Shut up and let me go?
June 15, 2010 10:59 AM   Subscribe

Do I let my dad back in my life? He was basically absent for my entire childhood, and often I feel at peace with excising him from my adulthood life as well. However, he'll email me on occasion and I feel this terrible pang, a worry that I'll regret not knowing him when it's too late to make amends. If you were in a similar situation, what did you do?

My dad left my mom when I was a baby because he had an affair with another woman and got her pregnant. My mom became a depressed alcoholic, which my father knew about and never intervened. I visited him once when I was seven. Then he spent a couple years promising to fly me down for more visits, but he never followed through. I didn't see him again until I was 21, when we met at a bar and he half-drunkenly laid the blame on me for our severed relationship, because I was "mad" at him when I was little.

Luckily, my mom did better with her second marriage, and I got an invested stepdad when I was 10. We're not super-close, but I call him "Dad" and he's been an incredible parent figure in my life. I am luckier than lots of kids with deadbeat dads like mine. And I'm old enough to know it wasn't my fault that my biological dad was a jerk, but his disinterest in my life has led to serious trust issues with men. It took me until my late twenties to realize some men could be trusted to stick around. I'm galled, to say the least, that he just left me hanging while he focused on another batch of kids with his new wife.

I would be able to write him off all together if it weren't for two hesitations. One problem is that, despite the fact that he was a terrible father, I relate to this guy a lot more than I do with my own parents. We're both bookish people who did much better in school than in the real world, we had and have ADHD that makes simple tasks like organization impossible, we have a mean streak (that I do a much better job at squelching), and we feel out of touch with our families because they don't enjoy reading and politics. When he wasn't being a shithead about our own interpersonal dynamic, we talked for hours about books and philosophy. Later that month, he sent me his childhood set of beautiful, leather-bound Shakespeare plays from the Victorian era - I hate to admit it, but it's one of the best gifts I've ever received.

The second issue is that, every once in while, he'll email me a brief letter that seems really... well, penitent. Which, fuck yes, he should be! But I have a hard time just turning my back on him. I feel like we're oddly alike, despite his defensive malaise towards our relationship. I fear that I'm cutting off the one family member I actually resemble, and one day he'll die and I'll kick myself for letting my pride get in the way of salvaging a small relationship with my biological father.

So this is the crossroad: today he emailed me, on my birthday, to express sorrow that we don't know each other better. This might be an obligatory mealy-mouthed apology that any deadbeat dad would have to include in the yearly birthday email, or he might actually mean it. I don't know, neither do you. Either I can reciprocate, and absorb the risk of him sloughing me off again (this always triggers a really shitty month or so of self-pity and wallowing), or I can ask him to stop emailing me and get the fuck on with my life. And yes, I know DNA doesn't hold much water these days, but it's hard for me to write off my own dad when part of me wants closure.

Have you ever had to make this decision? What did you do?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Yes. When my folks were divoricing, my mom moved out of state, in defiance of a court order, with my four younger, elementary school aged siblings. When I tried to talk to her about her decision to move, she told me I "didn't adopt well to change." Her move was spitefully intended and it was devastating -- as my dad said, like having all my siblings die -- and I didn't speak to her for years after that. Eventually after much dithering I invited her to my college graduation, though I kept my distance. She kept at it, and ultimately we talked about what she had done, and she sincerely apologized.

My mom is gone now and I am very glad we restored our relationship. It was still a flawed one, but most people don't have a perfect connection with their parents. The link is still important and worth maintaining.

I would add that what I'm hearing is that part of you wants some link with him. Can you remind yourself that he will never be reliable and trustworthy, and that is his fault, not yours? If you can be realistic about his limitations, I'd suggest you go ahead and respond with a suggestion that you chat via email or get together or whatever would work for you. Again, if he isn't right back to you, that's about him, not you.
posted by bearwife at 11:18 AM on June 15, 2010

I can't tell you whether or not to let your father back into your life. But what I can tell you is this: the decision you're making right now isn't all-or-nothing, and it isn't permanent. If you have dinner with him, you don't have to forgive him. If you let him visit you, you're not committing to visiting with him on a set schedule forever. If you call him on the phone on your birthday, you don't have to send him a present on his birthday. He screwed up, and now it's up to you to decide whether to have contact with him at all, and if so, how much and on what terms.

