How best to tell (not my) kids about separation?
February 13, 2015 4:07 PM   Subscribe

My sister thinks it's time her children knew about the fact that my husband and I are separated. I agree, but we disagree about how to approach it. I would appreciate some objective hivemind advice please, as I have no idea if I'm being unreasonable or not. Lots of text, advance apologies.

As I've said in another question, my sister and I have a difficult relationship. My husband and I are separated over a year and I have a new partner (who was previously the person I had an affair with, to get that out there at the beginning. Not proud of this.) She has met my partner once, at a family dinner, and her kids (5 and 3) were there but she didn't introduce them. She hadn't wanted my partner there as she didn't want to upset the kids, but changed her mind. This weekend she is at a wedding I chose not to attend based on previous good advice I received here. I have not asked for any meetings in the meantime between him and the kids, or my sister, as I am trying to give her space. However my mother is looking after the kids while she is away and my partner was driving me down. I text my sister and asked if it would be ok if he came in for coffee before he headed back, as I didn't want to do that with the kids here without letting her know.

She replied that she couldn't stop me, but that I was responsible for telling her oldest that I was no longer married and to answer any questions that she had about who my partner was, but that she wanted to be there when I did it. I really don't want to have that conversation in front of her, it is such a painful thing for me to talk about, even to a child, and the thought of her watching me (espcially as I know what she thinks of me) would be hard to bear. I told her as much, saying I totally respect that they are her children, but that I'd prefer to tell her myself. She said she's ask her husband and get back to me.

When she replied, presumably after speaking to him, she said that I wasn't to tell them anything. That she was fine with me bringing my partner in tomorrow when he returns to pick me up, (I'm not doing this btw) but that if the kids asked who he was I wasn't to say anything and that they would "handle it" and would answer any questions. She said they would need reassurance that she and her husband wouldn't be splitting up. She thew in some stuff about how upset the oldest would be as she was attached to my husband and he is in lots of photos. (This bit is weird as they have NO pictures of us in their house and never have had) and in the year since the split the child has mentioned him to me exactly once. I know I'm biased, but she does like to make me feel guilty about things and always has since we were kids.

I replied saying that we needed to talk about it as we have different approaches, but that paramount is doing the best thing for the kids (the youngest can't remember him, but the oldest is very emotional and bright). This is where we differ, and I would like input if I'm being really selfish. I have no kids so I would like a parent's perspective, as well as if you've been in my position:

-She wants to be the one to tell her everything, to have control over what is said, and will answer questions about it. I don't know how she can talk about what happened (in an age-appropriate way obviously, it's not like she's going to mention the affair) or answer questions when she doesn't know anything about it because she has never talked to me about it. I worry about what she would say and I don't like that I wouldn't know what bits of my story she chooses to share or not. She told the child about another breakup (her brother-in-law and his girlfriend) by saying they "weren't friends anymore". That upset her as she worried her friends would stop liking her. But my husband and I are still friendly (for now) and I don't want her to say that we're not. This may sound stupid. Also, she does tend to be very dramatic and I worry that she will make the whole situation seem even more upsetting than it is. But obviously she knows her child best. As a parent, is she the one with the right to talk about this and I just have to accept that?

-I am very close to my neice and always have been. I think I could phrase things in a clear way and comfort her and also let her know it's ok to be sad about it becasue I am too (without putting a burden on her. I work with distressed people of all ages for a living so I know how to be gentle). The whole thing is so huge for me I feel like I should have the right to tell my own story and not "hand it over" to my sister. I said as a compromise I could maybe tell her in her own home while my sister was in another room, so that as soon as I left she could go to her parents for comfort and reassurance. She didn't reply to this, that was the last contact. Am I being unreasonable if I insist on telling her myself? If I'm being honest, I dread the fact that my niece and I have a bond that my sister has always resented and I'm afraid she is pleased to have a chance to poison it a little. This is the absolute worst faith reading of her intentions, I know, and I'm just being honest in case it's this that's clouding my judgement.

