Insta-family blues ILLUSTRATION: Tim Furey

Insta-family blues

For your own sake, work at reconnecting with your biological dad

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 03/15/2012

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Dear Patti,
My name is Mackenzie. I’m 19 and originally from Wisconsin. I came out to California to attend school.   
 
My parents divorced when I was 4, and my father moved to LA. Although I have loving early memories of him, I feel guilty that my stepfather has always felt more like a real dad to me. My father paid for me to visit him every year during my childhood, but I started refusing to go in my teens because I wanted to be with my friends instead. 
 
There were also times he’d write once a week, but I’d only answer once a month. I know my self-involved behavior hurt my father and stepmother, and so when I had a chance to go to school out here, I jumped at it and thought I could get to know him again along with getting a really good education.
 
I’ve been here four months now, but it feels weird. My father and stepmother expect us to be instant family and do everything together. If I’m honest, they’re not exactly strangers, but they don’t really feel like my parents. I’ve recently become close friends with a girl at school who’s also from Wisconsin. She’s looking for a roommate, and I think it would be a chance to get to know her better, along with other college kids. My mother and stepfather are OK with the financial part of supporting me, but we all know it would really hurt my father, so I don’t know what to do. What do you think?  
   — Mackenzie 

Dear Mackenzie,
Let’s focus first on your guilt toward not being as responsive and attached to your father as you “should” be. It sounds like you had a healthy attachment as a young child and, through no fault of your own, that was interrupted when your parents divorced. Even though your father may have always felt a deep attachment for you (God bless him for that), if it wasn’t always reciprocated, that’s understandable. Maintaining a long-distance, sporadic connection isn’t easy for anyone. It’s also developmentally normal for teenagers to want to spend time with friends instead of their parents. Also, Mackenzie, you never have to feel guilty for loving someone, and that you have a healthy bond with your stepfather is a good thing. 
 
This particular phase in your life — your college years — is a time of individuation, an exciting time of learning how to be partially on your own. Any expectation that you would have to give up your first invitation to adult freedom in order to accommodate a sense of instant family may be asking too much of you. You’ve said yourself that you feel you don’t know them that well. Accordingly, you can’t treat yourself like an object that’s just there to make others feel happy and fulfilled.
 
Sit down with your father and explain to him you’re committed to getting closer with him and your stepmother but that it will take time. Explain you’re at a time in your life where you want to start being on your own and spending more time with people your own age. It may hurt him at first, but since it’s clear he loves you and has never given up on being with you, I think you can help him to understand it would be good for you to have a chance to have this college experience. 
 
After you move in with your friend, it’s extremely important that you make a true effort to connect with your father, or I’m afraid you might truly regret it later in life. When you’re much older, it would be a good thing to be able to look back with as few regrets as possible, proud and at peace with how you conducted your life. Your father has been waiting a long time to reunite and that’s a wonderful thing, just as long as you don’t lose a significant part of yourself in the process. Spend at least two nights a week, maybe three visiting and reconnecting with your LA family.
 
Guilt can be healthy in the right intensity for the right reason. If someone hurts a child or betrays a true friend, guilt is an appropriate response. In this case, however, it can be very destructive to have guilt when you’ve done nothing wrong by just by being a normal kid. Stay where you’re going to feel the most comfortable and can reconnect with your father without losing your dream of a fantastic academic experience. 

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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