Resolve hurt feelings over sister; shield your child as last resort
Q: I am the only child of my father's current wife, and have much older half-siblings. When I was little, one sister was very sweet with me; over the years, though, as her relationship with our father had ups and downs, she would stop speaking to him and, therefore, to me. The first time was when I was 7, and I didn't hear from her for five years.
It has happened periodically since. She has ignored most of the major milestones in my life and excluded me from hers while not doing so with the rest of our siblings.
When I asked why, she told me she could not separate her feelings about our father from her feelings toward me.
I am expecting my first child and am yet again disappointed by my sister's lack of acknowledgment. I would like to protect my child from her alternating warmth and hurtful indifference. Would it be inappropriate to keep her out of his life?
A: The best thing you can do for your son: Let go of the wounded 7-year-old girl. That nurturing big sister has long since been displaced by the sister who can't (won't?) get over herself. This is who she is. Start regarding any warmth from her as the exception, not the supposed-to-be rule.
As for your son, it's appropriate to protect him, but the Auntie box-out seems needlessly extreme.
That's because, before you take any action at all, Auntie's already of far less consequence to him than she was to you. From sister to aunt is a huge sphere-of-influence demotion unto itself — and, she's a virtual no-show in your life. Even if she starts showing, I can't see how he'd get as attached as you were, unless your sisterly relationship goes on a seven-year upswing. The figure who became a cruel tease to you will likely register only as a bit player to him.
Meanwhile, when Auntie is present, he'll take his cues from you. "Your aunt can't wait to see you" fuels completely different expectations than does "Your aunt may come, but we don't expect her." It's core vs. periphery.
That's why your resolving your hurt feelings is so essential. Recognizing your sister (and especially her punitive absences) as a known quantity, thereby allowing you to give up all hope of that pre-age-7 sweetness, will help you speak to your son in facts, versus bitter emotions.
Where whine-mines like "Your aunt would be here, if she really loved you" would merely get both of you messing with his head, a factual observation — "Your aunt may come, or may not; I'm never quite sure with her" — gives your son ample means to build realistic hopes.
Over the years, should you notice this auntie actively trying to win your son's heart (only to celebrate victory by disappearing), then you will have to take a more active role as emotional shield.
But even then, outright exclusion is a last resort. By both limiting your son's exposure, and by explaining her disappearances to your son honestly — "She's not abandoning you, this is just the way she has always been" — you can lessen the disappointments, equip your son to handle the ones that get through — all while sparing your family a whole new strain of the insidious "we're not speaking" disease.