What It's Like to Be the Black Sheep of the Family
The stigma can last, but some in their 50s and 60s just get used to it
Jo Scott Cannon knew early on that she was the black sheep of her family, and ironically, it had something to do with her dad’s metaphor about a cow:
“I was one of six kids living in rural South Dakota and when we’d all pile into the car, I’d lag behind and my dad would say, ‘You’re the cow’s tail — always coming in behind,’” she said. “Kids don’t know when they’re being denigrated.”
Cannon had a passion and talent for music at an early age that distinguished her, and she also became a fierce defender of her sister with a developmental disability whenever she was bullied. Her differences from her siblings were apparent early on and became more pronounced as Cannon grew older.
“I think being a black sheep comes from your willingness to take a chance,” she said.
Cannon, who lives in Sioux Falls, S.D., and is now 68, graduated from her state university with a music education degree and then moved to small-town South Dakota to teach for a year, which pleased her family. However, she left after the school year to move to Spain and study Transcendental Meditation (TM). Later, Cannon moved to Switzerland to cook for a Transcendental Meditation community while continuing to study with the Maharishis there.
“The people doing it were so honest and kind, and it was an awesome experience,” she said. “But when I came back (after two years), it turned out my dad was really embarrassed that I taught TM and was seeking a different religion. My family did not understand that." Although this was more than 40 years ago, she still feels like the black sheep of the family.
The Black Sheep Vs. The Golden Child
Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, an assistant professor of communication at Utah State University and a director of the Family Communication and Relationships Lab, has published research about black sheep and challenging family relationships. She prefers to call black sheep “marginalized family members.” Her research notes that family provides most people with a sense of identity, place and connection, but that family is culturally constructed in the same ways that narratives about families are constructed.
“There are phrases in culture — like, 'You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family' and media depictions of families,” Dorrance Hall said. “We often talk about family as having a black sheep and a golden child as the two big roles among siblings, and it feels to a lot of people like someone needs to fill those roles.”
It is also human nature for members of a family to alienate or marginalize the family member who acts differently from the others, Dorrance Hall said. There’s a feeling that making them feel like they’re doing something wrong might help them see the error in their thinking and “bring them back into the group,” she said.
“It is not just families that do this. If you have a coworker who is showing up late every day, you might marginalize that person to teach him or her that this is not acceptable,” she said. “There are more layers in what’s going on in families, but it’s human nature to marginalize others who act differently and express a different identity.”
Who is labeled the black sheep of the family most often? Often, these are children who love or marry a partner their family views as undesirable (sometimes because they identify as LGBTQ). Additionally, they may have left a religion practiced by their family or espouse different values or political beliefs.
When Black Sheep Flock Together
Jo Scott Cannon married another so-called “black sheep” from South Dakota, whose family considered him as such because his progressive political views and stance against Vietnam were different from his family members. “People were like, ‘That makes sense because you’re both crazy,’” her husband Pat said. (The couple has been married 40 years and have two adult children.)
“My family always saw me as kind of a contrarian or provocateur,” he said. “I’m just not easily satisfied, though. I’m the second oldest of five kids, and we were really lucky in our family, but my parents were very strict Catholics and had this indomitable hopefulness that permeated that World War II group. I questioned it then and am completely away from all of that.”
Still, like his wife, Cannon has maintained relationships with his parents and siblings throughout his life. They just avoid talking about politics. “There wasn’t any question that I was the odd man out in my family but not in a bad way," he said.
Stress and Resilience
Dorrance Hall and fellow researcher Kristina Scharp, assistant professor and co-director of the Family Communication and Relations Lab at Utah State, say maintaining family communication and connection is a main differentiator of people who identify as black sheep versus people who are truly estranged from their families.
In cases of family estrangement, ties are cut off for long periods of time or they are in a “chronic, cyclical state of being on again and off again relationships,” said Scharp. However, both estranged family members and marginalized family members constantly seek a balance that works for them in terms of distance.
“People make attempts to get closer, but then when they do, they usually realize that the same problems that drove them away are still there and then they ultimately gain more distance,” Scharp said. “It becomes a chaotic disassociation, but unlike most breakups, where you can say, ‘I don’t like you anymore and you’re done,’ that can’t happen in a family. You can never be done.”
Both scholars agree that the act of maintaining estrangement or negotiating a role as a black sheep of the family is chronically stressful. Many marginalized family members continue to be the black sheep of their families their entire lives. But in their 50s and 60s, they may be able to make better sense of the situation. Scharp and Dorrance Hall suggest they may have learned strategies for resilience over time.
A Ba-a-a-a-adge of Honor?
Many so-called black sheep wear the title like a badge of honor. This applies especially to what Scharp and Dorrance Hall call “positive deviants” — people who make positive changes in their lives and the world but are still ostracized by members of their family.
“It could be a woman who went to school to get an astrophysics degree, and maybe her parents said, ‘What are you doing? We raised you to be a good mother and a teacher so you could be home in the summers and now all of a sudden, you’re getting a Ph.D. and speaking a different language than we do,’” Dorrance Hall said. “In my mind, that’s a positive thing, but family can see that as a threat because that person is becoming different from them and they can’t accept it.”
When Jo returned to South Dakota from Europe and worked as a musician and music teacher, she realized she was still the black sheep of the family and possibly a bit of an outsider in the social circles of her town, but she took it in stride.
“I remember the older ladies in my mom’s Ladies Aid Society group would always say, ‘Whatever you do, Jo, don’t change,’ and I knew they thought I was different, but it wasn't so bad,” she recalls.
Pat said he long ago came to terms with his black sheep status and sees it as a defining part of who he is.
“Once you don’t run with the flock and realize you don’t need to, why would you?” he asked.
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