Updated: Sep 12
“Spiteful words can hurt your feelings, but silence breaks your heart.” - C. S. Lewis
Dear Used-To-Be Sister,
I’m not writing you because I’m under any illusion that you’ll take the time to read what I have to say. At this point we’re at month six and counting of you ghosting me (and your nephew) for the second time in less than a year. The first time you ghosted us we didn’t hear from you for more than nine months. To say I’m over your so-called love for us is an understatement.
I’m also not writing you this open letter with the misguided hope that my words—were you to bother to read them—would somehow melt the ice wall you’ve erected between us. I didn’t put that wall there, and I’ve done way too much healing of my own mother wound to think for a second that it’s on me to bring it down. Only you can do that.
I’m writing this open letter to you—like everything else I write about intergenerational trauma for the Mother Wound Project—for two reasons.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
I can't save our sisterhood, but I can shine a light for other siblings facing this darkness of family trauma.
Pain within families matters. It matters for you. It matters for me. It matters for every single one of us on this earth. Would it be easier for me to stay quiet about family trauma, particularly about our family trauma? Hell yes. But would it be right for me to stay quiet when I’ve been tasked with speaking up about it? No. I’d rather be guilty for speaking imperfectly than guilty for staying silent.
A long time ago I wrote on my social media, “Pain travels through families until someone is willing to feel it.” I believe this is true today as much as I did the day I wrote it. Ultimately this open letter isn't for you or for me. It's for all the courageous souls out there in the trenches answering the call to take up the torch and heal the pain that has been traveling through their families.
I can't convince you to love me. I can't convince our parents to love me. But something I can do is I can bring my pain and subsequent healing out into the open. If this open letter can help just one person find their way through the storm that is family trauma, it will have all been worth it.
How we got here
I'll never forget that summer day in Ann Arbor when you agreed to see me again. We hadn't been together in half a decade. The reason? You didn't want me in your life anymore because I'd committed the worst sin: estranging myself from our abusive parents for the sake of my own mental health.
But then you had a change of heart. Or so you said. You were sobbing there on the sidewalk in downtown Ann Arbor when I heard you say, “Stephi you were right about everything. You did the right thing going no-contact with Mom and Dad. I begged them time and time again to make things right with you. How they have treated you is so bad.”
Mommy knows best
But we're not in Kansas anymore. The sudden re-chilling of your heart. The door slammed so abruptly in my face. Here we go all over again, but this time I don’t need you to tell me what happened because I already know. Mom found out you had a relationship with my family again and this was a terrible transgression that our doting dear mother just couldn’t have.
To say she flew into a rage would be an understatement. Prior to this you'd told me you believed Mom was a narcissist, so maybe you'd prefer to call her rage a "narcissistic rage." If she couldn't have a relationship with her grandson (she has no interest in a relationship with me) then you couldn't either. So to seal the deal, she bought your compliance with even more money than she'd bought you with before. Now you're right back to where you were in 2020. And 2019. And 2018. And 2017. And 2016. Right under Mommy's thumb.
Where you are now
If it's not 2016, it sure feels like it. You're back out there defending our abuser and attempting to discredit me all over again. Look, I get that you're a victim too. But being a victim isn't an excuse for being abusive yourself. Wouldn't you rather be breaking cycles instead of repeating them? Apparently not, because you sound just like mom when you tell people:
“Stephanie was never abused by Mom.” Lying ✔
“Stephanie’s got her facts all wrong.” Gaslighting ✔
“Stephanie's mean to talk publicly about her problems with Mom.” Blame-shifting ✔
“Actually Stephanie’s the one who abused Mom by taking her grandchild away from her!” Grandparent's rights BS ✔
“Something’s seriously wrong with Stephanie’s head.” Ableism ✔
“Who does Stephanie think she is to cut off her own mother?” Genetic relationship entitlement ✔
“Stephanie’s so borderline.” More ableism ✔
None of your hot takes are new. You parroted them well before our most recent unraveling. But there is one thing that has changed. Now that Mom left dad and they're getting a divorce, I’ve noticed you aren’t a flying monkey for Dad anymore.
Your old “Stephanie was never abused by Mom and Dad” is now “Stephanie was never abused by Mom” and “Actually Stephanie’s the one who abused Mom and Dad by taking their grandchild away from them!” has become “Actually Stephanie’s the one who abused Mom by taking her grandchild away from her!”
It’s not surprising that the mother who needed you to choose her over your sister now needs you to choose her over your dad.