The rapid change from "you have to tell her, this is on you" and "don't mention it or answer questions, we will deal with this" has confused me. I'm going to have to talk about it face to face with her next week and before I do I'd like to know what my position is. If the consensus is that she is the parent and I should butt out, I'll accept that. If it's that it's unfair of her to not let me speak of it at all, at least I can plead my case, although I will ultimately respect her decision.

Please help me get this clear in my head. Thanks.
posted by outoftime to Human Relations (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You do nothing. Not your kids, but more importantly this is your sister trying to manufacture additional drama and you need to visibly and obviously wash your hands of it.

This has nothing to do with the children and everything about pushing your buttons. Your sister is dying to control this narrative, and you should just let her. The more you look unfazed - nay, uninterested - in what she has to say to you or anybody else about this, the more it will torment her and the more of an ass she's going to make of herself in front of everyone.

Let her.

If you want to kick the hornet's nest, tell her that he's going to start making public appearances as of [date] and you will not be obscuring his role in your life from that point on.

I don't know that a 5-year-old needs to be "told your story" - by you or by her mother, but you can only control what you do.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:20 PM on February 13, 2015 [50 favorites]

If she's going to tell her kid bad things about you, she's going to do it whether you get to tell your story first or not.
posted by feets at 4:21 PM on February 13, 2015 [6 favorites]

Unfortunately, it doesn't really matter what your position is on this, she's the parent, she gets to decide how this news is broken to her kids. I sympathise with you but I doubt she has any interest in casting you as the bad guy. I would say she's far more concerned about phrasing this in such a way that the kids understand this is something sad that's happened to their Aunty but not all married people split up and Mummy and Daddy definitely won't be. She will know how best to do this, I think you just have to trust her and have faith that your relationship with your niece is strong. Kids are resilient, as long as they see that the people they love are happy, they will be happy too.
posted by Jubey at 4:22 PM on February 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

When my SIL went through a relationship crisis, I appreciated that she trusted us to communicate to our son why his much-beloved uncle had suddenly stopped coming to family get-togethers. While you clearly don't have that level of trust with your sister, I think you're going to have to let her call the shots here: she's their parent.

As far as the bond between you and your niece: kids tend relate to how the person in front of them treats them, not what they are told about that person.
posted by jamaro at 4:23 PM on February 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

I think it's totally reasonable for your sister to want to completely control how a topic like separation and divorce is explained to her children. Beyond that, it's alas her right to explain it to them in an unreasonable way that affects your relationship with your niece, because she is the parents and part of that is her managing her childrens' relationships and boundaries with other adults. It's not necessarily right or fair, but it is something she's entitled to do.
posted by Andrhia at 4:23 PM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is so much drama. And although I don't think it's a huge deal, springing sensitive requests via texts while your mother has the kids wasn't a great way to keep things drama-free.

Let her say whatever. You're the aunt. Your mysterious love life is really not central to these young kids' lives. Part of their fun when they get around to growing up will be getting to go over these family stories and going ohhhhh. The only part that seems bad is they had an uncle mysteriously vanish? But that is between him and them.

Let your sister say whatever. She is the mum. You go on loving these little girls & listening & answer if/when they ask you. That's all you need.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:24 PM on February 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

Just introduce your partner as a friend of yours. Most kids won't query further. If they do, just say, "Uncle Joe couldn't make it. This is my friend Leo."

These kids are too young to be burdened with the details of your relationships. Let your sister tell them however she thinks it's appropriate.

Honestly, this is a lot of drama just for a cup of damn coffee.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:31 PM on February 13, 2015 [30 favorites]

Why does your boyfriend have to come inside?

Just give it a rest. Get officially divorced, then introduce your boyfriend to the little ones in the family.

Is it really that hard for you to quit stirring the pot with your sister?
posted by jbenben at 4:35 PM on February 13, 2015 [12 favorites]

You need to separate these questions:

(1) Is my sister being reasonable?

