Child Caring

How to explain mom's long-absent mother?

Hi Barbara,
I have a 4 year old daughter who is fairly smart, doesn't miss a trick and observant. I'm not sure how to talk to her about the following situation when she eventually brings it up: My mother left when I was a young girl -- no mental issues, nothing illegal, no real reason that she could ever explain. I was in brief contact with her about 20 years ago but that was it. As of now, there are no plans to ever contact her again. I know at some point, my daughter will ask about her. I'm not really sure how to explain to her that my mother just walked out. She is still alive and lives in another state. I don't want her to ever think that I could walk out on her.

From: Julia, Franklin, MA

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Hi Julia,

You're right, a child's magical thinking certainly could lead her down the road you're worried about. But the chances decrease when you are open and honest with her. My suggestion is to initiate a conversation now, before she somehow gets wind of it and thinks it's a secret or something shameful, which would likely keep her from asking you and which is exactly what would lead to magical thinking.

"The rule of thumb around issues of loss is to be honest with children and to encourage questions," says psychologist Amanda Thompson at Children’s National Medical Center. In a phone interview yesterday, she said, "That's often hard for parents when we don't have answers. Just acknowledging that you don't have answers does it justice, though. It's perfectly OK to say, 'I don't know why it happened, but what I do know is that mommy will never leave you." Don't worry that you are planting an idea.

Your goal is not to offer a detailed explanation, just to get the subject on the table. If your dad remarried, for instance, does your daughter know that that woman is not the person who gave birth to you? That's a good starting point: "You know that you have a papa and a nana. Do you know that nana is my step-mom? That means she is not the woman who gave birth to me. I love nana very much, and she loves me, and she loves you!" That's plenty for a first conversation. If you're nervous, practice in front of a mirror. Keep it short and direct. Just saying the words out loud will help you.

Here's probably the biggest surprise: Your daughter may listen very nicely and then move on as if you said nothing. That's OK, in fact, that's what Thompson would expect. But sometime (when you least expect it) she will ask, "What happened to the mother who gave birth to you? Where did she go?"

This is when you can say, "I don't know." Period. Pause. "What I do know is mommy will never leave you." Repeat this as often as the subject comes up. If she exhibits more than the typical amount of separation issues ask her directly, "Are you worried that what happened to me will happen to you? It won't. I will always come back." Thompson, who specializes in children's grief and loss, advises to avoid euphemisms for your mother's absence: say she "went away," rather than she "left me." Kids think very concretely; saying she "left me" conjures up a trip to the mall where your mom left you standing there.

As your daughter gets older, of course, she may want to explore deeper issue with you. By then, you'll both be ready to talk about it. In the meantime, being honesty and open is your best policy. Of course, if you think she ever has separation issues that interfere with normal functioning, consult with a professional.