How to respond to relatives' questions about parent?
December 20, 2010 9:39 AM   Subscribe

How to respond to relatives' questions about my dad's lack of communication?

My parents are having serious marital problems (related to my father's infidelity), and these seem to have coincided with my father disconnecting from his sisters and brothers. When they call him, he does not pick up the phone; when they invite him to family events, he does not attend.

My brother, mom, and I visited his sister (my aunt) twice recently, and he did not accompany us as he usually has in the past. On both occasions, my aunt asked me why he hadn't come and if he was OK. I said I wasn't sure, but that she should keep trying to get in touch with him. The first time this happened, she accepted my response, but the second time, her questions grew more persistent - she sensed there was something wrong. I expect similar questions this Christmas if he does not attend family events.

What to say? I don't want to lie, but I also don't think I should be the one to tell them about my parents' marital problems (plus I have no idea how exactly they relate to his not calling, if at all). I will tell my father that he needs to talk to them himself, but I doubt he will do that.

My current thought is to say something like "I understand that you're concerned - I would be too - but the right person to ask about this is him." But, of course, I expect even more persistent questions in response. (I don't blame them for asking: I would be just as bewildered if my brother stopped returning phone calls for no apparent reason.) Any ideas or advice? Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think your 'current thought' is the right thing to say. It's not your business to unpack the problems. Other than assuring them that he's alive and physically well and that the number hasn't changed, you don't owe them an explanation. Acknowledge that it's awkward and upsetting to them, and move on.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:43 AM on December 20, 2010 [5 favorites]

You can say "I don't know, he's been turning into a bit of a hermit lately".

If you think it's true that he'd welcome a call or a visit from them, then you could tell them that also.

If they push you could say that you understand their concern, but you really don't feel comfortable discussing your father in his absence, so please would they mind not asking you about it.
posted by emilyw at 9:47 AM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

Your gut is completely right. Don't deny that something's wrong with him or sugar-coat it in any way... Just be firm when you say that "he's the one to talk to about this..." They should redirect their persistence to your father...
posted by Glendale at 9:50 AM on December 20, 2010

Ask your mum if it is OK to tell them about the marital problems; if it is OK with her then tell them and say this may be the reason he is hiding from them.
posted by priorpark17 at 9:51 AM on December 20, 2010

Ask your father what he would prefer you to say and try to gently find out why he's cut off contact with his family.

I guess it depends on what he's avoiding with them: judgmental response, their disappointment, his sadness/anger about the situation, having a breakdown publicly, not wanting to reveal that he's treated your mother poorly ...

I know that after a particularly bad break up, I didn't want to talk about it with my parents and so avoided calling them or answering the phone when they called. I just didn't have the emotional strength to have any sort of discussion with them. After a little time to myself, I was able to talk to them and let them support me.
posted by sciencegeek at 9:51 AM on December 20, 2010

Telling people he's the one to talk to when it's the fact that they cannot reach him that is the problem is not going to get you the outcome you want. There's also the fact that while marital issues are private, the fact your father is not present is very public.

So, frankly, instead of asking us, I think you should ask your mum how she'd like you to answer. If she can't give you good guidance here, then I'd refer people to her - ie, instead of telling folks to talk to dad, suggest they talk to mum.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:58 AM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Tell them you don't know and that they should take it up with him. He's the one who has made the decision to distance himself, not you. You should respect his decision while at the same time he should accept the responsibility for his own actions.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:00 AM on December 20, 2010

"I appreciate your concern, but you'll have to talk with him about that."

Rinse and--ever more gently--repeat.
posted by MonkeyToes at 10:02 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Your current thought is accurate. If you know this is a general thing, and the person concerned worries that it's just them, you can add "I think he's been hard to get in touch with for everyone--it's not just you."
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:47 AM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think you are on the right track/have the right approach.

I disagree that you should ask your mom, or that it's inappropriate to refer questioners to your dad if a lack of communication from your dad is the problem.

You don't need to get more involved by asking your mom or dad how to respond. It plain and simple is not your business to try to explain to your aunt or anyone else, or to run some kind of interference. Not only do you not really know what's up (since you aren't in your dad's head), it's not ever a good policy to go spilling other peoples' business to anyone, and that includes family.

If you talk to anyone about it, I'd say tell your mom and/or brother that aunt cornered you last time to ask about dad, and would they please watch out during this visit because you don't want to have to discuss it with her.

"I really don't know what's up - you'd have to ask Dad. He and I haven't talked about it at all, and even if we had it wouldn't be up to me to talk about it."
posted by mrs. taters at 11:03 AM on December 20, 2010

The issue isn't that your father has retreated into his metaphorical cave. That IS a problem, but the real problem here is that you know what's going on, but you can't tell people.

