Advice Column: How To Break Up With Your Family Or Not

Dear Chelsea,

I've never had much in the way of a relationship with my mother. I am the product of her first marriage which was awful. Once she divorced my biological father his involvement with me stopped. Her second marriage brought in-laws that did not have any need for a step niece/granddaughter/cousin so much of the typical family stuff growing up was not really any special day for me. I wasn't included in holidays, and there were no family members interested in attending a birthday party for me, so nobody bothered throwing them.

I worked hard, graduated early, and was on my own away at school at 15. As soon as I left home I stopped spending holidays with anybody. My mother always had her in-laws over for Thanksgiving, then her family around Christmas, so there was never room for me. When her in-laws were around, they'd get offended if I was there because the holidays are traditionally reserved for family. That part I always accepted as being a fact of life because I am not actually related to them so there's really no need for them to include me.

I left home and didn't have further contact with my extended stepfamily. The weird part of this dynamic is the fact that my mother has also excluded me from her family. Every year since I left home, she's flown or drove home to visit her dad and siblings, and every single trip she's taken my brother. In the recent years she's included my sister in-law. I can't even finagle an invite paying my own way. As such, I don't know any of my aunts, uncles, or cousins and I never met my grandparents.

Given the fact that the stepfamily I have had since I was 5 years old made it abundantly clear that I'm nothing more than an annoyance, or "the help", and that I do not know my biological father or his family, I would've thought my mother would've wanted me to have the aunt and uncles and grandparents that come with her side of the family, but she's instead never thought to include me when they are visiting, and I'm never invited when she goes there.

I have asked my mother until I'm blue in the face to include me, and every year she claims all of this was an unfortunate oversight and every year vowed to do better. Well, this year it happened again. It happens at a time when I'm having a major health crisis, undergoing treatments that make me sick. These have been going on for the past year and a half, and not once has my mother shown even the remotest interest in my health or checked in, neither has my brother or his wife.

Now my mother is asking me to nail down a date and time after the holidays when she can come to my house with my adult brother and his wife and baby, their gigantic dog, AND my mother’s dog. I suspect she needs family photos again, and it looks unseemly to not have both her children willing to participate.

I'd be expected to cook for 4 extra adults. My dog would need to be locked away for the weekend because she's not accustomed to infants, and plays rough. I'd have to prepare guest rooms and entertain and then clean up after everybody when they breezed out, and all for a group of people that deemed me unfit to actually spend a holiday with and hasn't given me a second thought when I really needed people to care about me.

I told my mother that I'm not up for that kind of entertaining and said I'd be happy to travel and bring food, but maybe leave the hosting to someone else. I have not actually spent a Christmas with my mother since I was 14 years old, but this year she told me it's not a good year for us to come because my brother’s wife just had a baby and nobody wants to take the attention away from her, which I get but I'm not sure how that means that I have to now entertain the huge group the weekend after when I do not have the energy for it. I flat out said NO, and now am getting the guilt trip for not wanting to entertain.

Honestly, at this point I just want to be done with the lot of them and leave my mother to her bizarre world where she can easily forget about one kid, but openly accept and show off the other. I do not know a single family member of hers, and at this point I can't see how I'll ever know them. My mother seems to want the superficial relationship so she can sleep at night thinking she looks like the doting mother/grandmother. My half brother and his wife are just jerks who do not bother to extend so much as a text message to their sister (in-law) while she's undergoing chemo. 

In all this rambling, I guess I'm looking for permission to just tell these people to stuff themselves, because I'm sick of making an effort and being pushed aside. My mother and my half brother are the only blood family I know, but neither of them has ever treated me as anything more than a vague acquaintance anyway so it's not like my kids would be losing some involved uncle/grandmother. In fact, my kids never even heard from my brother/mother on their birthdays this past year. Why do I have to keep subjecting myself to these obligatory yearly hell weekends that my mother doesn't want, and I ultimately end up hating? Why do I have to pretend this fake facade of a family has even a passing relationship with normal? I want to expose my kids to better than this. Is it ok to just dump a crappy family? 

Thank you,

Resigning From Bizarrely Toxic Self-Righteous Family 

Dear Resigning From Bizarrely Toxic Self-Righteous Family,

You’ve asked permission to dump your crappy family but, you know better than I, no one needs permission to turn their backs on each other. All that takes is an unhealthy degree of self-interest. I don’t think you have that and I don’t believe that’s what you’re after.

In my experience, no one needs help doing what’s been done to them. They already know what that looks like. They need help not doing what’s been done to them. They need help removing the enemy from their lives without resorting to the same behavior that has caused so much of their agony.

