Just because they share half their DNA....
June 19, 2014 12:46 AM   Subscribe

Should I help my daughter connect with her half-sister? Or more precisely, should I help my daughter's half-sister connect with her?

My tween daughter, (who is doing doing great more than a year after I last worried about her here), has a half sister who is a couple of years older (they share a dad, who as far as I know only has the two kids). For many reasons that I believe are good ones, my daughter and I haven't been in touch with the dad for a long time. However I think the older child does see him occasionally (e.g. once/year). We've met the half sister and her mother, but there's no ongoing connections amongst any of us. The five of us (me and my daughter, half-sister and her mother, and the dad) all live in (three) different states.

For a while now, the half sister and her mom have been reaching out to me to try to connect in a more-than-superficial way. I am not ready for this, principally because I appreciate having the clear and far separation from the dad, and I worry that letting the half-sister and her mom into our lives may bring him in too. I do try to ask my daughter every now and then if she is interested in connecting with her half-sister, but she hasn't expressed a lot of curiosity (though I do realize that she may be just saying she's not interested because she can sense that is the answer I am most approving of). In any event, I am not ready to open up to this relationship right now, and I kind of feel like until the kids are older, all four of us (two kids + two adult moms) need to be on-board with establishing a relationship if it is going to happen in a useful way.

So dear and thoughtful hive, my question(s) for you are: (1) if I do figure out how to support a more consistent relationship between the half-sisters, how do I make sure I maintain a clear boundary between the dad and us? (2) if I don't want to support the half-sister relationship right now, what could I possibly say to the (also tween) half-sister (who has recently reached out to me independent of the mom)? I feel like I can't say the truth which would be something like: "well, my child isn't really that interested in getting to know you right now, and also anyway I don't want you in our lives because your dad is not a healthy person and I don't have the skills, resources or emotional capacity to deal with him in our lives and I worry letting you in will bring him in, even tangentially, and will result in many negative repercussions, and by the way did you even realize that he's a less-than-okay kind of person?" (3) Does the answer to any of this change as the kids get older? I have always assumed that when my daughter is "older" it would no longer matter what I thought about the dad or the half-sister relationship and it would really just be up to the two girls to figure out if they wanted to know each other. But what age is that? Is it when my daughter is 18? 14? 16? 12? And finally just (4) whether you have advice, experience or insight into this scenario that could help me think about what the right way to think about this is.
posted by marionett gjorda av strumpor to Human Relations (19 answers total)
If your daughter is interested, then let her meet her. If she's not, then she's not. I don't see any reason why you need to be involved at all, barring some kind of concern about the sister or her mom specifically.

Given that the dad is a jerk and that they left him before you got in the picture, they're probably well aware that he is a jerk and have similar feelings about him that you do. If the other sister only sees the dad maybe once a year, I don't see why you'd think it would bring him back into your lives.
posted by empath at 1:34 AM on June 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think I have some experience.

I'm an only child. My mother left my biological father shortly after I was born and we never saw him again. I know now that there were good reasons for her to cut off all contact, but she didn't tell me about them until I was older. My biological father went on to have two more kids - so I have two half-siblings out there. Before he died, my mom (very) occasionally asked me if I wanted to meet my biological dad and his family. After he died, she asked if I wanted to meet my half-siblings or see their facebooks. (I think she found them after the death.)

I really didn't want to. Honestly. I have no connection to these people at all and didn't see the point. So, I would say - believe what your daughter is telling you. It is completely normal for her to be uninterested.

Here's the other side of the coin though:

My mother is adopted. She's also an only child - she was adopted because her parents couldn't conceive. Unlike me, she felt a driving need to find out more about her biological family, especially her mother. The records were sealed so it took her a very long time to locate her, and then it was really weird while my mother tried to figure out what to do. Obviously, there are additional complications here; the adoption was secret, because her biological mother was unwed, and just contacting her out of the blue might not be the best thing to do. But my mother really, really wants to know more about this part of her life. It eats at her.

