Reconnecting (maybe) with estranged dad, need help talking to him
July 2, 2017 7:34 AM   Subscribe

My dad has been unwilling to use my correct name or pronouns, or acknowledge my transition in any way, since I came out as transgender two years ago. I'm trying to reconnect with him and I'm meeting with him for coffee tomorrow. If you've successfully reconnected with an estranged parent, what were your "talking points" and how did you assert your boundaries?

He has been distant since I came out, but things really came to a head this past Christmas. I was deeply upset that a few days before, my boss had told me that after a year of being out as trans at work, I could no longer use the men's room. I was also still in profound shock and grief after the election. I told my dad (and stepmom) when I arrived at their house for Christmas festivities and they were dismissive of my feelings and told me to "have a good time anyway."

I didn't contact them in any way (nor did they contact me) until March because in the interim I'd had (trans-related) surgery and I was still dealing with the work debacle (I was ultimately let go). I finally emailed my dad to tell him I was upset and why. He responded with a long tirade about how I was ungrateful and how he'd been wronged by other people (?!) and he had the right to see me as his daughter and he'd never accept me as his son. He did say he was willing to talk to me in person. I responded that if he couldn't accept me then I couldn't have a relationship with him, and don't bother writing back for awhile because I was dealing with other stressors at the moment (unemployment).

After discussing this in countless therapy sessions, my therapist and I came to the conclusion that this needed to be addressed in some way. I wrote him last week and asked for a face-to-face meeting in a neutral place (Starbucks) but repeated the caveat that I couldn't have a relationship if he was not going to accept me as his son. He accepted my invitation and the meeting is tomorrow.

I still haven't figured out exactly what to say. From my perspective it's simple, either he accepts me or doesn't. I don't want to be combative and I don't worry about him causing a scene. He does the WASP thing of "let's not talk about uncomfortable things" but he's simultaneously a master of the guilt trip. He's a classic Trump voter, late 60s, blue collar worker (retired), but not religious. The reason I still want a relationship is that I don't want to feel grief and regret for the rest of my life, and although we were not emotionally close, we shared a lot of interests and activities and I miss being able to talk to him about those things. I also miss my relationship with my stepmom, who has also been much more accepting (despite also being a Trump voter).

I'm rambling now but the tl;dr is above the fold. I'm especially interested in hearing from trans people but I value the perspective of anyone who's reconciled.
posted by AFABulous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
One other reason I want a relationship: there's a unique emotional void for me vs. cis men, because I did not grow up treated as a boy/man and I was never taught "how to be a man." I have no male role models.
posted by AFABulous at 7:48 AM on July 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am not trans. In fact I am a 50 something cis white male. I did go through a long period where I did not speak to my father. We reconciled after several years.

I think there is one other thing you have to decide before the meet. Do you want to reconcile the recent past, do you want an apology or recognition that your father behaved poorly when you told him or are you willing to do what you said your father was good at, the stiff upper lip, we shall not talk about certain things. I think if your goal is to establish a relationship going forward without worrying so much about the past, then this should be much more doable than trying to get your father and stepmom to atone for their past behavior. He does not sound like he is the type to apologize for calling his son his daughter and refusing to acknowledge who you are rather than who he thought you were or who he wants you to be.

I know that your father has caused hurt in the recent past, but he cannot change that. What he can change, and that remains to be seen, is how he relates to you from this moment forward. I would focus on that, but I certainly appreciate it if you want to reconcile some of the past.

I would tell him pretty much what you wrote. That you missed the relationship, that you would like to have a relationship going forward on the basis of mutual respect, that you get that it is hard for him to see his child born as his daughter be his son, but that is the way it is and you think that it can lead to a good father/son relationship. I would tell him that changing your identity did not change the things you like and share together, the things you used to talk about, etc.

I think it will be hard, but appreciate your father's limitations and accept baby steps of progressive over time that will will lead to full acceptance. If you are looking for acknowledgement of his past poor reaction and inappropriate behavior AND a relationship going forward, I do not think it will happen. I am not even sure you can get him to say out loud that he accepts you for who you are, but I think if you don't force the issue to say something along those lines, he can act in a way that he accepts the reality of who you are.