You sound as though you're curious about getting in touch with him, and if you decide you want to do that, you can do it and still be in control of the situation. It sounds as though what sets you off is when he lets you down by making a promise and breaking it. You can, if you want to talk with him, prevent that from happening by not letting him make any promises. If you want to talk with him, call him when you want to talk with him. Don't let him promise to visit you or send you presents or take you to the circus. Simply call him when you want to talk to him.

Again, I'm not going to tell you whether or not you should get in touch with him. But if you do choose to do so, do it on your own terms. Do as much or as little as makes you feel safe. And if he doesn't want the relationship you're willing to offer him, that's his problem, not yours. I wish you all the best.
posted by decathecting at 11:20 AM on June 15, 2010 [11 favorites]

I haven't been in your exact position, but maybe my situation will be of some help when you decide.

My mom and I had a very difficult relationship for my entire adult life. Every few years or so I would reach out to try to build a relationship but ended up distancing myself again because of the crazy and the pain being in contact with her caused me. She never made any efforts to reach out to me. Over the last 4 years I reached out more than usual in the hopes that we could connect through my children, but with no interest from her. It's been 3 years since I had a response from her. She died 2 weeks ago.

Looking back, I'm really happy I made the efforts I made, even though it really sucked to be rejected time after time - more for my kids than for me, though that hurt too.

Your dad is making an effort, which has to be hard for him for many reasons - he sounds like he's just not that good at that sort of thing, and your reception to his connection attempts probably isn't hugely encouraging - which is totally your right; I'm just trying to explain that he continues to try in the face of these obstacles. I wish my mom had.

You don't have a lot to lose by forming a tentative relationship with him. You don't have to be bosom buddies and you can change the boundaries of your relationship whenever you want. It doesn't mean that you excuse or even forgive the things he did to you, though working on forgiveness is always a good thing to do (for you, not him). But some day he too will be gone and you just may wish you'd tried to accept what he did have to give you instead of being angry about the things he didn't.
posted by widdershins at 11:21 AM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

it's hard for me to write off my own dad when part of me wants closure.

I worked out a relationship with my dad that I'm okay with. It still gives me some degree of grief, but I'm good at doing a few things.

- Accepting him without judging him. I just basically had to close the book on all the shitty things he'd ever done and said and start fresh. This doesn't mean that if that stuff comes up [and it rarely does] that I have totally forgotten, just that it's not germane to discussion and I refuse to talk about it with him. If he starts his weird blaming talk [and I have heard eerily similar things about crap that was my fault as an eleven year old and really fuck him, who says that shit to or about a child?] I just say "we're not talking about this" and change the subject.
- Have other friends in my life who are there for emotional support. My dad isn't going to be that person for me. I literally think he can't make emotional connections with other people. That's too bad, poor dad. I have a chance to not get stuck in that rut, but it may mean that I need to go someplace else to have my "I have a bad dad!" whining [which I try to keep to a minimum]. So, you need to have a good reset button for the times your dad will disappoint you because he probably will continue to disappoint you even if you gets get along mostly okay. Losing a month to self-pity is within your control.
- Stay away from other toxic wallowers. This is hard. My mother, I swear is still angry at my dad for being a bad dad. However, when I hang out with him, most of the time, I hang out with and talk to a sort of broken old man who is funny and has a brain that thinks like mine. When I hang out with my mom I hang out with a bitter old woman who is mad at people who haven't been part of her life in decades, some of whom are dead. I'm getting older myself, I'd rather the time I spent was pleasant even if it's not entirely emotionally satisfying otherwise.