I can imagine that for someone like my mother - someone who wants to know that other family - that denying that opportunity would be really cruel. There would have to be a really good reason, like fearing for your personal safety, in my opinion.

I don't know what I would do if one sister wants contact, but the other doesn't. I suppose I would just say that's something they need to work out for themselves. I wouldn't prevent messages from getting through though, unless it was distressing one of them.

So. That's my personal experience.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:09 AM on June 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

Perhaps you could tell them a short version of what you've written here: your daughter isn't currently interested in contact with her half-sister and sister's mother; but you'd like to keep the possibility open so that if your daughter changes her mind someday, you'll have their contact information and will be happy to pass it on to your daughter whenever she wants it.
posted by easily confused at 2:23 AM on June 19, 2014 [8 favorites]

I have two half sisters. One is in about the same sort of age gap as the two girls in question. We saw a little bit of one another after her mother divorced my father (who is also a hard-core not-very-nice-person) but really, we never really clicked and had very little to do with one another. I don't feel I missed much by not knowing her. I've connected a bit via Facebook now that we're both adults but honestly, there is not much there. I have a deeper connection with people I know from work, really.

My other half sister is a different matter. We grew up together and as such she may as well be my full on sister.

How far away from each other are they? Really the only useful solution I can see here is some sort of penpal situation between the two girls, whereby they exchange letters and have otherwise little to do with one another. That way they can maintain their own level of intimacy without the adults having to do too much - you daughter can get fun stuff in the mail, and then have a foundation to work on once she gets older, should she choose to do so. The only reason why I still have any contact at all with my half sister is due to some intermittent contact my mother arranged like, once every two years or so. My only concern there is if dad is actually a safety hazard and should not be given the chance to find out where you live. I also agree that the other family probably have noticed how much of a dick dad is, and it's really not something you need to bring up.

Basically she may change her mind later, or her aversion may not be apathay but could be more due to her no longer being the only child or the biggest kid - my half sister has a brother too, and was very put out to find out she was no longer The First Child.

This is really her decision in the end, and all you can do is give her avenues to work with. Right now she doesn't want to explore them, and she may never explore them, and she will be fine for that. Right now though the only thing I can see being a concern for her wanting to have a relationship once she's older is not having any sort of base to work from.
posted by Jilder at 2:58 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I desperately wanted to know my half sister. And I told my mother I didn't, every time she asked, because I could tell any contact with that part of her past life hurt her and that seemed more important than what I wanted. That's a possibility and I'm glad you're considering it.

That said, there's not much you can or should do except let her know explicitly that if she ever does want to get to know her sister you will support that, and maybe every year or so mention that again in case she does later decide she wants to explore the relationship but doesn't feel she can reopen the issue.

I do know my sister now, as an adult, and she's so great, and so precious to me. It breaks my heart that we had to wait until we were both adults to be sisters.
posted by Stacey at 3:07 AM on June 19, 2014 [16 favorites]

There are two things to consider here. First is, as Stacey points out, your daughter's feelings versus what she guesses you want her to feel. You should be open with her that you yourself are hesitant to support the relationship with the half sister because of the potential to invoke contact from the father. But--and this is important--you need to tell your kid that you want her to know her sister if that's what SHE wants. This gives her the agency that Tweens are struggling with. You'll help her mature by leaps and bounds if you let her know with your words and actions that you really will let her make her own decision here. And you as the adult will help guide her through the tricky part of shielding her from the father.

That's the second part. You should tell the half sister's mother that you're leaving it up to your daughter to determine the timing and level of contact with her sister, but that you will absolutely not have any contact with the father. Make your boundary clear with her, and tell her why. "We don't speak because, as you know, xyz issue." There's no need to dance around the reason or hear her side or opinion about it. Just the facts and the boundary.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 3:24 AM on June 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I think casually asking your daughter if she wants to pursue a relationship is different than saying "half-sister says X and asked about Y" and letting your daughter respond to that.

