Carolyn Hax: Kids cut off mom over stepfather’s ‘harsh’ parenting


Dear Carolyn: I’m in the throat of a real dilemma with no good choices. I went through a nasty divorce when my kids were little and remarried pretty hastily. My husband brought his son into the marriage.

My husband took it upon himself to help discipline all the kids and tended to have a temper and be tough. There was shouting but no physical abuse.

Rinse 30 plus years in advance. My kids are in therapy and blame my husband for their unhappy childhood and I that I did nothing more to prevent it. I’m in therapy too, because I never realized it was that bad, and I apparently no longer have a relationship with my daughters and son. However, I get along with his son, his wife and their two children. Mother’s Day came and went: crickets.

My kids feel like I never chose them when they were younger, but just wanted to keep the peace with my husband. Short of separating from him, I (and my therapist) do not know how to make it better. But I do not want to be alone, that’s probably why I got married so quickly.

I can not undo what was done and wish we could move forward, but I do not know how. Please be straight with me: What will you do?

Damned If I Do…: I hope I will own what I did.

I hope I will apologize to my children for not protecting them.

I hope I will admit to them that my fear of being alone was in control, more than my parental instincts, and that I did not have the courage to risk my own security to insure theirs.

I hope I will admit that I failed them in this most fundamental way.

I hope I will now be able to tell them, without a doubt, that I understand my failure has led to their verbal and emotional abuse at the hands of their hurried, poorly chosen stepfather. That a steady diet of “temper”, “loud” and “screaming”, especially for a child, is abuse. No hitting needed.

I hope I will tell them that I did not see it clearly then, but I see it clearly now, and I will not spare it.

I hope I will tell them that I love them and understand that they need to find their own ways to make peace with their childhood. That if keeping their distance from me is their best chance at healing, then I accept it.

I hope I will tell them my door and heart are always open to them no matter what.

I hope I will stop setting it to myself as ‘no good choices’ because possessing our behavior and its consequences is always a good choice, even when it hurts like hell.

And I hope I will find a way to forgive myself.

I say “I hope” these things because I appreciate first person and, on an intestinal level, the self-protective measures that our minds take when we are dealing with soul-crushing hard truths about ourselves. I can not say with certainty that I will have it in me to fully possess this truth. But I hope I would.

If you can do that, you will have jumped from hindered by fear to braver than most.

You say your children “blame” you – but that guilt is the template for your salvation. They spelled out the excuse they needed. There is no dilemma; just give it to them in full. (Under the care of a new therapist, if you got everything out of this one.)

It may not get your kids back, but getting yourself back also matters.

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