(2) Regardless of my sister being reasonable or not, what should I do?

You might think that (2) follows from (1), but people simply don't work that way: If we tell you that your sister is being unreasonable, that is not going to magically make it possible for you to change your sister's mind.

Perhaps you can reach a compromise with her--a planned response, agreed upon by both of you, that you will give when the children notice that you're with someone new. ("Former partner and I aren't together anymore. The reasons why are private, but it had nothing to do with him being a bad person and we're still friends. I don't want to talk about it, but if you're upset about this your mom would be happy to.")

If you suspect your sister is going to inject unnecessary drama into the situation, upsetting the kids--well, this is probably not the only time she's going to do that to them. And you literally cannot control this. You can just mitigate it by not being dramatic about it yourself.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:35 PM on February 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Wow. It is entirely unecessary to loop the kids into any of this adult drama. Just introduce your new partner as "This is my friend (name)." I bet the kids will just shrug and say hello.

My sister had this same problem when our parents went through a very messy divorce a few years go. She fretted about how to explain the situation to her preschooler, who is very close to both grandparents. But honestly, it's been a non-issue. When they visit my dad, they explain "Grampa lives with his friend Martha." When my mom visits them, they don't mention my dad at all. They just say things like "Aren't you excited gramma is coming for your birthday?" It does help that both grandparents live out of state, so the kid wasn't used to visiting them together all the time.

I'm sure they'll deal with additional questions as they come up, but I guess my point is that if your sister feels like her kids need to know all the dramatic details, it's not at all in the best interest of the kids, but for her own selfish reasons.
posted by Munching Langolier at 4:56 PM on February 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

My brother and I were about the same ages (a little older, maybe?) when my uncle got divorced. Obviously we were told at some point but I don't remember it and it was such an uninteresting piece of news for us that it had zero impact on our lives. (Later on, the realities of his divorce and its effect on our cousins affected us, but the divorce itself? Meh.)

My uncle and his two kids are our only extended family, on either side, so it's not like this just blended into the background noise of a large family. And hooooboy it was an ugly divorce, with some really bad actions on his ex's part, some of which we were told at the time. It just wasn't interesting to two kids that young.

Unless your niblings live with you or have an especially close relationship with your ex, I really don't think this news is going to affect them much, certainly not in the longterm.

Let your sister handle it however she wants. They're her kids.
posted by phunniemee at 5:05 PM on February 13, 2015

Thanks for the replies. I will let her tell them whatever way she thinks is best. Just to be clear we discussed this before around the time of the family dinner and I said I just wanted to say "this is my friend 'Bob'", and that's what I would have done today. It's my sister who said she doesn't want me to do that as it's "lying to them". It's why she was saying if they meet him they have to know I'm with him now and Uncle 'Bill' isn't around anymore. My own view would be they don't need to know much at all, but if she's insisting they know stuff I'd prefer to do it so I can minimise it, as I'm afraid about how detailed she'll make it. But you're all right - her kids, her call. I'll stay out of it and hope that rather than the child being traumatised (as my sister seems to think), she'll just be like "Ok" and we can all move on. Thanks again.
posted by outoftime at 5:09 PM on February 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

(Sorry, missed your response to this. Nthing that you should let your sister control the way this plays out with her kids).
posted by Bardolph at 5:12 PM on February 13, 2015

"As a parent, is she the one with the right to talk about this and I just have to accept that?"

Yes, absolutely, 100%. I have a 3 and 5 year old. I would be super-mad if a friend or family member took it upon themselves to explain the complexities of adult relationships to my child. (Also, it sounds like she may have changed her mind because her husband made a good parenting point.)

"-I am very close to my neice and always have been. I think I could phrase things in a clear way and comfort her and also let her know it's ok to be sad about it becasue I am too (without putting a burden on her. I work with distressed people of all ages for a living so I know how to be gentle)."