To you, these people represent your daughter's father. To your daughter, they may represent something else - connection, friendship, a support network, her sense of self, her identity. She has a right to know her family. I say this as a mother of 2 whose other parent is a negative force in their lives on many levels.
posted by headnsouth at 3:38 AM on June 19, 2014 [15 favorites]

Why are you letting your ex dictate your daughter's relationships? I understand that you want nothing to do with him, and you may have great reasons, but it would be a tragedy if these two girls who share DNA, who could probably use as much loving family as possible (I mean, who couldn't) would be kept from each other because of some jerk that at one time, you loved enough to have a baby with.

I would have a discussion directly with the other Mom, telling her how much you DON'T want Dad in the picture, and telling her that you want to open the door, but not enough to let him in. She may feel exactly the same way, or she may disagree, but you can establish that boundary.

I would arrange for short 'dates' for the girls. Perhaps you can all get lunch and see a movie, or go to the beach, or some other fun, easy activity that's not all fraught with angst and weirdness. If a relationship develops, great. If they tolerate each other, but whatevs, that's okay too.

Your daughter may secretly be yearning for more family contact, but she may not yet know it, or she won't say because you're clearly against it, or what have you.

An Anecdote: My best friend's Mother left her Father when she was an infant. For years my friend was told that her father was dead. She didn't know any of her other family, she never knew her dad. As adults we learned that her father didn't die until much later in life and that her other family had wanted to connect with her, but her Mom put the kibosh on it. Now, my friend is building relationships with her other family, and they're lovely, warm and wonderful people. People she would have LOVED to have had in her life when she was younger.

The best gift you can give your daughter is people to love her. Can you put aside your fear of how this might impact YOU to give your daughter a chance to see if this is a relationship that could bring positive things into her life? If it's inappropriate or causes too much drama or she is truly uninterested, that's fine, but it's like broccoli, you've got to give it a chance before you can say you don't like it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:41 AM on June 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

The half-sister, who is also very young, has reached out to you. Please try to be kind to her in your response. Say something like 1/2sis is not feeling ready right now to meet her but that will probably change some day. Wish her well. Who knows what kind of changes she's going through herself right now. And tell your daughter, better yet show her the letter, so that she knows it's ok with you if she eventually wants to meet her 1/2sis.
posted by mareli at 6:47 AM on June 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Absolutely and talk to that child's mother. You all things in common and can help each other. If it does not feel good then you can back up. I had an ex who had 4 kids two with me two with another and they all know and love each other. Daddy dearest hated that in many ways because we compared notes but it helped my two and the older two get through hard times with him...and the bonus, I got to add more lovely people to my life.

And in the end, it made me the bad times with the ex of more value.....young rope-rider says it all on the child's side...although I doubt that her mother would have kept that child from a grandfather's funeral...
posted by OhSusannah at 7:06 AM on June 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have two friends that have relationships with half-siblings that have been very helpful to them (only children otherwise, though I doubt that matters). They were both the oldest of the children and developed the relationships in, I believe, their 20s.
posted by typecloud at 7:32 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I found out I had a half-brother when I was about 19. I love my Dad, so it's a different situation, but I was really ambivalent about meeting my "new" sibling (he was actually 7 by then) for many reasons, and didn't do it for years. I finally met him when there was a family dinner planned and I was just informed he would be there. My Dad had waited for me to be ready, and then kind of realised I never would be on my own and so just went ahead and made it happen. I wish it had happened earlier, because I had so many conflicting feelings about the situation (it was complicated by my feelings for my Mum, and my feelings towards my full brother - finding out he wasn't the youngest or the only son) that I don't know that I would have ever made the decision myself. He's a really nice guy, and I think it would have been good to meet him when he was younger and got to know him as he grew up, rather than meeting him as adults. There's a lot of history we don't share and that makes me sad for him sometimes. It's also strange to know I'm so intimately related to him, like he looks a lot like my brother and cousins, for example, and yet I'm still finding out basic things about him such as what he likes or dislikes because he was a stranger for so long.