So my basic deal with my dad is "we don't talk about our relationship" ever. That's just not the way we get along, and it's not the sort of relationship we have. That sucks a little but I chose it over "we don't have a relationship because I'm still mad" because honestly that's basically still having a relationship but it's one-sided and gives you nothing. This way might just give you someone in your life who gets your jokes and sometimes surprises you by doing something nice. Therapy [or al-anon if he has a drinking problem, or the Feeling Good Handbook] can help with some of the damage that his non-responsiveness has done to you, to help you undo it. You are not him, you are not [mostly] broken. You have the ability to extend an olive branch. It's good for karma, I'd do it.
posted by jessamyn at 11:28 AM on June 15, 2010 [13 favorites]


Father cheated. Mother divorced. Father disappeared and didn't have any contact for the next 17+ years. Met him once and, OMG, I wanted a relationship. I wanted to find a connection that would help us move beyond those intervening years and the empty promises. That was 14 years ago. Minimal contact has occurred since then and I too have pangs of unresolved feelings for him. Most recently, he communicated to my mother that he's fighting prostate cancer that has metastasized to his bones and spleen. He asked for me to contact him. Thus began a few angsty days as I tried to sort it all out. I wrote him a letter and decided against sending it.

Here's my decision: I've decided to not maintain or seek any contact and to not regret my choices.

My father, like yours, was not prevented from having contact with his children. He chose not to have contact. My father promised to visit, to take us (insert activity), to love us forever, etc. He chose not to follow through on any promise. My father, like yours, was not prevented from paying child support. He chose to not pay to support the three children he left behind. When our house burnt to the ground, we didn't move so that he could still find us if he wanted to. He didn't. Despite an exchange of letters after I met him, the man cannot even remember my name, look it up on one of the letters I sent, or bother to look me up. His choice. When we met, I asked about the reasons for the divorce and he flat out refused to answer. When I asked about the reasons for abandoning his children, he refused to answer.

I realized that there is no closure in this situation because there's nothing he could say that would make sense to me or help me accept the decisions which let to him staying away for 30+ years. I do not understand and don't think I ever could why he would leave his kids. I realized that in many ways, he's got a lot in common with the parents of the kids I foster. The level of selfishness involved is staggering to me.

So, for me at least, there's no closure in maintaining a relationship. There's heartache in communicating with him. While I don't wish him ill, I do not believe I owe him anything. If he showed up at my doorstep, I'd get him a drink and then direct him to the resources he needs. I would not take him in or care for him. This is no different than what I would do if one of the fathers of a foster child showed up at my door asking for help.

In the end, I'm OK with my decisions.
posted by onhazier at 11:28 AM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

My father and I were just reaching a point in our lives where we could have some sort of not-totally-fucked-up relationship when he died. He'd been absent (though not as absent as yours) for much of my childhood/early adulthood, and there was a period of about five years where I had zero contact with him because of a shitty thing he tried to do (kidnap me).

But then I hit my 20s and he had a heart attack and triple bypass surgery, and found out I was a lesbian (and he handled that like a champ), and he was suddenly frail and older than he really was. We were in a little bit closer touch than we'd been in a long time. And then he died.

I don't know what you should do. But I did - do - wish that I could have some of that time back so that we could, I dunno, just be together more.
posted by rtha at 11:29 AM on June 15, 2010

I've never had to make this decision, so take what I say with a grain of salt.

I interview people for a living, and a good chunk of the interview is about their childhoods and family relationships. This is social work, so the folks usually come from hard background that more often than not involved their fathers leaving when they were young. When this comes up, I ask about their history with their fathers and what happened later in life.

I can tell you this: People in your situation are always glad they rebuilt a relationship with their fathers. They have good relationships and often become very close. People who didn't sometimes, but not always, express deep regret. Take from that what you will.

As an aside, please keep in mind that your father and your mother both are just people. Everyone has their flaws, and I can almost guarantee there's a lot that went into his leaving that neither parent told you. Despite his flaws, there's a man out there who wants to selflessly love you and the only real reason to keep him out of your life is resentment about a situation decades past that you almost certainly don't understand.

Really, what have you got to lose?
posted by Willie0248 at 11:30 AM on June 15, 2010

Blood is an artificial bond. Family is made through shared experience and support.

I could extrapolate on that, but it's pretty much the gist of my message right thar.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 11:55 AM on June 15, 2010 [9 favorites]

A very close friend of mine has a somewhat similar situation. Mom and dad had a bad relationship, got divorced, dad disappeared. Friend later on re-established a connection with dad. Dad will show up, want to be super best friends! and then disappear again. It has been about 10 years now since Friend re-established the connection.

