My Son’s Father is an Addict. How Do I Embrace His Heritage?


My son has inherited my pale Russian pale complexion and long lashes, and his Chinese father’s beautiful eyes and dark hair. He is gorgeous, something most mothers can say about their children with pride. People have commented that he looks like a little doll. Yet it has been a struggle for me to embrace his “Chineseness.”


I am raising my son on my own, strike that…I am raising my son without his father, but we are not alone. We live with my parents and my son loves his Baba (grandma) and Deda (grandpa). Still the absence of his father is palpable and I often wonder how it will manifest and impact my child as he grows up and begins to form his identity.  I draw so much of my identity from my heritage and my exposure to other cultures. I was born in Russia, and when I was nine years old we immigrated to Durban, South Africa. Then, when I was in my early teens we once again packed up and moved, this time to the United States.  I feel very fortunate that my son is being raised in a bilingual home; I mostly speak English to him and his grandparents are teaching him Russian. Yet, I want him to have a link to his Chinese ancestry and would love him to learn Mandarin too.


But my son’s father is an active alcoholic and an addict. He lost his mother (my son’s grandmother) before he had any tangible memories of her. He was than forced to grow up in a neglectful and abusive foster home, which no doubt negatively impacted his ability to form attachments later in life. Like so many addicts, he centers his life around his substance abuse and is unable to be a reliable parent to my son.  He has shown up to meetings with my son intoxicated, or not shown up at all. In order to protect myself and my son, I have made it clear that he is not allowed to see my son when he is drunk. This boundary means my son sees his father very rarely, and mostly outside our home.


As my son begins to connect and form relationships with the people in his daily life, he does not recognize his father when he sees him. I have heard that in traditional Chinese culture, a son is a blessing and fathers are strongly attached and invested in their male heir. My mother’s Chinese friend said it was very “un-Chinese” for my son’s father to not be involved in his life. Sadly, his addiction trumps any cultural traditions or fatherly instincts. Even though, my son’s father was born in China and immigrated with his family when he was a toddler, he only speaks a few words of Chinese. It seems he himself is not interested in preserving a connection to his culture.


I want my son to have a connection to his Chinese heritage, yet the absence of his Chinese family and my own feelings of resentment and abandonment present serious obstacles. I know I have some work to do regarding my feelings, expectations and disappointments that can hopefully transition and transform into acceptance and forgiveness. But, I have found that I have transferred my complex emotions about my son’s father onto his culture. Every time I see a Chinese film or hear about the Chinese New Year celebration I think about taking my son to attend. But I am confronted with an emotional tug of war. I long to connect, yet it reminds me of the absence and I want to stay away.


I realize that as my son grows, he will have more questions about his father, his heritage and his Chinese family. I want to be prepared for these questions and don’t want to transfer my own bitterness onto him. I am still working out how to do that. Thankfully, I am surrounded by a supportive family and understanding friends, who do show up and remind me to be grateful for what I have rather than staying fixated on what is missing.


  1. What a beautiful, revealing article about a conscientious and aware mother. Her struggle to balance protecting and providing for her son speak to the universal longings we all have for our children. Thank you, Sasha, for expressing it with grace and clarity!

  2. I was raised absent of my biological mother or father’s culture.

    My father, (who adopted me and was the only father I ever knew), was active in AA (Alcoholic’s Anonymous), was sober many years before I was adopted. But through him I learned what is was to be addicted. Only the alcoholic can “cure” his addiction by admitting he has a problem and seeking help and support. Until then yes you have made a wise choice.

    As for culture, it is what you grow up with and the people you are surrounded by. Genetically I’ Korean and having explored my missing half through 23andme and genomic genealogy probably Lithuanian/Russian. I was raised by two Mid-Western Americans.

    I wouldn’t beat myself up over “honoring” your husband’s culture, if you want to honor your son take him to an Al-Anon meeting when he’s old enough to understand .

  3. Thank you for sharing with everyone the challenge of walking with questions about culture, honor and dishonor, protection, and hope. It is not surprising that connection to his son or heritage is challenging for the father when he is drinking, sober, or hopefully in recovery one day. It may always be a challenge. And not speaking or speaking Mandarin is related a great deal to family choices, and opportunities, and not just to feelings of pride or identity–as you are experiencing. For instance, I would love it if my part-Chinese daughter might want to learn Mandarin one day, but she cannot learn it from her father or grandfather who don’t speak it. We will have to pay for lessons, and she hasn’t expressed an interest in learning anything more than Spanish and English–and love of learning and play is much more important to our family now. If you can have fun with the Chinese cultural events, which many other people and cultures do, go and partake. It can be fun to learn about other cultures regardless of the child’s heritage, right? Your choices, attempts, and ability to overcome bitterness to expose your child to this may become important later when things change. And they will change for you, your child, and the father. It is hard to honor the father, I know. We are in this place with family members as well. But you can teach your child how to honor other cultures in general and be inclusive of Chinese, I hope.

  4. Tough challenges. You are doing a wonderful job with your son. My wish for you would be to find a kind, benevolent, bilingual adoptive Chinese grandparent for you and your son to know. I could imagine you joining an Al-Anon group in a Chinatown area, or eventually traveling with your son to China when he’s a little older where you would teach English and he would attend school and immerse yourselves in the culture and language. Maybe a place to cultivate a healthy contact would be through TCM, there are many practitioners in the US. Cultural heritage is so important. Don’t give up you are on the right track! You may need to work through your own feelings before helping your son. Your feelings are a big part of the equation.


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