Perspective | Carolyn Hax: How To Handle Estranged Brother Now That He Has A Child

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Hi, Carolyn: My brother and I are estranged for reasons that are reasonable to me (and to my therapist). One bone of contention for him — just one vertebra in an ossuary of contention, really — is that I have not made a pilgrimage to meet his new child.

I’d like to have a relationship with his child, and for my children to know their cousin, but contact with my brother is always deeply, lingeringly awful. He doesn’t visit my kids.

I feel comfortable with the boundaries I’ve drawn with him but am not sure how those translate to the next generation beyond sending gifts, pictures, etc. Basically, I don’t want to get on a plane to make a ceremonial visit to satisfy his sense of misplaced propriety — but since my choice affects his child, I don’t feel as comfortable with the line I’ve drawn as I do about the lines I’ve drawn with him.

He won’t share pictures of his kid with me and restricts all access until I make this trip, which of course won’t solve our other lifelong issues. What would you do?

— Estranged Sibling

Estranged Sibling: I’d feel terrible for his child, I’m pretty confident of that.

But I hope my sympathetic-pragmatism system would kick in from there to protect me and my family.

It does seem a little chilly or detached not to go meet your new nibling, sure, if we subject the basics of this situation to almost zero scrutiny.

But throw in covid, public travel, a child too young to be vaccinated, your own children that you’re responsible for and the emotional fallout you suffer from seeing him, and it starts to look like lunacy for you to make this trip or for anyone to expect it.

The pudding that proves this: your brother’s reaction. Where a functional adult would express and then manage his disappointment, your brother has instead used his baby to extort you for the attention he wants. That is some seriously messed up stuff (to use the clinical term for it).

Recognizing this deep dysfunction, your reflexive response is a kind one — to want some connection at least to the child, who of course is innocent. Maybe it’s something you want to do for your own kids, to give them as much of the close-extended-family experience as you can, or maybe you believe you can offer his child a cushion of uncles, aunts and cousins from life with a toxic dad.

Either way, it’s kind but probably doomed. You won’t bond with the child during one ceremonial visit or even with one a year, and you probably won’t find more exposure to your brother sustainable, and your brother probably won’t allow you to get close to anyone in his family on anyone’s terms but his own.

So the calculation I’d be making now isn’t what’s right for the children or what’s bearable for me, but instead what’s possible. That’s it. See what facts you have to work with, and figure out what you can accomplish with them, if anything. Regular contact through photos, letters, video-chatting and gifts, maybe, as the child gets older. Your therapist is in a good position to help you figure this out.

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