The Ethicist: May I Cut My Daughter Out of My Life?

January 13, 2019 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “May I Cut My Daughter Out of My Life?”.

I am the parent of a high school student with multiple issues. Her learning disabilities and mild autism are dwarfed by a severe mood disorder that has forced our family to endure daily hourslong tantrums that have disturbed neighbors and drawn the police. Triggers are typically minor, like being asked to tidy her room. She’s attractive and physically healthy, has an average I.Q. and has a sibling who has suffered greatly.

Nearly two decades of this has battered our marriage and careers. We are approaching retirement age, but we have spent a fortune on therapists, medications and special programs, with little to show for it. I worry she may never have friends or become financially independent because she’s so argumentative, selfish and unpleasant. We’re already underfunded for retirement, so we are in no position to support a third person indefinitely.

We recently set up a special-needs trust. Our daughter is considered high-functioning and is capable of attending college and working. But according to the laws in our state, she will continue to be our responsibility, possibly for the rest of our lives. She holds it together during the school day and works part time but explodes upon returning home. Her issues are rooted in biology, but I think she’s capable of better behavior. She seems to enjoy her tantrums and refuses antipsychotic medication.

While society rightly focuses on adults who abuse kids, nobody cares about the reverse. It’s difficult to express what this daily pounding feels like after so many years, but one result is clear: I would like her out of my house, and I want to have only limited contact in the future, though I’m willing to support her if she’s in college.

Having lost the middle chunk of my life to chaos and misery, am I really condemned to live this way until I die? Would I be the most terrible parent in the world if I packed my bags and vanished? Name Withheld

My response: Amid all your story, you didn’t ask for advice on what to do, only if you had to live this way until death and if you terrible.

I would answer no and no. There is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

I would categorize this situation as a problem-solving, not an ethics, issue. Labeling and abstract questions of philosophy won’t resolve this issue as effectively as adopting a problem-solving approach. As with most of life, each potential action has results and you want to find an outcome most acceptable to the most number of relevant people. Nobody else knows your situation as you do and the details matter. Not that you asked, but I don’t know if others can help without being there and knowing the people involved.

Besides the problem you describe, you say you feel guilty/anxious/angry/other emotion you don’t like. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.

The New York Times response: I’m so sorry to hear about your suffering, including the devastation of your marriage; losing a rewarding relationship with your spouse must have made your difficulties even harder to bear. Many people have disabled children, but it’s a challenge of another order when a child’s condition makes her act in a way that frays parental affection. When you have children, you are accepting the responsibility of looking after them into adulthood or finding someone else who will. And it’s natural to think that the burden of care will be lightened by love. Love can sustain us when duty is hard.

But just as your daughter doesn’t have full control of her feelings or her actions, you don’t have full control over yours. What philosophers call “reactive attitudes” — anger, fear, resentment, gratitude, even love — are natural responses to the behavior of others. To abandon such responses is to stop treating those people as moral persons; it’s to see the behavior as the behavior not of someone but of something. This can be appropriate with infants, say, or someone who is severely mentally ill. Yet your daughter has enough of the normal range of mental capacities, in your view, that you respond to her as a person, not a patient.

Reflection can sometimes moderate such responses — as when you see that someone who has treated you badly was under enormous stress and you forgive the behavior. Yes, you suggest that your daughter could do more to control her tantrums and that she ought to be willing to try medication to help her do so. But if she has tried medication and dislikes the way it makes her feel, she may have reasons for refusing. And let me draw attention to the obvious: She’s an adolescent. Even in ordinary circumstances, there’s a basis for the cliché of the moody, broody, surly, volatile teenager. It’s also possible that she’s aware that she has imposed terrible costs on her family, and she may well be fearful that you will do what you’re contemplating.

