How to be kind but firm with an estranged parent who wants more than I am willing to give?
March 15, 2007 2:41 AM   Subscribe

Cats in the Cradle. I have a sticky situation re: my estranged father (& his family) and my upcoming graduation. I broke off contact a few months ago and don't really want to open that can of worms again, but he recently emailed me to ask if I've "worked through my issues", and the distress my silence is causing the man makes me nauseous. How can I set boundaries without being cruel when what I really want is for him to forget all about me?

Further background:
I'm in my thirties and came back to school to get my B.A. a few years ago. For the last 20 years, I've lived about 3,000 miles away from my father. We spoke infrequently and I saw him every 3 or 4 years when I'd visit NY to see shows. We were never close. (On Father's Day I would often joke that the perfect card would read "Thanks for the sperm.")

Since I've moved back to NY to go to school, we have seen more of each other. ALOT more. Before I said I needed a break, the man was calling me almost every day and I was avoiding his calls. When we would get together it was because he wore me down and I was exhausted from saying no. Spending time with him made me realize that we have nothing in common (apart from genetics) and the unspoken idea that I was somehow obligated to spend time with him began to get under my skin.

He is not a bad man. I do not want to cause him pain. I know he wants to come to my graduation. I would like to be kind and invite him but the logistics will surely add alot more stress to my last few weeks of class, and I really want to spend the day with my real family, the people who have raised me and encouraged me and seen me through my coming out and some serious mental health issues and the recovery house. The people who know how far I've come because they came with me and carried me when I couldn't walk (emotionally, not physically).

Ugh. I don't know if this question even makes sense (or if there is a real question in here somewhere). I just don't want to someday wish I had done things differently, and can't help feeling that there's a simple, relatively pain-free solution that I'm overlooking.

Growing up is hard.
posted by mer2113 to Human Relations (36 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Dear Father:

I regret that I have not yet, as you say, "worked through my issues." I regret also that it will undoubtedly take me a very, very long time to do so. I promise, however, that as soon as I do this, I will notify you immediately. I wish you all the best in the intervening time.

Sincerely Yours,
posted by Faint of Butt at 2:57 AM on March 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

"we have nothing in common (apart from genetics)"

Yeah, but that's a big one. Invite your father to your graduation. You say you do not want to cause him pain, so don't. Would it be easier not to invite him? Maybe. I don't think that's a good enough reason not to invite him.
posted by gregoryc at 2:59 AM on March 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

I think Faint of Butt's letter is spot-on. I broke off contact with my father last year after an ugly incident and the realization that spending time with him caused me, my husband and children an inordinant amount of stress.

The fact that your father is trying to pull bullshit guilt on you and your "issues," rather than taking a moment to ponder his own role in the dynamic, should be telling to you. My father had a similar reaction, and I am very happy that I stood my ground for the first time in 39 years.

You get to have a dog in this fight. Listen to your gut and set your own parameters for for happiness and serenity. Spend the day with the people who love and support you. Growing up is hard, but you will feel better in the long run if you stand up for yourself.

And congratulations on your graduation!
posted by Sweetie Darling at 3:10 AM on March 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

Families are tricky. I'm sure a lot of people feel your pain! How about some kind of compromise, such as inviting him to the graduation ceremony itself but then going on to have a special dinner with your closer family? or vice versa. That way you don't cut him out entirely, but you do get to spend that quality time with the family who was always there for you.

If you don't feel comfortable doing that, you could always tell him there are very limited tickets for the graduation ceremony (true in my case!), and you've already given them away, but you'd love to send him some photos...

Congratulations on graduating, and best of luck.
posted by indienial at 3:21 AM on March 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I concur with Faint of Butt. It's honest, does not leave much room for "debate," and is not horribly rude. You don't mention the reasons for your estrangement, but I think you've solved the problem yourself when you mention your "real" family and wanting to spend time with them. "Real" is what's in the heart, and that's what you should follow. No matter who (if anyone) is the cause of the estrangement, you shouldn't mar your big day with a bag full of emotional stress you don't need.

You don't mention that he is expecting an invite to your graduation . . . sure, he e-mailed you. Clearly he desires contact, and having waited a few months to see if you're prepared to meet him seems reasonable to me. (I'm taking the "high etiquette" route here by assuming his actions were sincere and not manipulative.) But it sounds like you're not ready, and that's why FoB's response seems fair.

