Ask Wendy

Jewish World Review August 28, 2002/ 20 Elul 5762

Family peace, but at what price?

By Wendy Belzberg | I receive a great deal of mail from parents and children who are estranged from one another. The circumstances always differ, as do the number of attempts at reconciliation. The bottom line is that no parent wants to die without having made peace with his or her child, and no child wants to be an orphan.

All I know for certain is that every individual must weigh the pain of separation from one's children or parents against the cost of reconciliation. Each situation stands alone. Whenever possible, I would advise finding some way to make peace. But not at any cost.

I have conflated several questions awaiting responses so as to address the matter from both sides of the divide.

Q: Seventeen years ago I divorced my first wife, the mother of my four children. There was another woman involved, and I took full responsibility for the breakup of our marriage. My children never accepted or forgave the other woman, to whom I have been happily married for the past 15 years. Two of my children never spoke to me again, and the other two just recently stopped speaking to me. The root of their anger dates back to something recently revealed that occurred during the divorce. It's been 17 years already, and I am in my 70s - do I continue to reach out and risk the pain of being rebuffed, or should I make my peace with things as they are?

A: Welcome to a very non-exclusive club, consisting of those of us who have made mistakes in life. Perhaps even unforgivable ones. If your own children can't forgive you 15 years after the fact, the burden now rests on their shoulders, not yours.

I have seen parents wittingly and unwittingly abuse their children. But I have also seen the converse: children who abuse their parents, reminding them daily - with words or with silence - of their many sins. It is time for your children to grow up and recognize that there is no such thing as a victim in a failed marriage. Being protective of their mother is natural and admirable - to a point. Then it is time to stop reacting to the past and decide what kind of life to lead in the future. Anger and resentment is a toxic cocktail. Your children have failed to move on, but at your age you do not have that option. Have you done everything you can to make peace? If so, and you can live with your decision, model the kind of behavior you wish for your children: let go.

Q: I am 40 years old. I am successful in my chosen career, and I have a spouse I love and happy children. I can't seem to make peace with my mother, however, who appears unable to accept that I am a grown man with a family of my own. She still buys me clothing - on sale, so I can't return it - and reminds me to send birthday cards, flowers and thank-you notes. She manages to push every one of my buttons practically the minute she walks in my door. I do realize that one day she will no longer be around and, in theory, I'd like to salvage our relationship. In practice, however, I avoid seeing her and have found every excuse not to do so for the past three years.

A: Ask yourself the following question: Am I reacting to current behavior or to years of the same behavior? Are you angry that your mother bought you a sweater yesterday or that she insisted on buying your wardrobe and dressing you when you were in high school?

I suspect your mother will always treat you as a child, but that does not mean that you can continue to behave as one. Being riled by your mother's aggressive behavior, sulking and refusing to see her are the responses of a child, not of a 40-year-old man. Put more brutally, it is not enough to be a grownup. Now you have to behave as one.

While your mother's behavior may push all of your buttons, it has no impact whatsoever on your children. Try easing your way to reconciliation by thinking of your mother purely as your children's grandmother. If she is kind, loving and generous to your children, you may be amazed by your ability to forgive - if not forget - her past transgressions. You are married with a family of your own. You no longer have to do - or dress - as your mother says.

Ask Wendy a question -- almost any question --- by clicking here.

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07/07/00: Hypocrites, reality checks, and the 'real estate challenged'


© 2002, Wendy Belzberg