Dear Therapist: My Daughter Doesn’t Care That I Want Her to Live Closer to Home

Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

Our daughter is engaged to a very nice man who is neither American nor of her religion. They are living together and working in his country. She is beautiful and talented, and has a graduate degree. She had a hard time securing work in that country, and now that she has found a job, she is miserable in it. She calls me every few weeks, but beyond the cursory “How are you?” she calls only to complain, whether it’s about her boss, or the work itself not being what she thought it would be, or the language barrier.

She gave up a very successful and lucrative career in the States to go to graduate school abroad, intending to stay there for work and romance. I had advised her against it.

I have been very supportive of her and her upcoming marriage outwardly, but I feel strongly that she needs to return to the States if she wants to continue her career, not to mention be closer to her family. (Her fiancé is bilingual, so language would not present the problem for him that it does for her.) She has also not followed our stated wish that she be married in the States so our family can attend, nor has she been sensitive to our request that the wedding be held in a nondenominational setting.

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I want to be supportive, but at what point can I say what I really feel, both about her living abroad and our feelings being discounted? We devoted 20-plus years to her, and do not feel that she values our efforts, or that she truly understands the impact that seeing her only once or twice a year is having on us. She is very independent and I am afraid of making this into an irreparably bad situation.

Am I being reasonable, or am I just not able to let go?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

One of the hardest aspects of being a parent is the reality that if you raise your child well, that child becomes an adult who will go on to make her own life decisions. If we love our children, we must ultimately let them go.

It’s absolutely reasonable to miss your daughter when she’s far away and you see her so infrequently. That’s a profound loss. It’s also reasonable to be concerned about your daughter’s career when she seems unhappy with her job prospects abroad. Where you get stuck, though, is in your expectation that your daughter will alleviate your grief by moving closer to you, or allay your anxiety by going back to her formerly successful career in the States. The job of an adult child isn’t to manage a parent’s worry, nor is it the job of a parent to manage that child’s choices.

This is why thinking about the job description of a parent might be helpful. You say that your daughter doesn’t value the 20-plus years you’ve invested, but the thing about investing in our kids is that the investment is in them, not us. Sure, there’s great satisfaction in raising a human being to adulthood, and at times great joy, but all the challenge and effort that also go into raising a child are simply part of being a parent. In other words, the energy you’ve invested is an item in the job description, not a quid pro quo that goes like this: I will invest in you, and you will fulfill my needs when my job is done.

That’s not to say that you can’t share your point of view as a parent, as long as you do so in the service of helping her, not furthering your agenda. Your job is to guide but not control: Ask wise questions and make observations that will help illuminate your daughter’s world to herself, not steer her decisions to meet your wishes.

What might that sound like? When your daughter talks to you about her issues with her job, you can help her shift from complaining to reflecting and taking action: I hear your dissatisfaction, and I’m sorry you’re so frustrated with how things are going. Tell me more about your hopes for your career. What are you thinking might help you find a more rewarding path?

Notice that you aren’t asking her to come home, weighing in on her decision to work abroad, or projecting your worries onto her. You’re simply doing the work of a parent, which is to help her hear herself more clearly—and then allowing her the space to figure out her next steps. Eventually, when there’s more trust between you—meaning, you’ve had enough dialogue of this kind so that she’s gotten over any suspicions she had of your intentions—you might help her reflect on the bigger picture by asking: What does you fiancé say when you talk about your struggles with the language barrier, your boss, and the kind of job you have? Is he willing to make changes that could improve your situation?

When it comes to how far your daughter is living from your side of the family, you might say something like: I miss you, but I also want you to be happy where you’re living. I know in the past I shared my opinion on this, but I’ve come to realize that only you know what’s right for you. Help me to understand more about how you feel about living where you are and potentially raising a family there. Then just listen to what she says, because one way we show love is by making the other person feel seen, heard, and understood by seeing the world through their eyes—even if we have a different point of view.

Similarly, there’s a difference between declaring your wishes for her wedding and getting curious about her wishes for her own wedding. You might try: It’s true that if it were up to me, I’d want you to get married in the States and have a wedding in our religious tradition. But I also want you to have the wedding of your dreams, so tell me more about your decision to have a religious wedding abroad.

The purpose of these conversations is to shift the dynamic between you from her feeling tacit (or explicit) pressure to feeling that she has a safe sounding board. It might be, for instance, that a small part of why she doesn’t want to have the wedding close to home is that she has felt your judgment in the past and either wants to avoid it or is reacting to it by choosing the opposite of your wishes.

A paradox of parenting is that the way to bring our children closer to us is to give them a wide berth, allowing space for their selfhood separate from ours. You may find that once you give her that space, your daughter will come to want some sort of wedding celebration in the States, or will one day choose to pursue a career back home, bringing her family with her. But remember that what she chooses isn’t the point. No matter what happens with the geographic distance, at the very least, you will be on a path to closing the emotional gulf between you.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.