A Christmas Story
November 12, 2007 10:52 AM   Subscribe

I haven't spoken to my father in over two years. Today, my mother spoke to him. She sent an email asking me to call him and I don't know what to do.

My relationship with my parents has always been difficult. They were high-functioning drug addicts throughout my childhood. In spite of that they gave me a relatively privileged childhood and materially speaking I was luckier than most of my cousins, whose parents were addicts with spotty employment histories and lengthy jail records. I left home at 15 and they divorced shortly after. After divorce Mom moved on to a relationship with a physically abusive alcoholic and Dad started smoking crack and spending his time with people in that scene. I try not to judge but it's real work not to. Some days it's difficult to bite your tongue.

I've always gotten along with my father better than with my mother, who cut me off completely several times over the years. She and I now have something like a normal relationship with calling and emailing each other. I don't spend holidays with any family members.

However the last time I was home in 2005 my father and I had our first and only real argument, complete with threats of physical violence. I'm 30 and a successful, functioning adult (living far far far away from home), but my parents still both treat me like a child. I have been in Nar Anon off and on but at the moment have no group and no sponsor. When Dad and I fell out he accused me of being unfeeling, selfish, and childish. Maybe true, but every time I try to reconnect emotionally beyond email and the occasional phone call, I get overwhelmed by my family. They're so needy, so self-centered, and walk all over me while I run around trying to "help". I ran out of the argument vowing to never speak to him again.

The last two years have actually been the sanest and most manageable of my life. Maybe not happy, but manageable is a good start.

Mom asked nicely and it is close to Christmas. I'd like to take her advice but I really, really don't want to call my Dad. He doesn't have email and I'm no good at letters. I am his only living blood relative but can't imagine how to talk to him without apologizing for an argument I didn't start over things that aren't my fault. Unless things have changed unexpectedly in the last two years, he's a pretty healthy 55.

If it matters to your answer, I'm female, unmarried and childless by choice.

If you want to contact me off MeFi here's a throwaway address: mefitalktodad@googlemail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (36 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I really, really don't want to call my Dad

There's your answer for the meantime. Think about it for the next few days and see how you feel. If there's something you feel you need to communicate then do it via your Mom. Otherwise, stay sane till you're ready.
posted by brautigan at 11:02 AM on November 12, 2007

you don't have to see him, just call. the bottom line you might regret it one day if you don't; I'm not sure you'd regret having called him with the same intensity.

it's not the end of the world, good luck.
posted by matteo at 11:02 AM on November 12, 2007

Just don't. You do not have to. If it's not healthy for you to have contact with him, just don't. You can't control how your mother or father will respond to that, but you can move ahead knowing that you're doing what's best for you and take comfort in that.

People may chime in here and say things like "my father passed away and I wished I'd had the chance to spend more time with him" or will encourage you to make peace with him if you can.

The thing is, nobody gets to decide what is healthy for you in this regard but you. You made it to 30 as a high functioning and successful adult despite the roadblocks that your parents may have set up for you. Trust that you know what is best for you. If your gut is telling you that you don't want to speak to him right now, don't.

Think about what it would look like to have a relationship with him that was healthy and useful for you. Think about what you might be able to do to engineer that, knowing that you can only control yourself. If'n you're ready at that point, that's when I'd reach out to him to give him a chance. If it doesn't work out, you'll know you'd tried.

But you certainly shouldn't just go in blind, not knowing what you want out of it and not having thought through the possible outcomes and how you'll handle them.

