What do I say to my estranged daughter after years apart? | Family


The question My youngest daughter has ignored me since I divorced her mother some years ago. She didn’t even visit when I suffered from cancer and had chemotherapy. When she got married, my partner and I were not allowed to attend. I’ve never met her child, yet her husband’s father, who is in the same situation as me, widowed with a new partner, is allowed to visit and see my grandchild. I also have a married son with children and they all are fine with me and my partner.

Now, before my elderly mother’s birthday, she says I can visit her so that the party won’t be the first time we meet again. I can’t get over the fact that she has been so selfish and ignored me for years, even when I was so ill with cancer. I’m livid that I’ve been treated this way. I don’t know what to say if I visit her.

If I was a bad dad, I could probably understand it, but growing up they were short of nothing. It is possible I was not the favourite parent as my ex-wife often used me as a threat in a “wait until your father gets home” sort of way, a role I did not like. All through their childhoods I was away at sea for half the year and half the year based at home, doing my best to provide for my family. I feel so angry. What’s the way ahead?

Philippa’s reply: Sorry you have been so ill, and I hope you remain cancer-free in future.

Somehow your daughter has cast you in the “bad” role. You can only think of everything you did right and that you did for the best, but she is not looking at that side of you. For example, when you were working hard to share the fruits of your labour with your family, she may have concluded that, to you, your work was more important than she was. When you were the person who did the telling off she may have thought that was just down to you and didn’t realise it was at the behest of your ex-wife. When you and your ex set each other free she might have experienced that as you abandoning her mother. Your son-in-law’s father is not in the same situation as you – his wife died whereas you divorced yours, so she may see that differently, too.

Often in divorces when one partner experiences the partnership as having run its course they assume the other partner feels the same way, but for that partner the ending of the marriage can be a shock, an unexpected loss, a traumatic event, a humiliating rejection. Your daughter may have had some of these reactions, too, and she probably felt upset on behalf of her mother.

You must non-defensively look at yourself through her eyes. It will be necessary for you to listen to understand that she has experienced events differently to you. Give as much weight to her way of looking at things as you do to your own. If you hold on to your position of being the only injured party, believing her to be selfish, nothing will change. But imagine how she may feel injured, or how she feels for her mother, then a shift may be possible.

Because you appear to be at a loss to understand why your daughter ceased contact with you it leaves me wondering whether you might have been in the habit of not attentively listening to her, or noticing how she felt. When you have this opportunity to meet up with her, ask her about her withdrawal, listen to her answers without defending yourself, and do your best to understand. Such an act will take all your strength and courage. But strength is about flexibility in seeing a situation from all angles, whereas it is a weakness to stubbornly insist it is only your interpretation of events that has any validity.

Another clue you have given me about why your daughter may have been reluctant to have contact with you is your anger. You may have been raised in a culture where it was assumed that if men felt unsure or forlorn, it was unmanly. This can mean men do not get much practice being uncertain or sad and perhaps too much practice expressing themselves with certainty and anger. It seems your ex-wife even delegated the anger she may have felt on to you – “Wait until your father gets home” – pushing you further into the role of the angry one. Search beneath your anger for other feelings. Maybe there, you will find your sadness and hurt. I don’t know about you, but if someone is livid with me, I run away. I can’t hear what they say because all I hear is the anger. So to facilitate dialogue with your daughter, do not act out your angry side by blaming her or by raising your voice; perhaps dare instead to be the vulnerable person you also are.

The party has been the catalyst for your daughter to take the brave step to try to be civil to you. This is not the act of a selfish person. And it is your opportunity to listen with no “buts” to what she has to say. I’m not asking you to collude with her, but to understand her.

To lose contact with a child is heartache. You are more than someone who just provided; you are a man with a heart. Show her your heart by lovingly listening.

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