Monday, September 8, 2014

Why I Don't Talk to My Dad (and Why it's OK!)

A lot of parents are "estranged" from their children when the kids grow up.  Why is this?

Living on retirement island, I get to see a lot of weird shit.   Most of the people I hang out with are much older than I am, often "old enough to be my parents" as they usually try to remind me.

I usually ask them, "So where are your kids today?" and I get an awkward silence and some hemming and hawing.   You see, these oldsters don't just act like a dick to me, but to their kids as well.   And many a time, it turns out they haven't seen or talked to their kids for years, perhaps decades.

Or if they do see their kids, it is when they drop off "The Grands!" - these magical beings called grandchildren, who are indulged in every way.  And while "The Grands!" are visiting, Grandma and Grandpa are sure to run down what rotten parents their own children are - right in front of their children's kids.

Like I said before, there's a lot not to like about old people.  And sadly, their numbers are rapidly rising.  In fact, I may become one someday myself!

But why do people distance themselves from their children, or vice-versa?

Well, maybe first it is relevant to ask the question, "Why is it considered 'normal' to have a relationship with your parents once you leave their household and set out to build your own family?"

You see, once you reach the age of majority, you are on your own, or at least should be.  Hanging around your parents' house and living off their handouts, well into your 30's is, well, kind of icky, as I have noted before.  And moreover, it acts as a blocking agent - preventing you from going out and seeking out your own life and your own goals (which typically, your parents will ridicule as unrealistic, as they don't understand "where all this computer stuff" is going anyway.  Like I said, taking career advice from anyone over 30 is suspect).

So maybe there is something in our DNA that programs our brains to break away at some point and say, "Gee, thanks for the breastfeeding, changing my diapers and the college tuition*, but I've got to go now!"

And maybe animosity between children and their parents acts to force the child to seek their own way and go out on our own.   None of our behaviors in this world are without explanation.   Usually there is some survival instinct involved.

There are also other factors.   You may grow up in a household with your parents and siblings, but discover, once you get older, that despite familial relationship (or because of it) you really don't like these people.

And this is particularly true if your family members were psychologically, physically, sexually, or financially abusive to you.   If you have a sister who is a drug addict and steals your silverware, chances are, you don't invite her over for Thanksgiving dinner (well, you did once, and she brought several of her homeless friends, who trashed the bathroom, and they spent all day in the basement doing drugs.  You laugh, it happened to one of our relatives!).   Being a punching bag for abusive people isn't a "duty" and saying idiotic things like "family is everything!" is just hurtful if you don't know the back story of the family involved.

My story isn't that dramatic.  My Dad married an alcoholic bi-polar manic-depressive closeted lesbian, who had a penchant for knife play.   I say that to some people and they laugh, thinking I am exaggerating my Mother's foibles.   But it is an accurate description of a woman who was very unhappy throughout her life - a woman who started trying to kill herself at age 16 (and never quite gave up!).

Of course, as a kid growing up, you don't realize these things, and you assume your parents are "normal" until you reach about age 18 or so and start to figure out that parents are just human beings like yourself, subject to all the human weaknesses in the world, and in fact they might not be as smart or astute as even you are, at that tender age.   And you might find yourself thinking, "Gee, if I wasn't related to these assholes, I certainly wouldn't hang out with them!"

And that's OK, too.

My Father was never quite comfortable with parental duties.  He had a strained and strictly disciplined relationship with his Dad.  He was not the kind of Dad to take us to the ballgame, or play touch football in the yard.  But he expected us to all be star athletes, nevertheless.  As children, we loathed him, and dreaded the hour when he would come home from work.  We usually managed to make ourselves scarce by then.  It seemed he was always angry at something - sometimes us.  So it was not like we ever had this warm-and-fuzzy Dad 'n Lad relationship at any time in our lives.   And that is sad.   I understand some Fathers actually like their kids.

My Dad also though himself a bit of a paramour, and when I was an adolescent, he would stay away from home for long periods of time.  Supposedly there was a mistress in Canada.   All I know is, I got stuck at home with crazy Mom, who would hit the bottle and then use whoever was around as a verbal or physical punching bag.   I was the only one at home.   Gee, thanks Dad!

But oddly enough, I felt sorry for them.  I started to realize what a wreck their marriage was, what a wreck my Dad's career had become (he was laid off at about age 55 and never worked again, which is not that unusual, particularly these days!).  And for a while, our relationship continued, based on my sympathy, and also on my setting certain ground rules for visits.   Bring your own car.  Leave if things get weird.   Refuse to tolerate abusive behavior.

Of course, they didn't like this.  Their other children were thoroughly cowed - still returning to the paternal trough for petty cash donations, well into their 50's.   My siblings were heavily into drugs (and still are, from what I can divine) and far-left politics.   They were more concerned about who was in the White House than their own personal well-being.   It was a bit of a dysfunctional family.   And as in most dysfunctional families, the more fucked-up you were, the more attention you got.   As a result, I was left alone most of the time.