If my facts are so wrong, how do you explain your revisionist "facts" that change to suit whoever happens to be your current overlord?
The thing that hasn’t changed
One thing hasn’t changed. Like Mom, you call me Stephi when you’re being kind to me and Stephanie when you’re hurting me. Does using more of my name help you hurt me more?
Like with Mom, I could sit here and ask you to please call me Steph or Shephi and you'd ignore me. You don't respect me enough to so much as call me the name I want to be called. And I'm just the dramatic crazy person who ins't into the whole mean name/nice name game you feel entitled to play with me. I'm sure you'll add this to your "Proof That Stephanie is Batsh*t Crazy" file that you pull out to save face (your face of course). And that's okay. Ultimately, what you say about me to change other people doesn't matter. If they want to believe you, that’s on them. The truth remains the truth even when it's not believed. And since you think I’m such a loose cannon, here’s a few more truths I think you should know.
Truth #1: Cutting off an abusive parent is not the same thing as being abusive.
In Mom's make believe world, relationships should never, ever end (unless of course she says so) and grandmas make all the rules. According to her, the problem isn't that she hurt me over and over again AND refused to apologize for it. Instead, the real problem is that I was "too mental" to stick around for more.
I'm not surprised that Mom's playing the victim. That's her MO. What has surprised me is that you've picked up her steaming pile of BS and opted to run with it.
You: “But you owe Mom a relationship!”
This idea that I owe Mom a relationship with me simply becasue she's my parent is nothing new. The Puritans thought a woman getting a divorce from an abusive husband made her the ultimate baddie too.
You in 2023: But she's your mom! You can't leave her!
Them in 1692: But he's your husband! Thou shalt not leave him!
But the truth is I don’t owe Mom anything. If anyone owes anyone, it’s Mom. She’s the one who abused her child. She’s the one who repeatedly threw her child under the bus. She’s the one who failed in her responsibilities as a parent. I was the CHILD. She was the parent. What about that is so confusing for you?
I never asked to be born, much less asked Mom to be my mother. Mom’s the one who religiously tracked her cycles so she could become pregnant. She wanted nothing more than to be worshipped and adored by a little child who couldn’t tell the difference between love and abuse. Mom doesn’t miss me. She misses the power she had over me.
“That’s not true! Mom says she misses you all the time!” you say. Of course she does. Mom “misses” me like any egocentric abuser misses the person they once got high off of hurting.
Stop feeling sorry for Mom. She had a great time abusing me while it lasted. She got to feel powerful, to take her problems out on me, to live vicariously through me, AND to be admired as this devoted and caring bastion of motherhood by everyone she duped. Losing her victim, losing her reputation, and losing access to fresh meat in the form of a grandchild were never part of her plan.
A sibling who genuinely loves their sibling doesn’t pressure them to stay in an abusive relationship that’s hurting them or find fault in them for walking away.
You're not ready to be honest with yourself, let alone anyone else. And I'm not surprised. Reality isn’t what you and so many other self-centered siblings who dismiss and invalidate their survivor siblings are into. Unwilling to see life for what it really is, you clamber desperately for anything to numb it all out. And that's how you eventually find your way over to Planet Denial.
Smarmy sales voice: Do you find your sibling’s truth about your parent inconvenient? Are you looking to inhabit a more comfy timeline free of your sibling’s pesky negative vibes? Are you ready to throw your sibling under the bus and think always and only just of yourself? Have we got the fix for you! Jet away from Planet Earth today, leave reality (and your sibling) behind, and start your new all-about you life on Planet Denial!
I used to wonder why it was so easy for you to throw me under the bus, but I don’t any more. Any love you ever had for me was superseded a long time ago by your desire to live in a fantasy world—no matter how phoney—where you can pretend I wasn’t abused by Mom so you can have the kind, loving, supportive mother you want to have. But like Billie Eilish sings in that song of her’s that we both love, “Your world isn’t real. Your world’s an ideal.
You: “You say Mom abused you, but look at you! You abused her by cutting her off.”
Equating someone fleeing an abusive relationship with that person abusing their abuser is so depraved. I don’t even know where to begin. All I can say is that the fact that you thought it was okay to even suggest such a thing says a lot about you. And now I’m reminded of the emotionally abusive blame-shifting that pervaded our childhoods:
Kid us: Ouch! Mommy, you hurt me! I'm not playing with you anymore.
