A gift for estranged fathers (and estranged mothers, too)
by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
As I write this in mid-June, the airwaves are flowing with Father’s Day messaging; ads for “manly” stuff. My guess is that most dads would rather have the gift of time. Well, maybe a few words about how much a child has appreciated all they’ve done. For estranged fathers whose children have cut them off (also for rejected mothers), there is often a pervasive feeling: Time is running out.
Estranged fathers ask: How much time is left?
I hear this question at least once or twice a month, usually from estranged fathers and mothers who recognize the eons of time they say they’ve wasted on hope or strife. They realize they must turn their focus to something they have the power to fix or change: Themselves.
Here, we’ll utilize a few familiar phrases to take charge.
- Be a leader. If you’re in a relationship, take the lead in making your life great. Sometimes moms tell me their husbands don’t seem to care if their children are estranged. They can shrug it off easier, they say. The dads, however, share that seeing their wives so hurt makes them mad. How could a child who was so well-loved and -cared for be so cold? Estranged fathers, you need to tell your wives how you feel. That you do hurt, that you are sad, but also that you want to be sensible and strong. You still have a life, and you can work to make it great. A little honesty and understanding can go a long way … and help make your time together emotionally close. Then do take the lead in finding things to do and enjoy, despite the estrangement. Whether in a relationship or alone, what would help you to enjoy your life? Beyond Done With The Crying has many examples of ways to move forward both as a couple and alone. Some of what’s included are the prickly situations of one parent remaining touch with an estranged child who rejected the other, divorce situations including parental alienation, protecting your business, and looking out for yourself (and/or your spouse) as you navigate retirement and later life.
- Know when to quit. In Beyond Done With The Crying, I share the story of a dad who has always been there for his daughter. He paid for her college tuition, even when she asked for “space.” He reached out lovingly on occasion, respected her boundaries, and held out hope that she’d mature, and that they’d be closer again. Eventually, this estranged father came to realize that the only one he could change was himself. He decided to initiate no further contact. He also made some decisions about investing in his own future. He realized that time was fleeting and, regardless of her decisions, he needed to prepare. Whether your situation is similar to this dad’s or completely different, distance, “space,” or full-on estrangement is the common denominator. When is enough enough? Only you know the answer for yourself in your situation–but it may be time to go with the flow.
- Turn yourself around. If you’ve made the decision to empower yourself and take charge of your life despite an adult child’s estrangement, be patient. Most estranged fathers and mothers find that, at first, one step forward and two steps back isn’t unusual. Setbacks may be caused by emotional triggers like birthdays or holidays, or perhaps adult children reach out and you’re not sure the motives are pure (as described in this article: Adult children who reject parents: Why do they make contact now?). You may need to set some boundaries, and that’s true both when interacting with an estranged adult child and in how you think. You can learn to recognize our own unhealthy thought life and make changes to support your well-being. There’s help to wrestle our thinking into healthier patterns, and techniques to set boundaries in my books. If you do have a setback, the reminder can be painful but also beneficial. While it’s wise to forgive, forgetting may not be. A setback can help you grow stronger for your future.
Time waits for no one
Many of estranged fathers and mothers have lived by clocks and calendars. Rhythms and cycles are a part of nature, and people naturally embrace them. While it’s true that time waits for no one, making plans provides a sense of mastery. By embracing the cycles of day, night, and the seasons, we can look forward to things we love—and then look back and savor time well spent.
Consider the year ahead (you don’t have to wait until January!). Think of the seasons, special occasions, big holidays, or personal anniversaries or days of remembrance. Reflect upon how you might like to spend those seasons or days. What can you do to commemorate them? Try new ways that honor who you are now and the season of your life you’re in. You can let go of the tried and not always so true, and move into new territory, at any age.
Maybe you want to spend more time with friends, on a fishing boat, or with your feet in the sand. Perhaps you’d like to see a particular site, travel somewhere exotic, lively, or breathtaking. You might visit a relative you’ve missed, witness the autumn brilliance of your hometown once more, or experience snow falling softly on a winter night. Maybe you finally want to get a bird feeder, binoculars, and books to help you identify the feathery variety that comes around. Or, you could join a bird watching group. Is there a particular festival or event you’d like to see? A regional food you’d like to try? This fall, I’d like to visit each of the farms clustered in a nearby area, taste their products (fruit, wine, cider, cheese, beer, baked goods, and more). Can you think of a similar pursuit? Perhaps thinking of the dates ahead brings to mind special people or momentous events in your life. Could you plant a memorial tree in a loved one’s honor, contribute to a place of worship that has special significance for you, or donate or volunteer at a pet rescue where you found a furry friend? What can you plan for?
Without any hesitation or censor, jot down any ideas that come to you. You can dream big, and you don’t have to think realistically—at least to start. Keep a running list over the next several days or weeks, perhaps organized into months or seasons. Later, choose several from your notes, and make plans to accomplish, pay homage to, or simply honor those choices in a personally significant way. For parents who have dedicated so much time and energy to raising children and grandchildren, calendars can suddenly be as empty as arms. Fill those slots with learning, laughter, and meaning.
Looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them.– L.M. Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables)
If you’re resistant to this idea, consider whether you’ve become bitter, don’t feel worthy of happiness, or have lost all hope. There’s help in my books to identify your sticking points, strengthen and flex your emotional muscles, and step forward with a more optimistic outlook. Won’t you join me?
Be sure to click the links to highlighted words in the article…many link to related reading.