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Carolyn Hax: Son doesn’t measure up to father’s country club expectations

Dear Carolyn: Through the years, my husband has learned to let go of the hopes and dreams he had for his son, that he would achieve financial and social success as my husband defines it: white-collar job, nice house, nice cars, wife and family, membership to country club, all the trappings that he has achieved for himself and that represent success to him.

His son, on the other hand, works in the restaurant trade (not in management), lives a pretty bohemian lifestyle but has never been in trouble with the law nor abused drugs; he’s a good person. Husband has never made it a secret that he feels son could have done better.

Son has never married, and at age 40 now finds himself the father of a child (he plans to take responsibility for the child).

We want to be a part of this child’s life. At this point, the only expectations my husband has of his son is that he respond to his efforts to contact him. To no avail. Son responds on his own timeline or not at all despite repeated requests.

My husband wants to draw a line in the sand over this. I think we should go with total capitulation for the sake of the future grandchild.

How can I be supportive of my husband (“Yes, I understand how frustrating this communication thing is for you”) but still make it clear that I will not take part in any “line in the sand” stance? This is creating tension between my husband and me.

– The Stepmother

Responses “on his own timeline” are not unique to sons of Type A fathers. People are overconnected now, and falling behind is an outgrowth of that.

That said: After needing the better part of 40 years just to accept his son for the utter disappointment he is, your husband is lucky he hears back at all.

Every time Husband expressed disappointment in Son, verbally or non-, for falling short of those country club standards, Husband sent the message that whatever Son was doing successfully on his own terms – i.e., being himself – wasn’t important. It’s that stark and that painful.

Now repeat that message, year after impressionable year.

Being treated as a disappointment shapes a person’s worldview, sensibilities, fears, ability to trust. The ripples are lifelong, with familiar patterns: Son does exactly what his father wants but is miserable doing it; or, Son follows his own path with an inner fire stoked by resentment of a father capable of loving only a carbon copy of himself; or, Son shuts down and drifts because the experience of making an effort is shackled to the sensation of letting his father down yet again.

Even in this cursory format, it seems safe to say Husband created a drifter. And sand-lines don’t impress them: What’s one more edict of Dad’s to blow off?

So seeing your grandchild will be fraught unless you can convey the futility of line-drawing. If you’re ready to take this on, explain to Husband there’s no way Son hasn’t been aware of his disappointment in him – and that if he wants Son to respond, then Husband needs to establish trust that he’s not judging Son anymore, he’s appreciating who Son is. Whatever comes.

Say that if he’s sincere about wanting a connection, as opposed to merely getting the obedience he still thinks he deserves, then you will help him be flexible, because you know how hard it is to go from giving orders to talking them.

If he balks, ask him at least to try things your way for a while, for you, so you can know this child. So you can help him be a grandpa. If it’s still no – or if you don’t even want to have this conversation – then you have to choose your priority, spouse or grandchild.

If you do manage to persuade your husband, though, be patient; everyone needs time to adjust when power changes hands. Ideally he will come around completely enough for you to suggest he apologize to his boy, for having such a fixed idea of who Son should be that he never let himself see how great he really is. Maybe he can finally meet the son he never let himself have.