If I were you, I would just not mention graduation at all. I don't think you'll regret it, because you're simply not ready for it now. It's your day, you earned it. (Congratulations!) Spend it with those who supported you when you need it most; your relationship with your father will mend itself or not in time. Forcing this issue won't make it better for anyone. You will have many big days in your life; I'm sure you'll invite Dad to the one that occurs when the time is right.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:26 AM on March 15, 2007

Once you have accepted that there are good arguments on both sides of this issue and no perfect solution exists, you'll be free to make the decision that feels most right to you. If it turns out to be a mistake, take comfort in the fact that you gave plenty of thought to the question and did your best to do the right thing.
posted by teleskiving at 4:48 AM on March 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

Don't invite him to the graduation. Spend the time with the people you need to. I'm sorry that you feel guilt when, if anyone should, it should be him, based on your brief description. That's probably where some of the need for contact is coming from. But only some. You can sort that later, but for now concentrate on the positive.
Adding your estranged dad and his family will likely make everyone uncomfortable, not just you. FoB's response wording is dismissive and sarcastic, I'd go for a more neutral tone, and recommend you consider Dee Xtrovert's advice.
I was out of contact with and very hostile to my Dad, for good reason. We reconciled after seven years, but only after I had the will to be more myself and less his child. To this day, there are times I want to knock his block off. But he is who he is, I am who I am, and that's it. I'm glad I can call him, and am {usually} happy to hear from him, and that we both had the presence of mind to accept each other.
posted by nj_subgenius at 4:55 AM on March 15, 2007

I was sympathetic with your intro but the longer explanation does make it sound like "your issues". Why not just ask him to call you a little less often? Maybe plan to spend the day with him a couple times a year or something?
posted by DU at 5:23 AM on March 15, 2007

Why take this potentially joyous moment from him? Wouldn't it be better to not have to look back with regret som time down the road? Perhaps mention via email when your graduation is and that he is welcome to come. Make the point that you have a lot going on in the weeks leading up to graduation and may not be able to spend much (or any) time with him. You should also let him know that you already have celebratory plans after graduation.

Although (as Dee Xtrovert says) it is your day and you earned it - he would only be a face in a crowd. Most of the time you'll be facing the stage anyway so won't see him. By leaving the option open for him to come (on your terms - i.e you may not be available before graduation and you already have plans after) you make it clear that he is welcome to share in parts of your life but on your terms - it is a start to setting up the boundaries in your relationship.
posted by snatchos at 5:47 AM on March 15, 2007

Nope, sorry, they're not "your issues" - they belong to both you and your father, especially if the major connection you have with your dad is that he was the sperm donor.

It sounds like inviting him to your graduation would be stressful for you, so you need to weigh that with the importance to YOU that he is present there. On the other hand, if you really want to give this relationship a chance, suggest to him after the graduation that you see a counselor together. If he isn't interested, I'd suggest you see a counselor yourself to help sort this out. As good as we are here in Ask, we're not as qualified as a professional to help sort out the big issues.

And yes, growing up is hard, but think of it as an adventure and enjoy what you learn along the way.
posted by SteveInMaine at 5:56 AM on March 15, 2007

From the perspective of a parent here-you speak of logistics-is there any way he can come yet handle his own?

Parents are all flawed people, yet they are still your parents. He might be very hurt at the lack of an invite.

OTOH you aren't 18 anymore, and considering there may be even more than you are telling us-if you decide not to you aren't evil.

Can you discuss this with someone who knows the both of you? That might be more helpful in this particular case.
posted by konolia at 6:15 AM on March 15, 2007

He tried to make up for not being there when you were younger, and you pushed him away. It doesn't sound like he's done anything wrong. You said you needed some space for a while, but that was a lie since you apparently never want to see him again.

Who's at fault here?
posted by smackfu at 6:17 AM on March 15, 2007

I think you have a very level head about this-- you want your graduation to be a joyous time where you can celebrate with the people who helped you get where you are. He is not one of those people. Why not tell him that you'll mail him tickets, but that you'll be spending time with your "other" family that day. He's welcome to come to the ceremony, but you won't be available any time other than that. In fact, you might not actually see him, but if it means something to him to see you graduate, then you'll mail him tickets and catch up with him a few weeks after that.

You need to be honest with him at some point. Tell him that the relationship is difficult for you and will be for the foreseeable future, and for now you'd like to limit interactions to once a month, on your initiative. You aren't be unkind to do that-- you're being truthful instead of "giving in". It's perfectly fine to be truthful.

