Children may shut the door, but parents don't have to

I love my daughter. She is 40 years old, and I am 69. She was born 8 years after my first three children, who were born within 18 months of each other. I have always found our relationship difficult as she was growing up. I always felt incompetent, separate from her. At one point, I went to a psychologist who said to have fun with her. When she was 16, the psychologist said she wanted to be the parent and worked to convince her to be the daughter and me to be the mother. She was 2 when I divorced her father. I truly want a good relationship with her, but she has stated that she does not want me in her life. She states that I cross her boundaries and has asked me not to connect with her. From relatives, I’ve learned that she believes I was never “there” for her, that all I care about is earning money. This has been true in the past. As a child, I was extremely poor, and when I divorced, I went back to school, acquired degrees and learned I could earn money. I worked more than I needed and became focused on money. Maybe this had to do with poverty and maybe not. Sometimes I think working was a strategy to not have to lead a full life. I understand that is where I was at the time and cannot change that. I also understand that she is where she is, and I believe she is making a choice that is not good for either of us or her daughter, my granddaughter. I finally have understood that she really does not want me to contact her, so I am respecting her boundary. It hurts unbelievably. I want her in my life. I finally have love to offer her and my granddaughter. I know that is not a decision I can make alone. However, I do not want to look back in the future and wish I had known something that I don’t know now. Something that may have encouraged a possibility of a relationship. Have you any words of wisdom for me? — J.D., Las Vegas

I should tell you this story sets off my “something else is going on” alarm. I don’t mean to suggest you are deliberately withholding a part of the story from me. Only that there are so many children (now adults) who have history with parents so much more egregious, yet they hang in there. They still show up at Christmas and birthdays. They still grit their way through regular phone contact. These adult children may not like their parent much. Nor even respect them. But at least the form of familial duty remains.

I’m saying that, in most stories of categorically severed ties with a parent, there are quid pro quo stories of ongoing abuse, verbal degradation, exploitation, crime, or outright evil. These things are missing here.

Nonetheless, you’re right, of course. It’s not a decision you can make alone. In Latin, the word reconciliation means “to change mutually.” By definition, then, it takes two.

So, for now, that leaves you with what you CAN do alone. Are there any moves you can make unilaterally that will increase the chances her heart will thaw? Or, even if she is unmoved, is there anything you can do to provide yourself at least the solace of self-respect and acceptance?

I know there are three ways I would afford myself the right to ‘violate’ her boundary of no contact:

1. I would send her a written mea culpa. Exhaustive, humble and accurate: “It is true that I wasn’t ‘there for you’ the way a daughter deserves. After the divorce, I lost my way. My priorities were wrong. You paid a high price for my folly …” etc. No excuses. No explanations. No self-pity. Just the truth, and then a plea for mercy.

2. I would send her, via mail, some trinket or symbol. In might be some memorabilia from the past. Or, heirloom (jewelry, art). It would come with simple message: “Even if we never reconcile, I wanted you to have this …” etc.

3. At least once each year, perhaps on a birthday, my estranged child would receive some simple communication from me. One to three sentences. “I will never stop hoping for your forgiveness and our reconciliation. I will die hoping for it. And, if need be, I will hope for it in heaven.” Messages like that.

My children are free, certainly, to shut the door on me. But I would never give them the right to decide if, when or whether I would shut my door.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.