Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why Our Children Have Never Met Their Grandparents

Our children have never met my husband's parents, and this is by choice. Five years ago, when I was pregnant with our first child, my husband wisely decided to end our relationships with both of his parents. We're so grateful they will not be able to hurt our children, but at the same time, it's a loss. As much as we hate to admit it, yes, it's a loss.

When some people find this out about our family, it's like their heads explode. Clearly, many folks have never had the experience of being related to a person with a truly toxic personality, and I think until they encounter one firsthand (perhaps when their own children marry into a family that has one) they'll never quite grasp the horror of it.

There's the dominant social narrative reflected in the adage "blood is thicker than water" - we should all spend time with our families no matter what; we should just grin and bear it if they hurt or annoy us because they're family, etc. I find this view to be terribly naive. Once a dynamic gets bad enough, I think it actually makes the choice to cut people out reactively easy to make, but not painless.

The first question people have for us - what on earth did DH's parents do to make you want to get them out of your lives?

Let's just say his parents' behavior could fill all of the DSM-IV and then some. The answer is a rather long story. I'll try to be brief. His parents divorced years ago, and are both remarried and each live both far away from us and each other. To me, that makes the fact that they are both now out of our lives even more telling, because we made two independent choices to no longer speak to them.

His father has PTSD from serving in the army in Vietnam, and from all of the many horrible things I'd imagine that entails. He's grappled with alcoholism, and was fired from his final job for berating and assaulting a female coworker when he got angry with her and lost control. Now he lives on disability. None of his three living siblings want anything to do with him. He tells the most obvious, outrageous lies about his ex-wife - to the point it is downright offensive. He's the more obviously toxic one.

We strongly believe his mother suffers from Munchausen Syndrome - she always speaks in a whisper (until she gets angry, then she yells in a normal voice) and despite going to several doctors, none could find anything medically wrong with her. After her sister was legitimately diagnosed with MS, she began claiming to have lupus. Whenever she would visit us (before we had kids), she would claim to be sick and would spend most of the visit in bed, or in the bathroom for hours. But she never wanted us to take her to the ER, nor were there any measurable signs her health was in jeopardy. There was also the time when her 2nd husband called to ask us what her real date of birth was - when they started dating she had claimed to be 35, but she was actually 50. (That's kind of awesomely bad, actually.) Finally, we figured it out.

Years ago, and before his parents' divorce, his mother opened credit cards in both DH and his brother's SS#s and names without their knowledge, then racked up a bunch of charges for what she later claimed were for Christmas presents for them when they were kids. DH did not learn of all the debt she had racked up until college. It was a nightmare trying to restore his credit.

When we told her we were expecting, she asked for our baby's SS# so she could allegedly open a college savings account for him. When we explained that that information was not available until after a baby was born, and would not at all be necessary, she demanded mine. Obviously, I refused to give it to her. Then she threw a fit about us not finding out the baby's sex until birth, and not sharing the names we picked out - a cascade of classic boundary issues. DH tried to reason with her, she was abusive. Eventually it came to this.

The reactions of his parents' families of origin have been very validating to us. His mother's sister made a point to tell us that no one in the family was in any way judging us for cutting his mother out of our lives - they have known her since she was a child, and they understand what a difficult person she is, perhaps due to some unknown psychological illness. His father's SIL said similar things about his dad's condition - they all get it - and we appreciate that they make an effort to stay in touch.

We're also grateful to my parents, who are much better grandparents than they ever were as parents (and BTW, they weren't bad parents by any stretch of the imagination). They want to see our kids and babysit them so we can take trips together. They ask permission before giving them things we might not approve of - they respect our authority as parents. So wonderful. Our kids have never felt that they're missing out on grandparental love.

I'm sure our choices strike some people as cruel-hearted. In fact, some we've told have felt the need to project their own wishes - "Maybe you'll just decide one day to call them up and forgive them, before it's too late." Well, it's a two-way street, isn't it? This experience has definitely given me a lot more empathy for people who don't have happy, intact families - trust me, they have their reasons.


