Where’s Your Mom and Dad, Mommy?

How do you explain to your kid(s) why their grandparents aren’t in their life when you have a fractured relationship with your family of origin?

My oldest is just over four years old. He is aware that Mimi & Grandad are my husband’s parents, just like we are his parents. He is likely to soon connect the dots and realize that this also means that I too have parents out there somewhere -- who we have literally NEVER discussed or interacted with.

You see, mental illness, substance abuse, verbal abuse and neglect defined my childhood and at the ripe ol’ age of 17 I chose to leave home. It wasn’t until more than a decade later than I chose to completely sever those relationships, and, for me, that decision has remained a good one. There’s no looking back. 

But at some point, these amazing, tiny humans of ours are going to take notice. They are going to have some questions. And, quite frankly, they deserve some answers.

I’ve been searching for the right thing to say, the exact words to use to explain to these sweet, innocent hearts of theirs that these people are not welcome in our life. It’s such a delicate conversation and one that I recognize will evolve over time and as they each mature.

I know at some point we'll have to have conversations with each of them about their increased risk for mental illness and substance abuse or addiction, but I’ve been struggling with how to handle these early questions when they inevitably arise at the tender young age of 4 or 5.

As preschoolers, there is only so much they can understand (or should be exposed to). I want to be honest, but also age appropriate - and provide answers in such a way that lays the foundation for future conversations and invites them to feel comfortable asking questions whenever they have them, whether now or down the road.

I’ve been thinking about how we define family to them. We’ve been talking lately about who makes up our family. We’ve explained that some people are related to us by blood and we call them relatives or family, but that there are these other people who we are not related to by blood, but we call them family anyway because they treat us well and are so important to us. I hope this lays the foundation for their understanding of how our chosen family came to be and how it truly completes our family.

I’ve also been thinking about the words we use to take care of each other in our family and how to use those same words to talk about this situation in a language that they might understand. From that perspective, I think it boils down to talking about choices and safety:

“Yes, I do have a mommy and daddy too. Unfortunately, they have made some very poor choices in their lives that make it unsafe for them to be around our family so they are not a part of our lives. I can understand if that makes you feel sad, and it makes me feel sad too. But I am also so grateful for all the wonderful people who are in our lives and do keep us safe, like Mimi & Grandad.”

I’m not sure what to expect when I follow that explanation up with “do you have any questions?” Though I am hopeful the right words will come to me in the moment… even if they don’t, it won’t be the only opportunity I’ll have to get it right. This will be an evolving conversation.

And as difficult as this is to explain (let alone live), I can at least appreciate the bigger life lesson they’ll eventually hear through this conversation one day in that we don’t have to settle for being mistreated, and how it’s ok to walk away from someone who doesn’t respect you or care for you in the way you deserve.