I feel excluded from my father’s life. How can I make things better?

Annalisa Barbieri
·5-min read

I am a woman in my thirties struggling to accept I may not have a place in my father’s life. My brother and I lost our mother when we were children; she was the love of my father’s life, and my brother and I adored her. For four or five years, we were a close family of three.

When we were teenagers, my father met his current partner and understandably his priorities changed. His new relationship became his focus. I moved away to university not long after, and have lived away since.

For the past 10 years, I have felt excluded from my family; I am either not invited to events, or discouraged from attending. My father has never been a gushingly proud parent, but when I do visit and we are with the rest of the family, he seems uninterested in me.

When the two of us spend time alone, things are great. He came to visit me for the first time in years at the start of last year, after I admitted to him how his behaviour made me feel. We spent two days talking about politics, travel, my mother; all things he says he doesn’t often get to talk about at home. However, this hasn’t happened since, despite repeated invitations on my part. It’s as if I’m dealing with two different people.

I am in a loving relationship, and have a career I enjoy. But I am worried that I still view myself as a “daughter” within the original family unit, rather than starting my own. Should I repair the relationship, or cut my losses and focus on the other parts of my life?

Your letter made me sad; you sounded like the little girl you once were who lost her mum, and now feels she’s lost her dad. It’s perfectly OK to feel the way you do. Don’t run away from these emotions or dismiss them: it will just take longer to feel better. Face them, allow them, absorb them: they have value. I wonder how much any of you grieved for your mother? I’m sorry you lost her so young. (It’s not too late for bereavement counselling: try Cruse.org.uk.)

I consulted psychotherapist Geoff Lamb, (psychotherapy.org.uk) who reiterated that you haven’t done anything wrong (so no need to “repair” the relationship with your dad). We wondered how your father’s new relationship was handled when you and your brother were teens; it doesn’t sound as if it was madly inclusive, and that was the adults’ responsibility to get right.

Lamb pointed out that the feeling you have of your dad being two different people is probably spot on: “When he’s on your territory he can be Dad again, but can’t when he’s at home.” I wondered – and this is not your fault – if you reminded him of his former life; we thought he may find it easier to avoid all those memories. That’s not great for you, but it may be coming from a place of self-protection for him, rather than any rejection of you.

However, I understand you need your dad. There’s also nothing wrong with seeing yourself as a daughter: that’s who you are, and we can have many different roles.

One of my friends often gives me this sensible piece of advice when I’m highly emotional about a situation: “What can you practically do?” It’s a wonderful focusing technique, because in among the wishes and fantasies we have about what should/could/might happen, it brings you back to what’s actually possible. We weren’t sure how those “repeated invitations” were worded but Lamb suggested that, sometimes, “the difficulty is that people don’t want to commit [to a vague request] because they don’t know what they’re committing to, so be positive in your approach and be specific eg: “‘When I spent that time with you, I really enjoyed it’ and ask if you could meet up every X weeks/months, whatever is workable (outside of lockdown, of course).”

Related: A younger man has befriended my grandmother. I worry he’s a threat

The risk is that your father doesn’t comply, and I know that will hurt. “It’s painful if your dad doesn’t give you what you want,” says Lamb. “But it’s better to say what you do and risk [not getting] it than having the pain of what you’re currently going through.”

One final thought: you didn’t mention how you get on with his new partner, and I wondered if there was an “in” there at all? Although it’s not up to you to do the work, if it means you get to see your dad more often, that may be something to consider. Ultimately you can only do so much. The rest is up to your dad.

• Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to ask.annalisa@theguardian.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see gu.com/letters-terms.

Comments on this piece are premoderated to ensure the discussion remains on the topics raised by the article. Please be aware that there may be a short delay in comments appearing on the site.