Need advice: How to broach a painful topic with a parent

Postby sunrisewatcher » Thu Dec 14, 2017 8:49 am

I'm seeking advice & ideas from the community.

I want to talk to my Mum about something she has refused to talk about for as long as I can remember. My sister.

My mum relinquished my sister for adoption over 30 years ago, when my sister was about 3 years old. This was because of my sister's intellectual disabilities.

Mum refuses to discuss my sister, or the adoption. It is a very painful topic for my Mum.

They say that giving up a child for adoption is the most stressful life event a woman can ever experience.

There's been a large elephant in the room for over 30 years, and I don't want to put up with it anymore.

Mum's in her late 60s. I'm female & in my mid 30s.

It would be healthy for everyone if we could start to talk about it.

I'm tired of my emotions being denied, just because Mum is so protective of her own emotions. Everyone else in the family is very submissive to Mum's emotional needs. It's not fair for her needs to monopolise the whole family's agenda.

I believe she sees herself as a martyr and victim, and sees everyone else in the family as an enemy. These feelings of hers are presumably mixed up with deep buried guilt, shame, and pain about the adoption.

I yearn for authenticity in my conversations with my Mum. Everything is light and shallow with her, always. She is emotionally frozen.

I know I'm not entitled to this authenticity with Mum. I can see it's unlikely I'll ever get it.
I just want to ask for it. Then I will have genuinely tried my best, and that's enough for me.

I realise I need to:
- let Mum know it's safe for her to talk with me. She will be listened to.
- let Mum know she can say anything and her feelings will be respected.
- make Mum understand that I am a person too, and I have needs. It's not just about her any more.

Can anyone offer advice, encouragement, warnings, etc? I want to do this but it's terrifying, and I don't know where to start.

Thank you.
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Postby tokeless » Thu Dec 14, 2017 9:56 am

I guess my first question is what do you want from this conversation? How old were you when your sister was adopted out of the family? Your mum is probably as you say feels guilt/shame/regret etc and she may not feel able to talk to you about it, but that doesn't mean you can't let her know how it's effected you. I would write her a letter explaining why you have written it and how you feel and that you haven't felt able to talk face to face with her because of fear of hurting her or it creating problems, hence the letter. The best thing about this method is you can write it, re-write it until you get it right. You can send it or not, after getting your feelings out. You don't have to deal with the reaction at that time.
I would leave it somewhere for her to find and then do nothing e.g expect her to read it or respond to it... you have done what you needed to do. Firstly I would think about what you are looking for or want from this... include that in the letter if you wish.
Best wishes
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Postby bob7777777 » Thu Dec 14, 2017 3:45 pm

To broach it, one option is to focus on expressing your own needs, which you have done so well here, rather than focusing on expressing what she has or hasn't done. That's a way of being honest without cornering her (which may provoke a reaction that is unhelpful for your purposes), and a way of her handing her some of that power that she is so accustomed to having: you are providing her with an opportunity to help you with something that you need.

Going into more detail, you could then invite her to go into family therapy with you. Explain that it is about you, not her. Wait for a couple of sessions, before asking her the question that you need answered.

It may be that she has exceptionally complicated feelings about what happened. It's human nature in response to suffering to delude ourselves, to avoid painful realities, to apportion blame where it doesn't belong, etc. She may never be able to come to terms with the whole truth, but you may be able to to come to terms with your feelings about her. This will be part of your work, in my honest opinion.

I raised a past event with one of my parents just before they died, on their deathbed. We hadn't talked about it for the circa 20 years since it happened. I am so glad I had the opportunity to do that. I only wish I had done it earlier, so that there could have been much more time for discussion. So from my perspective, I'm sure that you are doing the right thing. Go for it.
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Postby Richard@DecisionSkills » Thu Dec 14, 2017 9:39 pm

I agree with tokeless, why is this very tough decision your mother had to face over 30 years ago relevant to you today? What are your expectations? Why do you believe you have some right to information about this child that was put up for adoption?

It can’t simply be, because she is a “sister” and that be considered sufficient. There must be additional factors, additional support for wanting to compel a mother to engage in reliving a memory she would rather have in the past.
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Postby sunrisewatcher » Fri Dec 15, 2017 9:30 pm

Hi All

Thanks for your replies.

You've all asked what my goals are; what I hope to get from this discussion with my mother.

Here goes...

1) I have a lot of survivor guilt over the fact I was kept, whereas my sister was abandoned. If I had some reliable information about my sister, and how her life has panned out, perhaps this would help me to deal with my own issues.

Maybe she's happy, and the adoption has been a positive thing for her. If that's so, I'd really like to know.

Having no information about my sister exacerbates my fears about worst-case scenarios. This in turn extends to my own fears about me... cos I know that if I had been the one born with the same disabilities, that would have been my life.

You should allow me to explain that a little better.

In my childhood, on the rare occasions I was allowed to talk to my parents about my sister, they always emphasized the medical aspects of Trisomy 21, and the legal details of closed adoption. Other aspects, such as our emotions, were always ignored.

As I child I was forbidden to talk about my sister. My parents always acted as if they had 100% confidence in their decision to give my sister away. As a very small child, it always seemed to me that my parents didn't care that they'd given my sister up. Their biggest problem seemed to be that other people judged them for their decision, and they didn't like being judged by people "who haven't been through it, and can't possibly understand."

