Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“Should I Move My Children Away From Their Dying Father?

I was newly separated from my children’s father when he got diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. We are not legally married but were together 15 years. Before the diagnosis, he had no problem going on with his life after we broke up. We are very different people, but he was like a best friend because of the many years spent together — just sort of a best friend you don’t wanna hang out with all the time because you don’t really get along. I didn’t want my kids to grow up in a big city, so I moved our of state with them. My ex didn’t want to move, but he was OK with us moving and we agreed that the kids would visit him and he would come visit them. After the diagnosis I felt like the correct thing to do was to move back and try and help with his care. I decided this move would be temporary — for one year.

We are now at the one-year mark and I have spent the last year without regret, being there for my ex and helping with his care. It has been very difficult because he can get very challenging at times. I’m ready to move back and re-start my life. My ex has deteriorated and is sicker but is still able to live on his own with the assistance of his mother. Because he’s undergoing treatment, it is hard for him to travel. I feel so guilty for leaving again, but I am so unhappy and long for the life I thought I was going to begin last year. In my mind, I need to be happy in order to be a good mom for my kids, but at the same time I just feel awful for making him so sad. I feel like I’m dammed if I do and dammed if I don’t. I know eventually he will pass away and I don’t know if I’ll be able to live with myself for my decision to leave as he was deteriorating. But if I don’t leave, I give up any chance of having a normal life for myself and will probably end up very depressed. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. — Longing for a New Life

I’m not without sympathy for you, but I have far greater sympathy for your children who are about to lose their father, assuming that his death is, indeed, imminent. And I wonder how they are feeling about the prospect of moving again. You don’t mention them at all. You feel guilty for making your ex sad by moving away, but what about your children? You don’t share their ages, but assuming they are old enough to understand what’s going on, you should talk to them about what they want. If what they want is to stay close to their dad, I don’t know how you find happiness, let alone convince yourself you’re a good mother, when you’ve taken your children away from their dying father who is too sick to come visit them. What is waiting on the other side of the move that is going to be worth more to you than your kids spending time with their father, if that is what they want?

There are only two ways I see you feeling OK about moving: your kids want to; you have reason to believe your ex potentially has years left to live and you feel certain that you can bring your kids to visit him with regular frequency. I guess the third way you can feel OK about moving your kids away from their dying father is that you are a truly selfish person with no empathy, but I don’t believe that’s the case or you wouldn’t have moved back for the year that you did to help care for your ex, and you wouldn’t feel so much guilt about the idea of leaving now. So, explore the first two justifications for moving.

Maybe your kids really want to move back. If you and your kids were happy out of state and are ready to get back and get on with your lives, you should make sure your kids understand — at a level that is appropriate for their ages and emotional development — what they’ll be leaving behind if you move — namely, that their father likely won’t be able to visit them, and they will be seeing much less of him. This is a lot for a child to process, and I would advise seeking the help of a therapist. In fact, a therapist could help you decide how to navigate this life change, how to continue supporting your children whether or not you move, and the best ways to support your children when their father passes away. I think YOU could also use someone to talk to because it’s naive to believe a move is going to make you happy given the circumstances, and if you’re afraid staying is going to make you depressed, you will need help combating that.

It’s important to consider the kind of support system your children (and you) have where you live now vs. where you want to move to. It sounds like you were out of state only briefly before your ex was diagnosed with cancer and you moved back to care for him. If your kids had even made friends yet, a year apart would change those bonds. Do they have family where you want to move? Who would be there to help support them through the potential loss of their father? And who is there for them where you live now? They have a grandmother at the very least. Do they also have other family and friends you’d be taking them from in your personal pursuit of happiness out of state as their father is dying? These are things to think about.

Finally, I would urge you to explore how you can create a “normal” life for yourself where you are now, close to your ex. Why do you have to move to find normalcy and happiness? What does the life out of state have that your current home doesn’t, and is there any way you can create or find some of what you are lacking without moving your children away from their dying father? You say you are “longing for the life you thought you were going to start last year,” but that’s not even a concrete thing. You aren’t even longing for a life you lived or had already created. You are longing for an idea, a fantasy, a hope that what you envisioned would become a reality. There’s no guarantee that that would happen.

Running away from a place where you aren’t happy doesn’t necessarily mean you will find happiness on the other side. I don’t know what it is where you live now that makes you so unhappy, but there’s a good chance it will follow you and you will discover that not only did moving not solve the problem, but also it created the additional problem of… you know, robbing your children of the time they had left with their dying dad. That isn’t to say that you wouldn’t eventually find happiness elsewhere. Plenty of people find that a move IS exactly what they need to jump start a new lease on life. But given the circumstances and your responsibility as a mother, I’m just not sure that is going to be the case for you. You need to carefully weigh the risks — including the potential of your children blaming you one day for taking them away from their dad — and be really honest about what it is you are wanting to get away from and whether a move is the only and best chance to find the happiness you long for. If it is, you have a responsibility to do your very best to make sure that your children have as much support as possible to help them through these very big transitions.