Good luck to you, I have been and very much still am right there with ya.
posted by pazazygeek at 11:03 AM on November 12, 2007

Why is the onus on you to have to initiate contact? The phone works both ways. He could call you. Your mother needs to get out of the middle of it.
posted by 45moore45 at 11:05 AM on November 12, 2007 [9 favorites]

Give him a call and a second chance. One argument, despite all the obvious bacground stuff, should not be the end of any relationship. Call him and see how it goes. You don't have to commit to anything and call leave again if gets too bad, but a simple phonecall doesn't have to be a big deal.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:11 AM on November 12, 2007

I'm not suggesting you do this, just bringing it up as a possibility: an alternative to writing a letter might be a greeting card - you can just sign it and send it, but it establishes contact / that you're thinking of the recipient.
posted by amtho at 11:16 AM on November 12, 2007

You're always free to let mom know that you would talk to him if he called.
posted by koeselitz at 11:21 AM on November 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Tell your mother that you are open to receiving a phone call or letter from your father any time he is ready to start over with you, but that you do not feel comfortable initiating contact given that he threatened you.
posted by decathecting at 11:21 AM on November 12, 2007

The last two years have actually been the sanest and most manageable of my life.

I decided 12 years ago to just scrape my psychotic father off my shoes once and for all. The tipping point was a single argument, but the unhealthiness had been brewing for decades. So while you might think it was a single argument, and might therefore be suspect, it probably wasn't and it isn't.

It was the best thing I ever did for my own health and overall maturity. My life immediately got 1000 percent better.

If scraping them off feels good, do it. Do it quickly and unemotionally. And keep it up, don't half-ass it with dreadful holidays and uncheery cheerful times. It's not you being stubborn or immature, selfish or thoughtless. Sometimes, you just can't reach people, and you're done with them.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:22 AM on November 12, 2007 [4 favorites]

I agree with pazaygeek, but I'll just add, in reference to this:

People may chime in here and say things like "my father passed away and I wished I'd had the chance to spend more time with him" or will encourage you to make peace with him if you can.

... that not everyone regrets not patching up relationships with family members after the family members are dead. Some people really do feel nothing. And it's perfectly acceptable for them to feel that way if the parent/sibling/whatever has been really damaging.
posted by orange swan at 11:25 AM on November 12, 2007 [6 favorites]

I don't think anyone here is in a position to give you decent advice. There are too many variables at work...ones that can't really be represented in a short description. So, I think you need to sort out your feelings and to assess your stability to see if you can take this on or not. Why not go see a therapist or go back to NA meetings? Wait to make a call until it's clear to you that you can handle it. And if you decide that you can't, at least you have the satisfaction of having worked your way through to that answer in a mature and healthy fashion. If you're in regular touch with your mother, you could tell her what you're doing and she could pass the message along to your father.
posted by felix betachat at 11:26 AM on November 12, 2007

Agreed with 45moore45, tell your mother that your relationship between your father and you is your business alone. I usually take a strictly pragmatic approach: I'll deal with difficult people on my own terms, family most enthusiastically included. Until I'm ready they can bloody well sit and spin. And I may never be ready for some people. That's OK with me.

On the off chance there's a shortage of dysfunctional-family'd mefites to commiserate with, my email is in my profile.
posted by Skorgu at 11:26 AM on November 12, 2007

I'd send him a Christmas card with a nice, handwritten, neutral message, but I'm conflict-avoidant like that.
posted by moonlet at 11:28 AM on November 12, 2007

Tell your mom he can write you a letter if he has something to say. That way the onus is on him to begin the dialogue. Then you can hear what he has to say and decide whether or not to respond. Having him write you a letter rather than calling you gives you time to digest it and mull it over. Seriously. He wants to be in touch, then he can take the time to do it your way. Don't be guilted into doing something you're obviously very reluctant to do. Your mom may have asked nicely, and it is getting close to Christmas, but so what? If he wants to be in contact with you, suggest that this is the way to start.

Good luck.
posted by Kangaroo at 11:32 AM on November 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

I really, really don't want to call my Dad...

Your time-frame, your feelings, your priorities, and your cross to bear. Not hers. Not his.

Be smooth about it. Assure her you'll call him when you're ready. Then change the subject. Repeat as necessary.
posted by hermitosis at 11:34 AM on November 12, 2007

Nthing that Mom needs to stay out of it, though maybe she's gotten used to being your dad's peacemaker.

