By all accounts, I am a functional adult: I went to college, earned a master’s degree, adopted a cat, married a good man, and am building a life and a career in fundraising at an Ivy League college about a four-hour drive from where I was raised. I have sought treatment for long-simmering depression and anxiety and made great strides in self-care (not exactly skills I learned from my family).
But in my family relationships, there remains a constant source of stress: My father is never satisfied with the frequency or duration of our visits, and unless all the right people are in the room, the time we spend with him (to say nothing of the time spent traveling to see him) doesn’t seem to “count.” From some fathers this may be a warm and familial sentiment (“I miss you!”), but from mine there seems to be an underlying bitterness that no living person can satisfy.
Relative to my age (30), my dad is on the older side, in his late 70s. I have a half-brother (age 50) from my father’s first marriage and a full sister from his second marriage. My parents divorced when I was about 17, and I think we would all agree that everyone involved is the better for the divorce. He is now in a long-term relationship with a wonderful woman whom we all agree is a saint. My sister and I are very close, but our relationship is sometimes strained by our father’s tendency to put her in the middle of our visit negotiations. Family gatherings that include myself, my husband, my sister, her husband, and our brother and his three children seem to be the only ones that earn a check mark in his book.
Despite many fond memories of my grandparents, I can’t say he was raised by people with much emotional intelligence or connection to their kids. My father is well meaning but deeply inept and lacking in empathy, and his words are often hurtful.
We often enjoy our time together, but there is little joy in it because I know that no matter how far out of my way I go, if I am not part of the desired permutation of guests, my presence is not appreciated. We were with him for Thanksgiving 2017 and Memorial Day as well. We drive for nearly three hours every year to spend New Year’s Eve with my father and his partner, but since my brother is not part of this tradition, it doesn’t seem to be important to him. This NYE, he also took the opportunity to admonish me for posting more about my mother on Facebook than about him.
Honestly, I am exhausted.
How can I communicate to my father that I value our time together and I wish he did, too?
Dear Nobody Important,
I know how you feel. There’s nothing quite like making a big effort to be there for someone, only to spend a lot of your time together soaking in the ambient disappointment surrounding those who aren’t there. When I was younger, I often felt that I took pains to be the “good” child, but my parents took my hard work for granted. There I was, right in front of them, but there were always other puzzles to solve, other people to long for.
As recently as a few years ago, I saw my mother in particular as someone who likes people who can’t quite be there for her in return. This is how my story went: My mom likes people who need her care but who never quite want it or accept it or acknowledge that they need it. She likes people who disapprove of her a tiny bit, or who believe that they’re superior to her. She likes arrogance and swagger. She likes show-offs, even when they’re a little ridiculous. But she also likes absence and distance. She doesn’t want to live with anyone or cooperate or compromise. She doesn’t want to show up and engage in a give-and-take with another person who also has very strong opinions. She would rather tolerate someone who delivers a grandiose monologue than sit and hammer out some middle ground with an equal partner. She likes to long for people, though not to any maudlin or histrionic extreme. She just enjoys working hard by herself. She wants devotion and connection in the midst of solitude and independence. And when people get needy, it makes her anxious. She can give generously, but she never wants to feel guilty about what she’s not giving. If you make her feel guilty, she’ll resent it. This means she takes pains not to make other people feel guilty, to the point of never asking for what she wants.
I painted this very dramatic and somewhat unfair portrait of my mother in order to get a little distance from my need for our relationship to be different. I wanted to lean on her when I was sad. I wanted her to become the nurturing, loving mother of my dreams. I always expected that we would land there someday. My expectation that everything would match the vision in my head EVENTUALLY kept me in a perpetual state of slow simmering anger. I had this weird, jittery, needy state I fell into whenever I was around my mom — even though I worked very hard to make her happy, I was insanely moody whenever she was around. After a few days in her company, I would slip into a state of almost nostalgic depression that matched the depression I felt as a teenager. Even though my depression was a natural side effect of trying very hard but never being completely present or connecting with my mother, it always took me by surprise and I blamed myself for it. (I blamed myself for all of my bad moods in the old days!) Instead of discussing it openly with her, each time I visited her, I would expect to feel good and then my sadness would settle in like a fog. And my mother took my bad moods very personally, too, though I was honestly too self-involved to notice. She was disappointed in them, and she also blamed herself for them.
My mother did see me, in other words. She was absurdly tuned in to me, more sensitive than a seismograph in California measuring an earthquake in Chile. She was afraid of my moods. She was afraid of my tendency to make abrasive or straight-to-the-point statements about what was happening in our family. I made her feel guilty and anxious. I made her painfully aware of how little she could relax and go with the flow. I made her aware of her weaknesses and mine. We both had good intentions, but we were unintentionally torturing each other.
