Dear Prudence

My 19-Year-Old Daughter Ghosted Us

Prudie’s column for April 13.

A mother on her phone worries and her daughter stressed in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by AntonioGuillem/iStock/Getty Images Plus; alexeys/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Prudence,

Our 19-year-old daughter decided to ghost us. She goes to college eight hours away from our home. We set her up in a dorm, paid her tuition, sent her money, and talked to her almost every day. After she complained about her roommates, we agreed she could move to a more independent-style dorm the next year. She then told us she was staying at school for a summer internship (turning down a good internship in our hometown to do so). When we traveled with her siblings to surprise her for her birthday, we were shocked to find out that she did not live at the address she gave us. After a number of calls, she finally told us she had moved out and started living with a guy she met at a coffee shop near campus. We took her to dinner and said we wanted her to stay safe and focus on finishing college. We tried not to show our anger and disappointment, but she refused to tell us anything about the guy—not even his last name.

She said she would continue school and would work to pay her share of the rent. We tried to talk to her about her options and not rushing into adult responsibilities. She agreed to come home after her internship and spend two weeks with us. That was a year ago. Since then, she’s taken all the money we ever gave her out of her bank account. We had to cancel her credit card after she maxed it out. She doesn’t speak to any of us, even her old and ailing grandparents. We all call and text her almost weekly, but the only time she ever responded was a message about her health insurance (we are still paying for her health insurance and cellphone).

For me, her silence is painful, being her mother. I cannot imagine what I, her father, or any of us did for her to callously disconnect from her family. When people ask me how she is doing, all I can say is she’s well, and then I want to sit somewhere and cry. We saw on Facebook that her boyfriend is 26, not in school, and works at a hardware store. He also has posts of him smoking pot. She now has two jobs and is still enrolled in college. I am sad because that is not the college experience that I was hoping for her. At this point it’s hard to pretend like I don’t care because I do, and I miss her beyond words. I am making excuses to her brothers and sisters and grandparents when they want to know why she doesn’t want to be a part of our family anymore.

—Ghosted by Our Grown Daughter

I’m so sorry for the pain and bewilderment you’re experiencing right now. The good news, as you say yourself, is that your daughter is safe and well. No, she’s not having the college experience you envisioned for her, but she’s working hard, (mostly) supporting herself financially, and still attending classes. And while you might not have chosen this particular boyfriend for her, she’s healthy and functioning and has made the choice to continue living with him.

I hope you will stop pressuring yourself to come up with cover stories when family members ask you about your daughter. If her siblings are very young, I wouldn’t encourage you to be overly blunt, but you don’t have to make up excuses. You can simply and truthfully say, “Sometimes people pull away or need space, and they don’t always tell us why. I don’t know why [Sister] is distant right now, and it does hurt, but I hope someday we can talk about it, and I’ll be here for her when that day comes.” If friends ask you about her and you feel like going off to cry, please give yourself permission to do so. You have every reason to be sad about this, and you shouldn’t always try to mask your grief—find appropriate outlets for it, and let it out. Please consider seeing a therapist. Not so you can find someone else to explain why your daughter has pulled away, or agree that you’ve never done anything that might merit her sudden silence, but so you can honor your own grief and figure out what you need to do in order to build a life that’s relatively serene and useful whether or not your daughter answers your calls. You should also scale back on how often you try to contact her. Since she almost never responds, it’s a counterproductive habit that doesn’t actually get you what you want and probably just increases your agitation and stress.

I have no idea if your daughter is going through a rebellious and insensitive phase that she’ll later regret or if there are more serious reasons behind this estrangement. It may be that, as you and your therapist go deeper into the history of your relationship with your daughter, you’re able to identify parts of the story you want to take responsibility for or can acknowledge you did something harmful. That doesn’t mean it’s your job to assign immediate blame to yourself. But since you’re not going to be able to force answers out of your daughter, the most productive source of insight is going to be your own memory and your own psyche.

Dear Prudence,

I am the sole guardian of my grandchild, who just turned 19. She came out as trans at 17. We have been to counseling, and she has started hormone replacement therapy. She wants vaginoplasty as soon as she is able but is a very active college freshman. I am thinking this summer or next, after her sophomore year, if we want to get it accomplished before she is off to a four-year college and while she is on my insurance.

We don’t go often to counseling because she doesn’t have much to say and doesn’t feel she needs it. Her medical program does occasionally have mandatory counseling sessions, and we each spoke to the counselor separately. She told the counselor that she desperately wants the surgery. She has always described herself as uninterested in sex and romance and told the counselor that she doesn’t need the vaginoplasty. I am concerned that she is and has felt asexual because of not feeling herself in the body she was born into. I want to urge her to have the vaginoplasty because she may eventually be in a relationship where she wants to be sexual with her partner in that way, and she is young—my understanding is that going back to have the surgery later is more difficult.

I tried to talk to my sister about it, and my sister freaked out and told me there should be no talk of surgery in case my granddaughter changes her mind. Obviously, when we speak to a surgeon I will mention my concerns to my granddaughter, but I am not sure how strongly I should advocate. I do know that she struggled with her decision to transition for years before confiding in me, so I believe she has lived with this decision for a long time. Am I plowing forward too much by thinking and working through the logistics of surgery? My sister’s thought shook my confidence a bit.

—Concerned Grandparent

I’m a little confused by your second paragraph. It’s unclear to me if your granddaughter told the counselor two conflicting things about her feelings about vaginoplasty or if you believe her to have told the counselor one thing, then something different to you. Either way, I think you should set aside matters of convenience and timing, and don’t push your granddaughter into moving ahead if she’s still contemplating her options and making up her mind, especially not on the strength of feelings of future partners. Her feelings about her own body should always take precedence over a future hypothetical partner’s. And they should certainly take precedence over your sister’s preference for taking as few steps as possible to preserve a hypothetical future where your granddaughter decides to detransition.

Encourage your granddaughter to see the counselor again—without you, if you think she’d be more likely to speak up in a private session—and let her set the pace when it comes to scheduling surgical consultations. You do not need to worry that if she puts this off she’ll be risking her health; vaginoplasties are performed safely on women of all ages. Don’t make yourself responsible for advocating either for or against anything. Just make sure your granddaughter knows that she has your trust and support no matter what she decides to do next.

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