I agree with Ruthless Bunny's suggestion of setting up some 'dates' for the girls and then letting them decide how things progress on their own terms. She might never say "I want to meet her", but if she meets her she might be glad she did. If they don't get on, your daughter is free to let things fizzle out. And either way I don't see how it would necessitate your ex being involved in your life at all. This is just about giving two young girls the chance to have an extra person in their support network and I think ultimately that's a good opportunity to have. And well done to you for trying to work this out, as the feelings involved are difficult.
posted by billiebee at 7:44 AM on June 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

How well do you know the other mom? Do you have the sense that their family unit is basically healthy and sound? The other comments mostly seem to share the perspective that the other family must also know that the father is Not A Good Guy, but that's not necessarily so.

I have two younger half-siblings. Over the years they have aggressively tried to start a closer relationship with me, and at first I was open to it, but I had to end it because it became clear to me that due to their closer relationship with our father, they had accepted without question some very, very strange ideas from him. I'm keeping this vague because I don't want to get into it, but suffice to say these folks have serious issues with boundaries and the relationship made me feel both uncomfortable and unsafe. But my point is, they didn't have the same perspective on him that I did, and I wouldn't move forward with any relationship assuming that everyone is all on the same page.

But thank goodness that when this all came up I was already in my 20s, with a support network that wasn't just family with skin in the game, and I was able to make my own decisions. It would have been much, much harder for me if I had been younger, or had been the younger sibling.

I think it's weird that the other tween reached out independently of her mom. You should at least call the other mom and try to have an open conversation about this independent of the girls.
posted by stowaway at 8:17 AM on June 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

How is your daughter doing with the social anxiety you mentioned in your post from last year? I mention this because my extroverted son got a lot out of the relationship he built with his half-sister (and extended family) in his teens, but my socially anxious, introvert (now HS senior) daughter has not yet been ready to deal with that. So that's something to think about--if she struggles to connect with friends or other relatives, then the idea of connecting with people who are complete strangers may a little overwhelming for a socially anxious kid.

I understand your feeling that you've got a good groove on now and don't want to mess it up by potentially creating an opening for unwanted dad-involvement, but IMHO if the half-sister only sees mutual dad once a year herself, there may not be a whole lot of direct spill-over. It's worth having a conversation with half-sister's mom about this, though.

If you do decide to not encourage contact at this time or your daughter is truly not interested, I would suggest a short, polite reply to half-sister saying you're glad she's doing well but you need to discuss the matter with her mom. Then contact mom and explain that you don't think it's a good idea to open up the relationship at this time for reasons related partially to wanting to avoid opening the door to contact with the dad, but also for reasons relating to your daughter's current maturity/readiness to deal with new relationships. Unfortunately, there's no painless or foolproof way to explain to a preteen or their parent that you and/or your child "doesn't want to be friends" even if there are very valid reasons for it.

If you/she wind up not pursuing this now and set it aside to some vaguely "older" point in time, I suspect that contact will come (or not come) when your daughter starts to navigate social media more independently (and really, by the time they hit high school it's perhaps naive to think you can truly control and monitor all their social media activity). In fact, that's probably the process going on with the two-years-older half-sister. There really is a major shift across the middle-school years as kids establish deeper and more complex social lives independent from their parents.
posted by drlith at 8:48 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am not ready to open up to this relationship right now, and I kind of feel like until the kids are older, all four of us (two kids + two adult moms) need to be on-board with establishing a relationship if it is going to happen in a useful way.

This sounds like an anxiety response where you are waiting to feel that things are calm and right before you go down this path. I have been in your situation (similar anxiety and "things aren't right now" not similar family situations) and am sympathetic to your feelings but I think it's going to be a problem as things keep going because you are making your feelings the arbiter of what sort of contact your daughter has with someone who actually has very little to do with you. If the half-sister has very little contact with her father, I don't really think it's appropriate for you to act like this is going to turn into some sort of wedge whereby the father is somehow going to be back in the picture in any way at all and restricting the activities of both girls because of this misplaced concern.

