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Toxic Family Ties

Toxic Families, Secret Pregnancies & Starting Over

By Amalah


I’ve been reading through your past advice on dealing with toxic families and wondered what you thought about just not telling my toxic family I’m pregnant.

Here’s the background: My parents divorced when I was in middle school. My mom has mental health issues, making it hard to have a relationship with her. I ended up living with my father and stepmother, both of whom were emotionally abusive, controlling and manipulative for over ten years.

I ended up moving to another country, cut off relations with my father and stepmother, got a great job, met a wonderful man and am now seven months’ pregnant.

The relatives back home have never supported anything I’ve done. The only emails or letters they send are to pressure me to “forgive” my father or to accuse me of abandoning family. I haven’t yet told them I’m pregnant because I know how much pressure they will heap onto me and how much stress that will bring on.

I’m seriously contemplating just not telling them about this kid at all. I don’t want my kid anywhere near these people anyway. I have no plans on moving back near any of them, and none of them have come here.

The only immediate problem is that my cousin, whom I adore, might come visit next year on her own. I have no idea what I’d do then.

What do you think?

-Fed up

If you’ve cut toxic people out of your life (and they know you’ve cut them out of your life), you are under no obligation to share anything with them going forward. I think you’ve got that part down, in regards to your father and stepmother, but other extended family members have continued to exist in a kind of gray area for you.

Given what you’re considering (not telling them the baby even exists, much less ever allow them to see the baby or be part of his/her life going forward), I’d say it’s probably time to move them out of the gray area and into the “I no longer have contact with these people or any emotional obligations to them” zone as well. Throw out the pleading/guilt-trip letters without opening them. Maybe even reply to their next email and tell them to no longer contact you, what’s done is done and their lack of support will no longer be tolerated. Or just add them to your blocked senders list so any future “WHY U ABANDON UR HORRIBLE FAMILY” emails go right into your spam folder.

As for your cousin, whom you “adore,” I assume she knows your situation and supports your continued estrangement, and thus would also support a request that she not discuss you or provide secondhand access to information about your life to the rest of the family. If you haven’t even told her about your pregnancy, I would, pronto. I don’t see a visit next year where you’re like, SURPRISE NINE-MONTH-OLD BABY! going particularly well.

I would also accept that it probably will inevitably get back to your relatives that you had a baby. Even if you’re not the one telling them, even if you pledge to never breathe a word or post a baby picture on Facebook. I think you can ask your cousin to not use her access/friendship to leak baby pictures or provide gossip-y ammunition about you to the rest of the family…but it would be unfair to order her to explicitly lie about the existence of a baby. I imagine she’s in a tough spot as well, remaining close to the “black sheep” of the family whom everybody else is essentially trying to guilt back into their manipulative, messed up world. I think you guys are due for a long heart-to-heart about what’s happening and what your life will look like going forward, baby and rest-of-the-family-wise, if you haven’t already.

But always remember: Just because these people are aware that your baby exists, that gives them NO RIGHTS to be part of his/her life and still puts ZERO OBLIGATION on you to accept or facilitate a relationship with them. Choosing to not tell them is simply Step One for you, and Step Two is following through with the long-term consequences of that choice, which is to finally and fully extricate yourself from them and their continued guilt and manipulation. So they find out you have a baby. So what? Doesn’t change the fact that you don’t want your kid anywhere near these people anyway. They are not welcome in your home or email inbox or brain space any longer. You’ve started over with a family of your own. A wonderful, hard-won, and fully earned fresh start.

Your cousin can remain the exception — not because she’s “family” but because she sounds like she’s been the only decent person to you, and you’ve chosen her as a FRIEND, almost in spite of the fact that she has ties to your toxic background. As long as she understands that, I think you’ll be fine.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Michele

    September 14, 2015 at 6:03 pm

    A suggestion?  Send a birth announcement after the fact.  At that point, you have informed them of a new relative, but you don’t have to respond to messages.  Your child may want to meet grandparents and extended family at some point when he/she is older.  While you prefer to cut your family off (which I applaud you for- that is never an easy decision), that may not be your child’s choice later on.  Also, sending the announcement will give cousin an idea of how the visit might be different than she envisioned (it is different to go see your adult cousin in another country than adult cousin and her young child in terms of what you might while she’s there).  