Mom: OUCHHH!! You hurt Mommy by saying you won't play with Mommy anymore. Mommy is so sad.
You get how that’s fucked up, right?
I didn't abuse Mom when I finally got the courage to respond to her abuse by getting myself the hell out. The problem was, is, and always will be her abusing me. Removing myself from that abusive situation was a badass act of self-preservation. Abusive on my part? Stop it.
A crocodile bites off your hand. Are you going to stick around to see if that hand-eating croc is hungry for seconds? If your answer is “yes” I encourage you to talk this over with a therapist stat in the hopes that they can help you get some much needed clarity.
Truth #2: Abusive parents are not owed the “grandparent experience”
I’m not in the wrong for failing to give Mom anything, and this includes a relationship with my child. Contrary to family lore, I’m not an amusement park that Mom bought some all-access lifetime pass to just because she arrogantly decided to pass on her DNA. Look, I get that it’s inconvenient for Mom that I turned out to be a human being rather than a purebred cow, but the goings on of my uterus are still just that: the goings on of MY uterus.
How Mom came to be under the impression that she could be an abusive parent to me, not hold herself accountable for being said abusive parent to me, and then have the red carpet rolled out for her to be abusive all over again to my child is beyond me. There’s entitlement and then there’s next-level entitlement. This is the latter.
Did I want my child to grow up with two healthy grandmothers, instead of one? Absolutely. Who wouldn’t want their child to be loved and cherished by more people? I didn’t make the decision I made because it was fun. I made it because I had to.
You know that four-lane intersection by your house? The one with all the fast-moving traffic. What kind of pet owner would you be if you let your dog play there? I'll help you out. It starts with the letter "a."
You: “But you were wrong to take Mom’s grandchild away from her.”
Look, I get it. You’re not a parent, and you don’t hang out with parents. Your confusion on what falls under the parental umbrella is somewhat understandable, given your sheer lack of experience. So on behalf of myself and my fellow parents, allow me to educate you on a fundamental fact of parenting: We parents have every right to decide who does and who does not get to be in our children’s lives.
Now will there be some entitled grandmas who don’t like where we parents choose to draw the line when it comes to our children’s social circles? Of course. Does this mean we parents are now obligated to go back and erase the line so the fragile adults can get their own way? Of course not. The fact that you don’t like a parent’s boundary doesn’t make the parent wrong for having that boundary.
Even though this really, really, really should go without saying, I’m going to help you out even more here: When somebody has abused somebody else they aren’t entitled to having a relationship with that somebody else’s children. Read this one over as many times as you need to.
At the end of the day, is it really all that surprising that the same mother who loved telling her minor children, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit,” is now the estranged grandmother throwing tantrums because her adult daughter won’t let her have her own way on everything? Thankfully, we have a word for this: projection.
Truth #3: Mom has a thing for going to war against other women
Today Mom’s waging battle against me. “Who does Stephanie think she is to feel how she feels and want what she wants and love who she loves?! Who does she think she is to be who she wants to be instead of who I want her to be?! Bad daughter!” Tomorrow Mom will be warring against another woman for some other non-problems. Nothing about any of this is new.
You: “You’re wrong! Mom’s so sweet to everyone!”
I’m going to stop you right there, because I know you know better than that. Mom isn’t any sweeter than a buttercream frosted lemon: sugary sweet on the surface, infinitely sour underneath. Two-faced? Yes. Sweet? No.
Something else you already know about Mom is that her love language isn’t one of the usual ones; Her love language isn’t quality time. Or acts of service. Or words of affirmation. Those love languages are too healthy. Instead, Mom’s love language is waging waspy war against other women.
Want to show our mother you love her? Just pick up that backstabbing internalized misogyny sword she handed down to you—“Aww look! Insecure and hateful just like Mommy!”—and team up with her against her latest feminine adversary.
Who’s the lucky lady Mom’s gonna shit talk through that fake smile of her’s this time? While I can’t say for certain—although I’d guess her new daughter-in-law is on the docket—what I can tell you is who’s offended her fragile ego in the past at no fault of their own. Younger Stephi was right there when Mom crucified:
Aunt Lisa #1 for having the audacity to love her body enough to wear a bikini.
Aunt Lisa #2 for having the audacity to get her kids away from abuse.
Grandma Joan for having the audacity not to proclaim Mom the single most beautiful woman on all the earth.
Great Grandma Margaret for having the audacity to think Mom made a mistake.