As for the guilt trip, I have a friend who used to say, "It is only a thankless job if you expect thanks." He also would say, "It is only a guilt trip if you feel guilty. What are you feeling guilty about if you think you did the right thing?" Don't let your father impose his views on you. I cannot figure why you have anything to justify a guilt trip by not talking to your father after he refused to acknowledge his own son. He should be on the guilt trip.
posted by AugustWest at 8:29 AM on July 2, 2017 [12 favorites]

Difficult conversations are hard. Be sure you have "team you" in place for after the meeting, even if that's just texting a friend.

I have had harsh discussions with people about my identity which is even less acceptable than trans (multiple). Lots of different ones that have gone badly and well.

For me, the best conversations I have had have been when I have been sharing my truth and asking for what I need, without trying to impose a result or get into consequences early. To recognize that it's a journey for both of us. And frankly, listening, even to shitty stuff. (To be clear: I don't think the shitty stuff is okay, I just think that in families it happens. All we can pick is our responses, sometimes.)

One of my best friends, when I came out to her, asked me if I believe I was abducted by aliens was super hurtful, gotta say, and all I could stammer out was "I can see how this is weird." But we did actually work it out after she apologized (more or less -we're close but maybe not about all the wrinkles of my mind) to put this? It didn't COST me to see that she wasn't in a place to accept me. It hurt, but it didn't harm. If it wasn't going to work out, it wasn't. I didn't have to storm out at that point because I was okay in my own skin.

I don't know if you're in that place where you are firm on your ground but if you are the best thing you can probably do is just let the conversation go down how it goes down. If your goal is to give your dad a chance, try to give him a chance. (But just the one man, if he's horrible, get out.)

I'd try something like - Dad, let me say something and then I'll listen to you. I really miss you. I miss talking about things and I don't want to have regrets at the end of my life that we missed out on each other. I really want to work this out. I want to be a family. I just can't do that at the cost of who I am. I feel like I have lived a lie so long and part of what I feel like I got from you (if this is true) is being straight up/a strong person/a need to be comfortable in my own skin/whatever. Being who I am has cost me my job and a lot of other things, but it's that important to me. I need you to respect me in that. I want to be a family, a whole lot. I just can't do it at the cost of being myself. And who I am is [your language.] And what I need is that you use my correct name and pronouns. Do you think you can do that for me?

(I hope none of this is offensive, I am projecting from my experience in the words but hopefully you get the idea.)

Then I would listen to him. I hope he is smart enough that his answer will be that he will try. If it isn't, at least you tried, right? I realize this is hard especially with our parents. It is lousy that those of us who are breaking ground have to - break the path. I hope it goes okay!
posted by warriorqueen at 8:34 AM on July 2, 2017 [9 favorites]

I have reconciled with my father, who is much like your father in a lot of ways, but only after a death in the family meant it was necessary. The cost of that reconciliation was never mentioning the hurt I felt over the estrangement - essentially pretending as though our relationship just continuously existed from when he was good to when he was good, and the years where he was hurtful did not exist. I am not sure if this is acceptable to you. I am still not sure if it's acceptable to me. I am still angry sometimes.

I think maybe having realistic expectations and boundaries is useful. For me it was "you have to accept my marriage" - for you "you have to accept my gender" is both reasonable and necessary. But I also - I think that when a parent has behaved egregiously like that, they really give up the right and ability to teach you how to be an adult, because part of being a good adult, in this case a good man and father, is not behaving like that to your child who should be your best beloved, and not a venting pot for his feels about masculinity. So maybe you can't expect him to be a role model because it sounds like he's just not that good at it. (For me, I went through this realization with both my parents).

But you can definitely, I think, get the "person who talks about activities" back, and your stepmom back. If he accepted the meeting, he wants the estrangement to end. The question is really just on what terms that happens.
posted by corb at 8:53 AM on July 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

I don't know if I can say that I've reconciled with my mother, but we do have some contact now. The key for me is to be very clear with myself about what I can expect from her. She's a narcissist so I've had to grieve the things I will never get from her (real love, any sort of compassion or understanding, support, recognition of who I am outside of her narcissistic needs). I've also worked hard to decide, given the constraints of her emotional incapacities, what I want from a relationship with her.

Being clear with myself about these things has allowed me to be much less on guard in interactions with her. I see her for who she is and understand that any power she used to have over me is long gone. She no longer defines who I am or what I'm worth. This work took years.

When I decided to meet with her for the first time after a long break, I did two things that really helped:
-- I brought a friend (who she did not know and would not recognize) who sat at a different table in the restaurant. I didn't introduce him to her or let her know he was there but he was emotional support and a connection to the world I've created in which I am loved and seen.

