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In-and-out-laws

August 4, 2010

My children’s aunt and uncle, and their cousins, were in town last weekend.

What do you call these former relations? I have always had this problem, my whole life–my parents divorced so early, and my assimilation into my mother/stepfather family was so complete (even as it left room for my father) that I spent my childhood referring to my stepfather as “my father” and my father as “my REAL father”, with REAL being somehow the opposite of what it seems, though without any implied slight or dismissal. Not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good, if you will.

My siblings with whom I grew up, who are technically my half brother and sister, since they are the spawn of my mother and (step)father, were always my brother and sister. My half sisters, who are technically exactly that, being the spawn of my stepmother and my REAL father, were always my half sisters. My stepbrother (being the spawn of my stepmother and her first husband, whom she divorced before meeting my dad) was, and remains, my stepbrother.

Ah, but once my mother and the stepfather who raised me divorced, what was I to call him? My former stepfather? My ex-stepfather? Matters became even more complicated when my mother remarried again, and I suddenly had a REAL stepfather, leaving the faux or former one in the dust. Good thing we had a huge falling out then, my ex-stepfather and I, and a silly feud that persists, annoyingly, to this day, because otherwise I wouldn’t know how to address his birthday cards.

My ex-mother-in-law. What does one do to make that less cumbersome? I’d call her my mother outlaw, but I’m not sure she’d appreciate the humor. I like her, always have, but the situation is delicate.

My ex-brother-in-law and his wife. My ex-nephews. My former nephews? Are they still my nephews? Will they be, if my ex-husband, their true uncle, remarries and provides them with a proper aunt?

It’s all academic, of course. My ex-brother-in-law, by any other name, wants nothing whatsoever to do with me since the split, and neither does his wife. So I haven’t seen or spoken to them, or to their kids, in at least two years. It bothers me, but I’m not sure what to do about it. I imagine they’re angry at me for instigating the divorce, and they have a right to be, if they like. We were only ever friends in the most perfunctory of ways.

I wonder if this minor estrangement–really the only one, since my mother and my ex’s mother keep in touch, and everyone is kind to the children–will persist. I somehow feel it’s my job to end it, but I don’t know how. I send the children, my ex-nephews, presents at Christmas and for their birthdays (ostensibly from my sons, but I attach my name–not Aunt My Name, just me–to the cards.)

I made vague noises to my ex-husband about possibly seeing the cousins while they were here, and he asked whether I was really interested in seeing his brother et al as well. And then I chickened out and fled for the weekend. It’s stupid. They’re kids. Though I honestly don’t think my presence or absence in their lives makes a whit of difference. And, of course, what we do or don’t call one another makes even less.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. yammeringon permalink
    August 4, 2010 8:42 am

    So complicated, I know. We have similar issues in my family. My father remarried well into his 50’s, and his new wife has two adult children. We were all adults when our parents got together, and have never even lived in the same state, much less the same house. So just who are they, exactly? And then one of them got married recently. Do my children now have an Aunt Betty? I’m not so sure. She’s lovely, but her husband has already been through one marriage in my children’s short lives (the oldest is about to turn 6) so I hesitate to ask them to get attached to someone who may not be around very long. Then again, they may be married for 50 years. Who knows. In my family, we generally call the newly married-in relation by their first name, no title. So my uncle’s first wife was Aunt X, but his second wife is just Y. Aunt X, of course, has been nowhere around for 20 years, despite being my godmother. In my husband’s family, they handle it individually. His sister calls their stepmom “Mom” while he calls her “FirstName.” This is partly due to their different personalities, and partly because his sister has always lived near them, and we live across a continent and in a different country.