Friend is glad he did reconnect, but he expects nothing out of that connection. Knowing his father, and who his father is, makes him feel more complete, but expecting nothing is really the key to his zen-like comfort with the situation. Dad is not capable of maintaining good relationships -- with the mother, with his child, with his own siblings. He never learned properly how to be in a family relationship, I guess. So my friend knows that Dad will never be anything but an emotionally-stunted man who one minute is jovial and generous, the next minute demanding and emotionally needy and then rejecting Friend again for not being able to fulfill Dad's emotional needs (which Friend recognizes as inappropriate). Dad will disappear for a couple years, sometimes promising never to speak to Friend again, and then will contact Friend as if nothing happened. Friend basically sends a Christmas card every year to Dad's last known address, and responds to contact when Dad initiates it otherwise.

I am not sure that I could accept that kind of situation with his equanimity and acceptance, but Friend does, by accepting that Dad is extremely flawed and having compassion for that, and by not expecting anything from Dad -- not a parental relationship, not even the next e-mail (which is good since Dad so often gets in a huff and storms off). He would absolutely tell you he's glad he maintains the contact, though, such as it is.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:59 AM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

(This is long, I apologize)

My parents had an ugly divorce when I was in my early teens, and I spent the rest of my teenage years (horrible as it sounds) half-wishing my dad would just die so that the emotional and financial turmoil he put my family through would end. My dad was never a physically absent parent, but he was (and still is) emotionally distant and impatient, with a bad temper. My house was always tense before the divorce, then really bad immediately before it, and it took years for things to calm down afterward. I didn't think that anyone would understand how painful growing up in a situation like that was, so I just didn't talk to anybody about what I was going through.

Anyway, I ended up dragging myself to therapy at age 19 after a particularly bad breakup (fueled by my own unhealthy ideas about relationships), and just unloading all the pain I'd carried since I was a little kid to someone I could trust not to judge me was amazing. Once I stopped feeling like I was carrying around some shameful secret (the curse of the kid unlucky enough to end up in a broken home, I guess), I got the perspective to see my father as just a person. And once I did that, I could understand his anger and aloofness much better-- in fact, I could sort of see it in myself. I could also see his good and neutral qualities in me, like you see the good aspects of your father's personality in you-- in my case, it was his love of knowledge and travel, his taste for good wine, and his introversion. It's weird and a little scary to see yourself in someone else like that.

Ultimately, I decided/realized a few things: 1) My dad's actions hurt me and my family, and that wasn't my fault, 2) I was in some ways very similar to my dad, 3) I could choose which of my dad's traits I would cultivate in myself, and which ones I would work to stamp out, and 4) I'd lived long enough without an affectionate father-daughter relationship that I'd ultimately be okay if I never had one.

At this point, I've made peace with my dad. I haven't really forgiven him for the worst things he's done, and I don't think I will. We're not very close-- I wouldn't think to call him if I had a bad day or needed advice (that's what Mom's for), but we have nice dinners every once in a while and talk about travel or history. I'm moving to a different city to go to a great graduate program, and now my dad calls me up a couple of times a month to say he's proud of me (definitely a new thing for him), and I tell him to come visit me sometime. I'm still sad that I missed out on having a good relationship with him when I was a kid, but I don't resent or fear him anymore.

This is basically a long and roundabout way of suggesting therapy, if you aren't already in it. You can't ever control the way your dad treats you or anyone else, but you can absolutely learn to let go of the pain he causes you, accept him as the flawed person he is, and build a relationship that might not look like an ideal father-child relationship, but that works for both of you.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:01 PM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wish I had a chance to make this decision. My parents divorced when I was seven and I really didn't see/talk to my dad more than once a year. He'd call on tax day to get my SSN and most of the time never even remembered to wish me a happy birthday (which is six days after tax day).

The last time I talked to him was in July 2001. He asked me when I was going to give him some grandkids and I asked him what on earth he would do with grandkids. "Love them!" was his answer. And a little voice in the back of my head said, "But you never loved me..." although I know he loved me - he was just really bad at showing it.

