Mother Yourself

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

“I’m sorry I hurt you.”

On a lazy weekend evening, the apology arrives by text. The number isn’t familiar, but I have an inkling. When I read the text aloud, my husband shrugs. We know who it’s from. Who else has reason to apologize?

Once upon a time, our hearts would have leapt at those words from my estranged adult son. Nearly a decade since he cut ties with his family, we’re not so easily moved. Not so eager to invest.

kids don't call on Mother's DayAlthough I’ve imagined my share of tearful reunions, hope has led to more hurt. Even so, every birthday, I blow out my candles with a silent wish: Please let my family be complete. On my last birthday, I stood over the glowing candles, the wax melting into the cake. Was the wish now a habit? Detached from any faith? So far, “reconcile” refers to a solo pursuit.

My son has said similar things in the past:

It was all my fault.

I want a relationship.

This isn’t the last time you’ll see me.

A history of soaring hopes. Deflated.

In the years of estrangement, I have changed. I have learned that there is no way out of the pain except to accept his choices. And then to mother myself with tough love, an occasional treat, nurturing food, and wise advice. I counsel myself about the text: Don’t get too excitedAn apology may mean nothing.

The problem of grown children who estrange from loving families is of epic proportions, but I didn’t know that when my son broke my heart. Like so many other parents, I thought I was the only one. It’s not something you talk about much. People are quick to blame parents, or mistake estrangement for a silly tiff. They don’t want to think it could happen to them. I hope it doesn’t. It’s emotionally brutal and not easily fixed. Parents who are in shock, embarrassed, and hurting feel isolated. That’s why in 2013, I started this website,  which has become a healing place of encouragement, information, and advice. It’s also why I wrote the book, Done With The Crying.

Contact from an estranged adult

Thousands of decent, loving parents tell of occasional contact that leads to further sorrow.  Grown sons or daughters reach out, are met with open ears and arms, but don’t follow through. Sometimes, an estranged adult reconciles with conditions for the parents: to babysit, give money, provide documents, or follow some strict set of arbitrary rules. If the criteria aren’t met with cheerful compliance, or if the need disintegrates, the relationship does too.

Other times, contact from an estranged adult child is prompted by outside influences. Mother’s Day (or other holidays) can be like that for an estranged adult. The media images of ideal families, set to music, and with bouquets and hugs, can tug at heartstrings or perhaps stir guilt. Sometimes, there’s an unknown factor in an estranged son or daughter’s life that prompts a call or card.

Often, a few texted words, a short call or a cryptic letter is as far as it goes. Parents may open their hearts, their wallets, and even their schedules, then bite their tongues to preserve what isn’t real. Eventually they get hurt.

After a few go-rounds, parents may view an apology with more suspicion than enthusiasm. Is her birthday coming up? Is he in a 12-step program that requires the making of amends? Why is she contacting me now?

Happy endings are few. Especially as estrangement persists. In the absence of contact, distance grows. People and their situations change. The stories of failed wishes, hopes, and tries that parents share with me abound. After years of false promises and dashed hopes, parents do what they must. They take charge of what they can control: themselves. They give in to a child’s decision and the circumstances involved—a son or daughter’s addiction or mental illness, a selfish heart, a stingy partner, or some other factor that we accept we may never know or understand. And then they get on with living their own lives.

Without this sort of change, the legacy for caring parents who did their best and came up short in their child’s eyes is only more judgment, speculation, and hurt. In our despair, we suffer physical pain and illnesses caused by stress. Mental anguish, grief over friendships that falter, and the loss of identity. Siblings are confused, angry, and grieve. Our marriages suffer. Single, widowed, or divorced parents may long for a partner, but they fear that no one could understand.

