I’ve been dating a man—whom I’ll call William—for nearly three years. He has an adult daughter in her early twenties. William and his ex-wife were divorced just as their daughter was graduating from high school. Their marriage was chaotic; the ex was highly emotionally abusive, and eventually, to protect himself, William began to respond in kind. Toward the end, William had pretty much given up on his life. He’s been honest with me about the failures of the marriage and his failures as a parent. He did the best he could, but he married far too young, without a clear understanding of his wife’s past (she carried a history of emotional, physical, and possibly sexual abuse from her father) and without an understanding of how his own unresolved childhood emotional neglect and abuse would impact his functioning as a spouse and as a parent. He would like to heal his relationship with his daughter, but she refuses to respond to him.
I don’t know whether he has ever articulated to her that he knows he has a lot to answer for. I don’t know whether she has any knowledge of how much he has changed since the divorce—he’s spent time in therapy, and has also regained much of the core self that he had to put away, for safety, during the emotionally abusive marriage. He was never abusive to his daughter, but he did fail to protect her both from the horror of the marriage, and from the manipulation and abuse from her mother. She had to grow up and become independent far too young, because her parents couldn’t parent her. William’s estrangement from his daughter is a heartbreak that pitches every day of his life in a minor key.
Several times I have wondered whether it would be a positive risk, or an unforgivable interference, for me to write to the daughter and tell her how much her father wants to repair the relationship. I would in no way suggest that she owes him the chance, or that she’s obligated to do it. I would only tell here: here’s how your dad feels, here’s what he’s ready and able to give you; he’s ready to hear everything you have to say, and to take responsibility for the ways he’s failed you, so if you ever feel inclined, please know that he’s the version of himself that you deserved to have growing up, and maybe it would be worthwhile to explore what it would be like to have him as a father.
I just wonder if she might be able to hear this from a third party more clearly than she can hear it from her father, to whom she will not grant an audience.
What do you think, Sugar? Positive risk or unforgivable interference?
Feeling Helpless on the Sidelines
Dear Feeling Helpless,
I understand your impulse, sweet pea, but I think it would be a big mistake to write a letter to your partner’s daughter. I’m fairly certain your words would amplify rather than ameliorate her anger and hurt, no matter how well intentioned your words may be. She needs her father, not you, to be the one to offer his contrition and love.
Your William is, by your own account, a different William than hers. A letter from you instead of him would serve only as painful proof of that—not that her father has transformed his life, but that he’s still the same dad she knew all along. The one who blames his mistakes on her mother and leans on his new partner to offer his love by proxy. What other conclusion could she possibly come to? I know that’s a harsh interpretation of what’s going on here, and the situation is more complex than this, but I think it’s important that you view this from her own wounded vantage point, rather than your own. Your impulse to reach out to your partner’s daughter rises from the good man you know William to be; her reaction will be rooted in the failed father you all acknowledge he is.
You write you’re not sure whether William has “ever articulated to her that he knows he has a lot to answer for,” but I’ll guess your uncertainty on this matter tells me he hasn’t. If he is truly eager to make amends, then why has he neglected to make them? Perhaps because he’s scared. Perhaps because he hasn’t yet changed to the extent you imagine. Perhaps because it’s there inside him—all the ugly he has to account for and all the beauty he has to give his daughter—but he needs an emotionally evolved woman such as you to kick his ass into gear.
That’s where I advise you to focus your efforts in this, sweet pea—by supporting your partner as he works up the courage to love his daughter and take responsibility for his mistakes, by offering your friendship without doing the emotional work that he must do alone, by trusting he’s capable of repairing what only he has the power to fix.
Regular readers of this column will know that I’m either the best person to offer you insight on this matter or the worst. Like your partner’s daughter, I have some serious daddy sorrow too. I’m estranged from both of my fathers—my biological father, with whom I’ve had only intermittent contact since I was a young child, and my stepfather, who I loved as my father for over a decade until my mom died and the jig was up. My loss and my rage are everywhere in these words. I can’t pretend otherwise.