From what you've written, I'd say don't call, though there was one scenario I stupidly got involved in, in which the son wasn't speaking to the dad for very good reasons. The mom got terminal cancer and the son and dad were still too big of dicks to suck it up and coordinate medical care, last wishes, etc, etc. That was lame.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:36 AM on November 12, 2007

You don't owe your parents anything. They made their decisions and you are making yours. If you feel more comfortable not talking to your father, don't. It's easier to have pople with a history of disrupting your life out of it than to continue letting them hold you back.
posted by Phoenix42 at 11:36 AM on November 12, 2007

well, there are a few things going on here.

you probably should see a therapist, for one thing. it would be good to work on saying no to your parents without feeling guilty.

secondly, don't call your dad right now. consider writing a letter. you don't have to address the argument right now. just tell him what you're up to and tell him you hope he's doing all right. but that way you can stay in touch without engaging with him. BUT, do it because you want to, not to placate your mother. if you're not interested in maintaining a relationship with him, then don't. you have to protect yourself.

finally, you will have to come to terms with this argument with him. you are either going to have to forgive him and move on, or not forgive him and not have a relationship with him. or, i suppose, figure out how to not forgive him and still have a relationship. but that's for you and a therapist to figure out.
posted by thinkingwoman at 11:39 AM on November 12, 2007

I'm in a similar situation, alcoholic mother with various mental illness, and a doormat of a father that I never really got to know anything about.

From 22-30 I had zero contact with my parents, and it was great. No toxicity, and no awkwardness. around me being 28 or so, they started requesting, through my sister, for me to contact them. At this point, they didn't have any way to contact me, many moves, and different email addresses. It didn't feel right.

Now, at 30 ms. nobeagle and I are increasingly close to adopting a sibling group, and back when we officially started the process, I figured that it seemed about right to start the process of contacting them again. It's mostly been through short emails, about once a month. I did one phone call, and happily, my mom didn't believe it was me, so she only briefly summarized a fantasy book she was reading, and then went to sleep.

Truth be told, if it weren't for troubling questions with the kids about our relatives, and a shortage of living parents on my wife's side, I wouldn't have started or continued contacting them. Finding anything to say to them feels awkward, and I have to force myself to respond to their emails. There's always a pit that forms in my stomach whenever a new email comes in from there. Generally unpleasant. It's certainly much less bad than any other time dealing with them, but having had the period of years of happily having no contact with them, I know that the situation can be improved upon.

At this point, there's no real closure that can be gained from my raising, and we're such different people I don't see the point. My sister and I are also greatly different, but there's more of a bond there. I don't have any bond feelings with my parents.

If you don't have any personal need, and you don't want to stir up bad feelings and emotions, I would recommend letting your mom know that you're not going to call up daddy dearest. And possibly re-evaluate your feelings on the matter at later points if you start to feel yourself desiring some contact.
posted by nobeagle at 11:40 AM on November 12, 2007

My therapist suggested sending a series of thoughtful and interesting postcards (about 1 per week) during the time I was in a "no communication" zone with my mom (she was being physically abused by my stepfather and would call and show up randomly at my door at all hours if I didn't maintain some kind of contact).

You can send the postcard without a return address so he will know you are thinking of him, and if you send several, it will be a pleasant surprise for him as well. You might even have fun doing it; I found it to be therapeutic to have these one-sided communications.

Show your father and your mother that you have risen above your differences enough to find a creative way to contact him for the holidays. It will probably please your mom, and nobody can argue with a postcard.

Or don't... and send the postcards to your mother instead with a series of messages to mind her own business. If she's no longer married to him, it's not her place to be his emotional caretaker... or your judge.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 11:44 AM on November 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

What's in it for you? As far as I can see, nothing! You seem like a cool, nice, responsible person. If your dad wants to call you, he can call you. There is no onus on you to do something you don't want to. If Nar Anon was working for you before, you might want to go back. Taking care of yourself is so much more important than attempting to take care of people like your parents.
posted by selfmedicating at 11:46 AM on November 12, 2007