This is how shame works in families. And even though it might at first sound like the preamble to a long story about What’s Wrong With Your Dad (and My Mom!), that’s not how we get out of this trap. We exit this trap by recognizing how much we have in common with our parents.
The hilarious irony of my portrait of my mom is that I’m the same way. I love working hard from a distance. Look at what I do for a living! I LITERALLY SOLVE PEOPLE-PUZZLES FROM A DISTANCE. And when people meet me, they might like my actual personality, but I am not the nurturing, supernatural lady force of their fever dreams. I am on a path that points in the general direction of being more present and giving my love more freely instead of hiding behind my suspicions and my analysis. That is my intention. But I’m also a writer and an artist (yeeee love that word but afraid to use it, still!) and my goddamn brain is a maze of gears within gears within gears, grinding and throwing off sparks. That’s how we all are! We have shit cooking on 53 stoves! Half of our pots are boiling over, most of the time. Do you want to give your love or throw off some sparks and serve up some tasty stew, motherfuckers? ME, I CAN’T DECIDE!
So here you are, with your master’s degree and your cat and your good man. You like to work hard. And sometimes, maybe you also like to give generously to someone who takes and takes and doesn’t even notice that you’re the one serving it up. You might believe consciously that you want to be closer to your father, but at a deeper level, you might just prefer to feel your love for him from a safe distance. Maybe your story about him kept you safe when you were younger, and now that you’re older, your story is starting to make you unhappy, because there’s no solution. According to your story, even if you try to say something to him, he won’t hear you.
But I would look past your father, too. I would try to examine the ways that you keep people at arm’s length. Because when someone says “This person won’t just show up and appreciate me,” nine times out of ten that person is also someone who has trouble showing up and appreciating the people around her.
The “good” child, the fixer, is also someone who fixates. She always wants more. It’s not enough that she drives three or four hours to see her father. She must be solving puzzles on the way there. She must show up and observe that yes, again, he is dissatisfied. She is dissatisfied in sync with his dissatisfaction. Yet she refuses to examine how beautifully they match.
The good child is someone who wants to give generously and feel proud of how hard she works to be generous. But she doesn’t feel her pride or savor her generosity. She doesn’t relish how hard she works, and she doesn’t say to herself, “I am someone who loves to work hard.” Instead she says, “No one appreciates my hard work.”
The good child is someone who believes that all she wants is to hear the words, “My God, you give me so much! Thank you! I’m so happy that you’re here!” But even if she heard those words, she might not really stop and feel them. She might think, “Whatever, my dad is just trying to make the right sounds because his girlfriend told him to.”
Many years ago, I booked a house at the beach for my mother and my siblings and our spouses and kids. I organized the whole trip. And as we sat down to dinner the first night, my husband made a toast about how generous and kind it was for me to spend so much time making the whole vacation happen. Did everyone say, “Yes, yes, thank you! How generous and kind of you!” No. Everyone made a face like my husband had just taken a shit in the middle of the table.
Why? Because my need for acknowledgment was so palpable at that moment in my life that no one in my family wanted to give it to me. I didn’t want my husband to make that kind of a toast, because I knew it would be disastrous. But I also didn’t know how to take in and appreciate the one person who was willing to stand up and say “I SEE YOU AND I APPRECIATE YOU.” I wasn’t ready to be thanked. I wasn’t ready to show up and be loved. In that moment, I felt ashamed of my husband! I felt ashamed of myself! I thought appreciation and acknowledgment were what I wanted, but I wasn’t there yet. My husband and I went to our room that night and rolled our eyes over the insane curmudgeons I’m related to. But actually, my brother and my sister and my mom are sensitive people. I wasn’t showing up any more than they were, and they knew that. I wanted to be loved and admired from a distance. That didn’t feel like real love to them, so they didn’t drop everything to give me their love back.
As long as you spend your three- or four-hour drive to visit your father thinking, “I am being so good and generous but I’m an idiot because he will only disappoint me again!” (which is, to be clear, a completely understandable thing to do!) and you spend your three- or four-hour drive home from seeing your father thinking, “I give so much but I’m an idiot for giving because he didn’t even see me or care that I was there!” (also completely understandable!), you’re just as absent from that relationship as he is. Even though, in many ways, you see him clearly, you aren’t seeing yourself clearly. You are hiding in plain sight, just like he is.
