I’m a 29-year-old professional, engaged to a great man, living and working abroad, fit, healthy and happy.
My estranged father has contacted me saying he was hoping we could “take time and start to build bridges” and asking if he could call. My gut says I don’t want to see him or speak to him, but I don’t know how to respond.
He and my mum separated when I was tiny and my elder sister and I would see him once a month. I never felt he wanted us.
When I was 10, I decided I didn’t want to go to his place any more. I had a happy life at Mum’s and it felt like I was ripped away from that when he didn’t want me. I wanted Mum to tell him, but she said he would think she was behind it, so I had to tell him. I don’t remember the call but he has brought it up to my sister over the years. My sister still went on these weekends a few times but it fizzled out. We did try, between the ages of 12 and 17, to see him – it’s not that we didn’t want to see him at all; but he either cancelled last minute or never turned up.
When I was 17, I tried to see him, but he let me down again. I felt so stupid and cried all the way home. My grandparents have both passed now, but I was very close to them and went to see them and we talked about my dad. They told me some fairly awful stories – about how he used to beat up my mum. I believe them. They said that I shouldn’t feel bad; it’s him, not me.
My sister has seen him sporadically over the years. She is desperate for his love and approval, whereas I think he should be desperate for ours and don’t feel much or any attachment. Recently she has been seeing him a lot more and he has been the one to persevere with the relationship. She says he asks about me and he asks about my fiance and the wedding. I asked if they have addressed the past and they haven’t. She has said he blames me for calling him to say I didn’t want to come on weekends any more and I hurt him badly.
I don’t want to see him. I have nothing to say. It’s rich that he wants to be involved now, when all the hard work of raising us is over, and he is getting older and we have a lot more to offer him than he us. But it bothers me that the ball is in my court: that if I say no, then from now on we have no contact because of me.
You’ve done an incredible job of making a success of your life and you sound happy and resolute. Of course you don’t need to see him, but it seems as if his contact has unsettled you and I can understand why.
I contacted Nicola McCarry, a family therapist, (aft.org.uk) for her perspective. She wondered if you would feel “the bad guy for turning him down”. McCarry often works with families such as yours and one thing she gets them to do is think “about potential regrets. You’re very focused on the past, but what about the future? Will you have any regrets then? Imagine a child or grandchild asking about your father, what sort of story would you tell them and would you be happy telling them?”
This is a good way of trying to imagine how you might feel. And if this sounds as if we are trying to convince you to get in touch – we’re not, we just want you to make the right decision. Also, when people say they want to build bridges it’s often another way of saying: “I want you to listen to me and my reasons for doing XYZ and agree with me.” And after all your hard work, the last thing I want is for your dad to upset you further.
As McCarry astutely points out, “bridges have to be built from both sides, not just yours and your father needs to take a fatherly position and not act like a hurt child himself”.
The domestic abuse towards your mum that you mention – is that a risk at all, towards you? Abusive people can’t take responsibility for their actions, so unless your father has had a Damascene conversion it’s unlikely he’s changed. My concern is he’s heard you’re getting married and wants in on the fatherly moments he might have. I worry he might spoil your wedding.
But we don’t know his motives; he may have changed and you may have a transformed relationship with him – I hope so. Of course, you don’t have to reply and don’t have to see him (and if you do, make sure it’s for you, not to appease your sister). But if you think you might want to, I would message him back and say: “Thanks for your message. Yes it would be good to build bridges but I’m getting married and will be in touch afterwards.” You’re doing a positive thing but retaining all the power.
If his intentions are good he will understand and respect this message. If not, he will make it about him. At least you will know, from the relative safety of distance.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 3 February 2017.