In the end, however, you can feel only what you feel you have reason to feel. Our culture readily demonizes parental ambivalence, never mind parental alienation. But given the dynamic you describe, you can’t be held responsible for your cooling emotions. A decision like the one you’re contemplating would, to be sure, best be made in consultation with her psychiatrist, giving consideration to the fact that, while mood and personality disorders typically persist, adolescence does not. Some states, like yours, impose legal responsibilities beyond this when a child has severe difficulties. As a moral matter, however, you may resolve to see her into legal adulthood and then leave her behind. There are limits on the demands that children can reasonably make on their parents.

I am a single mom of a teenage son, and we are very close and open with each other. He has three friends from his previous school whom he still sees regularly. Recently he confided that the boys told him they had skipped school twice over a few weeks, renting bikes and riding from one end of town to another to spend the day at one of the boy’s homes while his parents were working. I sat with this information for a day and then felt compelled to call the boys’ parents. My rationale was that I have known them for years, and if the roles were reversed, I would want to get the call. I asked the parents not to divulge where they were getting their intelligence, but unfortunately they threw my son under the bus. He is livid with me. He said that he shared this information with me privately and that I betrayed him. He said that he will never tell me anything ever again and that I have destroyed his friendships. I stuck to my guns and apologized only for not explaining to him earlier that, as the grown-up, I have a responsibility to report things when I think others may be putting themselves in harm’s way. What do you think? Name Withheld

My response:I asked the parents not to divulge where they were getting their intelligence, but unfortunately they threw my son under the bus.” . . . says the person who did what she asked others not to.

If you’re going to do something that involves others, involving them in the process generally helps. You acted unilaterally on something that affected him. I’m surprised that you’re surprised with the outcome.

You seemed able to empathize with the other parents. I’m not sure why you didn’t with your son. If the roles were reversed would you want someone reporting on your without telling you? If you were confident your son would support your decision, involving him would enlist his support. If you expected he wouldn’t then all the more reason to involve him.

Children aren’t stupid adults.

The New York Times response: Your resentment toward these other parents for throwing your son “under the bus” may be justified, but you should have foreseen that your actions were likely to implicate him: How many people were in a position to know? And though you’re clearly pleased by the openness of your relationship with him, he will have noticed that it wasn’t reciprocated. Wouldn’t it have been a good idea to discuss your intentions with him before you made the calls? He’s old enough that he might have had relevant things to say in making the case for not doing so: e.g., that because he was likely to be fingered as the source, you were about to blow up his friendship with these kids, who no doubt would complain to other classmates about his snitching, thereby jeopardizing his social standing at an age when that’s a carefully tended thing. And for what?

You mention nothing that suggests these boys were actually in danger. Yes, they were deceiving their parents and their school, but what they were up to sounds like the tamest of truancies. They weren’t laying plans to deal fentanyl; more likely they were leveling up in Fortnite. And you’ve made it less likely that your own son will trust you with this sort of information again.

Given the quality of your relationship, he’ll probably forgive you eventually, though he’s reaching an age when you should expect him to share less information with you anyway. That’s part of growing up. You’re a loving mom with an easy-to-love kid. But soon enough you’ll need to leave the helicopter parked on the tarmac.

I am the owner of a small business with just a few employees. I maintain a very positive work environment and rely on their skilled and dedicated work to keep the business running. It would be very disruptive if any of them left, and they would be hard to replace. I received a message for one of them on the firm’s voice mail from a staffing company, which suggests that he may be looking for a new position. I would do whatever I can to retain him. But is it ethical for me to broach the subject, having intercepted a call that was intended for him? Name Withheld

My response: You ask what’s ethical. Since everyone has different values, you’ll just get a label that not everyone agrees on. I suggest you want not a label but a practical plan to resolve your situation as best you can by your values and the values of others affected as best you can tell using empathy and projecting possible outcomes.

The New York Times response: It is, yes. Unless you’ve left something significant out of the story, you didn’t come by the information by doing anything wrong. Any displeasure he may have about the disclosure should be directed at the indiscreet people at the staffing company. It certainly shouldn’t be directed at you. In fact, he should be delighted to learn that you value his services and want him to stay.

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