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I'm Being Guilted Back Into The Toxic Family Sludge

I’m Being Guilted Back Into The Toxic Family Sludge

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I’m a huge fan of your Advice Smackdown, and I’ve read just about every response regarding poisonous family, but I don’t think you’ve addressed anything quite like this.

I am the mother of an 11 week old perfect angel baby that I love so much. And my family is not a part of her life. I guess I’m wondering if I’ve made the right decision. My father is deceased, as are his mother and father and most of his family, so that’s not the issue–it’s my mom’s side of the family that is the problem. I was raised by my grandmother because my mom was not a fit parent (READ: exotic dancer addicted to drugs who is so emotionally damaged that at 44 she is still stalking her last boyfriend who has made it clear he’s NOT INTERESTED). She’s cleaned up her act a bit, but she’s still an emotional black hole. Not that my grandmother was any better. I was constantly subjected to a diatribe about what a piece of sh*t my father was, and how selfish my mother is, and the various reasons why I’m just as terrible as they are.

The last time I saw or spoke to my mom was at my baby shower, which my mother-in-law threw. MIL is a wonderful lady and one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet. She tried to get my family involved in the shower planning and throwing, but no one was interested…that is, until they wanted to be featured front and center. My MIL reserved seats near the front of the room for the immediate family (including my mom, grandmother and sisters) but because they were in the second row, not the first, my mom threw an almighty fit, embarrassing herself and me, and left the shower 10 minutes into it. That night, she called my MIL at 4 in the morning to curse her out. Then she sent text messages to my husband and me telling us we were selfish, self-centered a**holes who should rot in hell. Yeah. That happened. She’s never once attempted to apologize for her outrageous behavior, and any time my sister mentions that she should, my mother says, “I’m the elder, I do not have to apologize to her.”

Even worse, my youngest sister, who is still a minor (17), is homeless. Why? Because my mom “can’t stand her” and doesn’t want to be around her. Because of my father’s early death, my sister receives social security benefits–which my mom takes. When my sister confronts her about it, she tells her that she deserves the money for the years of child support my father didn’t pay (are you seeing the “pity me” pattern here?) and to get a job. AT SEVENTEEN!

Meanwhile, my grandmother has not been quiet about her disdain for my husband’s family. She doesn’t like this one, that one is a b*tch, etc. And she doesn’t just say it to me, she says it to other members of my husband’s family! I asked her politely to stop this behavior, and she agreed. Then, at the hospital the day of the birth, she told my husband’s family, “When you all get tired of baby girl, we’ll still be here for her.” What is that about? So I confronted her again. She cried and swore up and down that she didn’t say that. But I found out afterward that she was on an obscene amount of prescription pain killers that day, so who knows what she said?!

She’s also chosen to take my mom’s side regarding the baby shower fiasco. The two of them even went so far as to have my grandfather (whom I love dearly and respect greatly) call me and ask me to “be the bigger person” and begin speaking to them again.

The only reason I would even begin to reconsider is because my sister has begged me to. She has an 18 month old daughter, and we want our little girls to be close, but how can they be if I refuse to go to family functions? And what if one day my niece asks my daughter why she doesn’t visit Peanut? I’m not even sure why my sister wants them in her life, considering they’ve smoked indoors while watching her child (yes, really) and my mom put COFFEE in my niece’s bottle–which resulted in a hospital visit.

Ultimately, I believe that if my mom can’t be bothered to provide for her own child, why should I believe she’ll be there for mine? I don’t want my daughter to face the sort of disappointment I’ve experienced my whole life. And I really don’t want her to deal with the negativity coming from my grandmother. And I REALLY don’t trust either of them to stay off of drugs, so…is it possible I’m being too hard on them, or am I justified in keeping my baby bear FAR away from their toxic influence?

Angry Momma Bear


Wow. Holy crap. Yes. No.

My jaw is hanging open and my fingers are typing sentence fragments because DAMN GURL. Are you justified in keeping your baby away from these people? And yourself? Um, yes. More than a little bit justified. I don’t even want to read anything else about these people, much less join them for Thanksgiving.

I’m sorry your sister and grandfather are even trying to drag you back into this mess — I’m trying to picture what your average “family function” would even look like, honestly, since everybody hates everybody and the favorite past time seems to be telling each other how terrible you all are and being generally awful. Maybe it would be like playing Cards Against Humanity, without any actual cards? Good God. I’m sorry your sister is apparently clinging to a peacekeeper role without seeing that she’s really becoming an enabler — by guilting you back into their sphere of emotional and verbal abuse.

