Question: Seventeen years ago I divorced the mother of my four children. After a heated divorce lasting several months, we agreed on things and split up legally. Throughout the proceedings, my wife used my children as weapons against me, and I spent the next several years listening to insult after insult from my children, driven from their mother. Under no circumstances will I paint the picture that I was the perfect angel, but I never expected or deserved what I got from them.
My work had me out of state for the last seven years. During that time, I had little to no contact with my children. I came back home in December and quickly tried to rebuild my relationship with my children, thinking that now, as adults, they would be able to see that my love for them never died. I lent them money, I bent over backward to spend time with them.
Last weekend I visited my 28-year-old's Facebook page to discover she has now declared her stepfather "Navy Dad for life." She bought him the T-shirt, took the picture, and posted it.
Needless to say, I was devastated. My plans to visit her were canceled as a result. She sent me text messages telling me that I had no reason to be upset and that I would never hear an apology from her. The next day, my ex sent me a text telling me that SHE in fact had bought the T-shirt for her husband, and that I should lighten up on our daughter.
First of all, what business does my ex have buying that T-shirt? Second, how do they justify hurting me like this without taking any responsibility for their actions?
My daughter deploys next month and I don't want her to leave under these conditions, but I will NOT stand for the disrespect from her. All four of my children are not speaking to me over this (all driven by their mother).
Answer: You've been in parental purgatory for 17 years, and you're planting your flag on a lousy T-shirt. And now that I've said that, are you going to blame me, too, for your tattered bond with your kids?
I can't know what happened in those crucial months before, during, and after your divorce, but I have no problem believing that one parent would try to poison the kids against the other. But blaming your ex-wife for your overreaction to the T-shirt, and the resulting re-estrangement from your kids, is so far over the line you're off the field and halfway to the parking lot. You own this debacle, sir, from beginning to end.
It is an unfortunate fact chain that rejection leads to hurt feelings, which often lead to reflexive acting-out, which usually leads to further rejection. You're living this chain, with your unhealed wounds from 17 years ago resulting in oversensitivity to perceived slights - your latest outbreak of which has your kids sprinting to distance themselves from you. I have no doubt you've lived other versions of this cycle in the years since your divorce.
And who provided a steady, paternal presence throughout? Their stepfather, apparently; if true, then he has earned your kids' high regard.
That doesn't mean there's no place for you. What you want is some sort of warm, functional interaction with your kids - understandably - and there's more than enough room for that.
So I urge you to act understandably in another sense: Behave in a way your kids can actually understand, relate to, embrace. Be kind to them, be patient, be reasonable to the point of pessimism in your expectations, be forgiving to a fault, be thick-skinned where your wont is decidedly thin.
Be the first to accept blame instead of the first to lob it. Be the father they've accused you of failing to be.
Stop blaming your ex long enough to notice that she handled the Great T-Flap of 2011 in an exemplary way. She came forward, took responsibility for her role in it, and protected her child. Do the same. Step forward, now, and tell your daughter you take full responsibility for overreacting to the shirt. Un-cancel the visit. Let her know you've been duly reminded that you have healing and learning to do.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org.