Long Lost Stepmother Found. What's the right thing to do?
March 31, 2015 2:24 PM   Subscribe

Dear Metafilter, I need your advice. Over 30 years ago, I was one of three children who lost touch with our stepmother. Recently, I found her, but I haven't gotten in touch. One of my two sisters wants me to help get in touch, but I'm not sure if we should. I'm concerned about violating her privacy since she may have reasons for not having gotten in touch with us.

Back in the late 1960s, my parents met, married, had three children and divorced over a period of maybe 5 years. I'm the youngest of the three children. We spent weekdays living with our mother and weekends with our father, who lived 90 minutes away.

My father then married a woman we'll call "Lynda." Lynda was a wonderful woman who, to us, was both an amazing parent and a best friend. Each Friday for at least five years, Lynda would make the 90 minute drive north to pick us up, and she'd drive us back to our mother on Sunday. That meant six hours of driving for her, each weekend. By the time I was eight years old (and my sisters were 9 and 11), our mother gave up the custody fights that had raged for years and let us go to live with our father, which we wanted very much. Not long after, my father got a new job in Georgia and moved us across the country.

Everything was perfect. Dad, Lynda, and us three kids. We were living together in a nice house with a big front yard and an in-ground pool in the back. We went to church each weekend, where Lynda and my sisters sang in the church singers at mass. For four years, we had the perfect little family. Our extended family was pretty fantastic too. Lynda's family loved us and we looked forward to seeing them over the holidays. My father's family was an especially tight-knit group and they adored Lynda. Four very happy years passed.

By 1983, everything fell apart - quickly. One of my sisters (let's call her Kay) was becoming very unhappy (years later, she would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I believe). Kay fought to leave us and move back in with our mother. Three months after she left us, and on the day before her birthday, our father committed suicide. A few weeks later, I was kidnapped off of the church playground and taken across the country to live my mother.

So... Lynda had lost her husband and two of her three step-children - Kay had chosen to leave, and I had been taken. The third child, Elise, remained with Lynda. Elise always been an unhappy girl. She didn't get along with our mother and I don't remember if she got along with Lynda either. When summer came, Elise drove across the country to visit us. Lynda called to let Elise know she'd be staying with us. At that point, Lynda was alone.

It's been over 30 years since any of us have seen or heard from Lynda. My memories of her are amazingly positive. I never questioned why she didn't get in touch as decades passed. She lost everything. I assumed she closed the door on that old life and started over.

Recently, through some googling, I found her, but I haven't gotten in touch. All I know is that she stayed in the deep south and remarried. Maybe she found her happily ever after? I hope so.

There's no happily ever after for the three children - not as a family, anyway. The rest of our childhood years were a disaster. I left for college and haven't been back in 15 years. I haven't spoken to my oldest sister Elise in nearly 20 years (she'd taken over the mortgage to our mother's house to help out but then tried to evict our mother). I don't keep in touch with my sister Kay at all either.

Out of my entire family, I only keep in touch with one cousin, and even that is only on facebook (she's marvelous though). On Friday, that cousin posted an old family picture including Lynda. In the comments, I made the mistake of mentioning that I'd found Lynda. I'm a bit of a research geek, so I was kind of proud that I'd put the pieces together and found someone who'd been lost for 30 years. Now, my sister Kay badly wants me to tell her how to get in touch with Lynda... but I'm concerned.

I'm not in touch with Kay at all, though I harbor no ill will. I actually wish she and I could be close, but the only thing we have in common is pain, and that's not healthy.

I feel it's wrong for me to take away Lynda's privacy. What if she's kept her distance intentionally? What if she'd rather not hear from us? In a facebook message, my sister Kay said "Once you make peace with your past, the pain is gone. All that's left is love. I love her still. And I'm sure she loves us. She'd be thrilled to know that she's a grandmother." But Lynda isn't a grandmother - at least, not to children from the three of us. Not really. What if Lynda's way of making peace with the past was to close the door on it and start over?