Congratulations, by the way!
posted by orangemiles at 6:34 AM on March 15, 2007

Yeah, growing up is hard, and one of the reasons it is so is you have to learn, as an adult, how to relate to parents who are learning, for the first time, to relate to you as an adult.

This phase of life is hard for us all.
posted by 4ster at 6:36 AM on March 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

Well, I'll nth the need for more info, if you don't mind giving it out. Otherwise it looks to me like:

--He's trying hard to be a dad.
--Dads go to graduations.
--Dads don't "forget all about you," like you'd like him too.
--You don't have anything in common besides genetics....fair enough, but do you realize that any number of people could say this about Dads who were more than just "sperm donors" during their childhoods?

I'm not telling you to talk to him every day, not set boundaries in terms of how much time you spend together, etc. However, I'd recommend that you extend the kindness of an invite, along with setting the boundary of, "I've already booked so many activities with other family/friends for that day that I won't be able to spend much time with you beyond a quick thank-you for your attendence."

Life is short. Your father is trying to figure out how to parent you after dropping the ball the first time. Growing old is hard, too. Compassion and kindness can be relatively cheap, if you know how to set limits. If you can keep him from monopolizing your time (and barring any new info about how he was/is abusive, etc), why begrudge him this?
posted by availablelight at 6:48 AM on March 15, 2007 [6 favorites]

Also, if he's in-state, what kind of "logistics" that might consume "the last few weeks of classes" are you really concerned about? Might help if you are more specific.

You have a father who wants to be supportive and desperately wants to be a part of your life. Learn to set boundaries and give yourself some breathing space, but realize that this is not a problem everyone has.
posted by availablelight at 6:55 AM on March 15, 2007 [3 favorites]

"I will notify you immediately"
"I wish you all the best in the intervening time"

Faint of Butt's letter is cold and potentially rude. It sounds like something you'd receive if you had been turned down for a job.

The fact that your father is trying to pull bullshit guilt on you and your "issues," rather than taking a moment to ponder his own role in the dynamic, should be telling to you.

Sweetie Darling, you sound a lot more resentful than mer2113. I have just read his story again and I don't see where his father might be trying to inflict guilt. Not that your issues are the point here, but you sound a little too happy to have found someone with "the same" problem you have. Lots of people have assholes for fathers, you shouldn't assume that is mer2113's case and take validation in it.

Now here's something interesting about the whole "how do I say this?" thing:

he recently emailed me to ask if I've "worked through my issues"

mer2113, I don't think you and others quoted "your issues" because you feel there are no real issues. Maybe you just want to make sure we understand that those are your father's words and not yours. And then there's all this discussion about who owns the existing issues.

Your father may have thought that particular choice of words would convey that he cares about your problems but does not want to pry or offend you.
You are younger, have worked through what seems to be an amazing amount of stuff to overcome, are apparently well adjusted and happy, or well on your way there. And yet you can't find the right words either.

My suggestion: imagine the best- and worst-case scenarios if your father is at your graduation. After you do that, if you still think it's really not worth having him there, don't just ignore him. Tell him kindly. If you wish to say the whole thing, the part where you don't feel connected, and how you want to be left alone, say it kindly. If you just want to say you don't want him there, or give any excuse, do that kindly too.

You sound more tired than angry. Use that. Hurt is innevitable in your situation, and it goes both ways, but at least the words can be softer.
"We never managed to get along" is something everyone can learn to live with. With that you can find peace, because it's just human flaws afterall.
"He was mean, he is a cruel person, I cannot beleive he said that" is a whole other deal.

Be kind.
Good luck.
posted by ArchBr at 7:15 AM on March 15, 2007

You're not obliged to see him. Asking if you've "worked through your issues" is patronising and rude.

Silence is often best.
posted by Phanx at 8:02 AM on March 15, 2007

This is a tough call. If you are seeing a therapist, you may want to work on the process of establishing boundaries with your father. You are not obligated to have a super close relationship with a parent who was unavailable or unsupportive of you growing up. You also don't have to spend time with someone who makes you feel bad.
posted by pluckysparrow at 8:14 AM on March 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

You don't say much about why you're estranged other than that he wasn't in the picture. You don't suggest he was actively abusive. Granted, abandoning your family counts as a kind of abuse, if that's what happened. But it sounds like he feels very guilty and sad, and does want to atone for hurting you. Nothing obligates you to accept his remorse, or to accept on his stifling terms. But it would be and act of great grace -- and it might be liberating for you -- to say that you appreciate his efforts, that they are too much for you, that you might be able to deal with occasional contact in the future (if that's true) and then either to invite him to the graduation or explain why that oversteps the boundaries you need in place here. I'm assuming he's rational, remorseful, and loves you on some level.

