Not Without My Niece
Amalah is on maternity leave (though she has left several items in the queue to be published) and Marinka of The Mouthy Housewives has graciously offered to step in today to offer her advice on this doozy of a situation.
I have a pretty awful and ugly family situation and I really don’t know what to do about it. I feel completely helpless and I thought maybe you and your readers may have some advice or suggestions on how to proceed. It is kind of long and involved, although I will try to make it as brief as I can.
My older sister died almost 4 years ago from cancer. She, my parents and I all live within a mile of each other. At the time, her daughter was 4 (almost 5)–now she is 8. She still lives close by with her dad.
At first it seemed we were all united as a family, together in our grief. Little by little, though, her husband withdrew from us and began to push us away. He has never been the easiest guy to get along with and the more time that passed, the less he wanted to have anything to do with us. My parents and I took turns watching my niece while he was at work until I got pregnant and then I mostly turned things over to them after my daughter was born.
It soon became apparent to me that my sister was the glue that held us all together. She must have worked really hard to keep everything going and everyone pleased. Her husband was constantly angry with my parents (who can be very overbearing and pushy, yes, but they always mean well). He was gruff and unreachable and things became very uncomfortable. He stopped calling me to babysit if he needed it and things were just very, very stilted and awkward. After a while, I ceased to speak to him at all and many, many months would go by before I’d have any contact with him. My parents still saw him daily, as they would watch my niece all day or, after she started school, put her on the bus or take her off the bus and watch her until he got home from work.
Things became even more complicated when he started dating his girlfriend. At first she seemed nice and my parents thought it would be good for my niece to have someone around the house again. About a year ago, his girlfriend moved in and ever since then, she has methodically and meticulously worked to remove every trace of my sister from that house and has made it more and more difficult for us to spend time with my niece. I have only met her once, this past December at my niece’s birthday party. She shook my hand and gave me the once over with a look of disgust on her face. Then she spent the next 2 hours trying to pretend like she wasn’t watching my every move.
I have heard over and over again from my parents how she speaks to them–rude is putting it mildly. She is apparently completely disrespectful to them and so is he. It is really hard for me to watch all of this. I am pretty sure that my parents die a little each day that they have to go through this. When my niece’s dad calls, my dad is super nice to him and I want to vomit. My dad tries to keep the peace and he rarely looses his cool although a few times recently he has said that he has never been more offended at how he is being treated. I know he tries to be even keeled so he won’t piss off my niece’s dad because we’re all afraid he won’t let us see her anymore. Someone once said, “He has the prize.” And it’s true. My niece is the prize.
A few times recently, my niece’s dad and his girlfriend have either been late or forgotten to pick up my niece at the bus stop after school and she has had to wait on her stoop for someone to come home. My parents are incensed. To make sure she wasn’t left outside again, my dad has taken to cruising by the bus stop to ensure that someone is there to meet her. Today my mom told me that my niece’s dad and his girlfriend have decided to enroll my niece in an after school program at a local Tae Kwon Do school Their van will pick her up at school, take her to the studio where she’ll do homework and take Tae Kwon Do lessons. This is actually pretty cool and my niece is excited and I am excited for her. However, the plan is for this to happen M-F. Which means that we will never see her! They do stuff on weekends so we typically get to visit with my niece after school. My mom is beside herself and my stomach aches just thinking about it. I’m so angry, so quietly angry.
I am positive that the girlfriend is quietly whispering in my niece’s dad’s ear. He may have never liked us but everything that has happened lately is so diabolical and I don’t see him doing this on his own. I want to ask her WHO THE EFF ARE YOU LADY? You’re his girlfriend, not his wife. She seems like a snake. My niece may be too young to stand up for herself and her Daddy is her man. It pains me to see how they treat her–they put her second all the time. I mean, yes, the Tae Kwon Do is neat but I also see it as now they don’t have to worry about remembering to pick her up or be home early. She’ll be out of their hair for a while, they don’t have to help her with her homework, etc. It’s all very convenient.
I love my niece, adore her and I never, ever see her. It is literally breaking my heart and it is making my parents even more wrought with grief. My niece is our link to my sister and they are essentially taking her away from us by making it virtually impossible to see her and spend time together. My daughter (who will be 3 soon) constantly asks me if we can play with my niece and I cannot take having to say “Niece is with her Daddy” again and again. These cousins should be able to build their relationship. I also have a son who is now 10 months and could potentially have no memory of ever having spent any time with her.
So tell me…what to do? Anything? Sit back and let this happen? (This is what I’ve done and it hasn’t worked.) I don’t feel like I have any leg to stand on to confront them. I just don’t know where to go or what to do or how to begin.
It certainly is an awful and ugly family situation and my heart breaks for you. Not only are you mourning your sister’s passing, but now you and your parents are being pushed out of your niece’s life. No one should have to stand for that, and hopefully you won’t have to.