-- I told everyone in my life who loves me about the meeting and asked them to think about me when it was happening. I wrote all of their names on an index card and kept that card in my pocket. It was another way to remind myself that she doesn't have any power over me.

I wish you the best and I'll be thinking of you tomorrow.
posted by mcduff at 9:26 AM on July 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

I also don't understand why your therapist would push this. Even if you had grown up with an appropriate relationship with him, the only man he could have taught you to be would be like he is: emotionally stunted, blindingly white, privileged and terrified of losing it.

He's not a good role model. For anybody. You'd be far better off finding ways to have those relationships with someone you aren't related to who's got something to offer.

I think if you walk into this meeting assuming it's going to fix anything, you're going to get badly hurt. Of course there's a chance that he's had enough time - old white guys like that change course slowly if they do it at all - to be less horrible than he was before, but it's not going to undo his personality, and I don't know that continuing to eat shit hoping it'll start to taste better is a quality life strategy. I think you should have a plan in your back pocket for saying goodbye, in case you need to use it. Maybe that's what your therapist actually thinks you're going to get from this, that you're not going to let go of the idea of your father as a person he isn't and can't be unless you get another open rejection from him.

I don't mean to be super-shitty about dads in general, but a lot of men (and maybe the fathers of those of us currently middle-aged in particular, more than younger men) have children because that's what you do to fit in professionally/socially and get the life-support system of a wife, and not out of any real urge to parent or father with any sort of art or craft. The extent of his job, which he probably considers complete, was making sure you survived to adulthood and are not a professional criminal, and he never expected to be asked to do more than that. I think you are hoping to unlock qualities in him that you feel are being withheld from you personally, but which actually do not exist at all.

I hope that it all goes far better than my pessimism allows, but I think you should walk into this fully braced for a crash landing. If possible, have some folks on standby in case you need help or company afterwards.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:09 AM on July 2, 2017 [10 favorites]

In defense of your father, I think that his agreeing to meet, despite the caveat that you made clear, means that he is willing to listen.

I come at this from the perspective of a gay African man, in a country where homosexual acts are illegal and homophobia rampant. But even in this environment, I've realised that many people evolve slowly once they're exposed to something they've been taught/trained to view as abhorrent, disgusting, immoral or unnatural. A childhood friend has transitioned from female to male years ago and, surprisingly, there has been some acceptance (emphasis on some).

Go and tell your father that you miss what the two of you shared while you were growing up and you hope you can rekindle the relationship with him and your stepmother. You cannot compromise on who you are but you're hurting and you miss them. Stop there. Don't add anything. Let it sink. Then, let your father make progress at his own pace. The fact that you were allowed in the house during the holiday season looks like, at least, they have not rejected you totally.

I also think that if you want your parents to respect your new identity, maybe you should also respect their political choices and acknowledge that they have agency in deciding who they vote for. I'd stay away from framing what you want in political terms, and expect them to see the 'errors' of their ways. Much as they should accept you from a position of love, so should you about their choices.

I wish you well.
posted by Kwadeng at 12:12 PM on July 2, 2017 [12 favorites]

From my perspective it's simple, either he accepts me or doesn't

Following on Kwadeng... yes, it's simple from your perspective, however, it is clearly not simple from your father's perspective. And if (emphasis on if) you are to reconcile with him, the two of you will need to forge a relationship that can accommodate both of your perspectives.

Simply put, you are framing what you need from him as a specific binary that (given everything you've written about him) is setting him up for failure and, more to the point, setting yourself up for devastation. Be honest: you don't really expect that he can just flip a switch and accept you over a cup of coffee, do you? But framing it as "Either he accepts me or he doesn't" is essentially demanding that he flip that switch. If (if) your dad ever accepts you, then at best it's going to be like a dimmer switch slowly coming up from dark to light. But it's not something that's going to happen all in one go.

With that in mind, I think the better either/or question for tomorrow may be something like either he is willing to work on accepting me, or he isn't. This is fairer to the both of you: the implicit bottom line is still that your identity must be accepted, while at the same time making room for the fact that to do so is going to be a difficult process for him.

Now, it may very well be that your dad isn't even willing to engage with you even at that level, and I think you should be prepared for that possibility (Lyn Never's advice is excellent on this score). But at least framing the question with a little more nuance might increase your chances (a little) that the two of you can take a step toward each other, rather than away.

