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Carolyn Hax: A step-parent acknowledges a past betrayal

(Nick Galifianakis/for The Washington Post)

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: I did something a couple of years ago regarding my two stepchildren that I'm not really proud of. Now I'm meeting with them to explain myself and I'm not sure I can.

I married their mother when my stepdaughter was 10 and my stepson was 8. I didn't have much experience with children, but their father was out of the picture, so I did try to step up and fill that role as much as I could.

Shortly after our fifth anniversary my wife was diagnosed with lung cancer and she died nine months later. The kids and I struggled along until the school year ended, and then my mother-in-law invited them to stay for the summer.

That August I let her know that I wasn't coming to get them and that she and my father-in-law would need to take care of them. I just couldn't cope with the grief of losing my wife and parenting teenagers — I'm not cut out to be a single parent. The text messages I got from my stepchildren were pretty bitter, but I didn't blame them. I also didn't know what to say so I never answered.

Two years later I still miss them and recently started corresponding with my stepdaughter. She is willing to hear me out, so I'm flying out to see her and my stepson next week. I'm both excited and filled with dread. I have no idea what to say to them. The truth seems too inadequate to explain what they see as a huge betrayal. I don't want to make excuses but I was in way over my head and saw no other way out. Is that what I tell them?

— Making Up

Making Up: Oh, my. So much pain and sadness here.

I’m not clear what your purpose is for the trip, though. Do you still think you’re “not cut out to be a single parent”? (Do you know who is, by the way? Whoever shows up and does it.) Is this trip to apologize, but not to resume a parenting role? Or is this a step toward that? Or is this for you?

If there’s any any any chance you can talk to a child psychologist before you go, please do that. Even 1 hour of expert planning beats 0 hours.

As for what you say you want to say: No. This can’t be about anything that sounds even remotely like an excuse for what you did. “I just couldn’t cope with the grief”? Excuse. “I was in over my head”? Excuse. “I saw no other way out”? Excuse.

I don’t doubt you felt these things. But they don’t want to hear how you felt. They suffered. They want to hear you acknowledge and express remorse for that. They want you to demonstrate to their satisfaction that you understand what you did to hurt them.

If they ask why? “There’s no reason good enough.”

Re: Apologies: The reason the bulk of apologies fail is the transgressor doesn't empathize with the victim. There's too much focus on forgiveness and absolution.

— Anonymous

Anonymous: “This American Life” did an episode about apologies that unfolds into almost a workshopping of one, from a totally self-serving rough draft to an effective expression of remorse. Riveting.

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