It's been three years since I've spoken to my father ... and I admit sometimes it's tough but the choice for me was either to not deal with him at all or continue to have a rocky relationship that left me drained and sad, literally reduced me to a five-year-old every time we spoke. Like many others here have said, you owe your father NOTHING.
If he were not related to you and he'd treated you the way he has, you'd write him off. DNA doesn't change that.
Move on with your life in peace. He'll pay for it before you will.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 11:48 AM on November 12, 2007

I always spend so much time trying to figure out what a good response to questions like this would be. And I always seem to fail. It really seems as though no advice we can give can ever do you any good: it's something very personal, related to an entire lifetime of past experience, and there is no way we can have the right perspective to tell you what would be best for you, in your situation, with your parents.

But, man, that's unsatisfying. And, man, it just seems as though there must be something worthwhile any of us can do for you.

And so the only advice I can think of which isn't an unhelpful (but true) platitude is this: you need to learn how to think of your parents as human beings. And that certainly isn't easy.

You are probably in a better position than most people to realize that your parents have faults, that they have screwed up horribly in different aspects of life, and that they can be terribly bad company. You know they are flawed. But it doesn't seem like you have realized all that that entails.

Your parents are needy. Your parents are tiresome. You spend all your time around them trying to help them. You do this, I'd wager, because they are your Parents: they are creatures closely tied to you, and so you feel an obligation to help them. And so, when you contact them, you feel this obligation weighing you down. You see their mistakes and their problems, and it's like a very heavy monkey digging its claws into your back. Because your Parents need help, because you are their child, and because it would just be so nice if they could get their acts together.

They are not going to get their acts together--at least, there is nothing you can do to get them to do so. There is nothing special that you can do for them because you are their child. They are just human beings, like everyone else who occupies your life. There are probably plenty of other people you interact with on a day-to-day basis who are messed up as much as your parents--but you do not see them as obligating you to help. If a coworker drinks every night to oblivion, hey, that's his problem, not yours. If a casual acquaintance constantly sabotages his chances at happiness, hey, it sucks for him but it's all his business. But if your Parents are addicted to drugs, if you watch them struggle with their flaws... You keep feeling like there's something more you need to do to help them. You keep letting them walk all over you when you try to help because you are trying to help.

The reason the last few years of your life have gone so well, I'd wager, is because you haven't been in a position where you've felt that weighty obligation to help your Parents. You haven't had to think of them. You haven't had an opportunity to wear yourself out trying to fix them. You've had a chance to relax, to view them from afar, and to ignore their many problems.

You need to be able to do that while in closer contact with them, if you want to call your dad. You need to figure out if you are capable of ignoring the fact that there is some close relationship between your father and yourself, and if you are capable of just shrugging off his problems without trying to help. In other words, you need to have greater emotional distance from your father's problems, if you want to have less distance from him in general. For your own good.

He's just another person with a messed up life, like all the rest of us. If you can accept that, then maybe the phone call would be a good idea. But if you don't trust yourself to be able to talk to him without shouldering his burdens or feeling a sense of obligation to fix him... Well, then, for your own sake, you're just not ready.
posted by Ms. Saint at 11:59 AM on November 12, 2007 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Family is not defined by or limited to blood. Family is the support network of people around you who you care for and who care for you. If someone is truly, truly shitty to you, you are under no obligation to continue viewing them as family.
posted by Anonymous at 12:33 PM on November 12, 2007

My father was an alcoholic and former drug addict who had been very abusive throughout my childhood. After he cleaned up (-ish) during my teens, I tried to be close to him, but his general level of emotionally draining bullshit (made worse by the truly evil woman he married) eventually became too much; it was almost as bad as his speedball-fueled physical abuse because I couldn't blame the drugs anymore. He could not take responsibility for his actions, blamed me for any issues in our relationship, was judgmental, hurtful, and unbelievably manipulative, and wanted me to play the part of the dutiful daughter so that he could maintain the image of an (outwardly) perfect family.

