HI, CAROLYN: I think my question is about potential regret. My father (I'm in my 40s now) was never around much growing up. He worked a lot and moved us a lot for his work, with his final move being across the country and a divorce. Now that I have kids, he wants to be "involved." He manages OK with my kids, though they aren't terribly comfortable with him because he's somewhat controlling and critical. He's extremely critical of me. He's one of those people with no filter: He'll point out how gray my hair has gotten or how old my sofa is. He says I need to make more of an effort to see him or I'll regret it. But will I? He's not deliberately cruel, but he's not nice to be around, either. I think I'd be happy to just drift away, but he won't let that happen because it's not what he wants, and he'll happily put me in the role of the bad guy if it suits his agenda. I don't know what I'm asking other than, how can I break free without being the bad guy? I don't want my kids to think family is disposable, but I also don't want them to think that the way he treats me is acceptable. I feel stuck. Please help!
Never "Daddy's Little Girl"
NEVER "DADDY'S LITTLE GIRL": I think your question is about a self-centered father who knows his power is diminished and uses the leverage he has left — guilt, criticism, control, threats! — to manipulate you.
So, my advice:
Seize the bad-guy mantle yourself. Beat him to it. Fashion it out of the finest fabrics in a color that brings out your eyes, and wear the hell out of it, and don't lose a moment's sleep when you're done.
If you don't want to see him, then don't.
If you don't want to cut him off but don't like his idea of "involved," then set your own terms for him to take or leave.
If you don't like his criticisms, then suggest he can either sweeten up or go home. Engage when he's kind, disengage completely when he uses or defends cruelty.
You're right — family isn't disposable. Nor is it just DNA. So show your kids what it looks like to refuse to be treated as such. Show them your father will not, will no longer, have license to treat you as ornaments for his own ego and needs.
It appears he's never had a filter, but let's say it's a recent enough development to be a symptom. For the sake of argument, let's say his being diminished now is not a matter of ordinary life circumstance, but of illness or decline.
Even in that case, a firm command of boundaries — bad-guy readiness — is essential. The adult child of a controlling parent or a sick one has a job to do and is winning zero popularity contests.
That's OK though. Being the bad guy, if done right and for the right reasons, can feel awfully good.
If the idea of that is just inconceivable to you, then I hope you'll consider taking the whole father issue to therapy. It's hard to rewrite decades of emotional and family programming. It's not impossible, however — and what a gift to yourself and your kids.