I spent my teen years in the most podunk place you can imagine. My stepfather still lives on the land I believed I’d always consider home, in the house my family built with our own hands, behind which there is a path through the woods that leads to the grave I can no longer visit. My mother’s. I hardly ever go back because doing so is just too sad and too hard and at some point in each visit I inevitably wind up in a bar where I run into a mildly drunk man I once knew, who rests his arm too heavily across my shoulders and exclaims how great it is to see me and how cool it is that I “went so far” and how proud my stepfather is of me.
“Really?” I always ask, unable to keep myself from beaming. “He’s proud of me?”
“He’s so proud of you.”
“He brags about you all the time.”
“He misses you kids. He’s not the same, since your mom died.”
“You think?” I ask.
And so on, until the tiny bubble that’s filled with the excruciating air of my need bursts inside me and I realize what a crock of shit it is—that even if it’s literally true, it’s a vicious cosmic lie, this half-assed, spineless daddy love broadcast via a drunk guy in a backwoods bar. How worthless, how weak, how vanquished, how hollow it is to have a father who exists but cannot reach, who says but will not be, who thinks but doesn’t dare, who plays and plays and plays, but only, always, forever in the minor key.
We sing the song of parenthood in only the major notes. Were you there? Did you love full-throttle? Did you fix it after you fucked it up?
What shocks me as a daughter is how long I’ll wait for those answers to be yes instead of no and I know in my heart William’s daughter is waiting too. How powerfully we’ve accepted the loss of our failed fathers and yet also how potently they reside within us.
I’ve come to peace with the fact that I may never speak to either of my fathers again, but also with the knowledge that if they said the right words, I would without hesitation listen. And I’d bet anything that your partner’s daughter will listen to her father someday too, Feeling Helpless. But only once he relinquishes the voice of the father who didn’t do right by her and addresses her as the father she deserves. Even if it scares him and hurts him and compels him to acknowledge parts of himself he loathes and remember things he’d rather forget and explain choices that are beyond explanation and forces him to stop holding his ex responsible for a fair portion of his own bad behavior.
Which, he totally has to do, by the way. And so do you. I get it that some people are just plain nuts. I don’t doubt your partner’s ex was a crazy bitch. But we’re responsible for ourselves. Not blaming our own bad choices on others is a basic principle of functional mental health and emotional maturity. It’s the reason I spend half my day explaining to one of the baby Sugars why it’s not okay to whack the other baby Sugar in the head even when he/she steals his/her toast/ball/stuffed parrot/blue marker.
Until William is able to own his choices, to ask for forgiveness without tangling up his ex in his apology, he’s not ready to speak to his daughter. This has to do not only with taking responsibility for his actions, but also with trusting this young woman who’s been through so much. She doesn’t need anyone to explain to her the precise ways in which each of her parents fucked up. She knows. She alone witnessed how it was they played off each other, who goaded whom into what.
The oddest thing happened to me as I was writing this letter to you. It’s one of those things that if I wrote it into a novel everyone would say how contrived it was, how too convenient the timing. At the very moment that I was composing the paragraph about meeting those drunk guys in bars who tell me my stepfather is proud of me, an email popped into my inbox—not to Sugar, but to the real me. It was a Facebook message that informed me my father wanted to be “friends.” My father wants to be friends! This is the man I have seen something like three times since I was six, who I wrote about in “The Empty Bowl,” and other columns, who four years ago, almost to the day, demanded that I never contact him again, who said he was glad to be finally rid of me.
I’ve had no contact with him since then, but it doesn’t surprise me that he didn’t get rid of me, that he is instead attempting in this banal and cowardly way to pull me back into his sphere. His friend request came with no message. It just sat there, blankly insisting I choose “confirm” or “not now.”
That not now sort of kills me. It’s the rejection that can’t say no; the annihilated optimism of the eternally wronged sons and daughters spelled out in code. Not now implies maybe later. It aches for another chance. It ventures possibly someday.
As I clicked on that not now, I thought about William’s daughter refusing to “grant him an audience” and it occurred to me that she, like me, has denied him this because, thus far, it’s always been the same dumb show. Maybe she can’t yet trust her dad to perform the only act she can bear at this late date to sit through: the redemptive one.
That’s William’s task. To redeem himself by being the man who lives out his healing transformation by becoming the father he failed to be before. By doing it, no excuses, and doing it right.