If she were TWELVE, okay, having this chat with her aunt is maybe appropriate and helpful. But she's FIVE. If the 5-year-old asks you questions I think you should answer honestly and appropriately, but I don't think there's a way for you to have this conversation with a 5-year-old that isn't inappropriately burdening her. She is not close enough to the situation to be forced to share your sadness (as she would be if you were her parent), but not far enough away for her not to have her own sadness; I think it's better for her to first learn the news from an adult who can focus entirely on her feelings and help her process them.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:16 PM on February 13, 2015 [5 favorites]

This will only be a "major thing" for a 5 year old and 3 year old if the adults in their lives make it a major thing. And there is nothing positive the kids will get out of making it a "major thing." It almost doesn't matter how the sister wants to explain divorce, etc. to her children. My sister is very conservative and does not believe in divorce for any reason, but then she realized that going into a long explanation about her values and how how grampa and gramma violated them was totally inconsequential to her four year old's world, and to her relationships with her grandparents. This drama is all about your sister, not about anything that is actually happening. (Sorry, this type of adult pettiness at the expense of children just makes me so, so angry.)
posted by Munching Langolier at 5:21 PM on February 13, 2015 [6 favorites]

The other thing about 3- and 5-year-old is, they say hurtful and inappropriate things ALL THE TIME, and ask very awkward and sometimes painful questions. When big things are going on in the family -- happy or sad -- I gotta prep the ground, so that I head off at least some of those things at the pass.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:25 PM on February 13, 2015

Sure, sister tells her kids. Next question, what do you tell them when they ask/say something that requires an answer. Saying 'ask your mother' doesn't cut it, in my book. You/he HAVE to be able to answer for yourselves, because sister hasn't given them believable/enough information, or they just want to check. He's my friend Joe, and hubby isn't coming because we don't live together anymore are reasonable answers to expected questions in these circumstances, no need to go further, if pressed we don't talk about that because that is private/personal to us, or that's just the way it is.
posted by GeeEmm at 5:43 PM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Your sister gets to control her kids. That includes how, when, and if the details of your divorce are disclosed to them. Also what happens in her own house. Was your mother watching the kids in your sister's house? That part is not clear.

You get to control you. That includes whether or not you ask your sister permission on anything else other than the above. Also how and when you present your boyfriend to the world.

You seem to have an incredible amount of guilt about the affair, and yet you have left your husband and are now with your boyfriend. If I were you I would work towards dropping the guilt and living the life I had chosen.

As Lyn Never suggested, I too would say to my whole family (or anyone who was interested in contining this drama) “Family, I appreciate that you are not wholly in support of my new relationship. Regardless, it is my choice to be in it, and going forward, please consider us together or not at all.” Then let them decide for themselves how they would like to move forward. Just as you can only control yourself, you don't get to say how they feel about your new relationship.

That will give your sister some time to educate her children on your new relationship status however she chooses.
posted by lyssabee at 6:00 PM on February 13, 2015

what happens in her own house. Was your mother watching the kids in your sister's house? That part is not clear

Sorry. My mum has them at her house. I can't drive at the minute so my partner was bringing me to her, and it's over an hour round trip which is why I was going to invite him in before he headed back. I wouldn't have considered inviting him into my sister's.
posted by outoftime at 6:12 PM on February 13, 2015

I think your sister is working through what you did (you and partner both left marriages for each other) and one way she is working through it is how she explains things to her kids. She may or may not handle things the way you’d like, but she gets to explain. She is the one that delivers not only “this is what happened” but, if she chooses “and this is what we think about that.”

When my beloved aunt got divorced and then quickly remarried (it was her 3rd marriage) my parents, who are conservative Catholics, told me and my brothers the facts, and then added that we all loved Auntie very much, even if she wasn’t living the life that God wanted for her.

My family is working through this again, as my nephew, the oldest grandchild, has recently come out to the entire family, and in many of their eyes, has the audacity to be super happy with a very nice boyfriend. What some of my siblings have told their kids is very different (and in my opinion, homophobic and awful) from what I have told my own kids.

