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Carolyn Hax: Daughter wants to see distant dad, but he’s stuck in neutral

(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

Adapted from an online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn: My daughter's father is from a foreign country where he is back now as a tourist "driver." I have taken her to see him several times in the past decade, and every time he spends less time with her. I could hire him as our driver, but I refuse to do that. He should want to spend as much time with her as possible.

I want to tell him that if he wants to see her again, then he needs to come here, which I would pay for. I know my daughter would be crushed if I told her we are not going back to see her dad. She does not seem to let his indifference bother her, and she says she loves him all the time. How do I handle this?

— Bothered

Bothered: It’s painful to watch your kid be ignored by someone who “should” care. With “should” being, as always, the most useless word in our language when it comes to planning and decision-making.

But as painful as it is, here’s a reason to visit:

If you stop, then he probably won’t come — right? — and therefore your daughter will associate his absence with your decision.

If instead you keep visiting, then your daughter will be able to connect any estrangement with his behavior, to which she can respond directly.

Plus, telling her she can’t go is a big change for her to process at once — whereas a series of less and less rewarding visits will educate her incrementally, as she is also growing up and developing emotional resilience.

I understand your impulse to correct her unrealistic view of her dad, because, again, it’s hard to watch her get hurt. But reality itself will be a better messenger than a mom (yes?) who’s losing her patience — if for no other reason than letting reality handle it allows you not to put your own bond with your kid on the line.

Re: Father: My goddaughter used to say she loved her dad all the time. She visited him for two weeks a year, and every year, he'd hire a babysitter to take care of her not only while he worked, but in the evenings when he dined out and came home in time to say good night. The other adults in her life really struggled with whether to let her keep visiting, but he was dying, and she kept saying how much she loved him.

Come to find out she was saying that to keep us from knowing how hurt she was by the way he treated her. But when I ask her if we should have stopped the visits, she says no, because he was the dad she had and she needed to work it out for herself. Which she did, eventually.

Keep taking your daughter to see her father and be there for her as she figures out what she probably already knows: He's not the father she wishes she had. But he's the father she does have, and she needs to come to grips with that in her own way. The best we can do for kids with an unsatisfactory parent is, I think, to love them through it all, and never, ever, ever make them choose.

— Anonymous

Anonymous: Gut-punch. Wow. Thank you.

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