By Hara Estroff Marano, published on March 1, 2010 - last reviewed on May 4, 2010
I am 47 and divorced. Through a faulty legal system I "lost" my eldest daughter when she was 14. I was unable to afford a lawyer to fight for custody and her father sent her away to live with his brother. There was much animosity in my husband's family and his brother was an active alcoholic. Through his encouragement my daughter blamed me for the divorce and all the fault lines of our family. It has been six years since I saw my daughter. My husband and I and our remaining children reunited last year. Now 19, my oldest daughter refuses to speak to her father or me. He and her siblings have internalized their feelings, while I'm unable to even utter her name without my voice breaking. I blame my husband and a useless social service system and fantasize grievous revenge on my husband's brother. How do I get past the anger and sadness and move forward for my own sake and the good of my other kids?
You can't undo the past. And revenge is a waste of your emotional energy. You would be less inclined to dwell in the blindness of rage and the passivity of your fantasies if you took some active steps to connect with your "lost" daughter and repair some of the emotional damage done to everyone in the family, including yourself. No one will feel whole unless everyone feels connected.
Admittedly, you didn't inflict all of the emotional damage; a father who fights for custody and then ships a child off is not just abandoning his child but using her as a pawn to hurt his ex. No wonder your daughter refuses to speak to either of you. As parents, you both let her down. Her refusal is a measure of the deep disappointment she feels at having been betrayed by those entrusted with her care.
You can't control your ex's behavior, then or now. But you can do things on your own. You can let your ex know that you think it's more than time for healing some of the deep wounds in the family you and he created, and you would like his support in what you plan to do. Although your daughter refuses to speak to you, you need not refuse to be in touch with her. You can send email. You can send letters. You can make every effort to be and stay in touch, whether or not she responds. How else to demonstrate caring?
Without rehashing blame, you can let all the children know how much you regret what happened to your family and how it continues to haunt you. You can apologize for having felt unable to fight for custody, because of lack of money and lack of knowledge about the system. You can let them know how it pains you that you cannot undo the past, all the mistakes that were made, and the hurt everyone feels, but that you'd like to help create a better present and future for your family. Don't expect everyone to come rushing into your arms. You must keep up the contact even if your overtures are met with howls of skepticism or accusations of betrayal by a family whose ability to trust others has been seriously breached.