    I don’t know your ex-in-laws at all, but I suspect their cold shoulder may have something to do with your relationship with their kids and how they expect it to change than a personal grudge. Or at least in addition to a personal grudge. With my new step-sister-in-law, and with my own sister (who is complicated beyond the bounds of a blog comment), I hesitate to let either of them into our lives because I’m not convinced they have staying power. My kids LOVE them, and if they see them/talk to them, they want more. In both cases, one because of circumstance (will the marriage last?) and one because of character flaws, I doubt they can follow through. The stakes are high when it comes to kids – they understand what an aunt is, and what that should mean (some sort of unconditional familial love, plus presents) and feel rejected when that person isn’t up to the task. For me, it’s better to just avoid getting together than it is to explain why Aunt so-and-so doesn’t return our calls inviting her to a birthday party next month. If you truly do want a relationship with these kids, it would probably be a good idea to have a frank talk with the parents regarding their expectations and yours. A demonstration of sincerity when it comes to sticking it out and not being a flake because you’ve moved on to a different relationship would probably go a long way. Then again, if you don’t feel like you want to or can surmount the parents’ hostility, then keeping your distance is exactly the right thing to do.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      August 4, 2010 8:58 am

      Yeah, I’m torn. They live 3,000 miles away, and until now, my kids/ex have seen them when they’ve gone to visit his mother. For obvious reasons, I wasn’t with them…so it hasn’t come up. My ex-brother-in-law and I (to be honest) never really got along. So I’ve spoken to the kids on the phone, and sent gifts (for which I was never thanked, but that’s okay) and so on. The ex-in-laws send presents to my kids, when they do, to my ex-husband’s address.

      The four cousins are exceedingly close. So that’s good. I don’t know. I’ll slowly start to try to bridge the gap, and as the kids are older, I can be their ex-aunt on my own terms rather than their parents’, I hope….

  2. MEP permalink
    August 4, 2010 10:44 am

    My ex-husband has three brothers, two of which are married, and while I always got along with my mother-in-law and the sisters-in-law, I was never close to any of them. I very rarely see them now, but when I do, we’re all cordial.

    Back when I was married and unhappy about EVERYTHING, my mother-in-law annoyed me and I had tons of petty complaints about her and how she had raised her kids and how she kept her house, etc. Now that I’ve gotten to know my boyfriend’s mother? My ex’s mother is a SAINT in comparison. A SAINT, I TELL YOU. Luckily he has two awesome sisters who more than make up for his mom.

  3. August 4, 2010 11:21 am

    If it were death, rather than divorce, would that make a difference? My niece is still my niece, even though her mom remarried after my brother-in-law died.

    I think the fact that your kids and your ex-in-law’s kids are close is what matters most.

    • mark permalink
      April 20, 2011 10:19 am

      I have a question too and am wondering. My nephew died, and his wife, my niece (right ?) remarried. Is she still my niece ? Similar to your issue but somewhat different.

      • irretrievablybroken permalink*
        April 20, 2011 2:30 pm

        I think she is, if you want to seem generous and pay respect to your relationship to your nephew. I grew up with honorary aunts and uncles whom I treasured. Think of it this way: “I hope you’ll permit me the honor of remaining your uncle, my dear,” has a much a nicer ring than “So, I guess you’re not my niece any more now that my nephew’s dead and you remarried.” A person can never have too many uncles–or nieces, for that matter.

  4. SarahB permalink
    August 4, 2010 12:19 pm

    I’m puzzled. Since the separation/divorce, wouldn’t it be your ex’s job to remember his family member’s birthdays, send gifts on behalf of the kids, etc? This may be young-not-divorced-naive person talking here, but I am genuinely curious. This may reflect the division of labor in my own household more than anything.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      August 4, 2010 12:49 pm

      I’m not sure whether he does now. He didn’t when we were married. He might–then the cousins get double the presents–a distinct advantage of having a bisected family, as any Child of a Broken Home will gleefully report. Anyway, I do it without consulting him one way or the other–and if the kids are with me on a b-day, we place the call from my house….

  5. August 4, 2010 12:45 pm

    Since my divorce, my ex-husband’s sister and I have remained close. We’ve decided to refer to each other as our “sister-out-law”, mostly because it makes us feel like bad asses. I got the cold shoulder from his family for awhile, but once they realized there was more than one side of the story, they reached out. Thankfully, my ex-husband’s family was more mature than he was, and we’ve been able to maintain a civil relationship. I wish for you that this was always the case.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      August 4, 2010 12:51 pm

      My mother-out-law is quite nice to me, makes a point of it. I think the problem is that there wasn’t much substance to my relationship w/ my ex’s brother and his wife, ever. We were never really friends, we just put in the requisite time, if that makes sense. I suppose the reason I don’t really know what to do is that I don’t have any urge to keep in touch, to be blunt. I feel a sense of obligation, but no real bond.

