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Carolyn Hax: Can a ‘less-than-great parent’ find a way to make amends to her grown child?

(Nick Galifianakis for The Washington Post)

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: My only child and their spouse are expecting a baby. I live in the suburbs and they live downtown. Every time I ask whether I can stop by for a few minutes, the answer is invariably how busy they are, they’ll let me know. I never hear back. I’m invited only on Christmas, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day and (sometimes) my birthday. Those aren’t necessarily guaranteed.

I’ve tried everything. I don’t stay long. I’m not intrusive. I’m as pleasant as I know how to be. But they just don’t want my company or to come here.

Their father alienated them from me following a divorce 20 years ago. I struggled with issues that made me a less-than-great parent and that are now medicated. But it’s too late.

I’m beginning to understand I just need to accept this, but I can’t sleep anymore. Any advice?

— Unwanted

Unwanted: Painful, I’m sorry.

You say you’re medicated; is there a talk-therapy component there? If not, then I urge you to add one, because treatment outcomes are generally better in combination. This sounds so complicated, and “issues that made me a less-than-great parent” are so broad in their possibilities, that I want therapy guiding you on the history.

I have a suggestion toward the acceptance, though: Train your attention onto something that doesn’t involve your child, or seeing your child or fixing things with your child. This can feel impossible when you’re stressed to the point of sleeplessness, so think small. Ten minutes, today, listing things you once enjoyed, were good at, found interesting or amusing. The first weeks of this new project can be entirely about finding what fulfills you.

Once you have a candidate, build your knowledge of it, attention to it, investment in it. Tiny steps, again, so it’s not daunting and you can see whether it fits. Let it lead you forward.

I know you’d rather focus on family. But when our first choice doesn’t happen and when the not-happening starts to feel like torture, then that’s our mind’s way of begging for something else to occupy it. Brains are greedy; they want to be fed constantly with things to work on, things to look forward to, opportunities to feel useful and productive. Otherwise they get anxious and replay negative moments or amplify fears or seek relief in familiar habits. Please start deliberately feeding your mind with something new, something uplifting, something within your control.

Re: Issues: I say this as gently as I can: I appreciate the parent changed and I appreciate there was an illness, but the trauma I went through with an absentee parent will never — never ever — be worth having my parent back in my life. A bit here and there is manageable for me, but I will never trust my parent again so I can’t have them be a big part of my life. Many people look at my parent and think they are pretty great now and yay for them. But they weren’t great for me growing up, and I am the one who has to live with that.

I don’t know if this is the case for “Unwanted,” but please consider that.

— Adult Child

Adult Child: Also painful. Thank you for telling this side of it.