Tuesday, February 3, 2015


My brother called me last week and laid into me, presenting me with a list of The Many Ways I Have Done Him Wrong. After the third or fourth item, which went back to something almost a year ago, I cut him off. I asked him if he could please just talk to me about issues that are recent, but he said "No, because this is a big trigger for me."

I told him I couldn't listen anymore, it was just too much, and I would get back to him.

A few days later, after much pondering, I sent him an email. I used a "Communication Wheel" that my sister shared with me last year. It seems like a good and healthy model that promotes relationship building, not tearing each other down.

In my email, I responded to the issues he had shared on the phone and shared just one of my own. He responded in a way that was generally agreeable and I hoped that we might be close to moving on. Then he sent his own list. Using his own, much more judgment-oriented model, which allowed for the expression of lots and lots of anger. It included items such as not sending a thank you note for his contribution to Calliope's college fund. Which he made when she was a newborn.

Let me be clear: I greatly appreciated the contribution. I thought I had caught up on all my thank you notes before I went back to work. When she was four months old. I guess I missed his. Oops.

The fact that he's still stewing about such an oversight boggles my mind. I'm not one to really care about things like receiving thank you notes, beyond wanting confirmation to make sure that a gift was received. But if it's an issue for him, golly, why not raise it, say, three years ago? Instead of stewing about it for all this time?

Other issues reach back pretty far as well, though that one gets the Blue Ribbon At the County Fair for longevity. Most of them I had no idea existed. And wouldn't have been a big deal if raised, individually, when they happened. But to receive a whole pile of them all together, along with heaps of judgment -- his supposedly work-approved communication model apparently allowing for judgments like "selfish," "self absorbed," and "petty" when mine used nothing like that -- plus a "so do you want to have a real relationship with me or do you want to have a superficial one" smack in the middle... I just felt tired. And hurt. And nothing in me wanted anything to do with having any relationship at all. I just wanted to walk away.

I talked to my sister the next day and she entreated me not to walk away. It would make it hard for her, she said, to be caught in the middle. Family is important, she reminded me. (I'm not at all clear why this is so.) She suggested that I write back to him and ask him to rewrite it in the model she had shared with me.

I finally just sent that request. Along with my very best attempt at being empathetic to his first two issues. I apologized for the ways I hurt him. I sent generous gifts, because he stated that that was very important to him (it's not to me, and he felt our gift giving was unequal). I reiterated his feelings (and even his judgments). But I only had it in me to do that for is first two issues. After that, I had nothing left. I couldn't bear to parse his words and his judgments another minute. It was tearing me to shreds.

So now I wait for his response.

What's so stinking hard about all this is that he has the ability to get into my head. To make me question if I am a good friend. After all, I rarely give gifts. What if all my friends think that I'm as shitty as he does? What if, gasp, my own darling child thinks that? What if everyone sees me as selfish?

It's especially hard because, as you loyal readers know, I'm well into my third trimester. I'm vulnerable. I'm trying to gather strength for this upcoming birth, and to welcome another child into my life. I met with a birth trauma counselor last week. She and my midwife have both talked to me about looking at my life as evidence of strength, as a way to encourage me in thinking about this upcoming (terrifying) birth. And it helped, a lot. Until I got this email. And suddenly the wind was taken out of my sails. My confidence in myself has plummeted.

I'm slowly talking myself in off the ledge. I don't see a lot of judgment in Calliope's face as she chatters away through the steamy glass door of my shower in the mornings. My friend Mike and his wife and toddler surely wouldn't have come over this weekend to assemble the crib and hang artwork if they thought so little of me, right? I actually texted my two closest friends to ask directly if they thought I was shitty and selfish. They both, of course, responded in the negative.

So I'm somewhat better if nowhere near fully recovered. I choked back tears today as I placed online orders for gifts . I feel no joy in giving these gifts, only that this is the price I must pay for making duty-bound attempts at family loyalty. I've never felt so bad giving a gift before.