Do. Not. Let. Her.

Your children can be close without you having anything to do with your mother or grandmother. Kids don’t “get” family relationships and titles for a very, very long time — they won’t know what “cousins” really mean and if your daughter never attends the family functions your niece won’t grow up with her in that context. It would be one thing if you abruptly stopped going when the girls were older, but by never attending in the first place, the girls probably won’t have any idea that it “should” be otherwise for quite some time. (Unless, of course, you and your daughter’s absence is gossiped about and criticized in front of your niece, but that’s still not your doing or fault. That’s on your sister for putting her child in that situation, or for trying to use her child as a pawn to in her misguided peacekeeper role.) And I suspect that by the time the girls are old enough to really understand that oh, we’re cousins but one of us doesn’t hang with the other cousins, they’ll also be old enough to understand that Grandma and Great-Grandma are kind of nuts and have problems with a lot of people. And if your daughter asks and you think she’s still too young for the details, you can keep it pretty vague. “Grandma and Great-Grandma have problems with a lot of people, including me. It’s not your fault, but we’re all happier if we don’t see each other that often.”

Arrange time with your sister and niece away from everybody else and include them whenever you feel it’s appropriate, but stand up and explain that you are very sorry, but a reconciliation is not going to happen and you need her to stop bringing it up. You’ve made a choice you feel is best for your daughter’s safety and your sanity — you can appreciate and respect that she’s made different choices, so please respect yours.

But one thing. One last thing before you go. Your youngest sister. She is too young and vulnerable for you to walk away from, and she needs HELP. Surely your sister has SOMEONE she can turn to — a guidance counselor, a social worker, Child Protective Services, a lawyer who does child advocacy work pro bono. I know the clock is ticking and she’s probably thinking it’s easier to just break free and start acting like she’s 18 already, but she is still a minor. And already homeless, and already careening toward a future of Very Bad Things. If your mother really has fully kicked her out , denying her essential needs, while keeping her benefits, that’s not just abusive, that’s illegal. Here’s the SSA’s article on Misuse of Benefits by a Representative Payee, and here’s where that misuse can be reported online, or by phone or mail. Have your sister over and help her fill out the form or make the call.  Then call a child abuse hotline and report what’s happening anonymously.

Please, please, please: Stand strong, protect yourself and your daughter…but also your sister.

Published July 7, 2014. Last updated March 12, 2018.
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 [email protected].

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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  • AzerPhyre

    July 7, 2014 at 11:18 am

    Oh Angry Momma Bear, I cannot express how much you’re not alone in situations like these and I sincerely hope you can find the support you need.

    Like you, I have one particularly toxic relationship in my family. An older sister of mine is bipolar and schizophrenic with extensive drug and abuse history, with a violent husband who is in and out of prison, and three children of her own that she cannot care for at the age of 33. On many occasions (far too many to count) she has made her intentions and actions only regarding her. This has been to the point where she made a giant scene within a children’s hospital when a doctor had her escorted off the property for trying to steal medicine and supplies for “personal use,” all while her oldest was actively being cared for in the ICU for severe encephalitis; Just one of many examples I could provide.

    Now, I am 29 days away from the due-date of my first born, and having read your brave statements and request for guidance, it really struck the heartstrings. I went over a year without talking to my sister or her husband. She had no idea I had moved to another city, became engaged to a wonderfully incredible man, or had become pregnant – well, up until I was blindsided by her “visiting” our parents the last time I trekked back to the homestead. Honestly, I kept any communication with her as brief as I could, and I still refuse to cave to her emotional blackmail. Simply put, my sister will not be a part of *my* family. She will not be privvied to my child, my impending marriage, or my home any more than an absolute stranger and I’ve asked the rest of the family and our close friends to respect that. She does not get my phone number or address, she will not receive holiday greeting cards, she does not “pass go.” If she can’t come to terms of being a functioning adult – even for her own children (who my aging parents are about to fight for custody to have) – then that’s it. Full stop.

