Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: I grew up as the son of a single mom. She was a free spirit so I had an unusual childhood. I don’t remember living anyplace longer than three years, and we lived everywhere from a house shared with three other single moms to a tent.
When my mom told me she had terminal cancer, she finally admitted she knew my father’s full name and address — something she had denied all my life. After her death, I looked him up and now am trying to establish a relationship with him.
It’s been hard for all of us. He’s been married for over 30 years so obviously I was the product of an affair, which is embarrassing and complicates things right off the bat. It also means I have a stepmom and three half-siblings. I was blown away by how good they all have been to me, but trying to become part of this family is difficult and overwhelming.
My dad and older brothers couldn’t be more different from me — they’re loud, talkative and successful (all involved in the family business). My younger sister is nice but distant and obviously doesn’t feel like she needs another older brother.
Believe it or not, my stepmom is the one I connect with the best.
My dad is trying really hard, I can see that — he’s given me a job in the family business and plans to pay for my college next year — but some days I still feel like running back to the kind of drifter life I knew before. I can see that I’m never going to fit in here and maybe it’s better to get out now rather than years later, when my bugging out might hurt these people.
Should I try to stick it out? It’s been six months and I still feel like the strange kid on the fringes of the “real family.”
Carolyn says: So, you’re 17? 18? In your 20s but late to the college thing?
This is a lot for a young adult to take in. You’ve lost a mom; you’ve gained a family of strangers. That’s heavy. Your mom’s resistance to baggage was its own kind of baggage — also heavy; you’re an affair baby; you’re processing a mother’s lifelong lie; you’re trying to make an abrupt, top-to-bottom lifestyle change.
Any one of these is disorienting. All together, wow.
So please accept this round of applause for your self-awareness and your compassionate attention to your new family.
What might help you most right now is to stop thinking of this as a strict either-or choice, between being “in” this family or “out” in your old drifter life. Instead, be patient. Stay where you are, and give yourself (and the new family) time to figure out what the new normal can look like. Work toward establishing college as your next home base, too — shouldering whatever expenses you can through grants, scholarships, loans and part-time jobs.
You can travel or drift within the bounds of your breaks, and see your father’s home as your home in the way adult children do when they have lives of their own. Just respect the customs of the house, give more than you take, and trust the power of time.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org.