Like Words Together Reflections from the deep end of Practice.


The Family We Choose

In my 20s I was involved with someone, A, who had a daughter, DW, with a friend of his. It wasn't planned and he didn't really want to be a father. In fact, I only found out about her after he and I had been going out for a while. There came a time when her mother wasn't capable of providing a secure home for DW and A felt pressured to step in to obtain custody.

It was a rather quick, but unpleasant custody battle. In the middle of it all A and I got married. DW became my step-daughter when she was 4 and I was 25. DW hardly ever saw her biological mother again. Ultimately DW's mother committed suicide when DW was 14.

When I was 30, despite enormous misgivings around DW's well being, I decided that the relationship between her father and I was really unhealthy for me. I also felt that the unhealthy state of the marriage was not a good environment for DW. I was desperately depressed and my anxiety was so intense that I'd gone on medication for it.

DW was devastated by this change of events. We talked about it and she wanted reassurance that I wasn't divorcing her. She felt like it was her fault, as children often feel during a divorce. I let her know over and over again that the problems were between her father and I, that it wasn't her fault, and that I would do my best to remain a part of her life.

Things were really hard for a while, a few years in fact. DW spiraled into all kinds of unhealthy behavior. I kept trying to get through to her that while she was a minor my being her "Mom" was wholly contingent upon her father going along with it. That her choices were jeopardizing any help I could offer, particularly if she were injured in any way. I was heartbroken when I finally told her that she had to live with her father for a time until she could have honest communication with me. She was furious.

While she was living with her father DW ran away. She was 13.

I was utterly, completely devastated and as an adult who was not her biological nor adopted parent, and having divorced her father no longer even a step-parent, I had no legal recourse to demand to be involved in all that followed she was eventually picked up by the police. I was convinced that it was all my fault. I felt like the worst person in the world for having so grievously failed DW. More than anything else that I've been through in my life, these events are what finally drove me to seek therapy.

I would barely see or hear from DW for a few years. The incredibly strained relationship with her father meant that he quite often didn't think it was important to share information with me. When she was closer to leaving mandated treatment and group home I was asked to join a meeting with the DW and her father. She was incredibly angry when I said that I wasn't ready to just open my home to her unless she could agree to adhere to some ethical behaviors. When she left treatment at 16 she went back to live with her father and saw me infrequently.

DW made a dangerous choice in her life when she was 18. Once again it was terribly painful for me to watch her while she struggled. Even more painful to try and set my own boundaries knowing that DW felt let down by my response.

Now she's just about 5 months shy of her 21st birthday and has completely turned her life around. It admirable and a great joy to see her grow into the ethical, responsible, compassionate human I would glimpse often during her childhood. We've grown a lot closer this past year and it has meant so much to me to share her life. I feel very proud for her accomplishments, all the hard work she's done to be person she chooses to be now.

Now that DW's an adult I've shared more with her, opened up about things she felt I was withholding from her as a child. I admit to her honestly that I was withholding, but not because I didn't think she was old enough to know or didn't trust her. It is a relief to me that she is able to understand that I withheld things from her because I didn't want to color her young mind with my feelings toward her father. I wanted to treat DW and her father ethically, no matter how painful it was for me to have her feel like I wouldn't talk to her.

DW still calls me "Mom" and has told me that I'm the only one who really tried to be her mother. She just refers to her biological mother by her name, never "mom". Neither of us bother to explain our complicated relationship to people when they exclaim at the idea that I could have a nearly 21-year old daughter. If I'd had her when I was 20 it would be true. I didn't, but that doesn't really matter to either of us. We are the family we choose to be and that is no less compelling or important than biology.

We laugh a little when people remark upon our looking similar.

Comments (0) Trackbacks (0)

No comments yet.

Leave a comment

No trackbacks yet.