As an adult, I can see that my parents' behaviours were simply their coping mechanisms. However, as a child, I couldn't see that.

My sister's main condition is Trisomy 21. There's a lot of misunderstanding in the community about T21. This is a genetic, not a hereditary, disorder. It affects all races, nations, socio-economic groups, etc, equally. It does tend to affect the children of older mothers more often, but it is not exclusively a "disease of older mothers". It affects the children of young mothers, too.

When I was very little, I was told that T21 strikes "at random, like lightning, for no reason at all."

Small children are magical thinkers, and they think everything is their fault.

When I was very little, I made a picture in my head of my sister and I standing outdoors in the middle of a storm. We're both female, of course, only 13 months apart in age. Her hair's darker than mine. Other than that, there's no difference between us. It's a 50/50 chance of one of us being struck by lightning (at the moment of conception) and not the other. Why should it have been her and not me? Did I secretly "tell" the lightning to strike my sister and not me? Did "the lightning" listen to me? Is everything my fault? Am I a terrible person?

I always used to imaginatively put myself in my sister's place, and imagine what it would be like to have disabilities, to have a heart condition, and be rejected by our parents... literally, our own Mum and Dad, who raised me, whose roof I lived under. I always knew that if I had been the one "struck by lightning", then I would be out on my donkey in the cold, with nothing. Possibly being sexually abused every day, because that is what very often happens to young women who can't speak for themselves, can't communicate to name their perps.

As a child I had a lot of anger towards my parents because, but for the lightning striking my sister instead of me, I knew full well that they would have left me alone in the world to fend for myself.

It seemed wrong that my sister, the more needy one, was given less support than me, the stronger one. It seemed to be a very, very cruel and unfair world.

To this day, I'm not very impressed when my parents drone on and on about yachts, art, fine wine, and foreign travel. I'm polite on the outside, but inside I'm hurting because their focus is not on the important things.

Today, I have my own problems with work and relationships. I have my own attachment issues because throughout my childhood, Mum was always off by herself in her own world of pain. This is a common problem with subsequent children of relinquishing mothers.

I'd like to try to resolve some of these issues from the past and find out whether that will improve my self-worth in the present.

2) For my Mum's own sake, I'd like to encourage her to talk about her guilt & pain with a skilled and empathic listener. Disenfranchised grief is very unhealthy in the long term. Mum needs lots of facetime with a person who has experience with adoption issues and can offer Mum unconditional positive regard.

3) I'd like to have a more authentic relationship with Mum. Many years ago, I gave up in frustration. Recently I've come to see how destructive this is in the long term. They say the definition of a dysfunctional family is one that can't talk about its problems. That's us. I'd like to try, at least. Its a long time since I've tried to have genuine conversation with my Mum.

4) My parents are getting older and I don't want them to die with their souls full of unspoken pain and misery. I feel that it's not right, and I should do what I can to encourage/facilitate their healing process. They are both very anxious, uptight, unhappy people. They are still married to each other. I feel that growth, change, regeneration... does not happen between them.

5) I'm an adult. It's not healthy for me to still be afraid of my parents, and let them always call the shots. They in turn are directed by their fears. This situation ain't healthy! I want to achieve emotional adulthood for myself.

6) I want to obtain Mum's legal consent for me to access information held by the government: namely, my sister' post-adoption name and location, and whether my sister is alive today.

7) I want to obtain Mum's legal consent for me to access objective information about the nature and extent of my sister's disabilities. I've been given inconsistent information from different family members.

Eg "Your sister doesn't understand the concepts of "sister" or "mother" and she doesn't like to meet strangers"... versus... "She knew exactly who you were. When you used to visit her and play with her, when it was time for you to leave, your sister would scream the house down."

My own vivid memories of my sister and I having fun boisterously playing together outdoors, like any other children.... versus.... "She can't bathe or toilet herself."

I've also been told that when my sister was 18 y.o., she had the "developmental age" of a 13 year old. I want to know whether this is true. And the specifics - Does that refer to her emotional, social, or cognitive development? How does she communicate her ideas to others? How is her health?

8) I want to find my sister, and try to develop a friendship, if she's interested. I'd also like to try to give and receive a hug, if she's willing. Can I help her? Does she need a wheelchair, or some other equipment? Does she need an advocate to help her navigate government, medical and legal issues? Does she want a new friend? Does she want to visit the farm where our mother was raised? Does she want someone to read to her? Hang out with her, to watch TV, cook, or paint pictures? Go to the beach with her? I'm brave enough, now, to go to her if she needs me.
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Postby Richard@DecisionSkills » Fri Dec 15, 2017 9:54 pm

As you said, you are no longer a child. You are an adult. You are brave enough.

Where you choose to channel this bravery is up to you. You have 8 reasons, filled with assumptions of your good intentions as to why you should have the right to confront your parents about the adoption 30 years ago. Fair enough, I applaud you for your efforts and thoughts.

Your parents don't have to accept your goodwill. Your parents don't have to accept your assumptions. They don't have to see your intentions as good and in fact probably see your intentions as anything but helpful.

I recommend you channel your bravery elsewhere, into more productive endeavors. But, I understand that probably wasn't the answer you want to hear. Therefore, take this very post, clean it up, and provide it to your parents.

After you have done that, let them decide if and when they want to proceed. Otherwise, let it drop and let your bravery take you elsewhere in life.
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