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Should I Reconcile With My Terrible Father?

Dear Prudence calls in on The Gist to counsel a letter writer. 

Photo illustration by Slate. Illustration by Charlie Powell. Pho

Photo illustration by Slate. Illustration by Charlie Powell. Photo by Lisa Larson-Walker.

Emily Yoffe of Slate’s Dear Prudence column doesn’t typically call back her letter writers to give them advice. But on the April 24 episode of The Gist, she did. The following is a transcript of the conversation. Listen to the full podcast here.

Mike Pesca: So, from time to time on The Gist, we engage in what we call a post-Prudence impact statement, where we get one of the people that Dear Prudence, our advice columnist, gave advice to, call them up, and see how the advice landed. But we’re going to get out in front of that process right now, literally, temporally. We’re not going to wait to see how the advice landed; we’re going to give the advice right here, right now.

And joining me is Emily Yoffe, who writes the Dear Prudence column for Slate. Hello, Emily.

Emily Yoffe: Hi, Mike.

Pesca: So, I’ve asked you to pick a letter, and I will read the letter. You want to give me a quick summary of what about the letter stood out, or what we should expect from this letter, or how you picked your letters?

Yoffe: I liked this letter because I have developed a subspecialty in really lousy parents of adults and how grown people try to navigate their relationship with an inadequate parent. And often this is heightened when the grandchildren come. So this letter deals with that whole issue.

Pesca: Here’s the letter. You ready?

Dear Prudence,

I’m a happily married man with a toddler, “Tommy.” My parents divorced in the ’80s after my father had an affair. He subsequently neglected his three kids financially and emotionally, only showing up for special events. He’s superficially charming but self-centered and incapable of committing to meaningful relationships. The worst part is that he serially dates very young women from impoverished backgrounds.

As a 65-year-old man, he is currently living in the Philippines and dating a 27-year-old Filipina. Because this behavior strikes me as irredeemably creepy and exploitative, I cut off communication with him five years ago.

After having rocky relationships with him for years, my sisters have cautiously reconciled. Now that I have a son, I’d like for little Tommy to know his granddad. Furthermore, I don’t want the baggage of my relationship with my father to burden my son, but while my head would like to reconcile with him, my heart is still disgusted by him.

My wife has a preference for her son knowing his grandfather but would support me either way. Do you have any advice on the best course of action?


Unlike My Father

What do you think, Prudie?

Yoffe: Well, I love this letter, because this sounds like grandpa is a classic narcissist who was a terrible father to his children, and there’s a question mark of whether he could even be a decent grandfather. I do hear from people who are really conflicted because they have a terrible relationship with a mother or father who they have to concede has turned out to be a good grandparent. So we don’t even have any information here.

Sometimes people back themselves into corners where they think they have to make kind of an engraved-in-stone decision; Unlike My Father does not. He can see how it goes. His father shows up at a family event with a girlfriend who’s younger than the baby-sitter—OK. Is he interested in playing with Tommy? How does it go?

Unlike My Father can kind of play it by ear. And if he finds, You know what? It is toxic for me to be with this guy, and my son’s not getting anything out of him, then you can say, “No, I want to stay with having cut off relationships.”

Pesca: Yeah, and it seems that all that Unlike My Father is looking for is something pretty much superficial—special events and nice-enough relationships so that the kid meets the grandfather. The grandfather lives in the Philippines. And, by the way, I agree; I think it’s pretty kind to describe the serially dating women from impoverished backgrounds 65-year-old dating a 27-year-old from the Philippines—he describes that as “irredeemably creepy.” Yeah, I’d say that’s an apt phrase.

Unlike My Father: Hello?

Pesca: Hello. Is this Unlike My Father?

Unlike My Father: Yes, it is.

Pesca: OK. Whenever I give one of those names, I always expect, “What are you talking about? That’s not even a real name.” But this is Mike. I’m here with Emily, Dear Prudence. Say hello.

Yoffe: Hi.

