Stoic advice: should I contact my estranged daughter?

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, please consider that the column has become very popular and there is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to your question.]

S. wrote: I’m a divorced father of two (a daughter aged 14 and a son aged 8). I haven’t seen my children for 7 years as my ex-wife and I separated due to financial pressure and then got divorced. During our separation, I didn’t see either my ex or children as I was led to believe that this was in their best interests due to their domestic situation at the time and that they were waiting for me to improve my financial position before returning to me. When divorce proceedings started, it emerged that my ex had had another child and my daughter had developed a rather different view of her childhood (and my relationship with her) than had actually occurred. The judge was skeptical of my daughter’s account, and was willing to order counseling, but I did not have the funds to take it up so the arrangements ordered were that I could send the children presents and cards once per quarter. I have the right to try to change the terms of the order and, while I do not know if my ex is complying with it, I can prove easily that she is not meeting her general obligations under the law. I am keen to re-visit the issue as I believe that it is in my children’s best interests (particularly my daughter as the literature in the area is unanimous about the negative consequences for children in her situation). I presume that further court action will take at least 6 months as I expect it to be contested.

However, my daughter is approaching the age where she will start doing formal exams which will dictate her choice of university (and field of study) and I anticipate that re-opening the issue will cause her distress and may adversely impact her performance. I know I cannot control her reaction, but my “practical wisdom” suggests that there is a substantial risk of deleterious consequences, so I am considering delaying action until the exams are over (approximately 2 years). Unfortunately, this means that my son will miss out on the opportunity of contact with me (I anticipate this will be less traumatic for him as I last saw him when he was 18 months, so he has few (no?) memories of me which he may be repressing).

I’m sorry for the long-winded intro, but looking at my role of father, is it better to take action (which I believe needs to be taken in the children’s best interests) now despite the risk of negative consequences for my daughter, or to wait, thereby disadvantaging my son?

Being the son of divorced parents, having been divorced myself, and with a daughter who grew up with her mother, I can certainly sympathize with your situation. Let me make a few comments on your background description first, then get to the focal question.

You were talked into not seeing your children for seven years, right at the beginning of the whole story. I would suggest that accepting this was a mistake on your part. There is hardly any reasonable circumstance (except for threats of violence, for instance) where either parent should be kept from his children for that long period of time. As a result, your relationship with both of them is highly distorted, and will likely remain that way for a long time.

Of course, Stoics counsel not to indulge in regret over past actions, since they are not under our control:

“Souls that enjoy being sick and that seize upon excuses for sorrow are saddened by events long past and effaced from the records.” (Seneca, Letter LXXIV. On Virtue as a Refuge from Wordly Distractions, 34)

“What benefit is there in reviewing past sufferings, and in being unhappy, just because once you were unhappy?” (Seneca, Letter LXXVIII. On the Healing Power of the Mind, 14)

But of course one can learn from the past and use that knowledge to improve things in the present. I should think that a good lawyer would be able to make the case that the initial decision was not good for the children, and that a compassionate judge would reassess and attempt to redress the situation.

Which brings me to the next point: if you have the right to try to change the terms of the agreement I would act on that right, immediately, before any further damage accrues in your relationship with your children. It’s already going to be really hard, taking a lot of effort and time, to repair that relationship as much as possible, and you don’t know how much time Fate has actually in store for any of you.

According to Seneca: “Nature has not given us such a generous and free-handed space of time that we can have the leisure to waste any of it.” (CXVII. On Real Ethics as Superior to Syllogistic Subtleties, 32)

And as Epictetus says, the time to act is now: “When faced with anything painful or pleasurable, anything bringing glory or disrepute, realize that the crisis is now, that the Olympics have started, and waiting is no longer an option; that the chance for progress, to keep or lose, turns on the events of a single day.” (Enchiridion 51.2)

All of which finally brings me to your crucial question: what about the further issues that all of this could cause to your daughter, specifically in terms of her exams? As you explicitly say, that is a matter for your own prohairesis to assess. You need to balance the value of your relationship with your children against the possible harm that re-engaging with them — especially after a legal action — will possibly (but not certainly) cause to both of them.

But you also need to ask yourself some hard questions: is it possible that your daughter is more resilient than you are willing to admit? Is it possible that you may perhaps unconsciously be using this as an excuse for you to remain in the background, given that that would be the path of least resistance for you? In other words, in terms of the first question, is your current exercise of prudence the right one? And in terms of my second question, are you acting courageously?

I cannot answer those questions for you, obviously, but I suggest you reflect on them, ideally with the help of either a wise friend or of a CBT or similar therapist (or both). The ability of the human mind to rationalize is very strong, which is why we learn by comparing our behavior to that of others whom we admire:

“For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” (XI. On the Blush of Modesty, 10)

Given my own experience, both as a child and then as a father, I would say that children are more resilient than many adults give them credit for, and that one should not wait before beginning to repair a relationship, particularly with children around the age of your own. I wish you the best of luck, it is a difficult time in your and your children’s life, but as Marcus puts it:

“Our actions may be impeded by [external circumstances], but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (Meditations V.20)

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Categories: Stoic advice

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4 replies

  1. I was glad to read this because I, too, am estranged from my adult daughter. I saw her briefly and by happy (for me) coincidence recently but it was clear that she has great animosity towards me. I now have a way to contact her (by written letter) but am procrastinating because I think I fear failure. I’ve tried many things to help the situation over the years as she’s dealt with addictions, and I feel like I’ve failed. I’m gun shy to try again. Your response in this column resonates with me, however, and I know I must try again and I must act now. Who knows how much time either of us has? My motives pass the virtue test (I think) and I can (I hope) let go of the outcome. Thank you for your columns. I look forward to them.

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  2. I want to add one thing to this excellent analysis.

    One thing that S needs to consider very carefully is that if he were to sue his ex-wife, he would be imposing a change in her life and in the life of his children. That change will be traumatic. It will create anxiety. It will harm their image of him, reduce the financial resources their mother can employ toward their care, etc.

    So what is his goal? A change in physical custody? To compel her to make the children available to him for communications? Has he considered the possibility that he will appear to the children as an invader attacking their already damaged family?

    The court system – and this applies to every country I have ever been in – encourages people to battle each other and rakes in a great sum of money doing so. I’ve never encountered a single person whose estranged relationships have been healed by legal action. I’m sure a handful of example exist, but I’ve never encountered any. I have, however encountered many people who come from homes that were broken and whose lives were made worse by disputes over custody.

    Over the next 15 years, both children will become adults, and they will be fully emancipated and the relationship they have with S will be the one they are willing to have. I suggest that S starts with the end in mind, what sort of relationship he hopes to build with his children, and set about establishing that relationship without resorting to the force of law, so that when that day comes, they want that relationship, instead of walking away from a relationship that was imposed upon them like a convict leaving the jail once the courts authorize his release.

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  3. Brilliant summary with the quote of the Meditations.

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  4. Personally, I think the stoic thing to do is, Do whatever the f-k you want to do. Why do you need the approval of an ex-family to say or do anything?
    If you want and can value to society or another’s human life then do so. If they say they don’t want it. Then stop and focus on other important things to you.
    Why does it need to be so complicated?
    Obviously, abide by the law of your country, as it would be irrational to negatively affect yourself in the circumstances.

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