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My estranged dad wants to be a part of my life. What do I do?

The question

My father was not around growing up, and rarely helped financially, while our mother raised me and my sister by herself, with a debilitating disease that left her unable to work or do many household chores. She has since passed away and my father is making an effort to be involved in our lives and be there for special events for my boys (he lives out of town). The thing is, he often says things about how to raise kids, or "you know how kids are …" type of comments, often on Facebook. I just want to scream at him that he has no idea how kids are, he's never raised any! How do I handle this situation? Do I tell him politely to stop, or just continue to ignore it?

The answer

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That would be truly annoying.

I was a stay-at-home Dad for many years. (Five? Seven? Honestly, it's all a blur, and I still work from home – well, from an office in my garage, and the difference is subtle but important: My kids will knock on my door for the big problems, but not the small ones.)

And nothing used to bug me more than people who had no direct experience – sometimes citing the fact they had "nieces and nephews" – pontificating on the topic of parenthood, saying what they'd do in this or that situation, the implication of course always being they'd do it better.

It always made me want to slip a full diaper into the person's briefcase when they weren't looking, or stuff a peanut-butter sandwich into his or her VCR.

I could see how it would be particularly galling coming from your own never-there-when-you-were-growing-up father. And I do think you should say something. But not just "stop." I think this is a golden opportunity to clear the air between you two, if you approach it right.

Bear in mind first of all there's a whole culture underpinning his attitude and POV.

Like, consider the difference in meaning between the verbs "to mother" and "to father":

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"To mother" means "to nurture, to raise, to protect, to take care of, to change diapers, to do the 1,000,001 things it takes to get a helpless little creature onto its feet and out into the world and even then to continue to fret and worry in a way only the grave will put a full stop to."

"To father" means "to provide sperm resulting in a pregnancy that comes to term." As in: "Did you hear? Dave's fathered a child – now he's got to get out of town!"

But I hope the connotations of the term "to father" are starting to change, now, as we get into the meat of the 21st century. I will say that on a Wednesday afternoon in the park across from my house there are usually at least as many dads as moms pushing their kids on the swings.

Think also on the fact that your father is now trying "to father" you in a much more active sense of the word. It may all be a little trying; but at least he's trying.

Now, you should know, I'm a soft-serve sucker for dad-stuff in general (in even its cheesiest and most obviously manipulative permutations. Like that commercial where the dad lifts a bike his kid wasn't expecting out of the back of his pickup) and in particular for "he came late to understanding his role as a father, but he's trying now" scenarios. Like in The Wrestler, in which Mickey Rourke as a washed-up actor – oops, I mean wrestler – tries to resuscitate his career and repair his relationship with his daughter.

These movies, and that trope in general, have resonance because it's true that some men mature late. Sometimes long after they have kids. Sometimes not until their kids have grown up.

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(Sometimes not until their kids' kids have grown up. Sometimes, to be sure, not at all.)

But better late than never, right? So express your anger, for sure. He won't, or at least shouldn't, be surprised – having left a woman with a debilitating disease to look after you – if you have a few tart things to say to him. A very caddish, un-menschy thing to do.

Let him have it, right between the eyes. Get it off your chest. He's made mistakes, that's clear. But then again who hasn't? Clearly he's trying to make amends.

He just needs a little guidance, it sounds like to me. He's trying to grow up. He's trying to be a man, trying to figure out how "to father" you in a more meaningful sense, at long last.

And he doesn't have a lot of experience. Help him. Teach him how to figure out how that's done.

What am I supposed to do now?

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