Anonymous said...

never cease to be amazed by people who presume to hand out advice to others. Do you respond "and maybe before you die you'll learn to hold your tongue and mind your own business?"

Anonymous said...

There's a difference between forgiveness and allowing yourself to be a victim. At the funeral sounds like a good time for forgiveness to me. Or at some other point at which they can no longer actively hurt.

I'm fortunate to have great in-laws, and to live far away from both our families.

hush said...

Thanks, @Anon & @nicoleandmaggie - I'm also reminded of this C.S. Lewis quote: "Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea, until s/he has something to forgive."

Jac. said...

Hi Hush - y'all are not the only ones. DH's mum has never met our kids. We haven't had any contact since 2001 (she has tried to reach out a couple of times, DH adamantly refuses). I won't go into the details but she is batsh*t crazy and poisonous to everyone around.

It makes me sad for both her and our kids that they don't know each other. But then, when I think about it, it's mostly because I am sad that my kids don't have the grandma they deserve and sad for M-I-L that, on some level she MUST realize that she caused this. She was really looking forward to having grandbabies. I don't know if she knows they even exist, which is weird.

DH tells people his mother is dead. She is, to him. Saves having to explain things.

Got It, Ma! said...

We have enough difficult pieces in our family puzzle for me to totally see how you could reach this point. It couldn't have been an easy decision to make, but it sounds like it was the right one. I suspect we've all been in situations with family members that we thought might well destroy the relationship, but which, given time, faded to something we could move past. But a pattern of manipulative or abusive behavior that doesn't change is something all together different. I think some people can't make that distinction, either because they haven't experienced it because they're projecting their own issues onto your life. Forgiveness is a personal thing. We can all decide to forgive past behavior and yet still make the choice to protect our families from it in the future. But that distinction is your business. It's hard to know when to pull the plug. I, for one, think you guys did something brave for your kids.

Lisa F. said...

We've go some overt & covert toxic crap in our families of origin, and it's been picking up steam as elderly father starts to fail more. My sister & parents have symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, and their toxicity is difficult to explain to others. And I got back in touch w/family prior to having a child, thinking it would be a positive thing. HA. There have been rare moments of connection, but I frequently wonder if it's worth it. We moved far away as young adults, and don't have a lot to do with them but it still has an impact. Holidays are particularly hard for me, trying to scare up a family who's at loose ends like us to hang out with.

hush said...

@Jac - Ugh, that sucks. Glad your DH has good boundaries and has spared your family a lot of anguish.

@Got It, Ma! - "But a pattern of manipulative or abusive behavior that doesn't change is something all together different." Yes, you're exactly right. Thank you.

@Lisa F. - Hugs to you this difficult holiday season.

oilandgarlic said...

I admit that when i hear about families not speaking to someone, especially parents or siblings, I find it sad..even though I came so close to cutting one sibling off from my own life (she was very fine about not having anything to do with me,too) I finally reached out simply because I didn't want my parents to be upset. However, in the back of my mind, when my parents are gone (years from now!), I don't really want anything to do with this sibling. Anyway, just saying that blood is NOT thicker than water!

Anonymous said...

You're fortunate to have a spouse who is willing to do the right thing here--many don't--and your children are fortunate to have parents who value their well being, and themselves, enough to let the (direct) poisoning end with your DH.

I imagine many who question are young or fortunate--they've led pretty sheltered lives, are genuinely ignorant. They are tactless, and that's a drag, but a friendship may be salvageable. Sadly, many who "can't imagine" cutting off a parent, subject themselves and their children to the whims of mentally ill and/or criminal relatives. They may tell themselves they're moral, but, usually, they don't value themselves enough to stop playing the game.

hush said...

@oilandgarlic - Sorry about your sister - stay strong. I understand the sadness (I call it a loss), because in a Perfect World everyone's mom and dad and sister and brother should be well-adjusted and healthy, and family ties should be unbreakable. It's a lovely fantasy.

@Anonymous - Thank you for your words, especially: "They may tell themselves they're moral, but, usually, they don't value themselves enough to stop playing the game." That's an insight I'll carry with me.