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Pregnant woman sitting in childbearing center (shironosov/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Pregnant woman sitting in childbearing center (shironosov/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Can I keep my abusive dad from my child without alienating my family? Add to ...

The question

My husband and I just discovered we’re pregnant! It’s joyous, but has also brought up an old anxiety. When I was growing up, my father was emotionally – and occasionally physically – abusive. He would scream in my face, tell me I was worthless and no one would ever love me, punish through humiliation and when I was small, he hit me a few times or he would spank me in a rage until I couldn’t sit down. Since then I have (mostly) moved on, out of a desire to continue having a relationship with my mother and siblings. He’s never admitted to doing anything wrong, in fact, he has defended his actions whenever I have tried to talk to him. Now with our child on the way, my husband and I have decided we do not want my father to be alone with him/her. But I know this means my mother will be deprived of sleepovers and many other grandma experiences that she is really looking forward to. How do we talk about this with my family in a way that makes our position clear without blowing up my family?

The answer

I might be wading into ticklish/controversial territory here, but can we begin by observing the prevailing attitude toward corporal punishment of children has changed?

Now we call it “physical abuse.” But once upon a time, a man might untether his belt and whip his child with it and simply call it “discipline.”

I’m almost, but not quite, old enough to remember when it was common for teachers to use “the strap” – i.e. lash kids across the hands with a leather whip – in schools. (In Toronto it was abolished in 1971, thank God.)

“Spare the rod, spoil the child”: that used to be a saying. The rod! (My own wife and her four siblings lived in mortal terror of what they called “The Knuckle”: If they misbehaved, as they rode along in the family wagon, their father would reach back with preternatural wingspan, and rap them on their noggins with the protruding, bony knuckle of his middle finger. Yee-owch!)

I’m not trying to condone or even excuse your father’s – well, what nowadays we might call “parenting style.”

Just place them in historical context.

But I can certainly understand why you might not want to leave your kids alone with him, especially in light of his unrepentant and unapologetic attitude toward it all.

I think you have to have a frank talk with him. Beyond frank: blunt. But remember: a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. No one’s perfect. Whatever mistakes he might have made, he did, after all, bring you into the world and oversaw, and helped engineer, your evolution from helpless entity that couldn’t sit up or feed itself or change its own drawers to an independent adult now in a position to have children of your own.

Always bear in mind when it comes to any kind of dealings with parents: You wouldn’t be here without them.

Say something along the lines of: “First of all, dad, I want to thank you for all the hard work you expended and sacrifices you made bringing me up. But you were harsh at times, and times have changed, and I want you just to be soft and gentle with my kid, always. Take him to the zoo. Give him ice cream. Spoil him: leave the disciplining, or not, to me. Because is that not the fun, and one of the great things, about being a grandparent? If the kid’s a brat, you just hand him/her back.”

Then the bombshell: “If you can’t agree to these terms, dad, no babysitting for you!”

Be like The Soup Nazi, only with your kid. Well, I’m joking: say it in a more diplomatic way, obviously.

It’d be a shame, in so many ways, if he couldn’t agree to your terms. Not just for your mother – for you and your husband, as well. I have a funny feeling it’s your first kid on the way. Trust me as a veteran of no less than three: willing-to-babysit grandparents in the vicinity are a useful – nay, critical – resource not only for getting things done but the preservation of your very sanity.

And they’re able to pass along invaluable nuggets of wisdom and family lore.

Raising a kid from mewling, puking blob of protoplasm to fully grown adult? Hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Being able to pick up the phone when you’re climbing the walls with “spit-up” on your shirt and unknown green stains on your sweat pants, screams filling the air, the place a mess, then picking up the phone and having your parents come over and take over while you go out for dinner or with friends and have an adult conversation? Priceless.

Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to damage@globeandmail.com. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

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