I proposed the idea of getting in touch with Lynda in a way that doesn't take away Lynda's right to privacy... perhaps with a letter or something like that, so Lynda could still have the option to get in touch if she wanted to or keep the door closed on the past if she prefers to... but that's not what my sister wants. My sister wants to reconnect with Lynda. This only concerns me because I don't have any way of knowing what Lynda would want, and if I give my sister Lynda's new name and info, I'd be responsible for taking away Lynda's right to privacy if privacy is what Lynda wants.

What's the best way to handle this? All my family has ever done is fight. Not giving my sister Lynda's info probably becomes the next thing to fight about. The fighting is why I left and am not in touch anymore. I want no part of fighting. But if I give her the info, I feel like I'm violating Lynda's privacy since it's not Lynda's fault that I found her. I can't imagine the pain Lynda went through when the family fell apart. What if she's been distant intentionally? What if getting in touch would only reopen old wounds for her and cause her pain? Or maybe she'd be thrilled. I have no idea. I should add that I have a rare last name and am instantly googleable, so I have to assume Lynda found me if she ever did a search. This leads me to suspect that Lynda might have kept her privacy intentionally, and I respect that.

Is there a best way to handle this?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Did you find Lynda by some means that would not possibly be available to Kay?

At this point, even if you did - hopefully it's not something you can lose your job over - I think you have to let Kay have that information. If she'd found Lynda herself, you'd have no say in what Kay does. You don't (again, unless you did something illegal) get to gatekeep contact with Lynda.

How Lynda will feel about this is for her to decide, not you.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:31 PM on March 31, 2015

Send Lynda a letter. Reminisce about the good times, enclose a picture of her grandchild, tell her Kay would like to get in touch with her, and give her Kay's (and your) contact information. And then leave it alone. If she never responds, then you have your answer. Don't give Kay her contact information.
posted by Etrigan at 2:34 PM on March 31, 2015 [64 favorites]

You are willing to respect Linda's privacy. I think you should be the one to contact Linda, and then you can ask her what she wants. Be brave; you might cause her a moment's discomfort, but those moments happen, and then they pass. The potential rewards for you and for Linda far outweigh the risks, I think, especially since you are clearly a sensitive and respectful person.

You could also offer Linda the option of contacting you, and only you, when and if she's ready. You can also tell Kay about offering Linda this option, and promise Kay to put her in contact with Linda sometime in the future if that seems like a good idea.
posted by amtho at 2:38 PM on March 31, 2015 [5 favorites]

In your shoes, I'd write a letter and tell her how much she meant to you and how much good she brought into your life. Being that great was hard work and sacrifice. Even if she does not want to be in touch, she might like to hear that her efforts were appreciated.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:39 PM on March 31, 2015 [21 favorites]

Even if she started over, I'm sure she still thinks of each of you often. Someone who was that willing to parent 3 children through such a rough time isn't someone who would just wash their hands of them and move on. I think a letter and some pictures is a lovely idea. Put your contact info and Kay's at the bottom but also let her know that you understand if she doesn't want to get in touch.
posted by dawkins_7 at 2:44 PM on March 31, 2015 [11 favorites]

I would not assume that people a generation older than us really understand how to find people via internet. I would not assume she cut off contact deliberately.

I agree that you should be the one to initiate contact, and see how it goes!
posted by corb at 2:56 PM on March 31, 2015 [7 favorites]

I like the idea of sending her a letter -- let her know how you found her, send the picture, give her contact info for Kay and yourself, and then let her respond as she sees fit. I'm willing to bet she'd be thrilled to hear from you.
posted by sarcasticah at 2:59 PM on March 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Do it as quickly as you can. You never know what's around the corner and she might be quite happy to hear from you.
posted by barnone at 3:21 PM on March 31, 2015 [6 favorites]

I am nth-ing the suggestion that you write and thank this woman for the years she took care of you and your sisters, assure her that you are all appreciative of the things she did for you, let her know that the years you spent in her care are some of your happiest memories, and provide addresses so that she may contact you if she wishes.

