Carolyn Hax: Sister-in-law angles for news on child she left behind

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: My husband’s sister basically abandoned her 4-year-old child with their parents so she could pursue a relationship with a (married) man a few hundred miles away. There are some known judgment/narcissism issues there but nothing that rises to the level of substance abuse or mental illness, as far as we know.

The parents have stepped up and are caring for the child very well. They originally tried to facilitate regular communication with the mom, but gave up on that when she flaked once too often and are now restricting the communication to once every couple weeks or so.

As a result, my husband’s sister now calls us up, “casually,” on a regular basis to ask how her child is doing and for detailed updates she’s not getting from the parents. We aren’t sure how to handle this.

As far as I know, no one has any active plans to reunite them, but if they did, we would surely want her to keep informed about what her child is up to. We feel a bit like we’re betraying the parents’ efforts if we provide her this access point to the child — updates, photos, details — without their blessing, but also like we’re betraying the child (and possibly the sister) if we don’t.

I also don’t want to give the sister the satisfaction of making her feel that the child she abandoned is doing just peachy, though the child actually does seem quite happy and healthy.

Complicit: Your husband needs to talk about this with his parents and come up with a plan. The triangulating — the “casual” contact to bypass her parents’ boundaries — is the betrayal.

And as the ones who are raising the child your sister abandoned — time to drop the “basically,” no? — the parents are the people whose lead you and your husband need to follow. You’re not betraying the child or the sister by respecting limits the parents felt they needed to set. Communicate, coordinate, hold firm.

It’s also not up to you to “keep her informed about what her child is up to” or “give her the satisfaction” or whatever else. That’s being way too far into the middle here. The child’s care is a matter between the parents, the sister and the child, and the child’s well-being is paramount. To the extent you get involved, make sure it’s with the child’s best interests in mind and with transparency between you and the guardians.

Re: Complicit: Yes, talk to the grandparents. First, the grandparents should, if they have not already, take legal action to retain control. Second, they might be fine with brother and spouse updating the sister. Their goal might be for the sister to not be reaching out to them directly, and they might be fine with her getting updates on their overall well-being. You do not know until you ask.

Anonymous: Thank you. There could be more underhanded possibilities, too — say, the sister uses this information somehow against her parents. Not that I have anything specific in mind, just that messy people and situations tend to find ways to get messier. Direct lines of respect and communication are the best preemptive strategies — and they’re also what the sister’s modus operandi notably lacks.

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