I know you really do want his love and acknowledgment. And I know how much that hurts, believe me. But if you want to feel your love for him, if you want to feel connected and good about him, if you want to feel proud of the time you put in just to see him (and you SHOULD feel proud of it!), then you have to learn how to show up without off-gassing your rage and your need to fix everything and your need to change him. You have to stop being the “good” child and just be a child. You have to accept that he is 78 or 79 years old and he is not going to change.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t open your mouth and ask him for exactly what you want from him. But you have to be humble. You have to be vulnerable, which you hate to be, I know. You have to recognize how gorgeously your distance and longing and need matches his distance and his longing and his need. You have to see how you both focus on the wrinkles in the fabric, the smudges on the window, the empty seat at the table. You are writing this story together as seamlessly as the most mutually attuned collaborators ever to walk the Earth. You are together in your melancholy and wistfulness. You are together in your slow, simmering anger. You are together.
I just watched this documentary about Mr. Rogers, and holy God, that man could show up and give his love! He was Jesus-like! Kids sensed this immediately. But Fred Rogers wasn’t armed with 15 million ideas about how to raise children. He didn’t have a complicated philosophy at all, beyond LOVE LOVE LOVE. He just showed up and he listened. He looked kids in the eyes. He loved silence. He loved to wait and watch. He never filled the silence with nervous words. He just watched and waited.
Here was a man who took pride and satisfaction from his work. But it wasn’t really “work” the way you or I would work. He took pride in THE GAPS HE LEFT FOR THE KIDS. He took satisfaction in THE SILENCE HE COULD PROVIDE.
I wish I were more like Fred Rogers. But I will never be just as present and as loving as he was. I like complications and puzzles and words and distance and hard work. I like to chatter and dance and fill up space with my obnoxious noise. I like to take up space and make sounds, BIIIIIIAAAATCH.
But he reminds me what I don’t do well. Sometimes, as a mother, I don’t create space for my kids to be big and show off and grow. I fill up too much of the space or herd them in the directions I prefer. Sometimes, as a daughter, I don’t show up and observe the things that my mother already does so well: She is like Mr. Rogers in many ways. She goes on long walks with my sister’s dog and plays intolerably slow, patient games with my sister’s kids. She fills up all of her bird feeders and sits and watches the birds with her brother (who is living with her now! Because she’s very generous and she truly wants to help him!). She works in her yard. She throws dinner parties for her friends, and she lets them be big and have one drink too many and then literally break into song. My mother does so many things well, and for years, all I could see were the things she couldn’t do.
And not only were my flaws an equal and opposite reflection of my mother’s flaws, but I told the same disappointed story about myself that I told about her, without even realizing it. I did so many things well, for years, and all I could see was what I couldn’t do.
So this is what I want for you: Tell your father you want him to really enjoy your time together, no matter who else shows up. But then let your father be who he is and to give yourself some space to be proud of everything you do for him. You have to trust me when I tell you this: He knows that you’re there for him. He feels your anger at him. He knows that you’re doing hard work to be there. If you really, truly aren’t happy going to visit him, then don’t go as often. But I believe that you BELIEVE IN those visits at a level that you’re not letting yourself appreciate or feel proud of. You should feel proud of how generous you are and how hard you work.
The next time you visit your father, show up and be very slow and don’t try to fix anything. Leave some silence in the room with you two, and see where the silence takes you. Follow his lead when he talks, and see where he naturally lands. He might be on a longer path than you know, but you cut him off when you stop tolerating his story. Let him keep going. Let his partner butt in, if that’s what she does. They have a fertile ecosystem that you’re not a part of. Dig your feet into that soil. Feel where you are. Feel how imperfect and terrible and sweet it all is.
If all you hear from him is resentment and anger, breathe that in. Make room for it. It doesn’t have to hurt you. You don’t have to expect more. Stay still with his anger and you’ll feel the love behind it. Be good to yourself, of course! Walk out the door if you feel sad and sick and can’t take it! But if you’re quiet, if you’re patient, if you offer up your love and your silence without waiting for something in return, you might find yourself watching his longing and your longing, dancing together gracefully. His longing and your longing, matching step for step, silently.
Most people don’t have a chance to see how beautifully they match their parent until their parent dies. You can wait until your dad dies to see it clearly. That’s your choice, and you have a right to do whatever you want to do in order to feel happy and good about your life. But if I were you, I wouldn’t wait. You are a generous, loving person, and he is, too, underneath it all. Feel proud of that now. Make a little extra room for both of you to feel proud of that, right now. You are two beautiful, fragile, broken things that belong together.
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