And I dread getting his response. If he lashes out or simply refuses to rework his "issue list," I know that logically, I have the option of walking away. And that that is in my own best interest. But I'm scared that he won't just say "no" and leave it at that. That he will lash out once again and hurt me once again. Or god forbid, he will agree and somehow I will end up having to work through a painful list of issues all over again. Honestly, I would much prefer to just be done and to walk away. I don't want to know anymore the many ways I've failed him. I have a responsibility to my current and future child to be present for them. He's way far down the list below them. And currently, his issues are serving as an enormous distraction from them.

It sounds so silly, I know. If you know someone makes you feel bad, walk away. If someone says something that hurts, you have the choice not to listen. But my brother has inherited my narcissistic father's ability to wound, along with a deep working knowledge of my innermost vulnerabilities and a profound ignorance of his own failings.

So... tell me how have you worked to maintain your boundaries, to keep family from hurting you? When they are not so awful all the time as to be outlawed from your life, but not so trustworthy, either?


  1. My brother (a severe drug addict) and I have not talked for several months (though my parents and his girlfriend still update me on how he is doing at rehab). He was harassing and stressing me out at a time that I thought I was experiencing a miscarriage. I told him to never call/text me again. While I feel much better and less stressed with the separation from him, there are still those moments that I think back to fun memories of our childhood and miss him. It is hard to find a balance. When I'm in doubt on which direction to allow our relationship, I always go back to "is this a relationship I want my child(ren) to witness and be a part of?" When I remind myself that I model appropriate and inappropriate relationships for them, the answer of where to set the boundaries seems like a no brainer suddenly. When in doubt, ask if you would allow your brother to treat your girls like this or not. Maybe cutting him out completely isn't ideal, but setting some specific boundaries sounds like a great start.

  2. Honestly I didn't even know you had a brother and he is not acting very loving to you. I think you are right to say I'm not communicating to you like this, I love you but your interpretations of my actions are not kind or accurate. Sounds like this is someone you just see once in a while.

  3. Oh, we have lots & lots of boundaries in my severely dysfunctional family!!! Starting with my Borderline Personalty mother. I don't place important issues in her hands nor do i let her know much about them until the end result. My sister & I didn't speak for nearly 2 years because of a lie she was living that hurt our father terribly. It was killing all of our parents so I swallowed my pride & decided if my dad could forgive her, I should too. I set forth rules though... we do not discuss my mother for the most part, pretty much if the information she is sharing cannot be shared with everyone, i don't want it either. My mom & grandmother don't speak... I don't discuss either with the other. My mom & her youngest sister don't speak... I also do not discuss or want to hear about either from the other. I basically do not allow anyone elses problems into my life. I also do not leave my children alone with any of these people with the exception of my sister who has children similar in age of her own. When everyone has to be together for say a funeral or wedding, rules are generally laid out before everyone arrives... If you don't like each other, stay away from each other. if someone doesn't want to be near you, don't push yourself on them. The occasion is not the place for that type of behavior. It's been years & everyone has relatively been on good behavior. My aunt is getting married this fall though so we will see how that goes, lol...
    Since having my boys, I have become very bad at thank yous & on time gifts or cards. It's not that I don't think of them, It's just hard to keep up with EVERYTHING!!! We have some very good & very generous friends! If I don't remember to get something out on time I send something when I can or just when I think to. I would be so devastated if they thought poorly of me/us because of my inability to be timely & pray they never lash out at us for it.
    I hope things can be rectified for you & your brother, mostly for the sake of "family" but I know it's hard & sometimes extended breaks need to be taken from toxic people, especially when you are preparing for a life change of your own! Peace & Love sweetheart XOXO

  4. Oh boy. This is a tough call. I tend to err on the "who needs that bullshit?" side, having cut off (nearly) all communication with both my mother and father, for similar reasons to your situation (receiving a character-assassinating email from my mother, and my father just being bat shit crazy). I always would ask myself, would I tolerate this from a friend? No. Then why from a relative? I do understand, though, that most people can't be as black and white as I've had the luxury of being and everyone has their own priorities. But for someone to attack a pregnant single mother over a missed thank you note from three years ago...? F that.

