Since Mom died, my dad doesn't seem to care about his kids

When asked to visit his first grandchild, he said he had to check his schedule.

Published February 22, 2006 12:30PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My dad doesn't seem to care about me, my family or my brother anymore and I'm wondering how to deal with this.

I lost my mom almost five years ago. She was the glue in our family and was wonderful. She showered my brother and me with all the love and attention that you could ever hope to get from a parent. Her sudden death almost destroyed me, but thanks to my loving husband and some great friends I got through it.

About a year after my mom's death my dad started dating a woman whom he worked with and they were married shortly thereafter. My mom had known this woman and didn't approve of her relationship with my father (she always suspected that this woman wanted to be more than a co-worker), so when the two were married it caused a rift between myself, my brother and my father.

Now, they are happily married, my brother and I are on great terms, and when I call my father he says things like he wants to be closer, but then never picks up the phone or expresses interest in my life.

I'm pregnant with my first child and would like for him to know his grandfather -- but at what lengths do you go to with someone before you give up out of frustration? When I asked if he would visit when my son is born, my father said it would depend on scheduling. This will be his first grandchild!

I'm just at my wits' end, Cary. To let the relationship go is sad for me, and I feel I owe it to my child to continue to reach out. I just don't know what to do to get through to this man.



Forgotten in Florida

Dear Forgotten,

When a mother dies and the father remarries, the emotional effect on the children can be powerful and long lasting. It's not hard to imagine why this is so. After all, you have lost your mother, and you want your father to step in and help fill that terrible void. If instead he turns his affections to a stranger, it feels as though he is abandoning you and the family.

But the father has his own needs that must be met. He, too, wishes to fill a void. His children cannot offer him the kind of intimate solace that he seeks. So it is natural that in certain ways after the death of his wife he turns not toward but away from the family.

When your father said he would have to check his schedule, it may have seemed a particularly callous way to respond to news about the approach of his first grandchild. Indeed it may have been callous. But it does not mean that his grandchild means nothing to him. What it means is that this news competes with many other things in his life, and that he responded to it imperfectly. Without jumping to the conclusion that your relationship is at an end, it might be helpful to consider that your status in his life has changed but you are still his daughter. You are also, after all, an adult woman with your own husband and your own child on the way. He is a widower who has remarried and is trying to build a new life. These things take time. The depth and longevity of your feelings of remorse, betrayal and abandonment may surprise you. But try not to globalize their significance. They are simply the fallout of tragic loss.

There is also the phenomenon of the father's apparent disobedience of his late wife's wishes. Though the mother is dead, the patterns of life she established continue, and her values remain. While she was living, she indicated that she disapproved of the woman your father has now married. So in seeking to meet his own needs, he seems to profane her memory.

But how could it be otherwise? There must always be some guilt when we, the lucky ones, go on laughing in the sun while the dead lie buried in the ground. We continue to change and grow, adapting to life. But the mother's wishes cannot change; they will remain as they were when she died. They are frozen in that time. It is too bad she died suddenly, before she was able to give you her blessing, to free you of her dominion, to tell you that she wants you to move on with your life unencumbered by guilt. If she had had the time, she would have told you to let go and move on. But instead she died suddenly, with all her wishes and imprecations frozen in the air.

So we move on anyway, encumbered with the constant thought of trespass. We move on nonetheless.

I suggest that for the time being you try to stay on good terms with your father. And try to be a problem solver. If you want him to visit and there is anything concrete you can do, see if you can do it. Do not take his fumbling callousness as anything but that.

Treat what he said not as an outrageous statement of disregard for this great event, but as an indication that somewhere in his mind is some kind of impediment to a visit. He is coping the best he can. People say, "I'll have to check my schedule" sometimes when they feel a vague reluctance, or sense intuitively some kind of impediment to committing to an action. They are looking for more time, perhaps. Since there has been a rift, it's not surprising that there should be some fear on your father's part. While you are looking forward to a joyful event, your father may not know what to expect. How will you treat him? Will you still be angry with him? While you and your brother have patched things up, your father may still be quite uneasy about relations. He may feel intense guilt. He may still feel the sting of your sharp disapproval. His new wife may also feel quite uncomfortable in her role, and may not have shown much eagerness to visit.

Family emotions go very deep and are hard to control. So the best thing to do, I think, is work to establish a consistent pattern of positive, trouble-free interaction with your father. It might help to lower your expectations a little. You've all been through a difficult time. Each of you has coped in his or her own way. No one grieves perfectly. Give your dad a chance.

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