My gut feeling is this is why you are really reaching out. You want validation that you have every reason to revolt but don’t have to. Every reason in the world to be disturbed by your family’s disregard. Every reason in the world to see what you see and feel what you feel because of it. And, you’re right. You do.

You have every reason to want to turn your back on your family, and every reason to want to hold out from doing that too. I think the permission you are after is really the permission to do the latter though. I think you want to acknowledge the reality of your family, that they have turned a blind eye on you from an early age and that is an unthinkable heartbreak to have been raised on, but the permission you are seeking is to not do the same even when that would be fair.

I’m here to tell you that not knowing whether you have it in you to do what’s been done so ruthlessly to you is a good problem to have. It means you have not lost yourself, and losing yourself when you’ve never had a mother who could offer you any roots is easy.

It’s easy to treat someone the way they have treated us for the very reason that they have made it all right. It’s easy to mirror them because that’s really not any more insight into us, and when we have kept ourselves vulnerable for so long, it’s easy to be over giving ourselves away. It’s easy to think that the only way to not be overlooked is to show up in the same exact form as the person who refuses to see us for who we are.

But becoming anything like them won’t get us any closer to being acknowledged for what makes us us. And isn’t that the battle here? You have never felt acknowledged by your family. Trust this then, acting like them won’t be easier for you and it certainly won’t make anything better. It will only make you feel responsible for being less seen and more estranged. It will only make you feel compromised.

There’s a reason you haven’t done what’s easy by now. You haven’t done what’s easy because easy isn’t you. Easy is what you’ve had to take on. Easy is what your family has tried to turn you into. An easy person to overlook. An easy person to not have around. An easy person to not show up for when you are sick and asking for so little.

It’s my opinion then that dumping them will just wind up feeling like more of the same. And more of the same won’t help you feel empowered. It won’t help you feel like you turned a corner and took a new direction in life. It won’t help you feel like you finally did something for yourself, like you finally did something that made them see you or at least helped you see you.

What I believe you need to do to begin remedying this heartbreak is less of the same and more of what feels hard. So, instead of leaving your mother to her bizarre world, I think you need to knock on the entrance door and say, ready or not, I’m coming in, let’s talk about what’s happening inside here.

I think before you break up with your family, you’d have a better chance at feeling relieved if you were to break up with the idea you have for them and the idea you feel they have of you.

You can start with the idea that your worlds will ever match.

You can start by breaking up with the idea that you don’t belong in their bizarre world, or maybe rather that you can’t offer anything to it when you show up knocking every once in awhile.

I think you need to break up with the idea that you are someone who can be turned away.

Listen, I come from the camp that if it hurts when people rush over you, never rush over people. If it hurts being overlooked, look back until what you see burns you less and less. If your family left you feeling invisible, meet them where they are and bring yourself to light. My feeling is if your family won’t include you in their plans, make a plan all your own and see where that takes you. If nothing comes from it, don’t forgive yourself for the efforts you made just be proud that you made them. Because it’s easy, you know this, it’s so easy to make no effort at all.

Don’t become one of those people, not even when it feels fair and especially not because your own mother has shown you that not caring is acceptable. You want to expose your kids to better than this? Well, guess what? By caring, you are.

You are showing them what it looks like to be a mother who cares more than most, who cares even when her own mother does not seem to.

You are showing your children what it looks like to be unwavering in who you are, even when who you are does not look like what other people want.

You are showing your children that you don’t overcome a problem by becoming more like it.

As Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

So, rather than overcoming disregard by discarding your family, let’s try to think our way into solutions with a new mind. Your problem is one of abandonment, having it done to you and wondering if it isn’t time to engage in it yourself. The thing is, when this problem began, you weren’t thinking for yourself, right? You were just a child with parents creating problems for you. They were doing all the thinking. It was them thinking about themselves and what they could do to get over each other.

Whether conscious or not, their thought process probably was that by overlooking you, they could overlook what they had created together, by overlooking you they could lose whatever reminded them of their loss. This is as brutal as it is baffling but it happens in a myriad of ways. People want to forget whatever reminds them of what once was but could not be. They want to deny whatever makes them feel like they weren’t enough to stick around for.

Of course, the heartbreak in your case is that by trying to overcome the feeling that they were not good enough for one another, your parents denied you the chance of showing them that you, alone, are enough for them.

This oversight is excruciating but that is what it is. It’s an oversight. It’s their failure to see what you could be to them. It’s their failure to see that love is not always the partner we have but what comes about because of that partner.

I think their desire (and commitment) to overlook each other, is what has made it so easy to continually overlook you. And I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry that your parents missed the point. I’m sorry they missed out on one of the unexpected ways love is brought into our lives. I have to tell you though, I think your mother is afraid of loving you because to love you would be to thank him.