The amount of pain *you* seem to be in suggests you haven't decided or resolved how you feel about him. But here's a lesson from further on up the road (and growing up never stops, and never stops being hard): nothing will get better, even in his total absence, for you until you make peace with yourself about the anger you feel, and sometimes forgiveness (with conditions and limits and terms) can do wonders in that direction.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:03 AM on March 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Because the real lesson of growing up, and it is hard, is that everyone fucks up royally sometimes. Everyone. You will too, and you will hope for forgiveness.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:04 AM on March 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

I have been through a similar strained relationship with my biomom (my stepmom is the one who did the real mom work) and I can say the best way to deal with your own sense of guilt is set clear boundaries and make a few compromises. Your dad will never just forget about you (I had the same wish) it is obvious he wants some sort of relationship. Invite him to the graduation but let him know you have other obligations ie my family is throwing me a party and I have to be there. At the actual graduation say hello and let him congratulate you after some polite conversation say it was nice seeing you I've really got to go ____ fill in the blank. Then as far as maintenance goes come up with some sort of schedule that you can handle to talk to him or meet him somewhere for a brief meal (I always have some plan or reason I have to leave shortly but not rudely after eating). With time in small doses you may feel a lot more relaxed about the relationship and may find some common ground but if he continues to be a negative influence tell him why you feel that way and end contact as kindly as possible. Good Luck
posted by estronaut at 9:38 AM on March 15, 2007

I think you're being a little unreasonable. I get that you're tired of seeing your father, but you're suggesting you want to cut off contact completely when he didn't do anything objectionable. I don't think your father is being rude or patronizing for asking if you've worked through your issues--you obviously have some stuff to deal with if you're wanting to sever ties with a family member completely because they want to see you a lot. It's your father, not a clingy girlfriend.

It sounds like you need to learn to say "no" and mean it. Not "Maybe tomorrow" or "We'll see" or "I'm kind of busy this afternoon". A clear "no" should not be an exhaustive exercise unless your father is an idiot. I don't really see why you're painting this as an all or nothing situation. Inviting him to your graduation does not obligate you to hang out with him all week, or any time in the future. The "simple solution" you're overlooking is called "compromising".
posted by almostmanda at 9:56 AM on March 15, 2007

What Phanx said.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:59 AM on March 15, 2007

I went through this exact same situation at my graduation, however my father and I are estranged for much more severe reasons. He was not invited and began to make inquiries through his siblings that I was still in contact with. They supported my decision and conveyed to my father that I did not wish him to attend my graduation. He felt he was entitled, regardless of the fact that I hadn't seen him in years and the was never there to physically or emotionally support me in any way. I felt that he had no right to attend and that him being there would only distract from mine and my mother's achievement in getting my degree. If I ever get married, he's not invited to that either, it's not that I'm being cruel it's what I believe is best for both of us.

Being the person he is, he showed up on my doorstep the day before. Why he would fly cross country against the advice of practically everyone is beyond me. We had a fairly calm argument where he said he just needed to hear it from me, although it was the same message that had been passed through from everyone else. I told him it was my day and if he cared at all about me, he would respect my wishes in allowing me to spend it how I wished and that having him there would cause me strain.

As far as I know he did not show up and I'm glad he did not attend. Your's isn't quite the same situation but I hope my experience might give you some insight. I think you may need to decide what kind of relationship you want with him and make it clear so that no one suffers any more pain than they have to.
posted by sweetmarie at 10:02 AM on March 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I disagree with Faint of Butt's suggestion, unless you think it is likely you will want a closer relationship in the future. Otherwise, it's unnecessarily cruel to instill false hope, which is exactly what a letter with that wording will do.

If you don't want a relationship with the man, be honest and tell him you don't want one and not to contact you. Of course you'll feel horrible and so will he but it's better than the alternative I think.
posted by 6550 at 11:31 AM on March 15, 2007

You can't "make him forget about you". What you want is for YOU to forget about him.
posted by essexjan at 12:25 PM on March 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Something like this (just the truth, written with as much sympathy as you can muster):

Dear Dad, I don't know about "issues", but as you may have realised, it's difficult for me at the moment to move into a full-time relationship with you when for so many years, while I was growing up, we hardly ever saw each other. As you know, my graduation is coming up, but to be honest, I don't feel comfortable about inviting you. I realise that may be hurtful, for which I apologise, but there it is. In fact, I hope you'll understand. If we are to build a relationship, let's take it nice and easy. We both have plenty of time. Love, .....
posted by londongeezer at 1:05 PM on March 15, 2007

I went through this. Not the same, but still substantial.