Aunt Carol for having the audacity to have more money than Mom.
Aunt Junie for having the audacity to have a boundary with Mom.
Cousin Bobby for having the audacity to be a single woman.
Aunt Sally for having the audacity to accept the furniture that Great Grandma Scheff willed to her.
Cousin Kathy for having the audacity to own a cabinet that her own parents had every right to give her.
Cousin Cherrie for having the audacity to have a more expensive house than Mom.
Cousin Robin for having the audacity to have fun.
Cousins Sara and Ashley for having the audacity to speak up about their abuse within the family as children.
Aunt Theresa for having the audacity to have opinions about towels that differ from Mom’s.
Aunt Lynn for having the audacity to think it’s okay for men to do housework.
Aunt Lynn’s Mom for having the audacity to want to be with her family for the holidays.
Cousin Taylor for having the audacity to not be Mom’s version of pretty.
My mother-in-law Etta for having the audacity to go to bed earlier than Mom.
Aunt Debi for having the audacity to be proud of the work she does.
Aunt Barb for having the audacity to not be a doormat.
To save you the time, I went ahead and counted. In total that’s a whopping 20 different women—21 when you include me—that Mom has a problem with. And that’s just the women in our family. I didn’t even get to her “friends.” Beth, Judy, Kathy’s daughter Andrea, Diane, Kim, Susan S., Kelly, Karen, Karen’s two daughters, Marcia… You know as much as I do that Mom backstabs all of them, too.
Truth #4: I’m allowed to tell my story
I’ve heard you loud and clear. You want me to be quiet about that pesky little fact that Mom abused me. You don’t want me to talk about the mother wound—mine or anyone else’s. You want me to shut down the Mother Wound Project yesterday.
But I'm not going to do any of that. Why? Becasue the truth is inherently loving. Mahatma Gandhi once said, ”If you're right and you know it, speak your mind. Speak your mind. Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth." Besides, Mom already tried to control me. Ask her how that turned out.
You: “You're kicking mom with what you say online.”
Let me help you out here: I own everything that ever happened to me. My story is exactly that—MY story. I have every right not only to tell my story but to tell it to whomever I want to tell it to. I’m not doing a single solitary thing wrong.
Just because Mom comes to you about how upset she is about the “mean things”—aka truths—I write doesn't mean I've committed some sort of crime. For someone who taught us our feelings didn't mean anything, she sure thinks her feelings mean everything
I’ve stood where you’re standing. Mom’s woe-is-me-I’m-the-victim-fix-my-emotional-world-for-me crocodile tears used to overwhelm me too. You absolutely deserve to get out from under that. And part of solving a problem is knowing what the problem actually is. Your problem isn’t me telling my own story. Your problem is with Mom. So please, do yourself a solid and take that up with her.
But it’s more than this, too. Deep down you think it’s my job to fix Mom. “If Stephanie would just stop all this mom shaming,” you tell yourself, “then Mom wouldn’t be upset anymore. She’d finally be the mom I need her to be. She’s only awful because she’s upset about the Mother Wound Project. It's all Stephanie’s fault.”
I know this line of thinking well. Some of the things younger me did in the hopes of getting Mom to love me include:
Smiling even when I felt like crying
Dieting at 11 on her suggestion
Siding with her against all the different women she hated
Parenting you and Tim for her
Telling her she was a great mom even when she wasn’t
Going to her church
Cleaning the house to her impossible standards
Earning top grades in school
Doing all that 4-H stuff I hated
Convincing Dad to buy her the right gifts for Christmas
Not having sex even though I was in love and wanted to
Listening to and agreed with Rush Limbaugh
Denying any and all feelings she didn’t like (i.e. anger)
Lying for her
Organiing that 25th anniversary party for her
Nothing I did or didn’t do was ever enough for Mom. And nothing you do or don’t do will ever be enough for her either. Mom’s not enough for herself, and until that changes, no one else can be enough for her either, even her own daughters. As much as Mom needs saving, the truth is that we can’t save her. It’s not our job. It never was. Only Mom can save herself.
Jon Frederickson is speaking to you when he writes, “Why do we tell ourselves lies? To avoid the feelings that arise when we face and embrace reality. We often avoid the truths of our lives by waiting for fantasies to become true rather than face what is true. Waiting for what is real to become unreal is how we lie to ourselves about our loved ones, ourselves, and life itself. We suffer because we fight reality, a fight we always lose.”
Your Used-To-Be Sister
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