Greetings from estranged adult children

parents of estranged adult childrenby Sheri McGregor, M.A.

Roberta’s phone jangled its notification bell. A text on Mother’s Day? In a sudden state of dread, she pulled the annoying smartphone from her purse and saw the name—her estranged adult son. Roberta’s heart leapt, a physical betrayal to the reality she knew. What would he say this time? Empty well wishes on a tiny screen? Or worse, a slicing jab?

A familiar sinking sensation filled Roberta’s gut. For a moment or two, she contemplated squinting as she clicked it open, looking only close enough to call up the little menu and hit “discard.”

She let her wrist go limp, the smartphone feeling heavy in her hand. She’d open it eventually, she knew. But not right now. First she’d have to gather her strength.

Greetings from a stranger: your estranged adult child

Roberta is like many parents of estranged adult children who have shared their stories of leaping hope, mixed with a familiar dread. Her son still contacts her from time to time, but he isn’t the kind little boy she knew. He isn’t the teen she’d been so proud of. And the bits of the man she now sees only in snippets of text . . . well, she doesn’t know him. He has become a stranger.

Among the nearly 10,000 parents of estranged adult children to date who filled in my survey, approximately 46% replied “yes” to a question about whether they had ANY contact with their estranged adult child. Although not everyone used the box to “explain” as the question requests, those who did most commonly spoke of occasional texts or a card, usually associated with a holiday or birthday.

Sometimes, the contact comes on Mother’s Day, with the phrase “I love you,” or hugs in kisses in type: “xxoo.”

Often, parents describe how their hearts leap with hope at these periodic points of contact. They often respond, too—and then endure days of agonizing silence, unanswered.

After a few of these emotional roller coasters, parents may start to use words like “obligatory” and “generic” to describe the greetings from a son or daughter they no longer know.

Sometimes, the texts start out friendly enough, but then resort to backhanded slaps:

  • “Thanks for being a good mom when I was a kid. I don’t know what happened to you.”
  • “Happy Mother’s Day. I still wish you were dead.”
  • “I love you. Maybe one day we’ll reconnect.”

 Poignant poison

Sometimes, the greetings that fill parents with hope, are later understood as veiled attempts to fulfill a need. Parents say that several texts, maybe even a brief call or two get spread out over several days, preceding a request for money or some other assistance.

Some parents oblige. In my book, Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children, Vicky recalls with clarity the way her daughter first rejected her. Her daughter had volunteered to bring the cake to Vicky’s 61st birthday party. “There I was waiting in my front room with pink paper streamers strung all around,” says Vicky. “Danielle’s siblings were there, a few neighbors, and even my pastor’s wife. Then I got the text.”

The pain of hope made Vicky vulnerable. But after nine long years, she made a change. At age 70, she tells other mothers not to wait so long to get on with their lives.

What can you do?

Roberta wishes things were different with her estranged son. She’ll read the text, and maybe even reply. But she’ll do it on her own time. After she’s had a good meal and enjoyed the day as she’d planned to—with her daughter who remains close, and a friend who is all alone on Mother’s Day. Maybe she’ll open the message in their presence even, with support from people who know—just as Roberta knows deep in her heart, and is proven by lovely memories of all the good she has done—that she was a good mother.

Or maybe she will delete it. Her daughter would tell her she had the right. Anybody who cared about her would. But Roberta still holds out hope. Even so, she won’t let it hold her hostage. She won’t sit around and cry any longer.

Your estranged adult child’s choices don’t define you

No matter what choices our adult children make, their behavior does not diminish the good we did or continue to do in ours and others’ lives.  Someone’s inability to see our value does not detract from our worth. Value yourself.

If you find yourself sitting around waiting for a text or call on Mother’s Day or some other special day, think of Roberta reading her son’s message on her own terms. Think of Vicky with her advice. You don’t have to give up hope, but you can be in charge of yourself and your life. You count.

Related articles:

Mother’s Day: Triggering Pain

Six Ways to Get Through Mother’s Day

What am I if I’m not a mother?

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