He died two years ago (at 49; I was 24) from untreated hepatitis from drinking and needle drugs in the past. At that time I had not spoken to him in more than two years. At a certain point, I came to understand that if all my contact with him was painful and wasn't ever going to change, there was no reason for me to continue having any contact.

Although I've had to deal with that lingering little voice inside of me that regrets not trying again to have a relationship with him before his death, I realize that voice isn't very realistic. There was nothing I could say to him to make him into a better person, and I could not have started the process of healing and growing past him until I got that distance. We never even had one big fight, I just decided to separate myself and then did so.

So I guess my point is, if you call your father, don't do it for your mother, do it for you. It's natural to want to be close to your parents, but if you believe that's not realistically possible, and that contact will cause nothing but pain and backsliding in your growth as a person, don't feel pressured to do it. If you think you'd like to try to develop a cordial (but not really personal) relationship with him for it's own sake, go ahead and try, but don't feel like you have to apologize or change for him. If you call him and all those old patterns start to flare up, don't hesitate to to cut off contact again. Your main priority is yourself, your happiness, and your emotional health. You'd cut off a gangrenous limb to save your life, and sometimes, damaging people can be just as dangerous.
posted by mostlymartha at 12:41 PM on November 12, 2007

If you don't want to talk to your dad you probably shouldn't. You don't owe him anything; even if you did it's still recipe for tension and drama when people are calling people they don't really want to talk to.

"[. . .] can't imagine how to talk to him without apologizing for an argument I didn't start over things that aren't my fault."

"Hey, how've you been? What are you doing for [HOLIDAY X]?"

You don't have to talk about some two year old stale fight if you do talk to him. You could have a totally shallow conversation.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 12:54 PM on November 12, 2007

Brandon Blatcher: leave again if gets too bad, but a simple phonecall doesn't have to be a big deal.

A simple phonecall doesn't have to be a big deal if you can be fairly certain that if it goes badly, if it's having a negative impact on your wellbeing, you can stand up for yourself, walk away like an adult, and go back to your saner and more manageable life without taking damage. If you can keep your mental health and wellbeing separate from and largely unaffected by what happens with him.

Your wellbeing comes first. Christmas, and because your mom asked you to, are not good reasons to call him - especially if it would make you backslide on any of the progress you've made in your life.

From what you're saying I get the impression that you're not ready right now - but you might be one day, when you feel stronger in yourself. That's okay too.
posted by Ira.metafilter at 12:55 PM on November 12, 2007

They're so needy, so self-centered, and walk all over me while I run around trying to "help". I ran out of the argument vowing to never speak to him again.

This sounds like my parents, except instead of drugs it's untreated mental illness. If your father makes you crazy, stay away from situations where he can push your buttons.

If you want to be nice, send a card.
posted by Mr Bunnsy at 1:45 PM on November 12, 2007

I'd like to address the aspect that involves just you and your mother. She has a reason (or reasons) for asking you to contact your father. Would it make her feel better somehow? I suggest you have a conversation with her about that. Don't ask in a challenging way -- and let her talk until the real motivation comes out. Listen without arguing or objecting, and then she may be open to hearing how you feel about the matter. I'm guessing that how a person really feels has never cut any ice in your family... this could be a good opportunity to try things a little differently.
posted by wryly at 1:46 PM on November 12, 2007

Don't let the "it's close to Christmas" thing interfere with the rational management of this situation. For one thing, difficult and manipulative addicts don't change based on the calendar. And second of all, it's not that close to Christmas.
posted by Mrs Hilksom at 1:56 PM on November 12, 2007

This is a side-point, but I don't see any difference between making/not-making the call and answering/not-answering if HE calls. If you want to talk, call him. If you don't, make that decision and don't pick up the phone if he calls. Or block his calls.

