Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dear Danielle

I hardly ever speak to my family, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
-Danielle, "Cutting the Ties That Bind"
Dear Danielle,

Thank you for this article.

While it would be terrific if all families were made up of caring, understanding, loyal individuals who loved and supported each other, that's not the case.  Many of us have that ideal somewhere in our minds, so when someone says "I haven't spoken to my brother in twenty years" or "Don't answer the phone, I never pick up for my father" or "My mom was a terrible mother," sometimes there's a lot of push-back.  Some people don't understand or can't accept that not all family members are good for each other.  They'll insist that you should reach out!  Patch things up!  He's your only brother!  Reconnect now before it's too late!  You'll live to regret it!

The example a friend of mine always brings up is Eminem.  He's said some terrible things about his mother, and there have been a lot of responses like: "You can't say that about your own mother!  What kind of awful human being says something like that about his own mother!"  As if despite the various problems he's mentioned (Munchausen by proxy, for starters), speaking ill of one's own mother is an unspeakable transgression.

There's a lot tied up in that.  The reverence our society claims to have for motherhood (when it's convenient).  The idea that we owe our parents something (everything) for conceiving us in the first place.  I think that a lot of people in the USA feel the need to cling to family especially because of our lack of a robust social safety net.  If we're cut loose from family, who else will take care of us?

Many families are great to each other, and that's a beautiful thing.  Other families are pretty good to each other, or at least can get along when necessary.  And then there are families where the bad outweighs the good, at least between some members.

Everyone has her own point where the balance tips.  Everyone can only take so much.  Sometimes you arrive at the moment when you realize that it's not worth it anymore.  You're not getting enough out of this relationship to make the pain and frustration and trauma worth it.

When people hear "I haven't spoken with my father in 15 years" and reply "That's a shame," yes.  Yes it is.  It's a shame that he's such a terrible father.  It's a shame that he's such a terrible person.  It's a shame that he'll never get to understand or appreciate what a fun, smart, compassionate person I am.  But I am not going to keep going back, trying to create a relationship with someone who isn't interested in having one with me.  I'm not going to keep throwing my time, energy, and emotion into a void based on a notion of "fatherhood" that's barely applicable anyway.

Insisting on some abstract notion of "sisterhood" based on mere biology is kind of rude to all of the people who genuinely work on their relationships and are good sisters to each other.  Insisting that the mere fact of biological fatherhood is owed some great loyalty is kind of rude to all of the people who put genuine effort into being good parents or caretakers or guardians.  A man ejaculates once, shows up a time or two after that, and isn't heard from in twenty years, but when he finally pops up, "You owe it to yourself to reach out to him!  You'll regret it if you don't!  He's your father!"  Never mind the stepfather (or single mother or foster parents or grandmother) who actually reared you with love and care.

As I said, everyone has her own point where the balance tips.  Different people have different levels of emotional energy and emotional resiliency.  Different people are more or less forgiving, empathetic, and tolerant.

If someone makes a decision to break ties with her family, that's up to her.

Let's stop paying lip service to the idea of motherhood and fatherhood and all of the rest of it.  Let's stop forcing people to honor destructive relationships just because we like to believe that there's some magical binding element in biology which makes blood ties intrinsically superior.  The reproductive process in and of itself does not make someone a good mother.  One particular moment of ejaculation will not make a man a good father; all of the rest didn't, did they?  The fact that two people share a common parent doesn't give them some sparkly blood link which unites them forever against all odds.

You know how feminists often explain that intent isn't magic?  Biology isn't, either.  It's just a matter of science and chromosomes and reproductive cycles.  That doesn't make up the social unit we call "family."  Love and loyalty and support and compassion and forgiveness and a lot of other sometimes pretty complicated things do.  And when those things aren't there, why stay in a relationship with someone who doesn't like you, doesn't want to understand you, treats you like shit, abuses you, and only deals with you because, technically, there's some biological link?

If it's not worth it to you, then it's just not worth it.

It's a shame that they'll never understand or appreciate what a great person you are.  I hope that there are other people in your life who do.

With love,
Frank Lee

P.S. This letter seems to have developed into something for everyone in general, not only you, Danielle.  Sorry about that!  I got carried away.

P.P.S. None of the examples above apply to me in particular.


  1. Hi! I cam from Shakesville. Thanks so much for this post, I struggle frequently with this, particularly the idea that since I am not capable of being the bigger person and forgiving my parents, that makes me a bad person. I had to come to a place where I know not everyone will agree with the choices that I make but that does not matter. I stand by them and they are right for me.

  2. Hello! I also wandered over from Shakesville. Thanks for the much-needed affirmation that parents aren't saints infinitely deserving of praise and support from their children no matter what they do to said children.

  3. Thank you both for your comments! It can be a rough subject for a lot of people. Popular cultural narratives push the idea of loving and forgiving family members no matter what, but people have to do what's right for themselves, no what's right according to TV movies.