In 1995, I gave up my parental rights to a child I fathered so that she could be adopted. At the time, I reasoned the child would do better in a two-parent home. Now, my daughter is twenty-one and would like to contact me. Here are my biggest concerns:
1. Conversing with my wife of the last seventeen years. She feels resentment toward me regarding this situation. How do I reassure her and get her to talk through her feelings?
2. When I do speak with my daughter, how should I proceed? If she asks why I gave up my parental rights, how do I explain it to her?
3. How do I introduce my daughter to my family and friends, and field all the questions that will come?
You’re swimming in some deep waters at the moment. I imagine it must feel pretty overwhelming to have so much of the past, present, and future tossing in and around you simultaneously. I’m glad you would reach out for some companionship. None of us makes it alone.
There are no easy answers to your questions, but let me reflect for a moment with you in hopes of giving you friendly support more than simple prescriptions.
1. Talking with your wife. You say she feels resentful. You ask, “How can I get her to talk?” You can’t. All you can do is offer a safe place. It’s up to her to take advantage of it. I’m interested in the fact that you believe she is feeling resentment. I’d encourage you to reflect on anything in your past or present behavior that would contribute to that emotion. Have you been emotionally unfaithful? Does she fear that your daughter will compete for your limited emotional availability? Or is she concerned that you have unresolved feelings toward your ex—and might be drawn that direction? One of the ways you can create safety for your wife is to acknowledge things you have done that might contribute to her resentment (if that’s what she is feeling). By offering that acknowledgement, you will validate her feelings and help her know she can safely share them with you.
It is also possible her resentment stems from trauma or fears she has that are unrelated to you. Your response to that would be the same—to validate her feelings. You needn’t take the “blame” for her feelings in either case. Her feelings are hers, not yours. Even if you have contributed to them. Your actions are yours; that is what you need to own. But in all cases, let her know you care about how she feels and are willing to hear and empathize with her regardless of what she is feeling. Your goal is not to make her feelings “go away.” It is simply to witness them and stand by her in them.
2. Talking with your daughter. Don’t overthink the conversation with your daughter. Just as with your wife, your job in this conversation is simply to begin a relationship, not fix her feelings. You don’t need to defend yourself. You don’t need to control her feelings. You have no idea where she is emotionally. And where she is when she arrives is no predictor of where she’ll be in the second, third, or tenth meeting. She may show up resentful, curious, needy, open, hurt, or compassionate. You need only be vulnerable and honest. Ask her what topics she would like to explore. Let her know if there are things you’re not yet able to deal with. Take it a step at a time. If the time comes that she asks about your decision to surrender your parental rights, be honest. The only truth that could hurt her is her misperception that your decision means anything about her. Tell her what it meant about you. Tell her about you twenty-one years ago. Tell her how you feel about the decision in hindsight. She may choose to personalize your choices—and assume they have implications for her own lovability or worth—but she can do that as easily without you as with you. Give her the best chance of separating your choices from her worth by being honest.
3. Talking with others. Answering questions from others will only be awkward to the degree you are uncomfortable yourself. If you feel a need to project a false image of yourself, you will be anxious about questions. If you have accepted the truth about your past and present, you will show up that way when questions arise. Here’s the truth: You made some right and wrong decisions in the past. You have a precious twenty-one-year-old daughter. Your life is complex. Accept it. Find the beauty and truth in it. When you do, your anxiety about presenting it authentically to others will disappear. If others have judgments about your past choices, you must decide if you are willing to let your peace be a product of their approval.
These momentous conversations offer you the possibility of greater growth and a more abundant life. You have my best wishes to that end!