I’m 18, graduated from high school early and left my home in Texas to come to Los Angeles for college and live with my dad and his wife in Pasadena. My parents divorced when I was 4, and although my early memories of my dad are loving ones, I feel guilty that my stepfather always felt more like a “real” dad. My father paid for me to visit him every summer when I was a child, but I started refusing in my teens because I wanted to be with my friends. There were also times he’d write me every week and I’d only answer once a month. I know my indifferent behavior was hurtful. When I had a chance to go to school out here, I jumped at it, figuring I could get to know him again along with getting a good education.
I’ve been here a month now and it already feels weird. My father and stepmother expect us to be instant family and do everything together but they don’t really feel like my parents. I’ve recently met a girl and a guy starting my school who are also from Texas and looking for a third roommate. I think it’s a chance to get to know them better along with other college kids. My mother and stepfather are OK with the financial part of supporting me living in a dorm but we all know it would really hurt my dad. Part of me thinks I shouldn’t give up being with the other kids, but I also think I shouldn’t let my dad down. No matter what, he’s still my dad.
Let’s focus first on your guilt toward not being as responsive and attached to your father as you “should.” It sounds like you had a healthy attachment as a young child and — through no fault of your own — it was interrupted when your parents divorced. Even though he may have always felt a deep attachment for you, it’s understandable if it wasn’t always reciprocated. Maintaining long-distance, sporadic connections isn’t easy for anyone. Further, it’s developmentally normal for teenagers to want to be with their friends instead of their parents. You should also never have to feel guilty for loving someone. Having a healthy bond with your stepfather is a good thing.
Your college years are a time of individuation, an exciting time of learning how to be partially on your own. Any expectation you’d 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 stated you feel you don’t know your Pasadena parents all that well; therefore, 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 that although you’re committed to getting closer with him and your stepmother, it will take time. Explain you’re at a stage 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 initially, but since it’s clear he loves you and has never given up on being with you, I think you can help him understand the value of allowing you to have this college experience.
After you move to the dorm, it’s extremely important you make a real effort to connect with him or I’m afraid you might truly regret it later on. When you’re much older, it would be a good thing to reflect on your life with as few regrets as possible, proud and at peace with how you’ve conducted yourself. Your father has waited 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 visiting and reconnecting with both of them.
Guilt can be healthy in the right intensity for the right reason. If someone hurts a child or betrays a friend, guilt is an appropriate response. In this case, however, it can be very destructive to have guilt when you’ve done nothing wrong, just being a normal kid. Stay where you’re going to feel the most comfortable and work hard to reconnect 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.