Am I abandoning my daughter?

She's 16, I'm divorced and want to move with my sweetheart. Should I stay close by?

By Cary Tennis
Published August 17, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

My daughter, age 16, lives with her mother and stepfather in the Bay Area, and is beginning her sophomore year of high school. My daughter and I have a warm relationship and she clearly depends on me in many ways, and I enjoy our frequent weekend visits and school holidays.   I have an older child, a son who is a fully launched adult.  I'm very proud of both my kids.

I've been offered a job in the Northwest and a chance to live with my sweetheart, whom I plan to marry.  I've been seeing a therapist about my inner conflict: pursuing a life beyond the Bay Area makes me feel guilty about leaving my daughter behind.  My therapist says I may be projecting my own childhood trauma on the current situation.  My parents divorced when I was 6, and my father died when I was 11.  I worry that I would be inflicting an injury on my daughter and perpetuating the pain of abandonment that I suffered as a child.  My therapist says I need to look at things clearly in the moment and take this individual decision on its own terms.

My fiancée has been extremely patient and loving and is applying no pressure on me rushing the decision.  I think my urgency comes more from economic pressures.  To have a chance at gainful employment with a  solid employer makes me feel eager to act now and not wait.  I'm in my early 50s, and I don't think job opportunities like this for people my age, in a bad economy, come along every day.

Another factor: I first met my sweetheart 20 years ago, just before she left San Francisco for a job at Microsoft.  Despite all the years and distance, our connection has remained strong, even when we tried to let go and move on.  We have kept reconnecting every couple years.  But the past two years have been different, and we realized that this is the relationship we both want for the rest of our lives.

Most of my friends don't understand why I would hesitate to move north and take this great job and finally be with the woman I love.  My hope is to find a way to maintain contact with my daughter and deal with whatever feelings this departure might bring up for her.  I clearly would come back to the Bay Area for regular visits, and she would be welcome to vacation with me and my new partner whenever she likes.

I can't be the first person to face this dilemma.  How can this be done carefully?

Too Worried to Move

Dear Too Worried To Move,

If you told me that a long-dead ancestor had advised you not to make this move, I would  think you had a primitive and irrational belief system. If you were hearing voices telling you not to do it, I would think you were mentally unbalanced.

And yet when you say you are concerned about perpetuating a cycle of abandonment, it sounds perfectly reasonable. Why? What is this "cycle of abandonment" but some vague sin against the gods of modern psychotherapy? I mean, it is a disembodied and abstract infraction. Who is being abandoned? Your daughter? How? You are moving. That doesn't mean you are abandoning her.

What is happening, I would imagine, as your therapist has suggested, is that your own old hurts are being reactivated.

Your parents got divorced when you were 6 and your dad died when you were 11. That was painful. The pain of that stays with you and is reawakened when you contemplate change. But it's not about your daughter. It's about your own experience of this old pain. You can reduce the pain by coming to grips with it compassionately, by nurturing yourself when it comes up, by taking active steps.

You will miss your daughter. That is the important emotion to focus on. So talk to her. Tell her that you are going to the Pacific Northwest and that you are going to miss her and want to know how she feels about it and listen to her. Just listen to her. Stay close to her.

The Pacific Northwest is not that far from the Bay Area. Plane trips are not so terribly expensive or lengthy. Here are some ways to maintain contact with your daughter: Telephone, email, iChat, Skype, holiday visits, unplanned visits, visits to see a show, inviting her to stay with you for the summer, finding a college for her in the Pacific Northwest ...

We modern Westerners act like we know what's going on. At least if the ghost of your father had visited you and warned you not to go then you could placate him. You could reassure him that you are not abandoning his granddaughter.

Actually, I'm going to suggest that. Crazy as it sounds, I suggest that you conjure up the spirit of your dead father and explain to him that you are moving but you are not abandoning his granddaughter. Reassure him. Tell him not to worry.

We do not want to repeat the past. But what is our fear of repetition, really, if not a hubristic will to defy fate? Do we think we can outwit fate? Do we think we're going to show the world that fate does not have us in its grip? We are helplessly bound to the past; we are eternal children; we are petitioners to the gods! Why pretend that our condition is in any way rational or reasonable?

Anyway, the smart, rational thing to do is to make this move. It might bring up crazy feelings, but it's a reasonable thing to do. So do it.

Do this. Do this thing. Take this job and make this move. Stay in touch with your daughter. Reassure the spirit of your long-dead father. You'll be OK. This is a good thing.

Cary Tennis

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