But that’s what you do with your kids. As situations come up, you explain them- in your moral context.

I completely understand your want to explain this to your little niece yourself. But her parents get to do that, and you can only hope she does it in a kind, or at least just a factual way.
posted by aviatrix at 7:10 PM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

She sounds like she's pissed about the affair and trying to shame you. She gets to tell the kids, regardless, but as a parent of a six year old I can say that the dramas of adults are supremely boring to children and I can't imagine telling my child that someone was 'getting divorced' or whatever, I'd just say Uncle Joe and Aunt Edie aren't living together any more, and here's Aunt Edie's new friend Bob or whatever. I mean, I might use the word 'divorced' -- I don't know -- but the *weight* of those things would only be felt by my kid if it were me and her dad not living together anymore. Anybody else it's just part of the mysterious and weird world of adults, like how her dad and I 'do taxes' (*coughs*) while she watches cartoons.

I really don't want to have that conversation in front of her

I really don't see why 'a conversation' with anyone is necessary here. It's like she's hoping it's a really huge deal to the kids. Her making such a big deal out of this is more likely to traumatize them than anything you "did". All this calls for is for her to have a short conversation with the kids, answer any questions shortly and honestly with no more information than necessary, and go on with life.

they "weren't friends anymore"

That is not how I would describe such a situation to my kid. It sounds kind of unnecessarily brutal for a 3-5 year old.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:53 AM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

This should really be a non issue -it's not your sister's business who you are seeing, although she seems very judgemental about it -the kids are 3 and 5 -they are seriously not going to care unless they were particularly close to your ex husband and they are way too young to be burdened with any details -if yout sister insists on being thete when you tell them -fine, but simply saying "I'm not with so and so any more -this is my new friend and he is going to around, you should meet him" shouldn't be that dramatic . They don't really need to be told any more details -what does your sister want you to do? Sounds like she wants to punish you and show her disapproval -she should NOT drag her kids into that ! But as other people have pointed out you have no control over what she says to them when you're not there , you just have to accept that.Keep it short and sweet and don't allow yourself to get dragged into any more drama.
posted by hitchcockblonde at 3:49 AM on February 14, 2015

FWIW -I have separated from my husband and my god children 5 and 7 asked where he was a couple of times and then didn't mention it again -they aren't traumatised, didn't need to ask questions and I don't think it occured to them that my situation would replayed in their parents' s marriage, they got on with things that interested them -I'm certain they wouldn't care if I brought a new friend round.Your sister is making WAY too big a deal about this,it sounds like she WANTS them to be traumatised-they won't be.But I would be interested to know what the state of her marriage is -she is so judgemental and makng so much unnescessary drama-maybe she is scared that it will happen to her and she's projecing her fears ?or that her marriage has been rocked by an affair and that's why she's being so judgemental? Just remember this may not be about you! As I said above, keep it short and to the point and there really won't be any drama or trauma
posted by hitchcockblonde at 4:08 AM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Just ask your sister if you should wear a Scarlet A on all of your clothing. Jesus, stop pandering to her. Either she gets over it or she doesn't. The less you buy into Teh Dramaz, the better off everyone will be.

"Cynthia, I know you're disappointed in me regarding my marriage. You weren't in my marriage with me and frankly, you don't get to sit in judgement. I find it tiresome that you're making such a big deal about this, when in reality, it doesn't concern you. Right now I'm with Leo, and we're very happy together. I'm not going tiptoe around something just to please you. Your children couldn't care less about who I'm with romantically. All they care about is that I love them. Now climb down off the cross. This isn't your drama, it's my life."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:17 AM on February 14, 2015 [10 favorites]

The rapid change from "you have to tell her, this is on you" and "don't mention it or answer questions, we will deal with this" has confused me.

I had the same thought as Eyebrows McGee -- in the interim she talked to her husband, and I am betting that he reminded her about their daughter's reaction to how they presented the other breakup, and suggested that they handle the talk on this rather than making you do it.

