Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: My father is a very well-known physician in a highly specialized field. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, he wasn’t around much because of the demands of his work. I was not surprised when my parents got a divorce when the last of their kids entered high school.
Much to our surprise, Dad is retiring soon and teaching at a nearby medical school. The hospital where he works is planning a big goodbye party for him, including inviting his surviving patients. I plan to attend this event, but it will be hard.
I love my dad, I just don’t know him very well. Intellectually, I know he has contributed so much to his field and to his patients’ lives. But emotionally, it is hard for me to disconnect this contribution from his absence from my life. He was so busy being their doctor that he wasn’t being my father. Listening to endless rounds of speeches and genuine thanks from his patients is really hard for me. I think attending the party is the right thing to do, I just need some help getting into the right mindset.
On a different note, I am hoping my dad’s career shift means he might have more time for a relationship with me. Any tips for fostering that?
Child of Prominent but Absentee Father
You don’t need to “disconnect this contribution from his absence from my life.” I can think of no better host for contradictory feelings than an adult human body. Yes, this was the dad you barely knew. Yes, this is the dad who saved a roomful of lives. Yes, their gain was your loss. But it’s done.
Don’t go just because it fits some vague standard of the Right Thing to Do, but because your father is a part of you that you don’t fully know, and here’s a chance to learn a lot more all at once. Seeing your father through patients’ eyes – and seeing real patients versus imagining them – might move you forward. Think like a researcher, who is going just to observe, at a minimum, and who, if lucky, will come away with new insight.
Maybe you will only feel anger, and that’s OK, too. Think of it all as information toward making peace with yourself.
One caveat: His having more time might be a false promise — surely he can immerse himself anew in teaching — and if he does have more time, his using it on relationships might be beyond his emotional capacity. Don’t assume this, just be ready for it. To continue the think-like-a-researcher suggestion, pose this next stage of your lives together as a question you'll spend some time answering: He is who he is — and this applies to this new phase how?
Re: Absentee Father: And while you’re congratulating him at his retirement, say something along the lines of, will you have more free time now? I’d love to meet you for dinner or [insert other suggestion here]. Don’t declare the agenda of getting to know him at long last, just start with one thing and see what develops, the way you get acquainted with a new friend.
Perfect: Instead of inviting disappointment, simply invite him.
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