I think waiting for him to call is just pushing the decision off onto him, being passive about the situation, and just letting things happen to you per the will of other people. Decide what YOU want, and make it happen, whether that's talking or not-talking.
posted by LordSludge at 1:59 PM on November 12, 2007

There may be excellent reasons for you not to call him, so please don't interpret this as an argument that you must get back in touch -- that's not what I mean at all. But your statement that "unless things have changed unexpectedly in the last two years, he's a pretty healthy 55" is not very meaningful. That's a time of life when things can change very dramatically and without notice. Is it possible that your mother is asking you to call him precisely because she knows he's not well, and wants him to tell you himself?
As many others have said, you're in the best position to know what's likely, given their history and the ways you've been manipulated; and to know what you can handle or what you want to deal with. But my initial response to a message like that would be the assumption that there was something seriously wrong that I needed to be told personally.
And the way I'd start the call is, "Mom asked me to call you. Is everything okay?"
posted by katemonster at 2:21 PM on November 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

I was there 10 years ago almost exactly (replace heroin with crack).

Eventually, it was good for me to be in contact with my dad. To forcibly redraw boundaries and be there while he spewed off his weird get-rich-quick-Ed-Norton-junkie schemes and listen to him from a more objective standpoint. Once I was able to take a step back and see my dad as the sad, sick drug addict who couldn't work up the strength to hit me, rather than the powerful monster of my childhood, I felt like I had some sort of revenge. Then pity. Then distance. Then him moving to softer drugs. And now we've been able to (distantly) rebuild our relationship.

However, it took time, distance and me walking away from my enabler tendencies until I was able to be mature about it. And it was only once I felt a need to be in contact. So basically, it may do you good. But only when you're ready for it. Before that, you're opening wounds.

If your childhood was remotely like mine, you were working around their shitty issues to deal with their selfish problems and jumping through stupid hoops to work around all their fuckupitude. Now you're an adult. You do it on your terms or don't do it at all. That's the joy of being a grownup.
posted by Gucky at 3:47 PM on November 12, 2007

I just want to say you're awesome for getting on with your own life, making something positive out of what was in your hand and trying to sort out the mess into some form you can understand it! I'm a parent and if I can't be helpful to my children I at least don't want to create additional problems for them. I'd feel terrible if I did. I would apologize, many times over, ask forgiveness, and try my damnedest to change.

I say don't fall prey to guilt. Your Mom shold not be pushing you like this. If you really want to talk to your Dad, call him. He'll be happier if he feels like it's coming from you anyway. If you don't want to, now is not the time and you have no reason to feel bad about that. Time changes perspectives so I'd wait until it feels right.

Again, you rock for surviving (and excelling in!) such a tough situation!
posted by MiffyCLB at 6:20 PM on November 12, 2007

It seems like your family is unhealthy and your mother is trying to rope you back into the unhealthy family situation. This is so similar to my particular situation--my mother is a full-blown narcissist and my father is bipolar. They're both remarried.

I occasionally talk to my father, but not to my mother since she stole 22k dollars from me (by taking out student loans and credit cards in my name while I was putting myself though college at 16).

Since I've quit talking to my mother, everyone in my immediate family, including my father (although they hate each other) has been pressuring me to get back in contact with her so they can resume the (fucked up) family dynamic that they're comfortable with.

It's really hard to make the ongoing decision not to contact her, but, like you, I felt significantly healthier after doing so.

Here is a good quote from a friend who is a Buddhist monk:

"...compassion isn't martyrdom. You can't just make the scars disappear, and sometimes they're still so raw that all you can do is keep your distance, realizing that you can't do any good but can choose to do no harm. "
posted by sondrialiac at 12:39 AM on November 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also coming from a dysfunctional family, this comment from ROU_Xenophobe always hits home for me.

No matter what tales your cultural background whispers in your ear, children don't owe parents anything. Your parents brought you into this world for their own purposes, whatever they might be, and without your consent. Your existence is their choice, not yours, and they owe you big for pushing that on you.

You've worked hard to overcome the dysfunctional life they decided to raise you in. Your existence was their choice, but now it is your hard work that has got you where you are. You don't owe them anything -- you owe yourself to be proud of your hard work and not to be pressured into being involved in their dysfunction if you don't want to.
posted by Nerro at 7:16 AM on November 13, 2007

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