By Maggie Mulqueen
Having lived through abandonment, it has been difficult to trust that separation can be a component of closeness.
It is because of my relationship with my two older brothers that I questioned whether I ever wanted to be a parent.
“Are you anyone’s sister?” my then four-year-old son, Taylor, asked one evening as I was making his bed, I suddenly felt tears welling up. It was a rare quiet moment between us. At the time he’d been trying to sort out family relationships—trying to comprehend how his grandpa was also his dad’s father.
My brothers weren’t at my wedding. They weren’t at our father’s funeral. They have never met my husband or my three sons. In truth, I don’t know where my brothers are. I haven’t seen either of them for more than forty years.
So how to begin to answer this question? “Yes” was my answer and that is the truth. But of course, rather than ending the conversation, my answer led to questions that were harder. The next question was “Whose sister are you?” “Well, I have two brothers” I said. We were still on fairly familiar ground as I turned to the wall to hide my tears and tuck in the top sheet. “Where do they live?” “How old are they?” “When will I see them?”
When my mother divorced my father, I was 12. The years preceding my parents’ divorce were filled with fighting that at times turned violent. Not long after, each of my brothers disappeared from the family. They severed connections with each of us, including each other. Their absence broke my parents’ hearts. I functioned in the world as an only child, shuttling between my parents for holidays and bringing the three of us together for major milestones in my life. I vividly remember the shocked reaction of my future in-laws when they learned I had brothers but no idea how to contact them. As a parent myself I now have more sympathy for my in-laws’ response. As a young woman I felt shame.
After tucking my son into bed, I closed his bedroom door and sat on the landing. Although my son had been satisfied with my answers that night, I knew more questions would come.
It is rare for me to be questioned directly about the topic of siblings. I have learned how to offer only enough information about my brothers to be polite. It can be especially awkward around the holidays (Who are you visiting? Who is coming to dinner? Where do your siblings live?). But that night I decided the tactic I take with the rest of the world, one of evasion, was not one I wanted to use with my children. I wanted to provide information that was age appropriate, while leaving the door open for further questions later. As much distance as I try to put between my childhood and myself, I didn’t want my children to perceive the topic of my family of origin as hidden or forbidden.
Like all parents, I wanted to foster close bonds among my children, and so I created many traditions to lay the framework for a strong sense of family among the five of us. But when my sons fought or pulled away from me, I felt myself panic. The intensity was rooted in memories of family fighting and laced with fear that my sons would leave me, as my brothers had left me. Having lived through abandonment, it has been difficult to trust that separation can be a component of closeness.
Taylor, who is now twenty-one, called home recently and said, “It’s time, Mom. I want to know more about your brothers than just their names and ages.”
In the intervening years since that night when Taylor was four, the questions had been infrequent but I always answered them as truthfully as possible. As a young adult, however, my son has more probing questions. Taylor’s interest in family relationships became a theme in his own writing during college. This time I did not turn and hide my tears but trusted him with painful details of my childhood that few people have ever heard.
Even though he has never met his uncles, Taylor has questions—about what they look like, what they do for work. He also wonders if he has cousins. I could not answer these questions and doubt if I could even recognize my brothers after so many years. He is a nephew as I am a sister, but only in the abstract. Yet, the fact that I was a sister, the youngest in our family of five, shaped my childhood. The fact that there are two uncles my sons have never met has shaped their childhood as well.
Why is it that we have words such as “widowed,” “divorced,” and “orphaned” but no way to describe ourselves as siblings? Taylor’s recent questions led me to search the Internet. I tried to find my brothers, not necessarily to make contact with them, but to see if they were still alive and if I would recognize them. We are now all in our 60s, a far cry from the young adults we were the last time we saw one another. With some effort I found out they are still alive; both are married. There was no mention of either of them having children. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any images of them.
The existence of the Internet has only compounded my ambivalence about connecting with my brothers. Now that it’s easier to find them, am I somehow obligated to do that? Some days I think I will try to contact my brothers, but other days I feel less inclined to make myself vulnerable to be hurt again. Growing up with them made me strong in many ways. We were competitive both intellectually and physically. Their presence taught me assertiveness and gave me insight into gender differences. Their absence has also made me strong, but in other ways. I place a premium value on relationships and pride myself on the depth and longevity of my connections to others. Ironically, I am probably a better mother to my sons because I had brothers.
There are also days when I find myself wondering if my brothers have ever been tempted to search for me, their sister. Has anyone ever asked either of them, “Are you anyone’s brother?”
Maggie Mulqueen, Ph.D. is a psychologist, writer, and mother of three sons. She lives and works in the Boston area.