Daughter dilemma

My girls are grown but they are still acting like children who demand everything of their dad.

By Cary Tennis
January 14, 2004 1:54AM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I have two 21-year-old daughters. When are they supposed to get a life of their own? One goes to Berkeley and the other works almost full-time at one of the places where I am a consultant. They seem to expect me to be a home-type father to them long after they and I have left it.


The details: I divorced their mother when they were 15; I remarried about eight months after moving out. Their mother is black, I am white; we were married for 17 years. I am now married to a white woman from Europe and have a son with her. My daughters get along just great with their 4-year-old brother.

My new wife doesn't understand my American teenagers, the way they talk to me or their social skills or lack thereof. She says I should demand respect from them, but I feel it's unfair to change the rules on them at this point. I am patient with them, I listen to their problems, let them come over and do laundry. There have been several big blowups. I know part of it, or maybe all of it, is that they don't have Daddy all to themselves anymore and they feel I have picked a white women over them, or as it's been put to me, "I have my perfect white family and don't want to be bothered with them anymore."

But it's been six years and they have a life of their own now. I paid child support even when I did not have to. I have helped at every turn I could. But this Christmas when they were not invited over for Christmas -- because no one was invited -- I got all kinds of flak, especially from one of them. She says I don't care, writes me long letters telling me she should just give up on trying to reach me, that I turn her away at every point, that I have a new and better family and don't need her anymore.


I sat in the social welfare office with her for most of a day so she could get to see a therapist and then another day so she could get on MediCal. I drove her and all her stuff to Seattle because she wanted to move there at 18, paid her child support when she did not go to school and I have helped her move three different times. I point these things out to her and she says it's just money or time I give her, that she wants something more, but I think the more is all my attention, for it to be like it was before when we were all in the house together.

I feel like just telling her to grow up (I have in the past), but this time I am thinking that I should demand some respect from them both -- to say if you want to come over to my house you have to show respect to my wife as well, to say hello, thank you and goodbye at least. Most times now they come over when my wife is not here or if she is then they ignore each other. I want the two halves of my life to at least get along with each other. I guess I do feel guilty over the divorce and maybe that is what makes this so hard. I would be much more happy to have them over for a family get-together if they would get along. It drives me nuts.

Should I put up with this for the next decade or two or tell my daughters that they have to find a way to get along with my wife or stay away? I feel I would demand this of any other guest.


Wants to Be Good Father

Dear Wants to Be a Good Father,

Your daughters are now adult women. You are no longer their guardian. You all have new lives. So although memories of past unhealed wounds and unfulfilled wishes persist, as they often do between parents and children, your obligation to try to heal these wounds and fulfill these wishes has ended. It is time to put your relationship on a new, adult footing.


The best way to do that, it seems to me, is for you to follow the instincts that you mention in your letter. Yes, you should require them to behave toward you and your wife with respect and civility, as any guest would.

It's best for everyone that you do so. As long as you endure your daughters' cruelty, rudeness and emotional demands, the longer it will take for them to acquire the new adult habits that they will need to succeed in the world and be happy. Even if you wanted to, you could not change how your daughters feel. Even if you won the lottery and could give them anything they wanted, it wouldn't change how they feel. So don't even try. Just require ordinary civility.

But remember, with the dissolution of your responsibilities as guardian also comes the dissolution of your power. You're still their father but you no longer have a father's authority. You cannot demand unconditionally that they act in any particular way. You can only make the same demands on them that you would make on any adult. You can tell them plainly what behavior you're willing to accept and what you're not. But you cannot exercise a father's rule.


Remember, also, that this process may take five or 10 years. There may be great difficulties and recriminations. They may remain angry at you, especially if they believe, based on past experience, that their anger or their withholding of affection is effective. It may seem at times that you have lost them forever. You may question whether you are being stubborn and cruel. But do not give in.

Love them. But don't surrender.

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Cary Tennis

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