Ask Amy: Estranged father tests unconditional love

November 28, 2012

DEAR AMY: When I was an adolescent, my father came out of the closet as gay and my parents divorced. At the same time, my father, who is also bipolar, made some poor financial decisions that forced my family into bankruptcy.

That was 17 years ago. Since then he has lived out of the country with limited communication. I know my father loves me unconditionally, but with only a handful of visits, I have trouble feeling close to him beyond the obligatory love of distant family.

I’ve become more and more disillusioned about him. He may have the best intentions in the world, but ultimately he spent my childhood focusing on himself.

Now, for health reasons, my father wants to move back to the States to be near me and the rest of his family. This is a positive step for him, but I am terrified of the burden that I imagine it will place on me.

I worry about the need to support him financially and the expectation to give him time that I don’t really have. I’m also not comfortable with the fact that he will want to hit fast forward on our relationship to make up for lost time.

How do I set up boundaries that will allow me to maintain a comfortable distance but still show some measure of respect for the fact that he is my father? -- Anxious Daughter

DEAR DAUGHTER: Let’s talk about unconditional love. It’s the perfect concept to ponder while you wrestle with this.

Unconditional love requires surrendering your personal harsh judgment of your father to simply accept him — as deeply flawed as he is. This sort of love does not require that you surrender your sense of self, your other relationships or your money.

Your first job is to protect your own health and well-being. You should notify your father ahead of time that you are open to a relationship with him but that he simply may not receive everything he wants from you.

You should be vigilant and honest. You should be aware of the various hooks your father may dangle that you must avoid biting.

To attain more clarity and for help creating and maintaining boundaries, you should see a professional counselor. Your father should also receive mental health counseling.

DEAR AMY: Our 17-year-old son has been accepted at a university two hours away. The university has a great program for the field he wants to pursue. He also has his first girlfriend, who will be starting out at the local community college.

Now our son is talking about going to the local university (which also has a program in his desired field, although it is not as highly ranked as the other school’s) so he can stay near his girlfriend.

We have paid into a state-sponsored program that guarantees tuition will be paid at any state school. The college that accepted him has also offered a scholarship, which will help with room, board, etc.

I feel it would be good for him to go away to school. I have tried to ask him what he will do if they break up, but he refuses to discuss it. Your thoughts? -- A Mom

DEAR MOM: Don’t frame this issue to anticipate this young couple’s breaking up, but in terms of your son’s education and the choice you feel he should make. Be very honest and talk common sense with him concerning what you will and will not pay for. Ask him to give the desired university one year’s commitment but ultimately leave this up to him. If your son feels forced to go away, he may find a way to torpedo his own success.

DEAR AMY: You and “Frustrated Husband” sure let his stay-at-home wife off the hook!

Many women manage to raise children and keep a decently clean and well-ordered household. That’s the mother’s job if she doesn’t work outside the home! -- Mom at Home

DEAR MOM AT HOME: You’re right. And many dual-career parents also manage to keep a well-ordered home. Obviously this couple didn’t get that particular memo.

Write to Amy Dickinson at askamy@tribune.com or Ask Amy, Chicago Tribune, TT500, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611.

2012 by the Chicago Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Media Services

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