My mother was 18 when she married her first husband. She got married to get away from her parents, who were loving, but rather strict and old-fashioned (this was in the 1960s). While married to her first husband, she had three children. They were still very young when she met my father and left her family for him.
If this makes my mum sound callous, it isn’t meant to. She was still very young and, I think, besotted with my father, who could be charming and good fun. But he was also a difficult man and their marriage eventually ended. He has since died.
I learned of my mum’s first family when one of my half-siblings, a sister, came to live with us when I was a young child and she was a teenager. I don’t know if we would ever have been told otherwise.
I learned later from relatives that for some years my mum tried to keep in touch with her first three children (I also have a younger brother from my mum’s second marriage), but any letters or presents she sent were returned unopened. Eventually, she must have had to make the heartbreaking decision to give up.
This has not been talked about openly within the family. I have no idea how much contact my half-sister has with her siblings and, to my knowledge, my mum has not seen them since she left. I realised early on that it was a subject considered off limits, though I did clumsily try to find out more when I was younger.
I know nothing about my other half-siblings, apart from their names, and have never felt any real desire to meet them. However, neither have I any desire to have to contact them for the first time when mum has died or is very ill. She is in her 70s and, although in good health now, this could soon change. My brother and half-sister both shy away from conflict and I have always assumed it would be me who would be left to sort this out.
My mum and I get on OK, but we don’t spend much time together – another reason for not discussing this before. However, my family and I are soon to move closer to her and will be spending a lot more time together, so there will be more opportunities to talk. How could I approach this subject with her?
I find it intriguing that this has never been talked about before by any of you, not even between you and your half-sister. Families are great places to keep secrets, aren’t they?
I contacted Alison Roy, a child and adolescent psychotherapist (childpsychotherapy.org.uk) and the first thing she said was that you should work out what you want from all this. This is really important. Too often, people go into complicated family situations without analysing what it is they really want to achieve.
If you have a good think about the result you would like to end up with and then work backwards, you might have a better idea of how to go about this. Do you want to make things better for yourself / your mum / your half-siblings / everyone? Do you want to get closer to your mum? Reunite everyone? Does anyone else want this (however laudable your intentions)?
Roy wanted to know if this moving closer to your mum was also a desire to get closer to her emotionally. She asked, “Is this about tracking your siblings [you seem to be ambivalent about meeting them], or getting closer to your mum?”
Once you have worked out what it is you want to achieve, and why, Roy recommends treading carefully. “Closing down [which is what your mother appears to have done] can be a strong defence against emotional pain. Tearing down those defences is not going to go down well. It is about beginning a conversation that you can continue,” she says.
“It’s worth establishing whether your siblings are remotely interested in finding out about their past,” says Roy.
Could your half-sister be the best person to ask about your half-siblings?
You see, there is nothing wrong with wanting to know more, if that is what you want, but I would tread very carefully in trying to stage a family reunion.
“I’m a bit concerned that you will take the responsibility for all of this,” says Roy.
Your mother’s first three children have already been left by her once and may not want to risk rejection again. Equally, your mother may be too deeply invested in her version of events to easily come out of it without extreme distress. Although Roy acknowledges that “even avoidant people can find it a huge relief to talk when supported to do so”.
When, and if, you do decide to broach the subject with your mum, Roy suggests picking a time when it might be possible to talk about families in a broader sense – coming together, staying apart and getting older – and see what happens. You cannot break down the walls of defence, built up over many years, in one sitting. “Don’t feel guilt for your mother. Be clear about your motivation, prepare for your mother’s defensive responses, and don’t humiliate her. Talk to your mum as the adult you now are, not the child you were.”
A final thought. I wonder if you are worried about finding out things about your mum after her eventual death – and if that will bring questions to which you may want answers.
This article first appeared in the Guardian Family section on 26 December 2015.