I wish you all the best, and I'll be thinking of you tomorrow, too.
posted by the return of the thin white sock at 1:01 PM on July 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

I hope this goes as well as it possibly can.

That said, I think that attempting to find and foster a relationship with a cis man you deeply like and respect, of the appropriate age etc. to be a surrogate father, is the best way to go about getting better role models. Your dad, even if you get everything you want from this particular meeting, is always going to have the potential to mess up dramatically and terribly as he has done in the past, and so if you are relying on him to help demonstrate non-toxic masculinity there is always going to be the potential that it just. will. not. work.

I understand the need for a role model-- it's astonishingly hard to be something that you have never seen anyone else do or be, that you have no patterns in your head relating to. I don't think your dad should be that role model for you.

For one thing, planning on having somebody else be your role model will mean you can put less emotional weight on whether things with your father go well. If it goes badly, you can say to yourself 'it's not the end of the world, I'm going to learn about manhood from x other person'. You don't even have to have another specific person in mind right now, just the determination to find somebody.

Thinking of you, as another trans dude whose family of origin does not get it. I went out and got myself a different mother a few years back and it's been amazingly wonderful.
posted by Rush-That-Speaks at 1:16 PM on July 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

I just had dinner with my dad this past week, the first time in probably five years we've talked. I think it's important to take things slowly. We didn't really talk about not talking, or even really catch up much. My dad, for all his faults, has a lot of hobbies and interests, some of which overlap with mine, and we mostly talked about those. I showed him a couple of photos of his granddaughter whom he's never met, and he updated me on my 91-year-old grand father's health, and besides that, we made glorified small talk. And I think that was good. My situation is different from yours; my problem with my dad is that he never really seemed interested in making the effort to sustain a relationship with me - no big blowups or anything. My goal is to move slowly. Gradually re-establish trust until we're comfortable talking about things, rather than talking about everything up front and getting too emotional. I'm still in this process, so I don't know how it'll turn out, but I think it'll be easier and less fraught than what might be perceived on his end as a confrontation. Best of luck to you.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:33 PM on July 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

I was tangentially involved in a situation where a mother said something quite similar to what your father did -- after her child transitioned, she basically said, "I will always think of you as my daughter, I can't think of you as my son" and refused to accept the transition at first. So after a great deal of drama and therapy, the mom turned out to have two basic issues that put her in that mental place. First, she thought that admitting her son was trans meant admitting she had been a bad and negligent parent who didn't know this super-basic thing about her son and who had treated him badly by raising him as a girl. (Child's response, "It was a different time, there wasn't the awareness there is now, I had a mostly happy childhood, you didn't do anything wrong, just neither of us knew this about me then.") Second, she was afraid that accepting the transition meant that she could never talk about his childhood and she would have to let go of all those happy memories, and that was absolutely unbearable to her. (Child had no problem reminiscing about mother-daughter pedicures when he was presenting as female at age six even though he was no longer interested in doing that; Mom saved the more gendered memories for close family and became sensitive about not relating, like, a bra-shopping story outside the close family.) Especially if you're a first (or only) child, you're the child who made your parents into parents, and those memories of your infancy and childhood are deeply profound to your parents and hugely important to their self-concept and self-understanding. This mom felt like she was being asked to give up those memories, to forget them, and to lose a huge part of her self-definition as a parent.

In this case when the mom was able to hear from her son, "I was a happy kid, you were great parents (99% of the time), there were things that were difficult in my childhood related to being trans but there are things difficult in every childhood, and you don't have to pretend my childhood never happened and I'm not trying to erase it," mom was able to understand her son's transition wasn't a threat to her self-concept or an indictment of her parenting, and once she understood that's what she was really afraid of, her irrational prejudices melted away pretty fast and she became willing to learn and she's a great community advocate now and helps other parents through their kids' transitions, and sees some of the same issues arise where parents resist the child identifying as trans because it's an identity threat to the parent.

So I don't know if that's your dad's problem, or if that's your situation in general (childhood mostly happy, parents mostly fine), but it's possible that reassuring him that you're not trying to erase your childhood, etc., might make him more receptive.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:09 PM on July 2, 2017 [16 favorites]

« Older How to secure a makeshift shelf made of planks of...   |   Bookstore recs for the healthy marriage bookshelf?... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.