Lying will get you nowhere. You can't lie that well. And even if you can, you probably shouldn't lie just to cover up for your father's bad behavior.

A polite demurral will probably get you nowhere as well, if your relatives are anything like mine. Particularly during the holidays, relatives seem to make it their life's work to start levering the truth out of you with a hammer and chisel if necessary.

When I have been in this situation, I have been able to fairly successfully shut down the line of questioning with a phrase like, "He's fine, I just talked to him [this morning, yesterday, last week]. There's some stuff going on, but it's not my place to talk about it."

Occasionally someone will persist. Just hold up your hands like "stop," smile ruefully, pause, then change the topic.
posted by ErikaB at 11:06 AM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

MonkeyToes has it exactly right. It is not your job or responsibility to explain your father's behavior, or make excuses for him. He is a grown-ass man, and the people asking you about it are also grown, and can manage their own communication.

I know I sound harsh, but I've been in a very similar situations for most of my life (starting with my parents' divorce when I was only 7), and in order to not make myself crazy or end up hating everyone, I've now got a very simple policy: I do not carry messages. Especially for adults. If Joe has something to say to Jack, he can say it directly to Jack. I also do not discuss anything about my relationship with Joe with Jack if I know they are not communicating on their own. Until I had that policy, I was pulled in so many directions emotionally that it was truly tearing me up. Now that I no longer let anyone put me in the middle, I'm much more sane and I hate fewer of the people to whom I am related.

So the response of "I appreciate your concern, but you'll have to talk with him about that" is just right. Anything else is not your job, and people who try to put you in the middle are not keeping your best interests in mind. And you deserve that consideration just as much - if not more - than your dad.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 11:37 AM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

Do not add drama to the situation by asking your mom what to say, or by directing people to her instead. The person to explain is your father, and if these busybodies can't get in touch with him, tough cookies.
posted by grouse at 11:45 AM on December 20, 2010

I don't think these people are busybodies, they're people who seem to be legitimately concerned that one of their family is disconnecting. That's an alarming thing...and this on top of the OP dissembling.

You say, "He's in good health, but he's sorting through some things on his own right now. He sends his love."

That should be enough. If there's any further questions, just politely decline and say you'll be more than happy to tell him they were asking for him.
posted by inturnaround at 11:53 AM on December 20, 2010

Initial inquiries of concern get: "To the best of my knowledge there is nothing physically wrong with him. " Any further inquiries get: "You'll have to ask him about that."
posted by hworth at 12:00 PM on December 20, 2010

I usually answer these sorts of questions with "Fuck if I know! Totally whacked, though, I agree. He seemed healthy enough last I talked with him and that's all I know." This approach has worked so far, and keeps me out of any speculating.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:18 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've heard people say, "I dunno, it's not my week to babysit him" or things along those lines. Something that really gets across that it's not your responsibility to monitor or explain your father's behavior. Of course try to keep it light-hearted and not grouchy.
posted by vytae at 1:21 PM on December 20, 2010

I would just say "I don't know why he is not responding to you and it is not my place to guess."

They aren't being busybodies, and it's unfortunate that you aren't unable to share more, but you aren't and you shouldn't have to.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:43 PM on December 20, 2010

I can't believe every answer isn't "whatever your father says to say".
posted by gjc at 6:10 PM on December 20, 2010

The thing is, it's not going to make things easier if you tell them something other than, "you'll have to ask him." Let's say you do decide to ask your mom what to say--which I think is REALLY inappropriate since she's not his keeper either--and she says something like, "tell them he's a bastard and they should write him off" (which I wouldn't blame her for saying). How is this going to help you? Do you think that would make busybodies or just concerned people back off with their questions? What it would do is pique their interest, they'd all start talking about it, and you'd find yourself in the middle of a crowd with a million questions for you.

This reminds me of the very excellent advice I was given once: if you want to get rid of a persistent salesperson, don't give them any ammunition to use. Don't say something like, "it's too expensive" or "I don't like the color," because then you're giving them an opening they can use, inviting them to tell you it's on sale or get a different color from the back room. You just say, "no, thanks, I'm not interested," a couple of times until they get it. Same situation here.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 10:18 PM on December 20, 2010

I think your instinct is on the mark here. The second you give any information, whether or not it's condoned by either of your parents, you will open the flood gates and your family will attempt to use you to extract information. Your father isn't handling this well, but family interference is not going to help your parents work through their issues.

You've reassured them that no emergency is happening. Beyond that, persistence should be politely shut down.

Another phrase that might be good - "If I knew anything I'd let you know, but I truly have no idea."
posted by amycup at 8:57 AM on December 21, 2010

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