I'm pregnant. Don't tell the family!

Estranged from my parents, I dread the baby announcement. How to minimize the suffering?

By Cary Tennis

Published September 2, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Hi, Cary,

For a lot of long-standing reasons related to mental health (mine ignored despite miserable, crippling depression since childhood; my parents' refusal to obtain treatment for me and their own still-untreated, difficult issues), my parents and I do not speak.

Currently, it's because we refused to drag our two small children, age 3 and 1, up most of the Eastern Seaboard for Christmas -- while they were both suffering from borderline pneumonia. We were constantly harangued for not visiting even before this, despite an inability to afford flying and an unwillingness to travel for two days with kids who scream in the car. My parents' massive insecurity also deludes them into believing we prefer my in-laws because my husband's parents are well off (in reality, they live closer and are kind, generous people). This makes me an ungrateful, money-hungry traitor who bars them from their grandchildren, the two deadliest crimes in their screwed-up family code.

I'd be glad to leave this detente as it is. I have never gotten emotional support from either of my parents and am trying to reconcile myself to never having it. And frankly, that's easier when I don't talk to them. I'd prefer to keep my children away and prevent NaNa from using them as social currency to boost her own self-esteem.

However, I'm now 12 weeks pregnant. All of our local friends know, and  we are going to tell my in-laws soon. I don't want my parents to find out on Facebook. But I also don't want to talk to them just because I'm pregnant. They wouldn't help with my difficult pregnancy -- for which I've been hospitalized once; I'll endure harassment if I refuse to schlep two small kids and my endlessly vomiting self 600 miles to stay in a small, un-air-conditioned house an hour from the nearest Target (literally. I timed it). I don't have a ton of excess mental energy right now to expend.

However, I can't bring myself to cut them off forever, and I worry that the longer I wait to spill the beans, the worse it'll be. They do genuinely love my kids -- and even me, despite their toxicity. It's possible for me to pick up the phone and pretend nothing has happened; my mom would gladly ignore the several months without talking. She's done it before. I have texted a few pics of the kids and gotten typical "how cute" responses to some. Do I just suck it up, let the baby news trickle onto Facebook, and take my chances? Call and tolerate the abuse I'll inevitably deal with in days or weeks? Make my husband do it? Text a belly pic and wait to see what happens? I adored my grandparents, who showered me with love and certainly screwed my mother up.


Dear Pregnant,

I suggest you pick the form of communication that gives you the greatest control and distance and involves the least amount of upset. That may mean sending your parents a letter in the mail, or even having your husband send them a letter. You want to send a personal note, at least, or they will be offended. But maybe you could attach a personal note to a more general sort of "family letter" that could be printed and sent, sort of like a combination of card and family newsletter. The nice thing about a letter in the mail is that you do have control over the process of communication. There is no immediate response. You get to put down exactly what you want to say.

I do think that telling them is important. Not telling them might have unexpected consequences -- such as having to explain to in-laws and others why you withheld this important news. Your parents might bring it up in conversation with others in a way that would be embarrassing to you. It might damage your reputation and cause social difficulties. And if it became family lore it might place a confusing burden on your children. Longstanding rifts are made of such expedient omissions.

So tell them, but in the most distanced and controlled way you can devise.

That's my first suggestion. My second suggestion is to learn about Bowen family systems theory.

Being estranged from your parents involves what Bowen family systems theory calls "emotional cutoff," and it has significant consequences. Learning about Bowen family systems theory would allow you to map, or predict, the likely consequences of certain moves within the family, and recognize how relationship patterns shift. For instance, Bowen's observations about the multigenerational transmission process may help you understand the differences and similarities between how you regarded your grandparents and how your children will regard their grandparents. It is also worth noting that Bowen's thinking on multigenerational transmission emphasizes that different siblings will have different relationships with their grandparents, and these differences will affect their choice of mate and future family development.

In short: Do the thing that meets your immediate needs and also can be sustained, as a practice, over the long term. Pick the most distanced and controlled way of communicating with your parents and stick with that. That way, your risk of having emotionally traumatic interactions with them is lessened, and therefore so is the risk of total emotional cutoff.

Cary Tennis

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Bowen Family Systems Family Grandparents Mental Illness Parents Pregnancy Since You Asked