Virginia Ironside Dilemmas: 'My middle son is always against me'

Dear Virginia, I have three sons and they had a difficult time, as they were too young to understand their father was a bully, and thought it was my fault he left. I've remarried and my sons are all grown up. Although I get on well enough with two of them – and I am very fond of their partners and children – my middle son is always against me. It seems that whatever I do for him – look after the children, take them on holiday – it's never enough. My eldest son said I shouldn't bother with him, as he thinks the world's against him. All I want is acknowledgement that I did my best when they were small. Yours sincerely, Zena

Although you don't know it, you've answered your own question. Whatever you do for your son, it's never enough. If you just take that as a given, and don't try to change it, I think you'll be a lot happier. This is the relationship you have with your son. It's never enough. It never was and it never will be. Accept it.

As for saying that, "All I want is some acknowledgement...", again, do accept you'll never get it. You might as well say, "All I want is for that tree to put its branches round me and tell me it loves me." It won't. It's a tree. It is not in the hugging business.

I spent ages, when I used to have lodgers, saying to my friends: "All I want is for them to remember to pay the rent at the beginning of every month. Surely it's not too much to ask? I don't want to ask for it." I went on like this until a friend said: "They're never going to remember. Why don't you simply write a note to them at the end of each month saying: 'Rent due tomorrow. Many thanks'." I took her advice and we were all happy. Once I stopped wanting something I couldn't get, I was able to get what I wanted.

Assuming you've apologised to your son for your shortcomings as a mother (he may be saying, "All I want from her is an apology...", you never know) can you not try to find another way of getting something that you need from your son, even if you have to tie yourself in knots? If he's never going to acknowledge what you did for him, perhaps you could say to yourself that it's a good thing that he at least feels close enough to you to air his grievances. He allows you to visit. He doesn't stop you seeing the grandchildren. His actions show there must be a bit of him that trusts you and is fond of you – it's just not a bit he allows you to see. If he really couldn't stand you, then why would you still be seeing him and his family? He can stand you. It's just that he feels better telling you that he can't.

I suggest that you stop wanting what you can't get from him. This takes psychic energy – I can't think of any other word for it. When you remove the pleading need from your eyes and body language, I suspect that he'll stop being so accusatory. As it is, I think you're involved in an unspoken dance – you longing and craving, and him pushing you away. Take away the longing and you won't get the unpleasantness. Try it.

Let it go

Children will always do what they want to. I don't know if your middle son has a relationship with his father or not. If he hasn't, it could be a sort of protection for his memory, as your other sons have obviously sided with you.

Keep in touch with him; treat him as you do your other sons as far as possible and accept that he will believe what he wants to. You have done a fine job raising your three lads alone. If one of them won't appreciate it, please, for your own sanity let it go. Your other two are testament to your ability as a mother. You have done as much as you can.

Frances Newman by email

Forgive yourself

I doubt that any child grows up without some resentment or other. Most also grow out of it, put it aside and concentrate on the present relationships with parents, siblings, children etc. Some can't seem to let go of their resentments – justified or not – and they boil over periodically or take over completely.

You seem to want him to confirm you did your best. Perhaps you aren't quite sure. Too late now. All parents make mistakes; so, if you need to, forgive yourself and stop looking for confirmation that in your heart you know is never going to happen. Enjoy looking after your grandchildren for their own sake rather than to make your son think better of you. Perhaps in time your son will come to see the stresses and strains you went through as they grew up, but don't bank on it.

Clive Tiney by email

Count your blessings

I suggest that you start thinking how lucky you are to still be seeing all your grown-up children from your previous marriage. Three of my children who are now in their forties flatly refuse to have anything to do with my former wife and she has six grandchildren she has never seen and probably never will. Stop whingeing and start counting your blessings. There are divorced parents much worse off than you.

Les May by email

Enough is enough

Perhaps your middle son has always had a chip on his shoulder, imagining you found your firstborn more precious and the baby more cute than him, or maybe he simply played the victim as a child to get your attention. Whatever his logic, you have indulged him long enough.

The two of you need to sit down together – possibly in the presence of a neutral third party – so you can express exactly what's on your minds. Tell him that you did your best with the hand you were dealt, and that you will no longer tolerate the guilt trips he's unfairly trying to lay on you. Far from hurling recriminations at you, he should be grateful for the love and support you continue to provide.

Don't be too intent on pleasing your family: you did all you could when it really mattered, and now you should feel free to be yourself, and enjoy this phase of your life .

Elinor Forbes by email

Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I'm on my gap year and having a wonderful time. I've been travelling about everywhere – I'm in India at the moment – and I really love the feeling of not knowing where I'll be from one week to the next. The problem is my parents. They have just emailed me saying that they want to come and visit me for a fortnight in October, wherever I am. But I really don't know where I'll be at that time! I like it that way and want to keep my options open. And to be honest, although I love my parents and get on well with them, I don't want to have them hanging around. We'd have to spend two weeks living in hotels and going to museums and seeing sights... But I know this is a big trip for them. How can I put them off without hurting them?

Yours sincerely, Leonie