I have an aunt who has been much like a mother to me my whole life. Growing up, I would go visit her and she would come see us regularly. Even now in adulthood, we spend a lot of time together and she has been a haven for me during the pandemic.
Recently, though, in speaking to my mother, I found out that my father and my beloved aunt often fought while I was growing up. Sometimes, the conflict was even about me—over what each person thought I needed. I was shocked to hear the information because I never suspected anything as a child. My mom said it was important to her that I have close relationships with other adults who cared for me, not just my parents. She couldn’t have predicted better because as an adult, I’ve turned to my aunt in many moments of grief.
Recently, I found out that my father and my beloved aunt often fought while I was growing up… I was shocked to hear the information because I never suspected anything as a child.
My mother and I have had a year of struggling very heavily with each other, and it started to worry me. I was incredibly close to my maternal grandmother and I couldn’t fathom that my children would be able to have a relationship with my mother if she and I were unable to communicate. But over the course of this year, we have learned how to communicate better. We have been able to develop some practices that have left the door open for my mom to better participate in my children’s lives, even if she and I are not seeing eye to eye. Here are some of the rules that have helped:
1. Set boundaries
I once directed a show where the star sang a song about setting boundaries and how liberating it can be. While I loved the song at the time, I wasn’t sure how to set boundaries in my own life. How does one set a boundary without hurting someone’s feelings? How do you avoid the feeling that you are failing someone else?
Truthfully, though, in the past year, the times when my mom and I are doing the best are when one of us sets a boundary—and the other person respects it. For example, my mother stresses over a lot of other people. I find that kind of worry triggering. The other day, she started fussing over someone who had walked into the room while we were FaceTiming. I found my anxiety rising. I realized I shouldn’t try to control how she felt about the situation, but I would do better if I didn’t have to hear the conversation. So I asked for what I needed: for her to mute the microphone. After she happily complied, I didn’t have to hear the side conversation and she tended to what she needed. It was a win-win situation.
If the person you are struggling to communicate with would safely respond to boundaries, try setting some. That can help protect you and your family from any kind of communication breakdown while still keeping that person in your life. My mother and I had a few months when we couldn’t speak to each other without getting incredibly upset. This new exercise with boundaries has helped us stay in each other’s day-to-day lives without either of us feeling triggered.
2. Plan playdates for your kids (without you there)
If being in communication with the person is too difficult, sending your child over to someone else’s home is a way to have them spend time together without you having to interact with them. My mother and I have already agreed that even if she and I were having a hard time, grandkids would always be welcome in her home for as long as we wanted. I realized she modeled this after what she’d done for me growing up.
When I was in elementary school, my mother started sending me to my aunt’s house during the summers for a couple weeks at a time. Sometimes, my grandmother would come with me, and we would plan what felt like epic adventures: walks in forest preserves, movies to rent, gardens to tend, hang-out time with my baby cousins, and so much more. Because of this time spent together, my aunt and I have an incredible relationship. She was part of my pod during the early months of the pandemic, with many days spent together swimming in Lake Michigan, sharing meals, and puttering around each other’s homes. If we didn’t have that foundation from childhood, it would have been much harder to develop this relationship as an adult.
My mother planned out situations in which my aunt and father wouldn’t have to interact but I could still spend time with her. When my grandparents passed away, when I experienced a miscarriage, and when my mother and I have been unable to communicate, my aunt has always been a resource for me.
3. Never badmouth
Part of the beauty of my relationship with my aunt was that I never suspected that she and my father disagreed so vehemently. Whenever I spent time with her, she never said a harsh word about my dad. She was very loving toward my parents and I never thought otherwise.
Similarly, I did not hear anything negative from my parents. As I mentioned before, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I was made aware of the tension. They all gave me the opportunity to develop my own understanding of who my aunt was for me. They may have all been struggling as siblings and in-laws, but she and I were not usually struggling as aunt and niece. I can count on one hand the times I have fought with her, and every single time, we have sat down and resolved our issues through communication.
I would never have been able to do any of that if I had constantly been hearing about how terrible she was from my father. It’s important to note that it would have been a different story if my aunt was being harmful toward me—that shouldn’t be tolerated for your children, ever. But in my circumstance, it worked.
My mom has been such an amazing grandmother to my nieces and nephews. Any children of mine would be missing out if she wasn’t in their lives. But that doesn’t mean I have to sacrifice what makes sense for me and my own boundaries. Navigating family is hard, but I’ve always been a firm believer that people who love and care for my kids are always good to keep in their lives.