by Sheri McGregor, MA
Octopuses are smart. They can learn how to work through mazes, figure out how to open jars, and they like to play—all signs of intelligence. That’s why it surprised me when a friend mentioned that a mother octopus lays her eggs, then devotes herself so selflessly to them that she dies.
In one documented story, scientists observed a giant Pacific octopus who brooded over her eggs for more than four years. She neglected her own care, going without food to the point of death—and then her offspring floated off into the ocean to live their lives alone.
Caring for children
When our children are young and growing up, we protect and care for them. For us, it’s more than preserving the species as it must be for the octopus. We love them. We want to develop good relationships with our children, expecting they will grow older and we’ll remain emotionally connected and close. But that’s not how it is in situations of estrangement. The children we nurtured and loved grow up and cut ties. The distance can range from never talking to an occasional text. Or, worse, many parents say their adult children only call when they want financial help.
It’s fine to help people you love, but with estrangement, I routinely hear from mothers (and fathers) who have repeatedly neglected their own care, health, and happiness. Some have sons or daughters who are in their 40s and even 50s and have a history of anger and abuse toward the parents they blame for all their troubles. These parents come across my book or this website, and that’s when they discover they’re not the only ones.
Estrangement: Don’t be a mother octopus
In the shame of estrangement, parents will sometimes give more than they can really afford to sacrifice. Trying and trying even though the estrangement is beyond their control. As one woman on the FB page for rejected parents recently said, “Didn’t break it. Can’t fix it.” (I’m paraphrasing from memory.)
Parents brood for years over an adult who wants nothing to do with them. Hoping their son or daughter will one day decide to change, and end the estrangement. Waiting, remaining emotionally invested to the point of exhaustion—but the adult children move on in their lives alone.
It’s okay to remain hopeful. It’s fine to think that one day your son or daughter will return. But there’s no sense neglecting yourself while you wait. Go on and enjoy your life. Find some meaning. Do what makes you happy and strong.
If that Pacific octopus would have eaten a few of those crabs she nudged away when they got close, maybe she wouldn’t have withered away while standing faithful.
Obviously, we aren’t octopuses. Maybe it’s a stretch to even use this fact to draw a parallel for parents suffering in estrangement. Then again, maybe it’s not such a big stretch at all. . .
In estrangement, don’t neglect your own health and happiness.