Your daughter should be allowed to be friends with who she wants and you should be supportive of her and helpful to her in this as well as helping her set appropriate boundaries for herself. So floating a trial balloon about this that isn't "You tell me if this is okay and I'll set these things up" but "These folks have gotten in touch, how do you feel if we're more in touch with them?" (i.e. open question, not you mediating the interactions). This seems to me to be you having boundary concerns for your own life (totally AOK to have these) and getting them mixed up a little with your daughter's boundaries for her life. Understandable but perhaps misplaced. And in a few years if she's on facebook it's a moot point so earlier might be better in terms of you being able to be a part of this instead of having it happen whether you like it or not.

Instead of "I have to wait until the time is right... and that may be later or it may be never" I'd suggest "Let's take it slow and be open to these two kids getting to know each other" with communication with the other kid's mom as it goes. Your kid sounds like she could maybe use a friend.
posted by jessamyn at 9:26 AM on June 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

Jilder: "some sort of penpal situation between the two girls"

This was my intuition as well, for slightly different reasons -- penpals are fun and special, and today it's a unique way to build a relationship (since everybody e-mails). But writing letters also makes it a slower, less-intense process because of the built-in time delay; gives both girls time to think about what they're going to write (less immediacy than e-mail or speech, more time to write stuff out, chance to change your mind before sending); and is relatively easy for parents to monitor, as the letters come to the family mailbox. (I don't mean, like, opening her mail, but you'll see letters arrive and have an idea of the frequency of contact.)

You can see how that relationship develops and if it seems healthy and beneficial, let them step it up to in-person meetings now and then, or facebook, or whatever, and give them more control over it and less supervision as they get older.

You probably do need to have a conversation with the other mom, though, setting boundaries w/r/t the dad.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:03 PM on June 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

It sounds like all of this is based on whether or not the half-sister has contact with the dad or not. And you said it's once a year? Then I'm not super concerned about dad overflowing into your kid's life under those circumstances. If dad was still living with the half-sister, then I think you'd be right to worry.

But why don't you clarify with the other mom what is going on with him and how much contact they have, and how you're deeply worried about how their contact with him will overflow onto you? If the sister's older and dad's not with the mom still, presumably the mom knows what a bad apple he is as well.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:59 PM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

One of my dear friends has no relationship with her half siblings, because her asshole dad more directly avoided letting them know about each other. She doesnt even know how to find them now that they are adults. Its very painful for her.

Keep the lines of communication open, for the two daughters. I do like Bunnys suggestion of low key opportunities to see each other.

Maybe your daughter is avoiding saying yes out of her ambivalence and in order not to upset you. Down the road, it would be unfortunate if she felt resentment towards you for the very natural way you feel, and your concerns, prior to maturing and understanding why you need to protect her from her dad. Keeping the door open for the sister will help.

And maybe even move, as you know her, away from "half sister" as descriptor with daughter. I think using the technically correct term doesn't assist with bonding. I have friends with half siblings who never call them that. They are simply brothers and sisters.

And yes, have compassion for the other daughter. Maybe all that is needed here are baby steps. You don't have to decide the relationship for all time, right now.
posted by mitschlag at 9:20 AM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, thank you ALL for your helpful and insightful comments. I am so glad that Ruthless Bunny and others of you pointed out how if I just set aside my anxiety I can open up the space for a relationship independent of the dad... he doesn't need to have his negative (or any) influence on this.

I am leaning now toward some combination of:
(1) talk to the mom (who I do occasionally talk to and who I think does share my opinion of the dad, but she does have a different perspective on maintaining the contact, partly I suspect because she herself grew up in a dad-less household);
(2) get the half-sister's snail address and ask my daughter open-endedly if she wants to use it to get in touch now or some other time in the future (or maybe even just give it to her and let her decide without me--she knows how to write letters, address them, and put a stamp on, though I think she'd probably need to involve me to find a mailbox...);
(3) respond to the half sister sooner rather than later.

I am overwhelmed by the compassion and wisdom of this community. I'm going to think on this for a while and promise to report back at some point so I can let you all know where this goes.
posted by marionett gjorda av strumpor at 11:47 PM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

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