Five months later he died at the age of 52. And I still feel regret EVERY DAY that I didn't know my dad better. Yes he could have made more of an effort, but I could have too. I am just as guilty of the semi-estrangement as he was. I miss him, but more than that I miss the idea of him. It's so difficult to mourn someone that you never really knew.

I guess what I'm trying to say is if you're able to walk away from your father without any guilt or regrets then by all means, do it. But if there's a chance that you'll sit around in a pile of what-ifs after he's gone then I think you should try to have some sort of relationship with him.
posted by elsietheeel at 12:20 PM on June 15, 2010

[This is a response from an anonymous commenter.]
For reasons I won't get into here I haven't talked to my father in about 20 years. Suffice it to say we felt it was best for us to each go our own way, our tempers weren't all that compatible, and everyone came out happy as a result. My relationship with my mom and stepdad and my stepdad's new wife has been warm and happy and more than fulfilling. I missed him, because he wasn't really all that bad a father, we just didn't get along.

A few months ago, he died before we re-established contact. It may sound trite, but in light of his death our differences seem pretty trivial and I regret not having reestablished contact.

Going through his stuff, of course, was not easy. Having been away for 20 years, my presence in the house was hardly noticeable at all, and I could see the rich, happy life he had led without me, and I was glad.

In the bottom of his sock drawer, though, was an envelope his wife had never seen before. It contained nothing but pictures of me, from decades ago. I guess he missed me, too.

Anyway, while there's no single clearcut lesson to be learned from my experience if I had a chance, I'd go back and tell myself to at least keep in touch with the father who in more ways than one turns out to have been the better man.
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:49 PM on June 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am in a similar situation. I don't know how helpful this will be, but here you go.

Mum and Dad divorced when I was really young. Mum had custody but there were a couple times I (and a younger brother) had to live with him (one episode lasted two months, the other episode was eight months). Except for the times I lived with him I saw very little of him. He had every opportunity to see me if he wanted. In fact, for twelve years he drove past our home every time he went to work. How many times did he stop in to say hello? Zero. Lots of times he'd promise to show up and take me and my brother out for a treat. How many times did he follow through? Twice.

As an adult I've been told that he hates that we don't have a relationship. He says that I won't talk to him, which is total bullshit. The few times I do see him (he'll occasionally show up at a family reunion, my oldest brother invites him) I'm polite and initiate conversations; he doesn't say anything to continue the conversation (my oldest brother has seen this and backs me up). And yet, he still complains. I believe his complaints are just him trying to garner sympathy.

And it's my belief that if he really wanted a relationship he would have been there when I needed a father. I don't need a father now. I'm happy he's not in my life.

I don't know how I'll feel when he dies. I expect it will be mostly relief with a bit of regret that I didn't have a real Dad.
posted by deborah at 1:13 PM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

In this age of broken families, this is an all too common decision, but in the end, it's your decision to make. Here's why I say that.

My parents separated when we were children and went through a nasty divorce - accusations flew on both sides. My dad dropped off the face of the earth. I was devastated, my sibs, not so much. My mom married a nasty piece of work who felt we all needed "discipline" to straighten us out. His idea of discipline put my brother in a body cast... yeah, once I flew from that nest I broke all ties with my mom for allowing that asshole into our lives and letting him abuse us for so long.

I came in contact with my dad again several years later, but we drifted apart as the years went by - not because of any hostility, but... (well, it's a long story). Anyway, I don't regret the few years we spent reconnecting, and if he showed up on my doorstep again, I'd welcome him back into my life. The same year we reconnected, he contacted my twin sister. She decided he was not worth knowing and cut him out of her life forever.

My mom emails me every Christmas and every year on my birthday. I email her back and our relationship is very civil. Her second husband long divorced her and she's on her third marriage now. She and I will probably never "reconnect" with each other. She and my sister never severed ties.