One additional wrinkle: Mother's Day is coming up. Only you can guess whether it'd be a best to factor that into the timing of whether you send such a letter but a letter that arrives in the first half of May will probably be read in a somewhat different context than one that arrives at the start of April or midway through June. Just something to think about..
posted by Nerd of the North at 3:38 PM on March 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

But Lynda isn't a grandmother - at least, not to children from the three of us. Not really.

I have multiple step-grandparents and they were or are most definitely grandparents to me, even the ones who didn't get to see me very often.

I'd also point out that it's possible that Lynda may have stayed away from you and your sisters because she didn't know if you wanted her to contact you. I second sending a letter and including your contact information. That way, it's Lynda's choice whether to get in touch.
posted by pie ninja at 3:53 PM on March 31, 2015 [6 favorites]

It's possible Lynda was told not to contact you. A respectful letter gives Lynda the chance to agree or disagree on further contact, which is what I'd do in your place.
posted by winna at 4:01 PM on March 31, 2015 [16 favorites]

My own stepmother had two previous sets of stepchildren. In the first case, she and the childrens' father divorced when the kids were still fairly young (elementary school age) and this was largely pre-social media, and so she pretty completely and quickly lost contact. In the second case, the kids were teenagers and it was the late 90s/early 00s, but the end of the marriage was very tragic (their father died in his 40s of cancer), and they didn't stay in touch with my/their stepmother for very long afterwards. In both cases, she's expressed that she would love to hear from them again, but does not want to initiate the contact in case it would be unwelcome or open old wounds. Your stepmother may feel much the same.

I agree that your letter should be a friendly one and give her the option of responding to either or both of you on her own terms.
posted by kagredon at 4:44 PM on March 31, 2015 [7 favorites]

If you found Lynda through googling, then she isn't really that hidden. I think it's fine to pass the contact info on to your sister. This may be a chance to connect to your sister over something good. Kay is trying to connect to and remember the good part of her childhood.
posted by Margalo Epps at 5:46 PM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

I come from a really complicated family as well. And one of the things I resent the most – and I'm not someone who uses the word "resent" lightly, because I make my best efforts to resolve and make peace with issues (some call it forgiveness) – is being kept in the dark about contacting people I loved by my sibling. As a matter of fact, it is one of the major reasons I am no longer in contact with my sibling. I got really tired of my relationships being defined by others' third-party terms. Not the people involved themselves, but third parties going, "hm, y'know, I have X's phone number but won't give it to you because I don't really like X and sometimes you're overly emotional about people." For instance.

You do sound very compassionate, but there's one further step you can take: recognize that your sister Kay's relationship with Lynda is separate and a whole unto itself. There is some overlap with your own relationships with Lynda, but it's an overlap. Nothing more, nothing less. Give her a full choice. You can make your choices about your relationship with Lynda, define and set your own boundaries, let Kay make hers as well.

Nthing that older people do not realize to what extent the web has facilitated finding people. I recently got in contact with my great-aunt, and she was utterly delighted to hear from me. She's lost countless family members in the past few years, and as I mentioned, our family is NOT a simple one. She was very, very happy; her happiness likewise made my Christmas (I had sent her a letter in July, she replied a few months later with a Christmas card and letter, terrifically sweet). Ditto with parents of childhood friends – they're just now discovering Facebook and use it in a very different way from those of us in Generation X and younger. It's awesome to get wall posts from them.

It's not manipulative if you leave it open for Lynda. For instance, tell her how you're doing, what's been up with family (basic things), that you think of her, that you'd like to hear from her. Show that you care, without making it "heavy" (I'm at a loss in English, for once). You do that well in your post, it will be fine.
posted by fraula at 2:49 AM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I would tell your sister that you will forward a letter from her to your stepmom, and then SM can contact your sister if she desires.

That way you are being respectful of everyone's wishes.

That said:
All my family has ever done is fight. Not giving my sister Lynda's info probably becomes the next thing to fight about. The fighting is why I left and am not in touch anymore.

If you force your SM involuntarily into getting involved with family feuds and drama llamas, she would be understandably be adverse to wanting to deal with the lot of you. Your sister sounds like she may not respect other people's feelings.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:41 AM on April 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

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