  5. Crappy and narcissistic to dump that on your about-to-have-the-baby sister. How unfortunate for you. One time a friend, who was counseling me on how to deal with my on/off the wagon father, shared a pearl of wisdom with me that I found helpful...

    It was basically to give myself permission to do what felt right (in this case, when I would let him see my daughter), and not feel like I had to develop a rigid position that would carry me far into the future.

    Maybe see how you feel about opening his next email, and if you get any whiff that it's going to be damaging, just stop reading and/or delete entirely. Be kind to yourself, and just play it by ear. You and TL and C are the priority right now, not his feelings...

  6. I'm a firm believer in keeping things healthy. No matter who is slinging the shit. There's somethin to be said for self reflection and realizing we aren't perfect and are hopefully trying our best most of the time. Figuring out if there's truth in criticism, and going on to be better and more aware. It definitely sounds like he has crossed the boundary of a healthy 'you hurt me' conversation. I have to say, I feel you gotta do what you need to, to preserve your little family first, your happiness, and then your larger family. Nobody has the right to be that hurtful and your actions would've justified. I hope you can make sense and peace of it all <3

  7. This isn't about you. It's not about what you have done or haven't done. Your brother is clearly dealing with some mental issue that is causing him to obsess and replay all perceived wrongs he's ever experienced.

    You might benefit from some counseling - even one session - to help you understand his personality type and what might be going on with him.

    My mom has always been a piece of work, but in a different way. She claims to not remember any of the bad things from my childhood, things that I learned were straight-up abuse once I became an adult. Whenever I used my communication techniques with her as an adult, to de-escalate a discussion about the past, she'd lunge at me and say, "Oh, you think you're better than me?!" And then she'd break down crying and say, "All I ever did was try to love you!"


    Today we have moved into a surface-level relationship and can tolerate each other's presence for short amounts of time. I've learned there's no point rehashing the past because her memory is so twisted. We will never be close, or even what I'd call "friends". That's just how it is.

    I hope you can get to a similar place with your brother.

  8. I admire your strength and openness. I wish you the very best and healthiest upcoming delivery. I know how painful family relationships can be--I have no advice, just empathy. Be well.

  9. It seems to me (not knowing any of the back history with your brother) that if you want to work through your relationship with him, that's something to tackle after your baby is born and you've had time to recover and get into a new rhythm. His timing is terrible, demanding that you address all of these grievances now. Right now, you and Calliope are your priorities, and I think it's perfectly reasonable to focus on that. Do things that make you happy, replenish your stores, be around people that support you. Save your brother's emails but don't open them now. You can choose later whether to make your brother part of your life - if he is going to contribute to it in a positive way. Best wishes for a peaceful, smooth birth experience this time around. The second time usually does go much better!

  10. Everyone here has better advice than me-- I'm not so good with family relationships. And agreed - this has little to do with you and much to do with your brother and where he is at. Hopefully we'll get up to NYC soon and I can take you up on your offer to have you watch me drink some wine for the both of us :-)

  11. Everyone here has better advice than me-- I'm not so good with family relationships. And agreed - this has little to do with you and much to do with your brother and where he is at. Hopefully we'll get up to NYC soon and I can take you up on your offer to have you watch me drink some wine for the both of us :-)

  12. Well, as you know, I'm not one to give advice on family relationships and boundaries!! If you figure out a good way to set some boundaries - and stick by them - please let me know! But I totally agree with wottadoll that it's bullish!t that your brother is lashing out at you about something (simple and ridiculous) from 3 years ago when you're a (very) pregnant single mother! Just remember you're doing a great job, Calliope absolutely does NOT see you as selfish and shitty, and TL won't either! Take care of yourself, and try to put this crap with your brother on the back burner for now. It's not worth your time or your energy.

  13. That is right. Maintain your composure, and make sure that your baby is given the safest possible delivery. No hostility should be allowed near such a delicate procedure and stage in a person's life, especially those which may lead to long-term damage.

    Sabrina Craig @ Medical Attorney NY