So, what I'm trying to say is that family dynamics in this day and age are difficult to say the least. In the end, it can only be up to you.
posted by patheral at 1:50 PM on June 15, 2010

I really don't want to get into my own situation, but I do have a good idea of where you are coming from. Every situation is very different, so only you know what you really want to do. It seems to me that you didn't have a great childhood with your mom, either, but at least she was there. Not every woman whose husband leaves her becomes a depressed alcoholic, so there are clearly two sides to this story. I mean no offense, but do you harbor blame against your father for your mother's depression? Or just for his not being there for you when you needed a break from your mom? In the former scenario, it's not his fault. In the latter, it is. Sometimes we children of divorce think that "if only" the non-custodial parent had been around more (or not left), our custodial parent would have been a different person. It has taken me decades to realize that this is fantasy.

You were the child in this situation, so remember that there's really no blame on you that the relationship wasn't closer with your dad, nor was there any impetus on you to be the one who kept it going. You were the child.

That said, being an adult means you can now choose to have a relationship with him if you want, and taper it off again if you want that, too. Even if he's never really a father figure, you might enjoy knowing him.

Please know that I mean no offense to your mom. My situation is not yours. I'm just saying that it helps to dig down deep and let go of the resentments that logic tells you to. Other issues obviously still exist.
posted by Knowyournuts at 2:14 PM on June 15, 2010

Willie0248: Despite his flaws, there's a man out there who wants to selflessly love you and the only real reason to keep him out of your life is resentment about a situation decades past that you almost certainly don't understand.

You absolutely do not know that. The OP said she gets occasional emails from her father, and she can't tell whether their form indicates "an obligatory mealy-mouthed apology that any deadbeat dad would have to include in the yearly birthday email, or he might actually mean it." Don't assume you know more than the OP does. I don't see "selfless love" in anything the OP has written about her father, but I won't assume I know what's behind his occasional emails to her. I think decathecting has offered the OP excellent advice, because it applies to all kinds of relationships.
posted by headnsouth at 2:23 PM on June 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

You say you feel more of a connection to your Dad. I think that's a clue that you want to develop a better understanding of yourself, which includes knowing your other biological parent. I would recommend getting to know him at least well enough to learn about your extended family, ancestry, etc. For health reasons, and to provide a sense of where your bio dad came from. People screw up, are weak, make horrible decisions, etc., but may still be worth knowing.
posted by theora55 at 2:34 PM on June 15, 2010

I have similar issues with my father -- not the specific history, but emotionally. We also have some interests in common that I don't share with my mom's side of the family, as much as I love them. Ten years ago I decided to cease contact with him, and I feel that that's one of the best things I've ever done for myself. However, I am still younger than you.

He sends me short emails on my birthday and Christmas; the tone is generally wistful and he seems to shift between acceptance and desperation. These rarely contain direct questions, and I don't respond.

There are additional emails when there is a death or medical crisis, and with these I try to treat him... humanely. For example, I expressed sympathy over his mother's death (I'd barely known her) but was firm in my refusal to call him. When he found out about some of my medical issues via the insurance he was legally required to provide for me through college, I reassured him that I was okay.

At one point I realized that if he died unexpectedly, I would regret not giving him a piece of my mind on several issues much more than the lost opportunity for whatever kind of relationship we might be able to have. Of course, you'd have to answer that for yourself.

Those interests that he and I have in common? I am surrounded by friends with whom I can explore them. These friends are a joy to spend time with, and I both rely on them and support them to varying degrees depending on the kinds of relationships we have chosen to build together. If these relationships become dysfunctional, they fade away naturally. Sure, I wish that my father had spend time during my childhood teaching me about [shared interests] instead of [awful things he did instead]. But painfully "reconnecting" wouldn't change that.
posted by ecsh at 2:41 PM on June 15, 2010

I know the feeling. Very similar story here, especially feeling like we have a somewhat special connection despite everything. More than half of my life has been spent without any kind of contact with him, but we got back in touch a few years ago and I've been making an effort to keep the connection open. We're not close, but I send him messages from time to time, and sometimes he replies.

