Q: I am a middle-aged man, married with children. Over the past few years, my father has become bitter and negative about life. He is critical of others and complains about all the people in his life, including me. I have the feeling that no matter what I do it’s never enough. I feel guilty for avoiding him at times, but he makes it difficult to spend time with him. My children have become reluctant to visit him as well. What do you suggest I do?
A: Parents. They keep therapists in business! All kidding aside, what you are bringing up is something I have heard from many clients over the years. Of course, without knowing more specific details about your situation, I can only express a few thoughts and hope that one or more can be beneficial for you.
There are two possible sources for guilt in this situation. One is religious guilt and feeling like you are failing to meet your obligations of honoring your father. The second is moral guilt. I am not a rabbi, so I cannot adequately address the first perspective. I would encourage you to ask your rabbi for guidance. (As an aside, I recently heard a psak that the obligation to honor one’s parents doesn’t apply when doing so will cause emotional harm to the child. Of course, each instance needs to be addressed separately.)
In terms of your internal guilt, I’d like to share a few thoughts. The first is that’s important to examine the relationship between your father’s feelings and your own happiness. Of course, we all want to please the meaningful people in our lives, but we can’t base our choices solely on the others. In fact, some parents, spouses, or children can be satisfied with the bare minimum, but that doesn’t mean we are doing enough in those relationships. Conversely, some standards are impossibly high to reach and we need to accept that the other person’s reaction doesn’t determine if we acted appropriately. People tend to judge themselves on unhelpful standards such as what they see others do, or a self-created standard that likely is rooted in a very subjective source. It might be helpful to sit down (perhaps with a spouse or rabbi) and try to examine how much time/energy you feel you are realistically capable of giving and try to commit to that while letting go of the outcome.
A second thought is dependent on how approachable your father is. Would it be possible to express your concerns to your father in a clear, respectful manner? Even if your initial thought is that he will immediately disregard whatever you say, often we don’t realize the possible future impact our words can have, particularly when they are said from the heart in a respectful manner.
Something else to consider is whether your father is suffering from depression. Although you haven’t mentioned her, is your mother in the picture? How is their relationship? Can you speak with her about what you are feeling and ask if she is concerned with him? Perhaps he would benefit from his own therapy. It is very common that when people transition to the later part of their lives that loneliness, sadness, or depression can begin to set in. There are many alternative options that can help as well, including daily programs and activities that exist in many of our communities geared towards the elderly to help ease the feelings of loneliness or depression.
I hope one of these suggestions can be helpful to your situation and I commend you for trying to do what’s right.