A life reconsidered
Parents must sometimes work at supporting offspring who choose different paths
By Patti Carmalt-Vener 06/14/2012
My husband and I have one child, Ally, 23. Although she’s smart and always did well in school, raising her was sometimes difficult. We even had to bail her out of jail once for disorderly conduct. When psychological testing confirmed she had no serious disorders, we just told ourselves she was high-spirited. We were thrilled when she was accepted into a prestigious East Coast university and, even though she became less communicative with us and her tuition put us into debt, we didn’t care what career she chose as long as she was happy.
Ally came home this past weekend for a surprise visit. Not only did she bring along a boyfriend we’d never met, but we also learned that she left school two months ago and is five months pregnant. It’s obvious this young man cares for Ally, but he’s just not equipped to raise a child. My husband and I are devastated. As much as we love her, we’re enraged she has destroyed her life and turned into such a disappointment. She always has to do things her way and never listens to us. She has gone too far this time.
How extremely painful to invest your resources, care and energy — as well as your love, hopes and dreams — to give Ally a good life, only to have her reject that guidance and pursue a different path. While it’s important to stay true to your feelings of disappointment and anger at the reality that has been thrust upon you, it’s equally important that you try not to alienate your daughter in the process. You and your husband might want to seek professional help for support in both listening to your own feelings and, at the same time, listening to Ally.
How did you and your cherished girl become so far apart that you haven't communicated in her time of need? As bewildering as it is to accept the unsettling choices she has made, I urge you not to give up on her or cut off contact, even if you think she’s making a terrible mistake. Although you brought Ally into the world with a high set of expectations and can’t see any good coming out of her current situation, the reality is that she’s no longer a child and, thus, the irreversible decisions she has made as an adult make them hers alone. You may not feel the same authority over her as before, but she is carrying her own child and will need your love, insight and compassion now more than ever.
I realize that you’re worried about her happiness and security, but even if it’s terribly difficult, making mistakes may be necessary for her to learn and experience life’s lessons. With warmth and empathy, try to be a positive force by separating from your daughter’s personal problems without emotionally separating from her. Support her to find her own satisfaction, love, commitment, self-sufficiency and achievements. This situation could, in fact, become a wonderful stepping-stone to better communications. If, for example, she feels she can express to you who she really is and what she really wants, she may feel comfortable sharing with you why she chose this particular young man and whether they’re together out of genuine love or because an accidental pregnancy forced them into a commitment neither one was really ready for. Conversely, you may be able to express your social, educational and moral values without her getting defensive and shutting you out.
It’s difficult to know everything Ally is going through, but for the sake of enjoying an ongoing relationship with her, accept that she is not meant to reflect, affirm or complete you, nor is she meant to repay, absolve or fulfill you. She’s meant to live her own life, make her own mistakes and learn from them. Respecting her right to independent choices and valuing who she is as an individual may be hard but it’s absolutely necessary. Ally sounds like an intelligent girl, but she’s still an embryo of a woman whose next destination — including whether she returns to school or educates herself in other ways — has yet to be determined. Her life doesn't have to be destroyed; her womanhood has actually just begun.
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.