Nat, a 34-year-old non-binary New Zealander, describes their father as a “world-class shitty dad.” His “greatest hits,” they say, include the time he threw his dinner plate through a window, which shattered over the rest of the family eating outside, because he didn’t like the way the vegetables were cooked; the day he chased Nat with a knife because he didn’t hear them say “please”; and the time he chipped Nat’s tooth by forcibly washing their mouth out with soap, because he didn’t think Nat’s language was “ladylike.”
“There was also your usual garden-variety neglect and generally abusive behavior,” Nat adds, “and of course a denial of all of the above, especially as we got older.” For obvious reasons, Nat’s been estranged from their father since the age of 18.
However, now that their father is aging, Nat struggles with a sense of responsibility. “He’s elderly, with suspected early stages of alcohol and drug-induced dementia,” Nat explains, adding that, while they still don’t want to have any personal relationship with their dad, they are considering whether to support him financially in his old age. “I’m the sibling with the most financial resources,” Nat continues. “I’m considering it partly because I don’t want that to fall to my brothers, and partly because no one should have to live in poverty.”
For people with shitty fathers, it can be difficult to determine what, if anything, they owe their dads in terms of contact and care, and this struggle often intensifies as they age. The obligation to take care of aging parents is a strong social norm, and it’s often said that a society is measured by how it cares for its elderly. But where does this leave children of parents who were neglectful or emotionally and physically abusive, i.e. those fathers who never took care of their children when they needed it most?
“I have a lot of patients that struggle with this,” says Elise Franklin, a psychotherapist in L.A. “It’s a very common concern.”
Some children of shitty fathers are clear that they won’t be helping them as they age, like Kendra, a 32-year-old cannabis grower in Canada, who describes her father as a “dirtbag dad.” “He cheated on my mom with the woman who would become my stepmom, had two kids with her and then did the exact same thing to her,” she says, adding that he avoided child support her whole life even though he could definitely afford it. “The way I see it, he abdicated being my father with all that entails, including assistance in his old age.”
It matters, of course, exactly how bad any given father was. “There’s surely a scale of shittiness,” says Julie Alp, a New Zealand-based psychotherapist, “from the absent or unthinking parent to the ones who are more actively manipulative, abusive and destructive to your mental health and peace of mind.” Franklin agrees, although she says that more ambiguous cases can sometimes cause extra turmoil. “Someone that had a dad who never really cared or ‘got’ them may have a different level of contact, or guilt about lack of contact, than someone who was sexually abused by their dad,” she explains. “The former still has very valid pain, and their confusion around the right level of contact can be murkier than for someone who can clearly say, ‘This man abused me.’”
Another important factor for people in this position seems to be their fathers’ ability to receive help from others. “The odds that he’ll ever be at risk of homelessness are tiny, because he’s a very wealthy man with many wealthy friends and two other loyal children,” says Joshua, a 33-year-old Californian who is estranged from his shitty father. “If he became homeless tomorrow, I’d let one of his many friends or relatives help him.” He says he feels very clear on what he owes his father: “Non-violence, and nothing else.”
Complicating matters is a sense of obligation not only to shitty fathers but to siblings, mothers and even society at large. Last year, Nat’s father was arrested and discharged for sexually abusing a child, which they say caused a strong reckoning within them. “I had to consider what my responsibility was for wider community safety, when research into re-offending suggests that strong family and community accountability reduces its likelihood,” they say. “I also feel a sense of obligation not to let my father live in poverty when our social safety net is often insufficient, and that weighs heavily.”
Obligations to wider society aside, though, is it good for victims to maintain or re-establish contact with abusive fathers to care for them in old age? Franklin and Alp both say there’s no hard-and-fast rule. “It’s a really tough dilemma, and there’s no right answer across the board, except to be kind to yourself,” Franklin says.
Alp agrees: “I don’t think there’s a universal choice that’s more moral or right when it comes to contact with people that have hurt you.”
To help patients in this limbo decide, Franklin asks them what it would be like for them if they allowed themselves to walk away. “For some, they express relief and a feeling of lightness, in which case we grieve the parenting they didn’t receive and allow them to forgive themselves for needing to walk away,” she explains. “Others say it just wouldn’t feel right and they’d live in regret, so we work on setting healthy boundaries and acknowledge how powerful it is that they endured such pain and loss yet continue to try to do the loving thing.”
Alp says it’s important here to distinguish fantasy relationships from the real thing. “There’s a way in which children, particularly in dysfunctional families, will try to be the thing the parent needs to be okay,” she explains. “We seem to be hardwired to believe that we’re more powerful and responsible than we are. This sometimes translates into a longing to be able to do or say the thing as an adult that will make the difference — the thing that will fix the imbalance, solve the problem and make the parent safe.”
To help ground her clients in reality, she asks questions like, “Will taking care of this parent who has consistently and predictably behaved in this way get you what you want?” and “If you get back what you’ve always got back, will that be okay for you?”
“It’s important to be as real as you can be about what and who you’re dealing with,” she continues, “and the likelihood that they’ll behave the way they always have toward you.”
Alp says it all comes back to the question of, “What do you want for you, and how can we best aim for that?” “Sometimes this means taking an action that doesn’t fix the relationship in order to learn that you can’t fix the relationship. Then grieving is possible,” she says. “For some people, no contact is the only safe and protective space, because the cost of re-engaging is too high.”
Gabrielle, a 26-year-old theater worker in Washington, D.C., is probably a person for whom the cost of re-engagement is too high. She hasn’t spoken to her “very shitty” father in over 10 years, after he subjected her family to years of financial malfeasance and emotional abuse that culminated in him leaving after saddling them with debt. “I definitely think about what will happen when he gets older and frailer and eventually dies,” she says. “In our culture, we have ideas of closure and reconciliation that are often untrue — think about the number of medical dramas, for instance, that portray reconciliation between a parent and child in a moment of crisis.”
“There’s this idea that it’s always an unmitigated good,” she continues, “but I don’t think that’s always true.”