Welcome to the newest installment of The Manifest-Station. Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column With a Spin. The questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer. Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. Today’s question is answered by author Elizabeth Tannen. Sometimes the responding author will share their name, sometimes they choose not to. Have a question for us? Need some guidance? Send an email to dearlife at jenniferpastiloff.com or use the tab at the top of the site to post. Please address it as if you are speaking to a person rather than life or the universe. Need help navigating through life’s messiness? Write to us!
I found myself apologizing to my 27 year old daughter because apparently I raised her wrong. All the “things” I did wrong during her childhood are now affecting her life and shes basically cut me off from her life while she goes to therapy and al anon. Make no mistake, I freely admit I made mistakes a lot, but all I could say when she called was I’m sorry…and I also told her to get mad and work it out. I am but (here’s the excuse part) as a single mother with not the best support system from her Dad, things were not easy for me. What’s hard now is that I don’t get to talk to her, and I don’t get to see her and I miss her terribly. Sorry for the long response but when do you stop saying you’re sorry in this instance….? I worry for my girl, she’s working full time and also working on her masters in psychology. I worry that the intense therapy weekend sessions that she attends is going to make her hard and impersonal. I raised her to be a loving sweet girl and I know I need to back off and I have, but the hurt and everyday pain that I feel is at times unbearable because we were so close and now I can’t even call her or text her. I’m working on myself, to better my self and fight an ongoing battle with addiction to pain meds on top of all this. I am clean and sober and I want my daughter back. Life, I’m sorry, I know I’ve made wrong choices, I just don’t know where to go with this. So, my question, among a few, is, “when do I stop saying I am sorry”
The thing about parenting is that everyone messes it up. It’s just a matter of how much.
The other day I talked with a man I know who’s got grown kids. I should say that I know him in a professional context, which means I actually have no clue what he’s like as a parent, but it’s hard to imagine that he’s a complete 180 from the man I do know: well-adjusted, highly spiritual, compassionate, warm, soft-spoken, exceedingly generous. Essentially, someone you’d think of as a real candidate for Most Awesome Dad Ever. And, whaddyaknow, his kids—now adults—are complaining: telling him all the things he did wrong, all the ways he’s messed up their lives.
He’s baffled. “I thought I was the perfect parent!” he told me.
The problem with that, of course, is there’s no such thing. Or, rather, being a “perfect parent” means something different for every kid, cause every kid’s got different needs. And unfortunately, most children don’t have the tools to express those needs very clearly (to say nothing of whether you’re equipped to respond)— until they’re thirty and decide to blame you for all their problems.
It sounds like you were dealing with some really tough circumstances, and I’m sure you did the best you could. Most parents, most people, do. I also believe your daughter, when she says that some of the choices you made as a parent weren’t the right ones for her as a kid. It’s good that she’s using the tools of therapy and Al Anon to help herself work through whatever it is she needs to work through. And, frankly, if that process leads her to the decision that she doesn’t have space for you in her life right now, as unfair and sad as that may be, there isn’t a whole lot you can do.
But to your question of how much you ought to apologize: I think the real question is what do you need to do to get your daughter back. And the answer is: whatever she needs.
Here’s another thing about parenting: it’s kind of the opposite of Fox News (or, depending on your point of view, exactly like Fox News): not even a little bit fair and balanced. Here’s how Adam Gopnik put it in a recent New Yorker article:
“In order to supply the unique amount of care that children demand, we have to enter into a contract in amnesia where neither side is entirely honest about the costs. If we ever totted up the debt, we would be unable to bear it.” (Leave it to Adam Gopnik to dispense essential wisdom about parenting in an essay about bread.)
But anyway. In other words, the normal rules of human interaction don’t apply. Kids have irrational expectations of their parents, because parents provide an irrational amount of care for their kids. Usually they’re willing to do it because the connection is so important—as it sounds like it is for you.
In order to accept you back into her life, your daughter may need you to keep apologizing forever. She may need you to not talk to her for six months, or a year, or two. She may need you to tell her why you made the choices you made. She may need you to sit in a hundred degree room and stare at a blue wall and watch The Cutting Edge five thousand times. I can’t tell you what she needs, of course—only she can.
So, my advice is to ask her. And then decide whether it’s worth it.
And, finally, a word about sorries: there are different kinds. A guy once told me he was “sorry that I was upset” after he tried to manipulate me sexually. Needless to say, apology not accepted. I don’t know how you’ve apologized until now, but moving forward, don’t apologize for her feelings. Apologize, genuinely, for the mistakes you made. Tell her you are sorry, but you can’t change what you’ve done. You can only listen to her now, support her now, and hope she’s willing to let you back into her life.
Elizabeth Tannen is a writer, editor and teacher based in Minneapolis. She writes the blog Dating in the Odyssey Years, and teaches with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. She’s currently an Artist in Residence at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico.
Please note: Advice given in Dear Life is not meant to take the place of therapy or any other professional advice. The opinions or views offered by columnists are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed physician or mental health professional. Columnists acting on behalf of Dear Life are not responsible for the outcome or results of following their advice in any given situation.
Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. She’s a writer living in L.A. (and on an airplane.) She’s leading a Retreat in Costa Rica at the end of March and her annual retreat to Tuscany is in July 2014. All retreats are a combo of yoga/writing and for ALL levels. Jen’s annual Labor Day Retreat to California (her most popular) is booking now. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you.