She thew in some stuff about how upset the oldest would be as she was attached to my husband and he is in lots of photos. (This bit is weird as they have NO pictures of us in their house and never have had) and in the year since the split the child has mentioned him to me exactly once.

First, she probably needed to justify changing her mind on how to talk to the kids. (It also sounds like she's been putting this talk off because she doesn't want to have it. Is she possibly holding out hope that you and ex will reconcile?)

Second, little pitchers have big ears. I wonder if your niece has only mentioned your ex once because at some point she heard her mom talking about your divorce with someone else. Your sister sounds like the kind of person who vents a lot. (Not saying I think you should ask your niece or talk to her about this. But it would totally not surprise me if niece has already figured out that something's up, even if she doesn't know what.)
posted by pie ninja at 5:37 AM on February 14, 2015

Honestly your sister sounds wacky to me. Isn't everyone divorced these days?? The kids are young enough that they won't need much of an explanation. I'd say tell your sister that SO is going to start coming by and she needs to do whatever she wants now. Then for God's sake, ignore, ignore, ignore.
posted by Toddles at 8:00 AM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Ruthless Bunny's script FTW. Look, it's obvious from your post that you feel like you need to apologize to the world for your new relationship. You don't, but people like your sister thrive on this sort of high horse judgment thing and it's time for you to stop encouraging it. People divorce their starter spouses all the time; you get one life and you deserve to be happy.

Tell your sister that you won't be tiptoeing anymore, that you're happy with New Guy and that this is the new reality. As far as the kids, no you can't control that "conversation" but the reality is that they won't care what she tells them about your friends or whatever. They will only care that you still spend time with them and behave lovingly towards them. If they ask you about your ex, you can tell them you're not married anymore but he still loves them. I doubt they'll ask.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:19 PM on February 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

Hey there, I just wanted to say that I remembered your question from a few months ago about people being opposed to your relationship. I remembered thinking, sure, your current relationship may not have started under the best of circumstances but you seem like a decent person and those giving you a hard time should get over it.

Your sister definitely needs to get over it. How long have you been "out" as seeing new guy? This isn't really comparable but Dan Savage says that when people come out to family, the family should informally get a year to ask questions, say things that are insensitive or inappropriate, suggest things like "please don't bring your new partner to grandma's funeral," etc. After a year, you're done with that noise and you get to start saying things line, sis, I've been with Herman for over a year, he's my partner, and I don't think it's reasonable or appropriate to keep hiding our relationship. I'm sorry you don't approve but I'm done apologizing on this matter. I love him, we're together, and if you have a problem with us, you have a problem with me, and giving me a hard time about our relationship going forward may cause irreparable damage to our relationship. I love you but I don't love it when you treat me like this and I don't deserve it.

It sounds like you gave a lot of shame and guilt, and you're concerned that your sister will exploit that shame and guilt to damage your relationship with your niece. So stop acting like you have a lot of shame and guilt, at least around your sister. If your niece asks, "where is Uncle Vladimir?" and your face turns white or red while you stutter, your niece might think that this is a Huge Deal (which it is for you but it shouldn't be for her). Then niece goes home, asks her mom what happened to Uncle Vladimir, and your sister can say that you are every awful thing you think she is thinking about you. So change the script. "What happened to Uncle Vladimir?" "Well, we're not together anymore but we're still friends." "Why?" "It's complicated and it was a hard decision but we think it is very for both of us. Now tell me about your Girl Scout troop/Halloween costume/science class." Then, if your sister says something horrible, it won't stick as much with your niece because it won't mesh with her experience (mom said Aunt Susan is a monster who ripped out Uncle Vladimir's heart but Aunt Susan doesn't seem like someone who would do that, we talked about my Halloween costume for 10 minutes and then played with dolls).

You can't control your sister's behavior but you can control your own by not tolerating bad behavior from her and by being a proud strong woman in front of your niece.
posted by kat518 at 12:41 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

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