Leading questions: 'Should I make contact with my father, whom I have never met?'

Ask yourself whether this is a person you want in your life, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, and be prepared for the possibility of disappointment

Should I make contact with my father, whom I have never met, who left my mother before I was born? He has never denied paternity. He has never offered anything whatsoever by way of support to either me or my mother, who is now dead. I have a half sister and half brother (via him) whom I have also never met.

I attempted my only contact 10 years ago. His response was “What would we each get out of it?” and I am not paraphrasing. He emailed six months later with a one-line apology. I made no further contact after that. I am middle-aged. He is in his 80s.

Eleanor says: Not all family is good, and not all family is kind. If your family is good and kind then it makes sense to be good and kind to them, but if a family member has not been good to you then there’s no special gilding to the fact that they are family.

It’s no use if one half of a familial relationship thinks that being family carries special weight if the other half doesn’t agree; all that does is leave one of you shackled to a standard that the other will never live up to. It sets you both up for a cycle of disappointment and misunderstanding.

So suppose you don’t interact with your dad as family, since he doesn’t seem to interact with you that way. Suppose you just ask whether this is a person you want in your life.

You say he left, that he’s never offered any real help. It’s hard to forgive people for past wounds. It’s especially hard when we were kids at the time, too young to understand or to have done anything wrong and too small to be able to resist the ways that other people’s choices set us on particular paths. Sometimes this anger just gets more complicated with age, as it starts to cohabitate with the desire to understand.

We grow up, we pass through the ages that our relatives were when they messed up, and we see through adult eyes some of the ways their mistakes were possible. We start to occupy both these ways of seeing: the adult who is disappointed in, better than, and able to understand their parent; and the child who has a thwarted need that only the parent can satisfy.

This is hard. It’s a hard place to be in, a constant push-pull between wanting to come closer to and wanting to retreat, between whether we listen as an adult seeking answers or as a child who never got theirs.

The problem is your father may not be able to meet either of these needs. The same forces that led to his original mistakes may lead to brand new ones; he could reject you, harshly, he could want your absolution, he could turn the bad-parenting tables in his old age and hope that you will parent him. You should only reach out to him if you are absolutely prepared for the possibility that he will disappoint you in these ways.

I know many people who have reached out to estranged or separated relatives in their middle age. Sometimes it goes well with hugs and tears all round. But sometimes the relatives are still miserable people, and it isn’t a reflection on you if that’s how it goes. If another rejection from this man would spoil some of the time you get on earth, you don’t owe him your time or your forgiveness simply because he’s your dad.


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Eleanor Gordon-Smith

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