Right off the bat, I have to say that much as the new girlfriend may upset you (and let’s face it, chances are great that she is threatened by your sister’s memory, and by you, by extension) you are going to have to let that go. Your instinct not to ask her who the eff she thinks she is and tell her off are excellent. You don’t need more problems from her.
From what you have told us, I wouldn’t be surprised if the girlfriend were lying in wait of your confronting her. Some people bask in the glow of confrontation, so don’t give her the satisfaction. In the long run, she may marry and divorce the dad, or she may not, but you are an aunt for LIFE.
Let’s focus on the ultimate goal—time with your niece. It’s obvious from your letter how much you care about her and it’s maddening that a grown man would stand in the way of such a loving presence in his child’s life.
And yet this is exactly what this dad has done.
If we are to be the most charitable to him, I’d suggest that his grief and anger over losing his wife is still so strong that he is lashing out at the world. Which may be understandable but is not acceptable at the expense of his daughter’s well-being.
He’s been rude to you, thwarted your attempts to see his daughter and alienated your family. It’s understandable that you have tremendous anger and resentment towards him. If your niece were not involved, I would say “have at him! Let him know exactly what you think of him!” I’d even stop by with a thesaurus in case you ran out of choice words.
But your niece is at the center of this, so we better hold off. At least until her 18th birthday.
So how do we make sure that you and your parents spend time with your niece? Let’s explore some options.
Although I know that you did not write in seeking legal advice, years of watching legal dramas on TV have taught me that it doesn’t hurt to check out your legal options.
Laws regarding family matters differ from state to state, but grandparents and aunts generally don’t have custodial rights or rights of visitation over the objection of a living parent. Nevertheless, it makes sense to consult with a local family law attorney to see if there is any legal hook that you and your parents can rely on. Our legal system isn’t perfect, but the courts do try to look out for the “best interests of the child”, which may be useful in your situation. If your sister left a Will, setting forth her wishes that her daughter continue to have contact with maternal relatives, it may further bolster your position; for even if you have no legal recourse, a reminder as to his late wife’s wishes may keep the father morally bound.
Outside of a full-fledged legal attack, your family should consider approaching the dad with your concerns. Is there a member of your family who would feel the most comfortable doing this, perhaps your dad? Explain that you respect his position as the father, but that you’d like to spend some time with your niece. In a non-confrontational way (this may require you to earn the gold medal in tongue biting), inquire if there is a way to do this that would be convenient for everyone involved.
If the father is involved with the church, speak to the minister to see if he or she would be willing to mediate between your family and the dad so that the niece would not miss out on the relationship with her mother’s side of the family. Would there be church-based activities that would interest your niece that you or your parents could volunteer to oversee?
Speak to the father about what kind of plans your niece has for the summer. That’s the time that we parents often scramble to fill in our kids’ days and he may be grateful if you offered to take your niece for an overnight or two. Hopefully, over time this could extend to vacations with your family, or with your parents.
Does the Tae Kwon Do school charge extra for door-to-door service? Perhaps you or your parents could pitch in with the driving. Of course I’m not suggesting that chauffeuring their granddaughter to and from martial arts events should be the extent of your parents’ relationship with your niece, but it’s a start.
Does the Tae Kwon Do school have a time when relatives can come in and see how the kids are doing? Mention to the dad that you’d love to come in and observe your niece and maybe take her out for dinner afterwards.
Do the dad and his new girlfriend go out to dinner and the movies by themselves? Since the dad stopped calling you for babysitting, make the first move—email him and offer. He may scoff at first, but the free babysitting offer is going to stick with him.
I’ve re-read your letter several times and I cannot point to a single mis-step that you or your parents have made in dealing with the dad. And I think it’s really important that you consider to take the high road, so that when you start spending time with your niece again, do your best to continue not to speak in a derogatory manner about her father or his girlfriend. Although you certainly have plenty to be upset about, unloading on an 8 year old child will not help.
Let her know that you are there for her, if she wants to talk about anything, or even nothing, and leave it at that. Do not try to make up for lost time by telling her about her mother, your suspicions that the girlfriend is trying to take your sister’s place or any other adult issue. Let her be a child and enjoy the hopefully renewed family bonds.
If your niece is like many, many 8 year old girls, she will love spending time with her younger cousins. And that relationship may organically lead to her requesting to spend more time with you and your parents. As long as the message that she receives from you is positive—that you love her and value her and will not put her in the position of choosing between you and her father (and his girlfriend), it will lay the groundwork to developing a relationship that does not depend on her father.
Good luck to you. I hope that with time, your and your parents’ relationship with this girl will blossom and that she will grow to appreciate and treasure the connection that you offer to her mother.
Thank you Marinka for your wise words. Again, you can follow Marinka’s advice over at The Mouthy Housewives.