“My Mother Says I’m Killing My Brother By Withholding My Daughter”

“I’m Tired of Moving Every Time My Husband’s Daughter Moves”


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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy​(AT)​dearwendy.com.

13 comments… add one
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    Bittergaymark May 29, 2018, 9:34 am

    Damn. Why is it always the wrong people who get Cancer?

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  • Sunshine Brite May 29, 2018, 10:03 am

    WWS. There’s so much exhaustion in what you write that I wonder how clearly you’re able to read and experience the situation. Children’s father is dying slowly. He can’t travel. You mention how you feel but not how your children are experiencing this ongoing turmoil.

    It sounds like he moved on quickly in your opinion and it seems like there was some unresolved jealousy and/or hurt in those actions. You were together a long time. Have you thought about talking to someone to help you move on?

    How much have you been helping with his care? Caregiving is stressful in the best of circumstances and caring for an ex that you feel you’ve given more to over the years is not ideal. Pull back from doing that now. You don’t have to move out of state to do that; it’s up to you to decide how much to give him. I’d assume you’d have a hard time getting over this relationship when you stay in the day to day mix of caregiving tasks.

    What’s normal? Create that in place as best you can. Some people aren’t city people but find that part of the city that feels more open or beautiful. Go out and create experiences with you and your children. Seek out that safe space for them as they experience the ongoing hurt of watching someone they care for die slowly. Don’t create more change and hurt in a time of change and hurt.

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  • SpaceySteph May 29, 2018, 11:25 am

    This is a really sad situation and I feel for everyone involved. I have to wonder though if there’s some middle ground between “I don’t want my kids to grow up in the big city” and “I moved them to another state.” Like, idk, can you move an hour away from where you currently are so they can still be near enough to see their father regularly but be in a more rural location?
    What is it about the particular place you chose? Because you don’t mention being near your family or a specific job, so I have to wonder if you were really running to somewhere or trying to run from your ex and former life.

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  • brise May 29, 2018, 12:56 pm

    Please extend your effort. You took the right decision in moving back close to your children’s father. It would be really selfish to separate them from their dying father. For your ex, I don’t think I can imagine something worse as to be separated from my kids if I had terminal cancer. This is nothing worse in the world. And for your children, I don’t think you are helping them in moving away, on the contrary. They will have a trauma if they are not able to part properly and be close to their father.
    I don’t know why you are so binary unhappy there / happy somewhere else. For while, it is simply impossible to move away. You had children with this man, you are a family, even though you don’t live together anymore. Children have a right to have a father, as long as he lives. Please don’t take so categoric dramatic decisions as if it were impossible for you to have a happy life where you are. You will find a way… They are more important things now, like life and death problems.

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  • kali May 29, 2018, 12:56 pm

    I have stage IV cancer. I’ve had it for nearly five years now so unless the docs are SAYING your ex is dying, he may have years yet to go. And even if the doctors think they know how long he has, none of us come with an expiration date. None of this makes your decision any easier but I think Wendy is brilliant in suggesting your talk it over with your kids. This will have a far greater impact on them and their lives than on you. They should have some input.

    And bless you for being a caregiver for your ex. It’s a tough job and many people in your situation would’ve bowed out long ago.

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  • Avatar photo

    Dear Wendy May 29, 2018, 1:05 pm

    From the LW:

    I realized i didnt give you alot of info .
    My children are ages 10 and 15. My 15 yr old is ny stepson whom i have raised since age 3. The reason we moved last year was because as a family we all decided we did not want to raise the kids in a big city . We wanted them to grow up in a smaller community and attend better schools. It is why my ex agreed it was best at that time. For many years we had traveled back and forth. I have always been the main parent. My ex has been present physically but very absent emotionally with my son . My children feel safe with me and yes they love there father but again I am there main support system. The kids are in there own world. They know exactly whats going on but act as though nothings wrong .We are all in therapy . The therapist says this is normal and that kids just want to feel safe and feel as though everythings gonna be ok. So I try and explain to them and always say no matter what happens we will all be ok. I have also explained that death is a part of life and have tried to show them a solid spiritual path.
    Yes there father will eventually pass . I dont know if in months or years ?
    Finally I am not running away . I have been going back and forth for 6 years. We spent every summer there and I moved my business there in preparation for move. we are constantly flying there. Its a one hour flight and i can send kids back n forth easily and will . We had a life in both places . I am in my 50s and the fast paced life of a big city is too much for me and not a place to raise kids . Caring for my ex is too much for anyone. I have tried to do my best .So yes I feel guilty for not wanting to do it anymore.I struggle.
    I read your answer and feel worse. Selfish . Maybe . But every decision has been based on whats best for my kids . And yes a happy mom in a happy home is important .Not sure how helpful it is for a 10 year old to witness the detioration of her father who is angry and sad?
    Like I said, dammed if i dont and damned if I do.

