On a recent morning before school, while zipping up his fall vest, my son Lucien announced that his father and I will make the best grandparents ever.
“When I have a son,” Lucien added, “if I have a son, I’ll let him come see you when he’s 5 or 6 years old.”
I gently explained that in most families grandparents get to know kids from day one, not when they are 5 or 6. This comes as a revelation to Lucien, because he has no grandparents.
I haven’t spoken to either of my parents, or my two brothers, since long before Lucien was born. The estrangement was my choice, the hardest–and best–decision I’ve ever made. But when I decided to cut my parents out of my life at the age of 28, after a childhood of physical and verbal abuse, and young adult years filled with dysfunction, I didn’t think about how the choice would one day shape my child’s life. I’ve protected my son from my family, but I’ve also kept him from knowing what it means to have grandparents.
Because, to make things even more complicated, my husband is an only child whose parents both died before we were married. Which means our son has no grandparents, no first cousins, no aunts or uncles. On top of that we struggled for years to have a child. I became pregnant with Lucien on a very lucky round of IVF.
And so we are three. (Four, if you count the dog.)
Lucien has known about my parents and the estrangement for a couple of years now. My explanations for it grow more nuanced as he gets older, but, of course, I simplify. There’s only so much even an emotionally precocious child can take on.
When he began asking questions as a preschooler, (“Mommy, do you have a mommy?”) I relied on fairy tales, populated with villains and heroes, to try and explain why I don’t see my parents, and why I haven’t allowed him to meet them.
“Not all mommies and daddies are nice, babe,” I would say. “Most are–almost always. But sometimes, unfortunately, there are mean mommies, and mean daddies. Like in Cinderella. Or Hansel and Gretel. That’s the kind I had. But now I have you and Daddy.”
Over the course of many conversations, Lucien has taken this in. He deals with it well, or seems to. He tells me our family is the perfect size, that “if we had any more love we would explode.”
It’s true that our cozy Brooklyn apartment, our compact family of three, overflows with love. But I realize Lucien has no idea what he’s–what we’re all–missing. Even harder, though, is helping Lucien deal with the knowledge that the person he loves the most in the entire world (that would be me) had bad things happen to her as a child, and at her own parents’ hands.
I struggle with what to say to him. How could a parent hurt a child? How could a daughter not see her own mommy and daddy?
We’ve talked about hitting and name-calling, and how terrifying it is when the person meant to take care of you doesn’t know how. How my father couldn’t control his temper, and my mother decided to stay with him. I’ve explained my decision to remain estranged from my family of origin, and my sadness that our relationship had to come to this.
It wasn’t always bad in my home, though, and that’s hard to explain, too. Once, I told Lucien that my parents were “mean” 10% of the time, and nice the other 90%. He clings to this woefully inadequate mathematical formula, happy that the good times outweighed the bad. I don’t have the heart to explain that not getting hit or called a bad name isn’t exactly the same as a loving environment. That what we three have managed to carve out for ourselves is more precious than I can possibly say.
One day, soon enough, he’ll figure that out for himself.
Read more from Jessica about this in her new Amazon Kindle Single, Estranged.