Estrangement: Are you an octopus mom?

by Sheri McGregor, MA


Sheri, diving in a pool
Photo credit: J. Wininger

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.

estrangementObviously, 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.

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4 thoughts on “Estrangement: Are you an octopus mom?

  1. aFaceOfLoss

    Golly this speaks to me. I am struggling with going over and over in my mind what happened, why we are at this communication empass with our DIL, why she has chosen to literally despise me when for months in their early relationship she acted like I was her best friend The hatred and anger so out of proportion to anything that happened. For over two years now I have gone over and over things, crying, praying, being very angry myself. I love my son so much and he was our only child. I can’t go on like this it is breaking my heart quite literally. It has devastated my sense of who I was and stolen my joy in everything it is like a !on g shadow over everything. But I don’t want to die like this. I want to let go like they have and just move on i don’t know how. The picture of the little octopi floating away without looking back is so vivid. My son doesn’t have a clue how awful this situation has been for his dad and me. Sacrifice makes sense somehow, and self preservation seems selfish. But what choice is there?

    1. colts_fan_65

      Our DIL liked me at first – even seemed to admire me. She moved in with my son (who didn’t have a washing machine) and started letting herself in to our home with his key. We had to change the locks! She’s one of the rudest people I’ve ever met. After a misunderstanding (over her having to sit in the back of the car) the mean texts started, followed by the even meaner phone calls. And still my husband and I were going to my son’s house to remodel. Even paid for nearly all of it. We were trying to prove that we were good parents by enabling them to not participate in the remodel, treat us horribly and hardly ever thank us.
      The final straw was Christmas 2019. I worked all day, came home and made a huge meal for Christmas Eve dinner and gifted them $1,000. They barely said thanks and didn’t even offer to help with dishes. The next day, my DIL refused to be in a family photo with us and said our son wouldn’t either. Followed that up with some rude texts about how mean I am to her and I’m done. I didn’t even answer. I have raised a weak man to let someone treat us like that and even participate in it.

  2. OliveTree

    My daughter has cut me and my husband off from her life with no contact, no reply to phone, text, email or letters for 4 years, this time. But really she started “rebelling” against us at 15 and then left and returned on and off for the next 30 years. We had become so very tired of the roller coaster, it was actually us who stopped chasing after her after 30 years.

    My husband and I are only just starting to feel “normal” and discovering our own lives and trying to make a future for ourselves. We have experienced all the feeling other speak of in this forum, over 30 years….

    What I am very interested in knowing is how the estranged child actually thinks? How do they feel about being estranged from their family? What do they expect as far as an inheritance goes? Do they assume that they can reject the parent but the parent will always “do the right thing” for them? Is there any research on the mind of the estranged adult child? What are they thinking?

    1. rparents Post author

      Dear Olive Tree, there is a little research, but it’s limited. They think they are right!
      All you really need to do is look in the forums and sites that support estrangement by adult children. You can read straight from them what they think. Beware though, because it is often harsh and unkind.

      Hugs to you. Thirty years is a very long time to be subjected to abusive behavior.

      Sheri McGregor

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