      • Celeste permalink
        August 4, 2010 9:10 pm

        See, I think he never cared for you and now he’s got a clean getaway and he’s happy about it. I don’t think anything you do will change that so my feeling is just.stop. Keep making sure your kids have whatever continuity you can in their relationships with their uncle and cousins, and be freed of the obligation. When my sister got divorced I tried to keep my ex-BIL on my Christmas list and he wanted none of it. Sometimes we just have to accept that somebody doesn’t want to be in a relationship with us. I think your ex-BIL has divorced you. FWIW I think it’s easy for males to do this. My feeling is that they take the legalities at face value over relationships. It’s sweeter for the kids if they don’t carry on like this, but in the end I think a cold shoulder is healthier than remaining in touch but being toxic.

  6. Deborah permalink
    August 4, 2010 1:49 pm

    I was once babysitting for a 6-year-old whose dad had been married before he married her mom, and had an adult son. There was a picture of him on a shelf, and when I asked the girl about it, she told me “my dad had another wife before my mom, and that’s my ex-brother.” 🙂 I’m sure at some point she figured out the right term.

  7. Lisame permalink
    August 4, 2010 2:36 pm

    I prefer the term “bonus”. Those are your kid’s Aunts and Uncles but for you they are just bonus family. Except for your ex-mother in law. Seems to me she is a bonus mom.

    I love these ladies: http://bonusfamilies.com/

  8. AmandaP permalink
    August 4, 2010 9:17 pm

    My uncle divorced before I was born, but had a child with his first wife. He remarried when I was one and had a second child with his second wife. From my perspective, his second wife is “Aunt X”, while his first wife is “Y”, as she was never offically my aunt. Both children are my cousins and they refer to each other as brother and sister (although they are 14 years apart in age). Y lived about 20 minutes from where I grew up, while my Uncle and Aunt X lived abuot 6 hours away, so I knew all three of them.

    I have no idea if this helps at all!

  9. Suzanne permalink
    August 5, 2010 9:04 am

    In my situation, there were (luckily) no children involved. I have no contact with any of my former in-laws, and haven’t since we divorced, except for when I called my ex-husband’s father to tell him to encourage his son to get help for alcohol abuse. I never really fit in with his family, and it definitely made things easier to cease all contact. When I think of them or talk about them (which is rare) usually I refer to them as “those people” (said in snarky tone of voice) or “the mother/father/etc. of the person I used to be married to”. I don’t know why I feel weird saying “ex mother-in-law”…it’s probably because I have such nice in-laws now and don’t wish to lump them all together. I also have not had any contact with my ex since right after we signed divorce papers over 3 years ago.

    The really tough thing for me was losing our mutual friends. We met in college and had many friends that were “his” first but became “ours”, and I never heard from any of them. I also felt like I had to cut out certain people b/c my ex was less than faithful before and during our marriage, and the thought of staying friends with anyone who even had a hunch that something was going on made me sick to my stomach. How did you handle the friend situation?

  10. Cheryl permalink
    August 5, 2010 10:21 am

    My sister in law and I have never been close. We’re friendly, we get along fine at Thanksgiving, but if she and my brother divorce I have no doubt that we would drift away. I would still send stuff to my nephews but it would be at my brothers address. I think that this is just how family is. Some of it you choose, some of it you don’t, and you just make the best of how it is.

    My one brother and I get along famously. We talk on the phone every day, we laugh at the same things, we always have. The other one with the sister in law? not so much. It’s not that I don’t like him, we just have very little in common besides mom. I think divorce just highlights these issues. If I were you? I’d keep doing for the kids because your kids are close to them, but drop the effort for the parents. And I’d drop the quasi-guilt for myself.

  11. August 26, 2010 9:23 am

    I wouldnt stress about it my family dont have any steps of any kind at this point but they dont feature so no problem there. However my actual family seems to have a problem with how to deal with each other. I even to this day 7 years down the line struggle to call my in laws mom and dad – its uncomfortable and they are like the dry toast of my big fat greek wedding fame and it generally depends on how pissed or depressed my mother in law is as to whether i call her mom or her first name or just breeze over it… its weird and hasnt stopped being weird.

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