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How Do I Explain to My Kid That My Family Doesn't Get Along?

Photograph by Getty Images

Long before the 2016 political season punched its meaty fist into the guts of families across the country, my family was dealing with a deep rift. The details of the schism are unimportant and not mine to divulge, but it started at a family wedding back in 2004 and culminated in a near fistfight at a Little League T-ball game in 2013. The bad feelings have lingered like the Sharpie design my son drew on the couch when he was a baby.

When the chasm between my brother and sister (and then, later, my sister and my parents) began, my kids were too young to notice that we never saw certain family members at the same time. They had no idea how much work I put into shuttling around from house to house, splitting up our visits so that each faction got equal time. As the only sister who still gets along with all of the rival parties, I have to maneuver through the hurt feelings and emotional landmines with my kids in tow whenever we visit my family.

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I’m not saying I pretended that everything was peachy keen, but I didn’t volunteer details because the kids weren’t asking. I promised myself I would give them straight answers when they figured out that I had blood relatives who refused to stand in the same room with each other.

My daughter said what I was dreading the most: 'I wish we could be like other families.'

This year, my daughter is in second grade. She has begun to notice that my side of the family isn’t as cohesive as my husband’s. As she so eloquently put it: “Mommy, how come we can’t all be together with your family like we are with Daddy’s?” As soon as she noticed, she decided we should all get together for the holidays so she can play with all of her cousins at once.

I stalled on the invitations, knowing that my brother and sister would never sit at the same table together, no matter how much it meant to my daughter. My daughter stayed on me though. “Who’s going to come?” she wanted to know.

I dodged and evaded her questions until my non-answers made me feel too guilty. I had to tell her the truth: My family doesn’t get along and hasn’t for a long time. She could have my sister and her kids or my brother and his, but she couldn’t have both.

Her eyes grew huge in surprise when I finally told her the truth. “They both have hurt feelings and don’t want to be together.”

“Forever?” She asked.

“At least for right now.”

She clearly couldn’t imagine that siblings would go years without speaking. She looked at her younger brother, no doubt trying to imagine what it would feel like to refuse him love and company for a week, much less for nearly a decade. She said she felt sad that she couldn’t enjoy her cousins all at one time.

And then she said what I was dreading the most: “I wish we could be like other families.”

That was the heartbreaker. Because that’s what I wish, too. I’m pretty sure that’s what everyone in my family wishes—that the pain of longtime hurts and insults no longer stung. I can’t speak for any of them, but I can speak for myself. It’s embarrassing to explain that members of my family haven’t spoken in years. It makes me sad that we somehow lack the tools to climb over the resentments and long-festering disagreements that other families navigate well enough to sit down to a turkey dinner together. I feel helpless in the face of my siblings’ ever-widening rift.

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Explaining the situation to my daughter stirred my sadness about our fractured family, which is broken in ways I can’t fix. It’s a sadness that I’d hoped to spare her, but that’s not possible.

Now she knows that being family isn’t always enough to guarantee a lifetime of connection, nor is it enough to save a relationship. And all I can do is hope that I’m giving her and her brother tools to work through the difficulties they face so they can sidestep the legacy of pain and separation.

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