Care and Feeding

I Found Out the Horrible Secret Behind Why My Parents and Sister Aren’t Speaking

How can I keep living with them knowing what they did?

A teen girl cringes while her older parents talk with each other in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am 15 and just found out a horrible secret about my parents. Since my sister left home five years ago, she grew increasingly distant with them, which seemed to break my parents’ hearts. I found it strange as they had seemed close, but she was still in regular contact with me; we texted all the time and became friends on social media as soon as I got accounts. She’s finished college and is working, but still barely contacts our parents except to make arrangements to see them over holidays (again, she texts me lots and spends time with me when she’s here). I asked if they’d ever fallen out, but she said no, and our parents said they had no idea why she was so distant with them. Now I’ve found out.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I’m friends with one of my sister’s school friends on Facebook, and recently she posted a picture of my sister’s wedding. I had no idea my sister was even dating anyone, and I certainly didn’t know she was dating a woman. The wedding looked small and had none of our family there. I called my sister and she burst into tears. She told me that our parents banned her from coming out in school when she told them she was gay at 16, and that they said they would throw her out if she told me. When she went to college, they said they’d withdraw financial support and access to me if she talked about any girlfriends to anyone in the family, and they hoped she’d just “grow out of it.” When she told them she was getting married and asked if they would come, they said no. They’ve never met her partner.

Advertisement

I was horrified but a lot of stuff suddenly made sense: The way my parents switch off a TV show if it gets a lesbian character, the way my mom freaked out when I said I didn’t know if I’d ever want a boyfriend (not actually true, I was just in a bad place), and obviously how distant my sister is with them. I didn’t have much other reason to think this about them though; they’re not religious and have always seemed fine with gay men (they even have some gay male friends). My sister said she’d been shocked too, and that our parents just kept saying things like “It’s not what we wanted you to be like,” “We wanted you to have a normal life” and, worse, “We don’t want your sister to grow up thinking that’s OK.” They apparently think that I’ll “copy” her if I find out she’s gay and don’t want her to “ruin” me. I am straight but not homophobic and would have loved to be at her wedding and want to meet her wife.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

My sister begged me not to tell them I knew because she’s scared they won’t let us see each other anymore. I agreed because that seems likely, but I don’t know how to be around our parents anymore. I kind of hate them for this. I don’t want them to meet any future boyfriend; it would feel gross to have my relationship accepted while my sister has to remove her wedding ring to visit. I feel like I know their love is conditional now. They’ve noticed I’m suddenly completely cold with them and keep asking what’s wrong, but I say nothing. I don’t know how to live with them like this. Can you please advise me on what to do for the next three years I have to live with them? I’m so upset and wish I could just live with my sister right now.

Advertisement

—Horrible Secret

Dear Horrible Secret,

I am so sorry that you and your sister, and your new sister-in-law, are experiencing this, and that your parents have such disappointing views on sexuality. Unfortunately, your sister is right to ask you to keep your knowledge a secret for now. When you have moved from your parents’ home, you can express your disgust, rage, and sadness toward their actions without risking your ability to communicate with your sister—who you now know truly needs to be able to count on your love and support. As I’ve written here before, for some young people, the family home is a place to be departed as soon as possible, ruled by values that are not their own and approached with survival in mind. You are now finding yourself tasked with surviving your (valid) distaste for your parents’ actions and making sure that you get what you need—which is preparation to live on your own and a roof in the meantime—while not allowing their bad views to further disrupt your life than they have thus far. You don’t have to bring partners home, but do consider the potential for getting in trouble if you’re dating someone in secret at an age where your family still makes rules about your comings and goings; perhaps you limit family introductions until when absolutely necessary (i.e., a homecoming date) and end them when you’re old enough to live independently of your parents.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

One day, you’ll be able to tell them exactly how you feel about missing your sister’s wedding, as well as the chapter in her life during which she began to love someone so much that a wedding was even possible, and what you think of their treatment of her. Let that day come when they no longer have the power to control your communication with your sister. Again, I am so sorry, and I’m wishing you so much strength as you navigate this. And kudos to you for being such a good, loving little sibling!

Slate Plus members get more Care and Feeding from Jamilah each week. Sign up today!