    Here’s the thing: Sometimes, our own best intentions and healthy patterns can’t cancel out the choices others make. It isn’t an easy decision to come to, to make, or to act on, but sometimes estrangement can be the right choice for you. It was for me. In the end, it’s not about what the other person did to you. This is about you feeling like you’re making the best decision you can for you and yours. Just don’t forget to acknowledge to yourself that you will be grieving some lost relationships, and that grieving will be an important part of letting go and moving on. If you take anything from what Amy said, or what these comments are going to read, just know this:

    You were not created to live depressed, defeated, guilty or unworthy. You are allowed to terminate toxic relationships. You are allowed and encouraged to walk away from people who hurt you, intentionally or not. You are allowed to be angered, selfish, and unforgiving by these circumstances. Just make sure you are taking care of yourself. With that, *your* family – biological or not – will fall into place and you will find a soft place to land.

    “Keep your head held high, and your fists down.”

  • Tiffany

    July 7, 2014 at 11:42 am

    ALL of what Amy said. Stay away. These are not people doing anything to demonstrate what loving, caring family they would be to your daughter.

    And, you know, if you can… maybe look into some counseling for yourself. You dealt with a lot growing up, and while it sounds like you’re doing GREAT and really have it together, an objective 3rd party trained at helping you identify the unhealthy patterns that seem so normal to you that you don’t readily see them could be really valuable to you. And maybe how to be there for your sister and niece without getting dragged back into that toxic sphere. 

  • Martha

    July 7, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    Yes. All of what Amy said. Especially for your youngest sister. 

  • Lauren

    July 7, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    Wow, I just really want to hug you. First and foremost, give yourself the credit you absolutely deserve for breaking the cycle of abuse in your family by having a strong marriage and a baby you clearly adore. Second, Amy is right–it’s time to call for reinforcements pronto before things get any worse. If your older sister isn’t helping your little sister, you need to. Call CPS, call a child advocate attorney, call a social worker, call everyone you can think of because the more noise you make, the better the chances she will get the help she needs. She may be turning 18 soon but she is still a CHILD. 

    As for your older sister, I completely understand you wanting to maintain a relationship with both her and your little niece. What I don’t understand is why on earth your sister would even think of asking you to associate with your family when clearly, they treat you terribly. You’re both adults. If you two want your kids to see one another, make it happen without the rest of the family. Your children don’t need to be exposed to that toxic environment and neither do you and your sisters.

    Your mother is not going to change. Your grandmother is not going to change. So all you can do is get as FAR away from them as possible for your the sake of your happiness and the happiness of your husband and daughter. Your MIL sounds wonderful and I hope you can lean on her for emotional support. And THAT is the kind of grandmother your daughter deserves, NOT your self-centered mother. I would also suggest talking to a counselor or therapist for your own health and well-being. Sometimes it helps to have someone completely outside the family to vent to and reassure you you’re doing the right thing.

    I wish you the best of luck. Keep it up Mama Bear! Your daughter is very lucky to have you!

  • Caroline

    July 7, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    Yes to everything Amy has said, but just one thing; if your grandfather is a wonderful person, then what has he done to resolve this ghastly situation? Has he protected you, taken care of you, got rid of your grandmother /mother, helped your little sister… no? Then… well… he may be very sweet and a basically kind guy, and I’m sure he is, and against the rest, seems wonderful, but weakness and enabling toweringly toxic situations is actually not the hallmark of a wonderful person. That he would drag you back in is a sign that you might be better off keeping your distance. Really.

    • MR

      July 7, 2014 at 6:46 pm

      Yes, THIS! He may be sweet, but he is not being kind to YOU. If he were, he would want what is best for YOU, which means he would tell you he loves you and understands why you want nothing to do with your grandma and mom.

  • Slydegirll

    July 7, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    so a) YES agree with Amalah. yesyesyesyes. 

    And I was thinking as I read your letter, that I wonder if there’s still a part of you that thinks it’s….normal? not unhealthy? for families to function like your mom and the extended side seem to. Part of my family functions very similarly, and actually, without reasons like drugs involved – they just somehow naturally see it as OK to throwadult temper tantrums and cuss people out for little to no reason and make horrible comments to people’s faces, etc. And to them, this is…exactly how families function. Nothing abnormal here. Maybe even nothing unhealthy here – this is just how they were always taught to interact with each other, this is what’s acceptable, etc. 