  • Amy M

    September 14, 2015 at 9:05 pm

    You are under no obligation to do anything. PERIOD! I cut ties with my family except for my stepbrother. I have a 5 year old daughter that has never asked me about my family at all. We do not live anywhere close to them and she will never meet them. My husband’s family lives closer, but the same is essentially true there as well. She has met them for less than 10 minutes total in her lifetime. She has no idea who they are and doesn’t ask. She has family – they just happen to be all the family I have chosen for us. She is missing out on nothing and I know she is loved by the best people I could ask for  in our lives! As far as she knows…these are her “real” family. Because they are! Your cousin can do as she wishes and share what she wishes because let’s be honest…you can’t stop her. My point to you is you have made your choice and that’s that. Family is a word that does not create obligation simply because. I support your choosing what is right for you and your family!

  • Sam

    September 14, 2015 at 11:16 pm

    It’s totally okay not to tell the family you’ve no relationship with!  My real father was abusive and his family condoned it and while I have had to talk to them a few times the past 10 years I have never let my son meet them and have no intention of sharing that I’m pregnant again.  Amy is right though,  you do need to tell your cousin.  If your family learns through the grapevine you’re having a little one,  oh well.  It’s a healthy choice keep that toxic relationship away from your child. 

  • Autumn

    September 15, 2015 at 12:38 am

    We didn’t tell a lot of friends (high school BFFs, don’t see often but the mutual love is always there) about our second pregnancy cause we never got around to it.  We weren’t hiding anything, but by the time I was ready to share, things got a little too Braxton-hicks and I was freaking out, so I didn’t want to jinx things.  By the time they settled down, I was 7 months, and if felt weird to announce at that point.

    So the comments on Facebook when my husband announced our baby’s birth were largely “I didn’t even know you were expecting!”  No one was upset, just surprised and happy for us. 

    So maybe just do the we were too busy to let you know until we had great news for the cousin, who if she loves you truly won’t care.  As far as the rest of the family, if they find out , great, if not, no biggie.  Don’t change your rules just cause you have a baby.  Hoping family will change after a baby arrives is setting you up for disappointment.  

  • Lilly

    September 15, 2015 at 9:43 am

    In this kind of a situation, just be sure you have a will determining who would take care of your child if something happened to both of you. Particularly, if you don’t want certain people to get custody.

  • KA

    September 15, 2015 at 9:41 pm

    If you are asking how (or if) you should tell your cousin before she visits, I think a simple phone call would probably do the trick. You can’t ask her to outright lie to family (or anyone, really), and chances are she already knows where you stand when it comes to including certain family members in your life.
    If you are asking whether it’s okay/a good idea to keep a child a secret for the foreseeable future, I think that merits a different conversation. The fact that you are considering keeping your child a secret tells me that you haven’t yet settled on exactly how far you are willing to go regarding severing communication/relationships with the toxic people in your family. Keeping a child a secret because you don’t want to include these people in your life/your child’s life while still accepting mail/emails/whatever from them seems a little disingenuous, and may only serve to further complicate things (both for you, as you try to create boundaries, and for these members of your family, if they are trying to figure out whether they are allowed in your life or your child’s life). My suggestion is to see a therapist. I had complicated relationships with toxic family members, and it took a lot of work with a therapist to sort out where I stood and how to set healthy boundaries for me and my new family. Pregnancy kind of forced me to examine whether I really was ready to cut all ties, how closely I tried to guard information about myself and what I wanted to tell my son when he asked me why I don’t look anything like Grandma or Grandpa (who are my adoptive parents). So – take a deep breath. Call your cousin and share your happy news (congratulations! Babies are awesome!), explain that you aren’t sure how or if you will share this news with other family members, but that you will share it when you are ready (or not!) and then get thyself to a qualified therapist, particularly one who specializes in mental health and abusive family of origin dynamics. Good luck!!

  • Dana

    September 16, 2015 at 10:18 am

    I wouldn’t tell them anything until after the birth if you think there is ANY chance of them trying to insert themselves into the situation at the hospital or give you lots of guilt over how you choose to handle them.  I don’t think you need to hide the birth once it is over, but that should be your time and not risk ruining it (physically or emotionally) with people you don’t want to deal with.  I like the idea of a Facebook announcement or something neutral and then not worrying about who the word spreads to.