When it comes to relationships, what keeps people stubborn is not a lack of love but the pride and fear they have surrounding it. I feel like you need to remember this. Remember, the absence of love is not always what keeps two people from growing close; sometimes what keeps a person from extending the love they are capable of and even wanting is the fear that growing close will remind them of the places where love never showed up in their favor.

Even when we think familial love is protected from this, it’s not. In today’s world, no relationship is ever safe from the fear of fragile individuals. Where this gets complicated is, we just don’t look at our families and associate them with fear and so we never see them as people not unlike ourselves on our worst days. We never see them as people who are living from a place of smallness, of defensiveness, of defeat. We never see our mothers as someone who is protecting herself even when protection is unnecessary.

I think your mother has always been determined to protect herself from the reality of you because you connect her to your father, regardless of the fact that you don’t even know him and the fact that prioritizing her own self-preservation rather than her bond with you, her daughter, has felt cruel and callous. But, as I said in the very beginning, no one needs permission to turn their backs on each other. All that takes is an unhealthy degree of self-interest.

This self-interest is obvious in your mother just as much as it is with all the other people she’s let in to be her family. But you, you are the outsider. Congratulations. You’re on the outside because you stand out. Because you are not self-interested. Because you have not been so self-involved as to become so small and so insulated that you don’t even notice your own disregard, that you don’t even care just how far you are pushing away the very heartbeat you brought into this world.

She’s acting like she can’t even hear you. I’m not telling you to dismiss that. I’m asking, can you put it into perspective? This woman may be your mother but she’s also a woman who doesn’t think very much, who doesn’t feel very much, who doesn’t have a clue.

Which is why it’s time to, not break up, but speak up. Speak up one last time at least. Get it out. Do it your way. Don’t turn away. Say it straight. Tell her everything you’ve written me. Cry. Don't accuse her of your pain but acknowledge how and where and why it is within you. Tell her you want acknowledgment more than you’ve ever wanted it right now. More than you’ve ever needed it, perhaps. Tell her that you are sick and this will help you and, if she can’t help you, then tell her to at least stop hurting you. Tell her that overlooking you hurts you. Show her how she has hurt you. Let the truth pour out of your heart. Then ask whether she can see how that could hurt you. Ask whether she can explain it. Say you aren’t attacking her, you just can’t beat up on yourself anymore.

Do not turn away.

Not yet.

Do not do what she’s done.

Not yet.

Forget getting together for the holidays. Forget November, December, and January. Pick a new day. Pick a day that is attached to nothing, that is attached to zero expectations, zero memories, zero, zero, zero. Tell your mother you want to make plans to come see her that day. Even if it’s only for a day, it’s a step in a better direction, in a different direction, a new direction. It’s a step in your direction. This will help you assert yourself again. This will help you call the shots. This will help you tell her what you need and how it’s going to go from here on out.

I commend you. You have been patient. You have been forgiving. You have given your family a chance to show up like other families do. But as you’ve seen, not every family is the same and not everyone is as welcoming as you. Reality stings and it can be unfair but that’s no reason to sting back. In fact, it’s every reason not to.

Because you know how much that can hurt.

Because you know that you cannot treat the wound of abandonment by abandoning your wound or the person who caused it.

Because you know that for those who treat you as if you are invisible, it’s up to you to bring yourself to light.

And you know none of this is easy.

But you know easy is not for the brave.

Because you know that even mothers won’t show up for their daughters.

But that doesn’t mean that if a daughter wants to show up, she can’t—one last time or again.

And because you know all this, you will make sure you always show up for yours. To me, there’s no greater silver line. You will make sure you build a home around your family and give them love every day.

And because of this, because of all you’ve endured, because of you, your home will feel so safe and so accepting that you will never have to turn your back on the family you’ve created for yourself and, importantly, you will never have to turn away from yourself again. Your family will love you for this. They will celebrate the mother you’ve become and the woman you chose to be. They will admire you for teaching them to care more than most. And because they care, your family will feel brave and they will feel fair and they will feel free.

This means the pattern of giving up so easily on each other will have stopped with you which is exactly how you use one crappy family to save and savor and celebrate your own.



A Breakup Coach trained and certified in Solution-Focused Life Coaching, Chelsea Leigh Trescott writes for publications such as Thought Catalog, TheTalko, Mend, and Elite Daily. Her three-and-a-half-year relationship inspired her to breakout on her own as a Breakup Coach. Now she helps her clients turn their sob stories into silver lining breakups, too. Seeking advice? Send situation and question to for a chance to be featured.

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