Perhaps, say:
"I know this means quite a bit to you. Please come. But understand that while I'm working through "my issues" that I feel that you're smothering me. Also, referring to "my issues" is condescending. It really makes me want to tell you not to attend.

I don't really care to explain the "whys" on that I feel smothered. But I do. And there's not much you can do about it beyond this:

"Let me initiate calls, meetings, and get togethers. I might want to only see or speak a couple of times a year. I realize this is a major event, and you're proud of me. So yes, come and see me graduate. But, understand that this starts my phase of my life, where I choose how to spend my time.

The alternative is that I'll control it by ignoring you. And it may feel like I'm ignoring you when I don't stay in contact over a period of a couple of months. But since you can't respect my needs for space, I can only control this in two ways. First by asking you to back off, and if necessary, just ignoring you completely."
posted by Towelie at 1:26 PM on March 15, 2007

Your graduation is *your* day. You've worked very hard for it, and it's only right that you have people there who you want there, and don't have people there who you don't want there.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It's why some people go to psychics. ;) The only person who can tell you how you'll likely feel in the future is you. Personally speaking, it seems that you feel quite strongly that you don't want him there, and you'll only actually feel guilty if you form a relationship with him in the future. If you don't have a relationship with him in the future, I can't see it being a problem. Just my 2p.
posted by Solomon at 1:49 PM on March 15, 2007

Best answer: Being estranged from a parent is so much easier than being estranged from a child. He will never forget about you or give up on you. You need to make a decision between what's best for you and what's best for him, and it won't be the last time you'll need to choose between your own needs and those of another human being. How we make those choices defines what kind of person we are.
posted by rocket88 at 3:12 PM on March 15, 2007 [8 favorites]

What Rocket88 said.

Part of growing up is seeing things from a wider perspective. While I recognize you are in your thirties, your post sounds like the dilemma of someone much younger. If you can, be generous. It might be you, relatively soon, asking your kid if you can come to their graduation.

Also, your post and description comes across as really really angry, and it does sound like you have issues to work through, for your own sake, if for no one elses.
posted by zia at 6:09 PM on March 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the thoughtful responses. I think everybody's right which is why this is such a pain in the butt.

Just to clarify:
The quotes around his question of whether I've "Worked through my issues" were misleading. I'm pretty sure I used the phrase in my email to him and he wasn't intentionally being snide or disrespectful. If anything I think he was being extra careful to mirror my language back to me to avoid miscommunicating.

He's never been intentionally abusive to me and he's not mean. He's alot like me. Much more likely to be passive-aggresive with the guilt and careless statements than confrontational and just (it seems to me) a sad and lonely man who really doesn't know how to relate to others.
This, surely, is a big part of the reason he upsets me. I'm afraid he is me and God do I hate looking in that mirror.

And to the people who picked up on my lingering anger/resentment, you nailed that, too.
I know resentment is toxic to my soul, but it still hurts that he spent 10's of thousands of dollars on his daughter's wedding last year, yet was truly too poor to help me put myself through school ($50,000 of student loan debt and I'm hoping for grad school, so...). Yet, I've got to let it go.

All that being said, What Rocket88 said was really what I think I needed to hear.
Life is short. My father is not in the best of health and he has lived, I'm pretty sure, an often cruel and disappointing life.

I'd like to show him the same compassion I would hope I could show to any other human being.
I am in the position to do something that might mean alot to him, something that asks relatively little of me.

I'm going to email him now and ask him if he would like to come to my graduation.

(wouldn't it be awful if after all this I couldn't get enough tickets for everyone? Gah!)

(I'm sure I will.)
posted by mer2113 at 8:59 PM on March 15, 2007 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: And thanks for all of the congratulations!

It seems like such a little thing (graduating), and so common, but at the same time it's sort of miraculous and sublime and I know I'm going to have to drink alot of water that week because I'm going to be crying ALOT. Tears of joy and gratitude, the best kind.

This is one gift horse I refuse to look in the mouth.
(For at least a week after graduation)
posted by mer2113 at 9:06 PM on March 15, 2007

Congratulations for all of it.
posted by pointilist at 11:00 PM on March 15, 2007

mer2113, that impressed me a lot.

Congratulations on your graduation, and good luck!
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:54 AM on March 16, 2007

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