My daughter, who is now in her 40s, is very angry with me about her childhood, and has been for years. She says she had a miserable time, even though she seemed such a happy and sweet little girl. In the 1970s, I was a single parent and brought her up in a bedsit. She is very resentful about this. She openly criticises me and tells me that I should have found a council house. When we were staying in the bedsit, she appeared happy. The house we lived in was friendly and the setup was very family-like. The landlady was extremely kind, and my daughter would rush to her when she came home from school. When my daughter was nine, I met my husband, to whom I have been married for more than 35 years; my daughter seems to love him as a father.
The financial hardship of her early years is in the past and nowadays none of us is hard-up. My daughter has a high-powered job, I am pursuing my chosen career, my husband is doing well at work, and I would say that my husband and I are devoted to one another. My daughter is not married, and reminds me that people from broken homes are not good at establishing relationships. She seems to have many friends, though.
I was not married to my daughter’s father. When I became pregnant, he wanted me to have an abortion. The last time I spoke to him, my daughter was six weeks old and he told me to have her adopted. There was no support for me because my mother died when my daughter was three months old and I was unable to go and live with my father. At the time, I was 20. I don’t know what to say to her any more because she just “tells me off” and shouts at me about her past. How can I help her?
You can only help her up to a point. The rest is up to her. I think you have done remarkably well. I wonder if, in comparison with you, your daughter feels she hasn’t done so well with her life, despite having it relatively easier (practically, at least). My GP once told me something very wise: “You can blame your parents until you are 18, but after that it’s up to you.” In other words, once we are adults, it is our own responsibility to sort ourselves out and stop blaming our upbringing.
I contacted Dr Shelagh Wright, a family psychotherapist, at the Association for Family Therapy (aft.org.uk), who says: “It sounds as if your daughter hasn’t grown up and isn’t taking responsibility for herself.” She wonders “if your daughter is only seeing a small part of her upbringing and putting all the [negative] things in her life down to that”.
Do you think that, maybe, some of your daughter’s anger might be aimed at her father? But as he is not there, he has become a fantasy figure (despite all the bad things he did). Whereas you are real and flawed.
“What have you told her about her father?” asks Wright. We wondered how much she knew about her father’s desire to have her aborted or put up for adoption – if she knows, those things can’t be easy for her to process and may have had an effect on her self-esteem. She hasn’t got the satisfaction of showing her father that she was worth having and keeping. None of this is her fault, or yours, but you are there as the whipping boy.
Wright feels that someone should stop the defensiveness you both seem to feel. “Look inside yourself. Were there any things you could have done differently? If so, acknowledge them and say sorry.”
I would counsel against constantly apologising for the same thing, though, as it will help nobody. If your daughter keeps on at you about particular incidents, a good thing to do is bat it back to her, as in: “How would you have handled things differently? What would you have done?” This is a powerful thing to say and can often stop a person in their tracks, especially if they are used to berating someone for the same thing.
In long-standing family rows, dialogue tends to fall into a groove. Try to alter what you say. Wright recommends something like: “You’re my daughter and I love you. What do you need me to do? What do you need to do [about this situation]?”
Wright feels that your daughter needs the connection with you, and says that arguing about the past “has become your connection. You also have to get rid of the guilt and stop thinking you’ve ruined her life. For her part, your daughter needs to temper her anger.” After all, as Wright points out, “your daughter has lived in a stable environment since the age of nine”.
Do you think she wants to trace her father? Is that possible? I wasn’t sure how much you knew/remembered about him, but she may find this link helpful: look4them.org.uk/salvation-army.html.
Ultimately, if none of these suggestions move you forward, Wright suggests saying something like: “I want to have you in my life, but I can’t solve this problem for you. I think that is something you need to do for yourself.”
Your daughter is in her 40s now and it’s time she took responsibility for her own life: the triumphs and the failures.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 8 October 2016.