I don't think anyone else can answer this question for you. I don't have a lot of anger towards my dad. Life was not easy for him. He made a lot of mistakes that directly affected me, but you know, I'm doing okay. And I want to have him in my life. But I also don't expect a lot. I came to terms with the idea that he might be dead a few years before we reconnected. Now I am just grateful that we have this chance.
posted by Nothing at 3:05 PM on June 15, 2010

I came in here to post a brief reflection - in many relationship threads on AskMe we often see a preference towards breaking contact whenever messy and painful things are going on. I would just like to say that it is OK to do something messy, painful and difficult in your life, as long as you own your choices and look out for yourself. So if you want to have a relationship with your dad, go ahead. You only live once, this is not a dress rehearsal, and things that you have a 'pang' about are generally worth exploring at least tentatively. You can always stop, shape and change the relationship as you go.
posted by By The Grace of God at 12:30 AM on June 16, 2010

You have the chance to do this on your terms. So do it on your terms, at your pace, but do it. (Second the suggestion of some short term counseling about how to handle and process the interactions)

You have the chance to change your family story. You have the ability to give an old man who led a relatively miserable life something he needs that he doesn't deserve. And you have a chance to release all that you're holding onto regarding him. You can also increase the amount of redemption and mercy in the world because the world needs it and someday when you're old you will probably need some too. Maybe not in the same way your absent biological father needs it, but eventually everyone needs a big break that they don't deserve.
posted by cross_impact at 9:56 AM on June 16, 2010

Knowing my father, who missed out on my childhood by a combination of my mother and his immaturity and my grandmother's madness, is often an infuriating relationship. He is only interested in me in an on and off fashion as an adult, and I have done a lot of crying, feeling like a second class citizen and being angry.

On the other hand, as other people have mentioned, he's 50% of my genetics. From a personal growth standpoint, knowing my father's gifts and faults gives me a perspective about the parts of me that are alien to my mother's side of the family.
posted by Phalene at 6:35 PM on June 16, 2010

Sounds exactly like my dad. Same weird way of looking at the world, same ADHD, same nose, same short-ass legs.

I only cut off family members who are actively abusive. Flaky or otherwise annoying family members, I devote the time and resources that I can spare, and no more.

So I don't cut him off. I let him wander in and out of my life and I do my best to accept that he will never, ever be more than someone who wanders in and out of my life.

It hurts like hell that he gives my sister money and time constantly and he couldn't be bothered to show up to my wedding. Okay. Well, sometimes I think "fuck that guy" but then again, sometimes I get psyched that he gave me a great blanket for my birthday (5 months late). I treasure it, I really do.

I love some of the things he does. That doesn't mean I have to love everything he does. I hate some of the things he does. That doesn't mean I have to hate everything he does, either. I don't have to feel guilty, hypocritical, or weird just because I like something nice he did for me.

However, I NEVER, ever go out of my way to get any kind of attention from him because it never ends well. He has to come to me, period, the end.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:08 PM on June 16, 2010

This is a couple days late, but whatever. This sounds a lot like my relationship with my dad. We both have/had a lot in common, but my contact with him was intermittent at best from the age of about ten onwards, combined with a lot of emotional manipulation and unchecked mental illness on his part (though the mental illness is something we have in common - I'm just, I guess, more practical in how I deal with it. By which I mean I deal with it and he doesn't. BUT ANYWAY). I'd get a penitent-seeming letter every now and then and wonder if I'd ever regret not knowing him more, given how much we had in common despite the badness.

Eventually I chose to reach out and make an effort to have a relationship with him, which I'm tempted to say was a mistake because it ended painfully, but ultimately knowing that I had tried freed me up to feel good about cutting him out of my life (more or less - the door isn't locked shut, but me welcoming him back into my life would have to be preceded by some very specific apologies and very concrete actions on his part, which I have absolutely no faith in his ability to do and thus don't expect from him). Cutting off a family member isn't something you want to rush, unless they're being actively abusive - it does impact your life, even if it seems like you have such little contact now that it wouldn't matter. I've never once regretted cutting my dad off, but I also took my time with the decision and made sure to make it on my own terms.

There's a really, really, really good piece about it here - what to expect when you cut off a family member, not just from the family member in question but from your friends and loved ones and other family members when they find out that you're capable of doing that - should you choose to do that, that is.

It takes a lot of strength to cut off a family member who isn't good to you. It takes a lot of strength to maintain a relationship with a family member who you feel you benefit from having in your life even when they are frequently a jerk.
posted by ellehumour at 9:46 AM on June 19, 2010

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