From this week’s letter, My Child’s Playtime With His Aunt Has Taken a Creepy Turn: “On the other hand, WTF is my child doing?”

Advertisement

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am an only child. My wife has a sister, but their dynamic has always been weird. I have two great kids. One is a freshman in college the other is an eighth grader. They are boys and have what I think are typical sibling issues. Good days and bad, ya know? At least I guess it’s typical, I don’t have much perspective. I read all the help columns here on Slate and a common theme is “My parent is old or dead and my sibling turned into Satan.” I’m told someday I’ll get old and maybe even die; what can I do now to protect their relationship in the future?

Advertisement

—Looking Way Ahead

Advertisement

Dear Looking,

There’s nothing you can do to guarantee that your children will not one day become adults who, for any number of reasons, cannot stand each other; however, you can and should work to support a healthy, loving, and consistent relationship between the two of them as long as you are allowed to do so. As you only have jurisdiction over one of them at this point, it seems wise that you use the next six or so years to develop and/or increase rituals, regular communications, and opportunities for quality time. Also, be mindful of anything you have done or may do in the future that could create tension between the two of them (having staunchly different approaches to discipline during their respective childhoods, for example, or leaving seemingly imbalanced inheritances), and do your best to avoid giving your kids any reason to be at odds with each other. When they have disagreements, be a reasonable third party who can see the good and the capacity for bad in each of them, and remind them to see their sibling in a similarly loving light. Hope for the best.

Advertisement
Advertisement

• If you missed Thursday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

Advertisement
Advertisement

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I volunteer with a church youth program, and one of the ways I often connect with the kids is over a shared love of popular media (e.g., Marvel movies, fantasy novels, etc.). What I would like your advice on is how to evaluate or make possible recommendations to them, if they ask me. There are many novels/movies/comic books/TV shows etc. that I enjoyed at that age—12 and older—that I still have tremendous affection for into my adulthood, or else that I enjoy now and think someone that age might enjoy, too. But in reappraising some of these items with an eye toward recommending them, there are elements that give me pause! For reference, I am a White man and the majority of the kids are girls, some of them girls of color. While we may share a lot of common interests, I am also aware that there are differences of perspective and life experience I must keep my eyes wide open to, and that media I might otherwise find worthwhile and enjoyable may also promulgate or reinforce harmful messages.

Advertisement

Of course, I would only recommend material I thought was age-appropriate, and I wouldn’t share material I’ve come to realize is intrinsically racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, or otherwise anti-inclusive. It’s when I’ve pushed past these initial checks that I start feeling the need to tread carefully, and I’m not sure what the right approach is. Should I cultivate a very strict mental filter, only sharing things I’m highly certain will be broadly acceptable (only recommend the equivalent of Disney movies and nothing else)? Is it appropriate to discuss this with the kids themselves (i.e., “I think you would like X for Y reason, but it has ABC in it, are you/your parents cool with that?”)? Should I run recommendations by other relevantly responsible adults first, to get some sanity checks?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I realize that I am probably overthinking this, and the actual answer is that it should be a mixture of all of these; that it depends on the context of the kid, the adults, and the media itself; and that, as with everything involving kids, it should be approached with thoughtfulness and care. At the same time, I’d appreciate hearing the thoughts of someone else on navigating the space in between pretending that the only TV show I know of is “Happy Bunny and His Joyful Friends” and inadvertently being the reason a 12-year-old traumatized themselves with “Chainsaw Splatter-Gore Sex Romp VI.”

—Nervous-but-Eager Fanboy

Dear Nervous,

I think you have all the healthy anxieties necessary to make good decisions with regard to what you recommend to your young mentees, so kudos to you for that. I’ll just add a few things: Consider that it isn’t just offensive depictions or references to women and/or people of color that can be harmful, it is also the absence of representation that can do great harm to the population you’re working with. For example, you should notice that girls of color are often less visible in so-called kids’ programming, particularly dark-complexioned girls and, thus, avoid recommending content that may seem “perfect” for their age group but that instead reinforces screwed up notions about their own identities by either relegating them to trite, stereotypical roles or erasing them all together.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Also, even if a film or TV show is widely consumed by kids younger than recommended, you could easily find yourself in an awkward position if you are sharing this suggestion with a kid who never gets to watch things like that. Their parents may object to the notion, and/or, as you worried, they may be ill-prepared for the content. Plus, just because a parent lets her child watch the new Candyman reboot, that does not mean that she’d want her kid to get hyped up over the original by “a stranger” (Be clear: If you aren’t family, you’re likely coded as a stranger by many parents, no matter how much they like you.)

