of the answers I'd get back.

One day when I was about 29, her sister called me and told me she'd died of Hep-C. I'm so so so sorry I never had the chance to talk to her before she died.

If you're in any position to give your kids answers to the questions they probably have about their mother, about their lives, I say, find a way to at least let them know those answers are out there if they want them. Because knowing you have to go the rest of your life without at least seeing your mother and asking the questions and hearing her answers is a tragedy that never stops hurting.
posted by twiggy32 at 8:02 PM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would find a way to let the older kids know where you are and how to contact you if they have any question or things they need to say to you and leave it at that. I don't know if going through your younger children is the way to do that--others seem to have strong opinions about this, but I'm not sure how else you could do it.

I don't think that sending a long letter is appropriate, but just letting them know the door is open if ever they have anything they need to say to you seems good. That makes it about them and their needs, not you and yours. It's about you giving, if they need to receive something (apologies, information), rather than you asking for something (forgiveness, love, understanding) from them.
posted by looli at 10:27 PM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know I'm entering this discussion a bit late, but I want to add to it while I can because I am and have been on both sides of this fence in one way or another.

I can appreciate what the adult children of parents who may have been similar to you are writing here, but at the end of the day it may not matter what you do. Say you took the following suggestions from this thread:

"I recommend leaving them alone and if you ever get the chance to say anything, just say you are sorry. Don't try justify or explain or promise ponies if they reconcile, just sorry."

"Please don't contact your kids until you're able to completely accept their version of what happened. Be prepared to apologise sincerely for things you don't remember doing and take full responsibility for situations in which you yourself felt wronged. Be humble."

I agree you should accept responsibility for your mistakes regardless of the reasons why you made those mistakes. I agree you shouldn't try to explain or justify your mistakes unless asked for an explanation. I agree you shouldn't promise ponies if they reconcile.
But guess what? Even if you do these things, it may never be enough. I know. Feel free to memail me and I can tell you more or just 'listen'.

It sounds to me like they're angry because you left and their stepmother wasn't such a great person and, when they finally did get to live with you, the damage was done. They were already angry at you and any mistake you made would be judged way more harshly than it may have been otherwise. You were all victims in this story. They harbored a lot of hurt, trauma, and anger. I'm guessing they acted out and it was very difficult to live with them, very difficult to do anything right no matter how hard you tried. That's exhuasting. Teenagers can be shockingly cruel, especially when they're hurting. And contrary to what one might think reading through some of these answers, the 'explosive mixture' that results happens in intact families with otherwise mentally healthy parents too, not just in situations like yours. Unfortunately, most of us carry that hurt with us into adulthood and never fully heal. A lot of us continue to look at things through the same lens. You can do all the right things, but none of that will matter if someone has already made a decision about you. Like Anais Nin said, "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are." Or one could say that we don't always see people as they are, we see them as we've decided they are.

You need to forgive yourself. You can't wait for your children to do it. Like all relationships, we teach people how to interact with us. You shouldn't disagree and argue, but you don't have to accept their version of the story if it's only half true. You do have to listen though. You do have to have compassion and empathize with where they're coming from. But you don't have to take the blame for everything. That's not fair and it helps no one heal. We don't heal by finding the easy target and placing all the blame and anger on that person. We heal when we love and forgive. I grew up with a mentally ill mother (schizophrenic and low IQ) and suffered a lot as a consequence, but as I grew older I decided to forgive her and let her have her delusions. We're not extremely close, but I do call her from time to time to make sure she's okay. I decided to be the adult and forgive. Sometimes this is not an option, but you don't sound like someone who would just want everyone to put it behind them or what have you.

In the meantime, again, work on forgiving yourself. Other than that, I can give no better advice than decathecting gave.
posted by katherant at 9:49 PM on September 24, 2012

« Older Please leave your answer after the beep.   |   Is there a way to eat lower-carb as a vegetarian... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.