My youngest daughter, S, is 44; I am 75. Her father and I separated when she was nearly 18 – she chose to stay with him and I moved to live with my father. S has centred her life around horses. She didn’t do well at school and left with no qualifications. She didn’t want to learn to teach horse riding or do other horse-related qualifications. Her sister, T, is seven years older and her brother five years younger. They did very well at school and have made good careers, married and have children. S gets on well with them but does not visit much.
I tried to keep in touch with S but it was difficult as I was never invited to her home, despite hinting that I would like to go, and she rarely visited me. She has never been to my present home where I’ve lived for six years, despite being invited lots of times. Now I phone and text her.
She worked with horses after leaving school but gave that up and got a job in a pub, which she kept until last year. She was very quick at her job and is good at things like card games and sudoku. She reads a lot, drives a car and so has ability in various fields.
Her father died a few years ago and left her the house and quite a lot of money. She copes well on her own, although the garden is rather neglected.
Over the years I have suggested to S that she trains for a career or chooses a hobby but she never has. She puts all her energy into looking after her horse, though she does go out with friends – these seem to be all women friends. I do not think she has had any lasting boyfriends. When she and I meet, she does not confide in me and I find it hard to talk to her.
Would it be best to tell S I know that she has given up her job? How could I improve our relationship? Advice is always to talk but it’s hard when one’s daughter does not wish to talk – I think in the past I have given her unwanted advice and that is why she does not confide in me.
I think it took you some courage to write to me and you clearly want to make amends. Although you display some self-awareness in your last sentence, I think you need to see things a little bit more from S’s point of view.
The impression I got from your letter is that S is the disappointing filling between the more traditionally successful older sister and younger brother, and I wonder if she picks up on this. S may not have the qualifications, career and family you wished for her, but that doesn’t mean she’s not happy or successful: just not by your standards. If she feels you are constantly judging her and find her wanting, it will not make her feel good. I have yet to meet anyone who hasn’t sought maternal approval.
Julia Bueno, a psychotherapist (ukcp.org.uk), thinks it sounds as if “you’re disappointed by S and her lack of ‘achievement’ – but is S disappointed in her life? Maybe not – she has worked, she has friends, she has a passion. She now has a house so maybe financially she is less concerned to get another job. Perhaps she ‘earned’ this from her father (did she look after him?).”
Bueno also asks some questions: how do you feel about your ex giving your daughter the house and money; how was your own relationship with your father compared with S’s with hers? What was your relationship like before S was 18? Bueno also wants you to look at your own life and wonders if you experienced your own disappointments that might taint the way you look at S’s life now. Did you live/are you living the life you want?
I’d say that there is often the most friction with the children who most remind us of the bits of ourselves we’d rather ignore.
As to how to move forward, Bueno says, “Why even mention the job? Do you need to mention it to talk to her?”
The fact is that you don’t. Stop hinting that you’d like to see her and just say “S, I’d love to see you, how can we make this happen?”
Perhaps you need to build a relationship with your daughter that is not about talking about her job/ambitions but just about her? Listen with your mouth shut, as the saying goes.
And here is a leftfield idea from Bueno, but do look into it – equine-assisted therapy: sihequinetherapy.org.
It might benefit you both.
First published in The Guardian Family section on 14 February 2014.