Advertisement

This sounds ridiculous, perhaps—parenting sometimes is, by necessity. But there is a vast difference between a parent allowing their child to do something “inappropriate” and a (stranger) adult endorsing such a thing. If there is a conversation going on about a big R-rated movie, it’s OK to participate; just don’t get into any dialogue about any adult themes that shouldn’t be discussed between a grown-up and children who are not his own (i.e., sex, or anything else that their parents wouldn’t expect you to discuss with the youth they entrust to you at church). Just tread thoughtfully, as you already seem apt to do.

Advertisement

For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

Dear Care and Feeding,

Not wanting to freeload, I suggested that my mom charge me rent. She seemed surprised, and said she’d get back to me on that. Sometime later, she appeared in a rather formal outfit, and said she was now my landlady. She spelled out my rental rate and terms that were higher than I had planned on, but she conveyed such an air of authority that I didn’t argue. Later, when she was back to her normal self, I told her the rate was too high. She stepped out and returned as the “landlady” and asked what the problem was. I explained that the rate was more than I could afford; she told me I could either pay it or find somewhere else to live. I decided to forget about rent and hope my mom would also. However, I have now received notices of late rent and eviction. Not caring to interact with her alter-ego, I haven’t tried to talk with my mom about this. She is normally loving and supportive, but I’m afraid she will transform into the “landlady” and kick me out, or possibly sue me for the rent and late fees I already owe. Should I pass my mom a note explaining that I love her but I don’t like her alter-ego, I can’t afford the rate she is trying to charge me, I would have trouble finding another place to live, and I regret ever mentioning rent? Anything else I should include?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Rent Regret

Dear Rent Regret,

There is a lot of context missing here, such as how long you’ve been living with your mother, why you’ve done such, and how you may (or may not) be contributing to the household despite not having paid rent in the past. However, it does seem abundantly clear that your offer to pay a monthly fee to your mother may have allowed her to do something she may have wanted to do for a long time: Charge you to live with her and/or direct you toward a more independent living situation. Or, at the very least, get you to understand the value of what you’ve been receiving from her for free. Maybe she was put off by the idea of something so formal, as if you’d insulted her graciousness thus far; hiding behind the costume may make It easier to hold you accountable in whatever way she feels accountability (and rent) are due. The only way to find out is to ask her directly and hope that she is more direct with you than each of you have been over the course of this saga.

Advertisement

Consider that she may be insulted that you ignored her notices. Reach out to her respectfully via her “landlord” method of communication and apologize for the silence; request a meeting and let her know that you were a bit taken aback by both the formal engagement and the rent.
Acknowledge that she has been kind to let you stay with her and that you want to settle on a rate that you can both live with. It may be the case that such a number does not exist and that she is ready for you to move on, or perhaps she feels that if you aren’t paying market rent, she doesn’t want to fool with your money at all. Again, the way to know is to ask. Good luck to you.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Jamilah

More Advice From Slate

My son, Steven, and daughter-in-law, Julia, are expecting their first child and our first grandchild next month. I had what I thought was a good relationship with Julia, but I find myself devastated. Julia has decided only Steven and her mother will be allowed in the delivery room when she gives birth. I was stunned and hurt by the unfairness of the decision and tried to plead with her and my son, but Julia says she “wouldn’t feel comfortable” with me there. I reminded her that I was a nurse for 40 years, so there is nothing I haven’t seen. I’ve tried to reason with Steven, but he seems to be afraid of angering Julia and will not help. I called Julia’s parents and asked them to please reason with their daughter, but they brusquely and rather rudely got off the phone. I’ve felt nothing but heartache since learning I would be banned from the delivery room. How can I get them to see how unfair and cruel their decision is?

Advertisement