It’s Time for Daddy’s Girl to Grow Up

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Reader’s Question

I am a 28-year-old female. My parents had me very young (16 and 19). They divorced when I was 3 years old, and my mum moved in with her boyfriend; my brother and I stayed with my dad. I was very close to my dad as a little girl. I suppose you could call me a daddy’s girl.

When I was 5, my mum and her boyfriend took me and my brother to live in England. We moved back to my dad in the USA when I was about 7, but that didn’t work out and my mum, my brother and I moved to live with her boyfriend in Florida. A few months later she sent me to live with my dad, who had met a new woman (they eventually married).

The new lady and her two children did not like me. I generally felt like the odd one out and that I wasn’t wanted, liked, or welcome in the house.

Also, my stepbrother used to come into my bed at night while I was sleeping, and masturbate. I know because I woke up a few times during it.

My relationship with my dad became strained while we lived with that family. In contrast to the ‘daddy’s girl’ relationship we had when I was little, my dad rarely spoke to me or spent time with me as I got older. I felt like he avoided me, and I felt extremely lonely.

I moved back to the UK when I was 14, and had very limited contact with my dad in that time. But in the past year he has started helping me out financially. He seemed keen for me to move back to the USA, and two months ago I did that. I am now staying with him and his family until I can get a job. My stepbrother and his wife live in the room next to me; my stepsister lives around the corner. My stepmum makes efforts to be extra nice to me, but I feel extremely anxious in the house. I feel like I am walking on egg shells, and I feel quite lonely because no one seems to want to engage. Everyone just stays in their rooms. My dad is always either downstairs in his office, or sleeping, or out. His presence in the house is elusive, and I feel like he doesn’t want to talk or isn’t interested in what I’m saying.

Now, I have an opportunity to go and live in California with my friend’s parents. They have a separate annexe for me; their garden is beautiful; the house is clean; they are positive people, go places, and engage with each other; and I feel happy there. They have said I can come and stay as long as I want.

The thing is, I would feel extremely guilty leaving my dad. He paid for me to come out to the USA, and he pays my expenses. I don’t have the heart to tell him honestly how I feel about things. For whatever reason — past experiences with this family or maybe other experiences (I was in an abusive relationship from 20 — 26) I can’t get over the tension in the house. I do not feel a connection or love towards anyone there besides my dad, and even our relationship is quite strained.

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Yet, I feel like he wants me to stay, and would be sad if I moved. But I feel torn between guilt and resentment. Maybe I owe it to him to at least try it out here first.

How do I get over this guilt and anxiety? Am I being selfish in wanting to move away after everything my dad has done?

Editor’s note: This question has been shortened significantly.

Psychologist’s Reply

Despite the fact that you are 28, it sounds like there is a lot of unresolved trauma in your past that is keeping you from feeling capable of striking out on your own as an independent woman. I’m going to keep my focus narrow for the majority of my answer, but I think it is worthwhile to enumerate some of the issues brought up in your letter:

  • Child of teen parents who were divorced when you were young;
  • Multiple moves and custody changes when you were still a small child;
  • Quasi-molestation by your stepbrother;
  • A bizarre and troubled relationship with your stepmother;
  • A distant and at times frightening relationship with your father;
  • Infrequent contact with your father for half of your life;
  • An abusive relationship for a significant portion of your adulthood;
  • Financial instability, as well as financial dependence on your father;
  • Starting over in a new country with no job or financial resources;
  • A disturbing and anxiety-provoking living situation.

After looking at this list I hope we can agree that there is more to work on here than simply guilty feelings about wanting to move away from your dad. However, let’s look at the question of how to handle your current dilemma.

It is clear from your question that you already know that a move away from your father’s house is the healthiest choice you can make. Financially it would not be a burden to you, and in terms of your overall functioning and mental health you anticipate that it would be a vast improvement over living in your father’s home. Given that you are 28 and at a point in your life when, in Western cultures, your task is to be forming some sort of independent existence for yourself that can be the source of happiness and self-esteem, languishing at your father’s house does not seem like a viable means of pursuing this goal. What concerns me is that, instead of focusing on more independent life-goals for yourself, you have been so focused on repairing the wounds of the past in your relationship with your father. To me, it seems unrealistic to think that simply moving to the US and into your father’s house is going to effectively serve either of you in improving your relationship. While both of you have grown older and capable of relating in more mature ways, there has not been enough change in his life, or perhaps even in yours, to make you two capable at present of improving on the past. Proximity is not the same thing as progress in a relationship.

If you are committed to working on repairing some of those old wounds, I strongly urge you to stop waiting for it to happen and instead to work with your dad on finding a therapist who can sit down with the two of you and help start the conversations that you need to be having together. Given that your dad is receiving antidepressant medication, he may already have a psychiatrist who can refer you to a good family therapist; if your dad has health insurance, his plan may also have providers in the area with whom you can make an appointment.

I understand that approaching your dad with the notion of going to therapy together might be challenging, but I hope you can agree that waiting for change has not been an effective strategy. You might ask him to go out alone with you some time, to coffee for example, so that you can be away from the anxiety-provoking atmosphere in the house when you have the conversation. You can let him know how much you appreciate his desire to help you and have you present in his life. Tell him that you have been struggling with the idea of moving, and that part of your struggle has been that, despite a desire on both your parts for an improved relationship, nothing has really changed since you moved in with him. Therefore, you would like to see if he’d be willing to go to a therapist with you to help get the process moving along. Make it clear that you love him and are not criticizing him, but also, don’t hide the fact that you are not happy in his house and see a greater opportunity for personal growth in California. Hopefully he will be able to acknowledge that things are not as good between you as they could be, and will be willing to entertain the notion of getting assistance for the sake of deepening your relationship. Worst case scenario would be that he is angry and hurt, in which case you might have to acknowledge for yourself that there is unlikely to be further growth in your relationship with him at this stage.

Regardless of the outcome of your relationship with your father, I encourage you to think quite seriously about creating some more independence-related goals for yourself. This might be job-training, completing the paperwork you need to be able to pursue employment, or some type of fulfilling volunteer work. Individual therapy would also truly benefit you at this point in your life, as it would allow you the opportunity to work through the events in your life history that I listed above. Therapy will also help you see that focusing your adult life on attempting to repair the wounds of the past is not a recipe for happiness or good mental health, and will not allow you the perspective to make positive life choices. In contrast, pursuing some goal that will allow you to feel good about yourself, independent of any other family member’s opinion or approval, is far more likely to make you feel capable of making choices that encourage your personal growth without guilt or regret.

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