I am a nearly 30-year-old woman, and the only child of two parents with whom I have had my ups and downs. But it seems like relations are finally starting to settle. With my father especially though, I am constantly reminded that he does not think of me or treat me like an adult. We’ve had family issues surrounding one of my grandparents lately, and Dad does not tend to include me on any of the information, much less the decisions made within the family. Mom is much better about this, and proactively includes me in both information and decisions.
I’ve noticed recently that he also tends to exclude or discount his sister (my aunt), and my mother from conversations sometimes. And many of our arguments within the family stem from situations where he treats me as though I’m still a child he can command or instruct to do as he pleases.
How do I get my father to realize that I am neither under his thumb nor someone he can exclude from family choices and information? I am an adult in every other aspect of my life. I realize he may never think of me as anything other than a child, but if there’s something I can do to make this situation better, I’m willing to try it.
Is it just that I’m a female? If I were married with a child of my own, would his opinion change?
A Frustrated Daughter
Dear Frustrated Daughter,
I wish I had a definitive answer for you. I don’t. I do know that parents (and fathers in particular) often have a hard time recognizing that their children are adults. Some of this is simply the price of doing business as a parent. Your kids are always your kids. My father sees me as a competent adult in many respects. But he’s also capable, in stressed moments, of treating me like a child.
I realize the situation with your father is more extreme. But it’s important to recognize that some of this pattern is an inevitable part of the arrangement. Parents are used to wielding power over their children. And in many instances, exercising this power is a way of holding on to the psychic experience of the parent-child bond. Unconsciously, if a parent accepts that his child is an independent adult, he feels his sense of purpose and power in the world diminish.
Your letter also mentions that there have been some “issues” with one of your grandparents. You don’t specify what this means, exactly. But I suspect these are health issues, and if the grandparent in question is your one of your father’s parents, I can see why he might behave in a proprietary fashion. In his mind, this is his problem to deal with. Let’s remember, too, that he may be experiencing some form of same dilemma you describe. That is: having to prove to his parents that he’s enough of an adult to take charge of the situation.
Am I making excuses for your dad? Heck no. I’m trying to understand where he’s coming from.
The best way to compel anyone to treat you like an adult is -- wait for it -- to behave like an adult.
Is there also some chance that our good friend The Patriarchy plays into all this? Heck yes. The fact that your father is dismissive of other women in your family suggests that he harbors a certain reflexive masculine entitlement, one he probably grew up with. To his way of thinking, men’s opinions may simply matter more than women’s. And that may go double for dads and daughters, given the parental power dynamic cited above.
So. What can you do?
Again, I don’t know your dad. But the best way to compel anyone to treat you like an adult is — wait for it — to behave like an adult. I’m not trying to be flip. I simply mean that your own conduct is usually the most powerful determinant in how people treat you.
If you want your father to include you in the dissemination of information and/or the making of decisions, you should express these wishes in a polite but direct fashion. If he disregards you, or forgets, you should politely and directly remind him. If he pushes back, you should explain your reasoning (i.e. “I love grandma, too. I want to know what’s going on with her, and to offer my counsel.”)
In other words, I don’t think you have to confront your father with some variety of the “Hey, dad, I’m a grown up now!” speech. My sense is that such declarations tend to assert a wish, rather than demonstrating a capability.
As for the question of whether having a child will make your father respect you more as an adult, I suppose there’s some chance. But my own experience was that having a child forced me to grow up in many ways, and I stopped worrying so much about my parents, mostly because I was so busy worrying about my child.
I don’t know if that’s helpful, but it is true.
Author's note: Again, I’m at a disadvantage here. I’m a guy. And I sense that the experience of other daughters would be more instructive for Frustrated Daughter. So I exhort any daughters reading this to send along your counsel in the comments section. And when you’re done with that, send along a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.
Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.