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Carolyn Hax: Grown children cut off mom over stepfather’s ‘harsh’ parenting

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
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Dear Carolyn: I am in the throes of a true dilemma with no good choices. I went through a nasty divorce when my kids were small and remarried fairly hastily. My husband brought his son into the marriage.

My husband took it upon himself to help discipline all the kids and tended to have a temper and be harsh. There was yelling but no physical abuse.

Fast-forward 30-plus years. My kids are in therapy and blame my husband for their unhappy childhoods and me for not doing more to prevent it. I am in therapy, too, because I never realized it was that bad, and I seem to no longer have much of a relationship with my daughters and son. I do get along with his son, his wife and their two kids, however. Mother’s Day came and went: crickets.

My kids feel as if I never chose them when they were younger but just wanted to keep the peace with my husband. Short of divorcing him, I (and my therapist) don’t know how to make this better. But I don’t want to be alone, which is probably why I married so quickly.

I can’t undo what has been done and wish we could move forward, but I don’t know how. Please be blunt with me: What would you do?

— Damned If I Do …

Damned If I Do …: I hope I would own what I did.

I hope I would apologize to my children for not protecting them.

I hope I would admit to them that my fear of being alone was in control, more so than my parental instincts, and that I lacked the courage to risk my own security to ensure theirs.

I hope I would admit that I failed them in this most fundamental way.

I hope I would be able to say to them now, without equivocating, that I understand my failure resulted in their verbal and emotional abuse at the hands of their hastily, poorly chosen stepfather. That a steady diet of “temper,” “harsh” and “yelling,” especially to a child, is abuse. No hitting necessary.

I hope I would tell them I didn’t see this clearly then, but I see it clearly now, and I will not unsee it.

I hope I would tell them that I love them and understand that they have to find their own ways to make peace with their childhoods. That if keeping their distance from me is their best chance at healing, then I accept that.

I hope I would tell them my door and heart are always open to them regardless.

I hope I would stop framing this for myself as having “no good choices,” because owning our behavior and its consequences is always a good choice, even when it hurts like hell.

And I hope I would find a way to forgive myself.

I say “I hope” these things, because I appreciate first-person and, at a gut level, the self-protective measures our minds take when we’re dealing with soul-crushingly hard truths about ourselves. I can’t say for certain that I would have it in me to own this truth at full strength. But I hope I would.

If you can do that, then you’ll have leapfrogged from being stunted by fear to being braver than most.

You say your children “blame” you — but that blame is the template for your redemption. They’ve spelled out the apology they need. There is no dilemma; just give it to them in full. (Under the care of a new therapist, if you’ve gotten all you can from this one.)

That may not get your kids back, but getting yourself back matters, too.