    But its sooooo not acceptable or healthy. Not that every family should exist in perfect harmony, but those sorts of behaviors are harmful in so many ways we don’t even realize. And its likely that…they’ll never change that behavior. but you! have a chance to remove your daughter from situations where she’ll learn behaviors like that! and exclude yourself from such toxic communication! Bravo to you. It’s hard, but it’s so worth it! (My mom lived through this, and she’s SO much more at peace today, even though she had to leave all but one member of her family in the dust entirely because of just such behavior.)

  • Kat

    July 7, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    Oh dear. Stay away from those folks. I know it can be really hard to cut out basically your entire family, but remember: by not doing so, you are teaching your daughter that “family” can treat you any way they like, while you would likely never accept such toxic, hurtful behavior from anyone else. That has been my main reason for staying away from my biological dad (and my biological mother’s entire family) – I would never want to give my son the impression that it’s okay to associate with such unstable, angry and abusive people, whether they are family or not. Lean on your MIL, and trust that other people will come into your daughter’s life that will fill any missing spots where your family can’t be. There are tons of sweet neighbors, friends of my adoptive parents, and members of my husband’s family that adore our son and treat both he and I with the respect and love that family should. Those are the people I want around him, and anytime I feel shaky in my resolve I just remind myself that I am teaching my son a valuable lesson about what to do when other people’s behavior is dangerous or toxic.

  • MR

    July 7, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    I’m sorry, but someone who put coffee in a baby’s bottle is someone to cut out of your life completely! And that your sister still has anything to do with them after they did that to her child simply shows how messed up her priorities are. Urge her to get away from them. She can have a relationship with you, and her daughter with yours, but NOT at the sacrifice of their personal safety. It is not safe for them to be around your mother or grandmother. Your grandmother may not harm them physically, but she is definitely emotionally abusive. Why would you EVER put your child into that situation? The relationship with a cousin is not worth her safety. Stay away from them. Meet with your sister and her child separately if you want to, but do not get sucked back into the family dynamic, and please DO NOT feel guilty about staying away from them.

  • Ellie

    July 7, 2014 at 9:30 pm

    This isn’t exactly your situation, but Emily Yoffe (Dear Prudence from Slate) wrote an amazing article about how forgiveness and keeping relationships with toxic parents is basically overrated. Many people who suffered abuse at the hands of their parents are routinely encouraged to maintain ties or forgive past wrongs in the name of closure or the value of family. However, they do JUST FINE and are finally able to heal once they cut the offending parties out of their lives forever.

    • Suzy Q

      July 8, 2014 at 6:52 pm

      This is an excellent article. I don’t forgive my abuser, and I never will. Toxic relationships are just that: toxic. We can sometimes only care for ourselves and those who truly care about us, and move on as best we can.

      LW, I hope you find peace and strength in Amy’s words and those of the commenters. Your little family unit deserves it.

  • Michelle B

    July 8, 2014 at 11:54 am

    Due to a toxic family situation, my sister and I stopped having interactions with my grandmother at 14. I’m the oldest of 8 cousins, and admittedly we didn’t see them as much as we probably would have without the disruption. It’s of course easier to maintain relationships with “easy”, obvious visits like holidays. However, my parents and my aunts and uncles made efforts for us to visit without my grandmother involved before she passed away 8 years ago. Now, my sister and I drink beer with our cousins and play games at family picnics, and overall have just fine relationships with them. The same will be true of your daughter and your niece, despite cutting out your mother and grandmother which you absolutely must do. Take care of yourself and your sister, and do look into therapy.

  • JMH

    July 8, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    My husband has been estranged from his family for decades. He (and I) tried to mend things, but it just wasn’t worth it. His sister has some mental health issues and was beyond horrible to him a few years ago. Since then, he has basically stopped all interactions with them. It has been so much better since then…holidays are easier, we don’t have to worry when the phone rings, etc. He is thinking of adding something to his will that they will get NOTHING from his estate if he passes away. (Yeah, it is that bad) I struggled with this (and still do sometimes) but my pastor told me that sometimes you have to forgive from afar and protect your family. I pray that they all find happiness, but I won’t expose my family to them anymore

  • Leslie

    July 8, 2014 at 11:55 pm

    While I was fretting about a particularly difficult sibling to a coworker, she said: “Leslie, you have two little girls that need you. Your sister is an adult. She does not need you.” Everything clicked after that, and I haven’t felt guilty since. Good luck and remember that you are a finite resource – allocate yourself wisely!