My Mother came from a fairly wealthy family (first generation wealth, anyway).  My Grandfather came from a poor background, but worked his way through law school and became a successful attorney, representing the City Bank of New York, which you may know as Citibank.  He also moved to affluent Larchmont, New York, and became Mayor of that town.

When I was a kid, I used to sit in his lap and marvel at the quantity of nose hair he had.  He had diverticulitis and gout as well.   As the only lawyer in the family, I kind of know where my genes came from.   And unfortunately, he gave me the whole package.

Anyway, he managed to acquire an estate worth about $800,000 at his death.  As I noted, my Uncle tried to snag this using an unusual Will, which he coerced Grandma into signing.  My Dad went ballistic, and got her to sign a new will, and fortunately for both my parents, they ended up inheriting $400,000 when Grandma died.   This doesn't seem like a lot of money today, but back in the 1980's it was a considerable sum.  It allowed my parents to retire with some comfort, in addition to their own savings, Social Security, small pension, and equity in their home, which they cashed to build a "paid for" house.

My Mother put this money into a trust, as she was dying.  She called it an "anti-bimbo trust" as she was concerned that Dad would find some "floozy" who would take him for everything.   Sounds farfetched, but it did happen to a wealthy friend of ours.  Her alcoholic attorney Dad remarried a stripper named Tiffany, and when her Dad keeled over, Tiffany and her trailer park friends took over the family house and got everything - tossing family photo albums and mementos out on the lawn.  So Mom's fears were rational, to some extent.

It wasn't long before my Dad wanted to tap into the corpus of the trust.   My sister had passed away, leaving a small life insurance policy which would have paid off the mortgage on her house.  Her children were all grown and living on their own, except for one who was 15.   Although his Dad had a condo of his own, it was decided to "keep the house" for the children to live in, so it would be "less stress" for the kid.

Bear in mind this was right before the housing bust, and if they had sold the place, they would have realized enough cash to pay for the child's college, and give the other two a nice down payment on homes of their own.

The only problem was, the life insurance company would not pay out to a minor.   In contact law, any contract made by a minor can be voided by the minor once he reaches the age of majority, generally age 18.  So if they paid him, he could go back at age 18 and say, "Pay me again, the first time didn't count!" and it would be legal.

I tried to explain this to my family, but was told that "Insurance companies are just assholes!"  That is the sort of mentality we are dealing with here.

The insurance company suggested that someone be appointed guardian of the child, and that the guardian manage his affairs.  The insurance company could then send the guardian the check.  Seems like a logical idea, right?  I mean, the kid is a minor.  Maybe his Dad could handle it.  Or my brother, who was the executor of my sister's estate.

But my brother thought that going to court and being appointed guardian (which is routine thing) was a "hassle" and suggested instead that my Dad tap into the trust, to "loan" the money to my nephew, who would then pay Dad back in three years.  These sort of informal "loan" agreements in families are toxic, as in many cases, the loans never get paid back, and it creates all sorts of scenarios where some people get "loans" and others do not.

Would there be interest on this "loan"?  (of course not).  So even if "paid back" the trust would be minus the earnings from the loan amount.  It is hillbilly financing at its finest!

What's more, it was entirely unnecessary, as my brother could simply be appointed guardian and receive the check from the insurance company and use it to pay off the mortgage on the house (which again, was not really a smart idea, either!).

As the "trustees" of the trust, my Dad e-mailed my two brothers and I and asked whether we had any objections.  "If Nobody objects, then I will go ahead with [this cockamamie scheme]"

I said, "I object" and pointed out that hanging on to a house was foolish, as it could be sold now for a great profit.   One niece live in Oregon and had no use for the house.  The other was married and and had a house of his own.   It would be better for the nephew to live with his Dad rather than to hang out in a house that his Mom died in.

Moreover, I pointed out that tapping into the trust was not "necessary" to Dad's living expenses (which is supposed to be the only reason for tapping into the corpus of the trust) particularly when clear and simple alternatives were available.   I pointed out that if anyone needed a guardian, this kid did.  If my brother would get appointed guardian (or my Dad, or my Brother-In-Law) it would be a lot simpler and easier for everyone, and in the best interests of the child.

Finally, I pointed out that when the kid turned 18, he would be under no obligation to pay back this money, and if he chose to do so, he could just take the insurance company check and spend it on a new car or whatever.  He was not obligated to pay back my Dad, and there would be no way to legally induce him to pay back the money.

In response to this, my Dad says, "Well since nobody objects, I will proceed with [cockamamie scheme]"

And you can only guess what happened since then.