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    • Avatar photo

      Dear Wendy May 29, 2018, 1:10 pm

      My advice is still about the same, although I would underscore the need for you to include your kids in this decision. You talk about where you want to raise your kids, what is best for them, and at 15, your stepson is almost done being raised, and even at 10, your daughter probably has a stronger connection to one place over another. They have some sense of what’s going on, even if that can’t fully grasp the scope of it and even if nobody knows WHEN your ex may pass away. Do they want to maintain a relationship with him from a 1-hour plane distance away? Where do they feel most safe and supported?

      Of course a happy mom in a happy home is important — no one is denying that. What some of us may not understand is why you have to move to be happy, and whether moving will make your children UNhappy.

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    • Avatar photo

      Skyblossom May 29, 2018, 1:27 pm

      When your ex passes will you have legal custody of your stepson? I’d make sure that is covered.

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  • Lisa May 29, 2018, 1:22 pm

    My Dad died of lung cancer in 2011, my brother and I were in our 30s at the time. My parents divorced when I was 14 and it was not necessarily amicable. I lived about four hours a way and being that far was SO difficult. My Dad living post diagnosis for two years. Two things that stand out in a positive way about what happened. My Mom stepped up to the plate, and helped us so much. From planning the funeral, to getting him into a nursing home, to sitting there with him when we could not. I know this was not at all easy for her to do, but she did it FOR US, her children, not for him. Now it could be that there was more distance between their divorce and this writer’s separation, but I still think Mom needs to put her own feelings aside, and do what is best for her children. Second, the time that I got to spend with my Dad in those two years, I would not trade for anything. I can say to 100% certainty that we had said everything we needed to in that time, to each other and I will cherish dearly the time we had together. We had both led such busy lives and this forced us to slow down. The time your kids have left with their Father is small, and you have your whole life to live. Put them first, do not move.

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  • RedBlue May 29, 2018, 2:04 pm

    Once you have children, they must come first. Your life is no longer your own.

    Do what is right for them.

    When they turn 18, then you can do whatever you want.

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  • ron May 29, 2018, 2:16 pm

    There is a middle ground here. You and ex separated for a reason and you say he can be difficult and tough for you to tolerate in large doses. As his ex you have no obligation to participate in his care. In addition to not living where you want to live, that care brings you into longer contact with him than is comfortable for you. So, cut down on the time spent doing that. If you must cut it out entirely. But… it is important that he be able to spend time with his children and they with their father. It is your responsibility to facilitate that. The advice to talk to your kids (and your ex) about how much contact is most comfortable for them and best circumstances for that is good. If the kids haven’t had time with their father, without you being present, then you should make that happen. I don’t fault you, LW. You have been generous with your time and effort in support of your ex. You know your limits and think (assume) you know what is best for your kids.

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    • Anon from LA May 29, 2018, 5:19 pm

      This is what I’d recommend. LW can stay close to her ex for her kids’ sake without being his caregiver. This will also free up some time so she can do more things she enjoys, develop a social life, spend time on self care, relax more–all things that could help with depression.

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  • dinoceros May 29, 2018, 3:38 pm

    I think that moving now would be very odd timing. For you, this is a relationship that had its end and that it seems you’ve found closure for in this year. But he’s still their dad. That doesn’t have an expiration date and spending a year with your dad doesn’t give you closure when they die. Not only would it be sad for your kids to lose out on the remaining time and probably really stressful for them to go through so many stressors at once (if you ever have done one of those inventories of your stressors, they don’t differentiate between positive and negative stressors — moving is on the same list as death of a loved one or divorce. Moving is an even bigger deal for kids. It’s not just the stress of the process, but it’s losing everything you’re used to — family, teachers, classmates, friends, etc. Finally, I think that it would just look bad. Your kids may not be old enough to process or articulate this now, but I think they’d look back and think that choosing to move them away right now was selfish and hurtful. So, sure, stop being a caregiving, but don’t end your kids’ relationship with their dad prematurely. (I’d also agree with Wendy that you shouldn’t just pick up and move them immediately after either.)

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