Unlike My Father: Hi.

Pesca: And we got your letter. And, Emily, why don’t you begin?

Yoffe: So I know you wrote to me about what do I think, but let’s get a read from you on where you are at going forward with introducing your son to your father.

Unlike My Father: I think that I want to meet with my dad, and, you know, kind of take it slow—see where he is in life, you know, what he wants to do. Does he want to have a relationship with his grandson? And also see how I feel, you know, being around him, and just go from there.

Pesca: When you say “relationship,” how deep or complex a relationship are you thinking? He lives in the Philippines.

Unlike My Father: Well, I don’t think he’ll see him much, because he only comes to the States maybe four times a year. So, it would just be, like, birthday parties and family events, that kind of thing. You know, I don’t see them spending a whole lot of time together.

Yoffe: I think you hit on a really important point, which is to see how you feel being around your father. You’ve essentially cut off relations with him.

Unlike My Father: Yeah.

Yoffe: And for people who, you know, he neglected you emotionally and financially. That’s very painful. And I hear from a lot of people who are in your situation, and they have spouses, or friends, or other family members say, “Oh, you’ve got to reconcile and have”—trigger warning for horrible word—“closure,” which I really don’t believe in. So they put a burden on the child who was abused or neglected to heal this mess.

And that can come at great emotional cost. So, I think you’re absolutely right. You need to take your temperature about how you feel about being with your father; that’s the number-one thing. And that’ll tell you a lot.

Unlike My Father: Yeah, and the other thing is, I really don’t want to burden Tommy with this issue. You know, he’s going to see my dad eventually, even if it’s 10 or 15 years from now, and, you know, not knowing his grandfather from an early age, I think, would be a problem, as well.

And I just don’t think that their relationship is going to be so close that I would be concerned about them being together a lot.

Yoffe: Well, as you describe your father, it seems like he’s only capable of superficial relationships. So, that’s what he would have with your son. And a lot of how your son feels about this is going to come from cues from you. Grandpa will just be this older guy—let’s hope he’s nice, or kind of fun, or brings a gift—and your son is really young now. He’s not missing this grandfather; he doesn’t even understand the concept of him.

But over time—without trashing your father—you can just say, you know, “My dad was not very much in my life the way I am in yours. I don’t know. It’s weird. I don’t know him that well. You know, he lives far, far away. So I want you to get to know him, but he’s just not going to be a big presence.”

Unlike My Father: Yeah, that makes sense. That’s good advice.

Yoffe: And the other thing I liked that you mentioned in this letter is that your wife’s really on your side, and she’s saying, “I want to go by what you feel.” She’s saying, “I have a preference for our son knowing your father, at least, but I’m not pushing this phony kumbaya let’s hug and forget the past.” She’s letting you take the lead, which is really important, because I do hear a lot from spouses, who don’t really understand what that whole relationship was like and how painful it was, saying, “Oh, just make up and get over it.”

So it’s good that your wife is saying, “You take the emotional lead.”

Unlike My Father: Yeah, she’s been great. It’s interesting—she has a very good relationship with her parents, but, you know, she supports me ultimately. And I really do appreciate that.

Pesca: Well, it does sound like you have good support from all your family members but your dad. Maybe that’s what you need. Maybe that—as members of families, we could, you know, take one black sheep, but not more than one, and takes every other family member to unite and overcome the problems and the ripples that that person causes.

I don’t know that that’s true, but in your case, if it is true, you’ll find a way to forge ahead. So thanks so much.

Unlike My Father: Thank you both. Thanks, Mike, and thanks, Emily.

Pesca: Bye.

Yoffe: Thanks for calling.

Unlike My Father: Bye-bye.

Pesca: Well, Emily, I think this went well. I think we offered some good advice. You know, if the world reacts according to our expectations, things will be good.

Emily Yoffe writes the Dear Prudence column for Slate. Thanks so much, Emily.

Yoffe: Thank you, Mike.