But what stuck me was that Dad was saying that I was nobody.  Bear in mind that of his four children, I was the most successful, the wealthiest, and at that point owned a real estate portfolio of over two million dollars (and made a million when I sold it all).  The opinions of my neer-do-well siblings, who wanted to tap into the trust because going to court was a "hassle" carried the day.

It was the final straw at that point.   I had already distanced myself from these people.  They clearly didn't like me and were not happy that I was successful while they struggled.  I didn't enjoy being around them at all, on the few occasions I would visit (and always, I had to visit them, they rarely visited me.)  They would sit around and bat about a lot of far-left victimhood platitudes about how America was awful and the corporations are running everything.  It was just painful to be around these losers.   (If you want a taste of it, rent the movie About Schmidt.  They've nailed it all, right down to directions on how to drive through Denver!)

 And now, to be called nobody by a bunch of, well, nobodies.

It was a lose-lose game.  Dad would always favor my other brothers over me, that was in the cards.  My opinions were not only not respected, but meant nothing.  Indeed, I was viewed as a nothing.  I was nobody.

So it was "Goodbye, have a nice life, be sure not to write!"   My Dad had remarried and had three new needy stepchildren to lord over.  And sadly, that is what a lot of parents want - to lord over the ruined lives of their children, who for one reason or another can't make it on their own.  Handing out money and advice is what many men think "being a Dad" is all about.   But really, it is the least part.  If you run down and disrespect (now an actual word!) your children, you do little more than cripple them, no matter how many monthly checks you send them.

My experience mirrors that of the oldsters I meet on retirement island - as well as all around the country.   Many parents enjoy the sport of running down their children's accomplishments and belittling their offspring.  So long as their kids are "damaged goods" and not as successful as they are, they are happy (despite all the platitudes about "wanting my kids to be more successful than I was!").  And the kids have other ideas - that perhaps the world they live in is dramatically different than the one their parents lived in, and that despite what Mom and Dad think is best, maybe a Liberal Arts degree in this day and age is not the right answer.

In other words, being "estranged" from parents or siblings isn't some aberration, but in most cases, the norm.   People change as they get older, and it makes no sense to continue a relationship that you have outgrown.   You dated a cheerleader in High School - for six weeks.   It didn't work out and move on.    That's OK.  It wasn't meant to be.   This crazy idea that relationships have to be maintained "at all costs" even when they are costly to you (and not to the other party) is just ridiculous.

But it is a trend in our culture.  Folks feel they need to have 500 "Facebook Friends" and that keeping friends is the most important thing in the world.   I realized, when I gave up on drugs, that I would have to distance myself from my drug friends.   You can't not use drugs and hang out with those who do.   I mentioned this on an online forum, and some suburban gansta wanna-be chided me for "ditching my friends".  But friends who abuse you (or drag you down) are not friends at all.  And the same is true for family members.

But sadly, many other people can't break free.  They fall into the Parent Trap, which was one of my first postings on this blog.   They go through life, living it to their parents' expectations, not their own.  And it is only when their parents are safely in the grave that they have a few short years of their own to be truly free.

You think I am kidding, but I am not.  I have met legions of people who are stuck like deer in the headlights, not living their own lives because "I have to do what my parents said" - and this is at age 40, not age 4.   When you explain to them that they are adults and they can do what they want to do, they look at you like you are speaking Chinese.   "I have to do what Mom and Dad said to do," they say, as if it were the law.

"Family is everything!" these folks say, while sending off a check to their brother ("It's MY money," they tell their wife).

And yes, Family is important - the family that you create - your spouse, your children. This is your primary obligation, once you are an adult.   Your childhood family is entirely secondary.  Your siblings should have gone out and found their own place in the world - and are not your responsibility to support in any way.  And your parents' advice is just that - advice, from people born in another era - and not to be viewed as rules on how to run your life.

But sadly, many folks fail to see this.  And their own marriages break up as a member of their childhood family acts as a third wheel, meddling into married life.  Many a wife has complained after marrying a "Momma's Boy" that they are always out-voted by their spouse - and his Mom.

Rather than ruin your own life and your own happiness, just walk away from toxic relationships.  You would not willingly befriend abusive people.  Why do it just because "They're family"?

* Well, two out of three ain't bad.  I had to work my way through 14 years of night school.  It was actually more fun than four years of someone else paying....

UPDATE 2020:  When people ask me where my parents live, I tell them, "Arlington.... Cemetery!"  Oddly enough, we had some trouble getting Dad in there as it turns out he did a George Bush and walked away from his Army National Guard obligations after the war and received a general discharge and not an honorable one.  Arlington didn't catch this the first time around when Mom went into the columbarium.   But since she was already in, they had to let Dad in as well.

It was sort of fitting and appropriate.  At Mark's Dad's funeral in Arlington, one of his fellow POWs told us how Mark's Dad saved his life in the prison camp by claiming he was Methodist - when the Germans were looking for Jewish POWs to send to special camp.   The contrast between the two Dads was, well, acute.