Even so, if an estranged grown child asks for a meeting, regardless of how many years have passed, and despite the dread that there may be more drama and disappointment, most parents agree. And many of the moms who have endured long estrangements tell me those meetings are bittersweet. They offer motherly comforts but guard their hearts. Here are a couple of examples:

A Minnesota mom in her late 70s serves lunch to the 50-year-old daughter who indicates that she needs closure. The two haven’t spoken in 14 years. The mother feels for the woman, whose face bears the troubles she tells. But the hurt her daughter inflicted was raw and grinding. It almost killed her. As the short visit comes to an end, she notices her daughter’s thin blouse isn’t warm enough for the weather. She pulls a thick parka from her closet and helps her daughter on with the coat. She can at least offer that.

estranged son called on Mother's DayA Southern California mother makes homemade bread for her son who is recently divorced from the wife who, years earlier, convinced him his mother was bad. They didn’t need her negativity in their lives. He has flown in from Illinois, the home of his in-laws and the now-grown daughter his mother has never met. At the kitchen table, the son sits in the chair his father used to occupy. The resemblance is startling, but the talk is empty. Lost time is the centerpiece. Missed opportunities. A gap they can’t quite bridge. When he stands to leave, he promises to call. She knows he won’t. And she will be okay. She has made a life for herself in his absence. She will return to her hard-won peace. She wraps the bread loaf for him to take.

Taking care of yourself

Whether you are currently estranged from a grown son or daughter, or one is just far away or emotionally distant, take care of yourself. Embrace your present. Fight for your future. The expectations, the goal, the relationship you’ve worked toward may have sifted through your fingers like sand. Don’t let your remaining years do the same.

Learn to “mother” yourself. If you’re estranged from adult children, take yourself by the hand like you once did your young son or daughter. Lead yourself forward. Shape your future into something you can love. Do it for yourself. And then follow through. Don’t squander your own motherly devotion. (I have tried to help with my book.)

As Mother’s Day approaches, I think of my son’s recent texts. His apology had surprised me after what he said the last time we talked. His words had been hurtful then. In these newer texts, he said that we were the best parents. He said that he’d failed us, and that he knew he was wrong. I appreciate those words, but don’t wish on him the burden of guilt or regret. I replied with a reminder that I forgave him long ago: So, you’re off the hook.

Further Reading:

Adult children who reject parents. Why do they make contact now?

Estrangement: What about hope?

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13 thoughts on “Mother Yourself

  1. Avataremily38

    Thank you for this moving essay before Mother’s Day, Sheri.

    You’ve written compassionately here about the realities of E and its all-too-possible long-term outcomes.
    Yes, there can be reconciliation. We cling to hope for that, regardless of its often unrealistic promise, then put it away to deal with what ‘is.’

    Your exposure to thousands of stories told by parents informs you of the true nature of the journey through heartbreak to ultimate healing from the foundational wound of E. And what you know you’ve shared here with care, with feeling and with concern for delivering an ultimate message too difficult for some to bear.

    My own experience with E would have been made so much better had I found your work earlier, just as others have written on the Forum. What matters only is that I found your book, your essays and the community.

    Happy Mother’s Day to you, with thanks for everything you do to shine light on the path we must walk to wellness.

    Emily38

    Reply
    1. Avatarmiritadc

      Dear Sheri:
      Thank you so much for your help with this heart wrenching pain and suffering of losing or being estranged from your son. Our first Estrangement lasted 3 years and we reconciled somewhat for 12 years where I got to know my beautiful grand children and now again it’s been 3 years again. I get a yearly birthday text for my birthday which seems more duty than any caring and I reply thank you . It does not seem to be going anywhere as I don’t feel he cares enough to put any past issues aside for the sake of having his Mother in his life . I must mother myself as I nurtured him so much and hope someday before I pass on he wants his mother back or some part of me back. Yes, I have changed as you expressed you have changed. This heartbreak breaks you but with the help of your book, your newsletters, this forum and realizing this happens more than we know it has now become more bearable and I feel I am coping and improving. I also go to therapist twice a month and this helps. I believe these lapses of time make the hope less and less possible to ever have a normal relationship again but perhaps a light surface one might be possible if and when he is ready.
      Your gift of writing and expressing these unnatural
      situations really help us heal and cope. This is my second post and I want to wish each and every Mother reading this a nice Mothers Day in spite of this hole we have in our hearts. ♥️

  2. AUSSIEMOMAUSSIEMOM

    Sheri, I’ve just read your article here on Mother’s Day, looking after yourselves. You have the gift of understanding what parents have gone through and do go through with an estrangement from a beloved child (grown-by-now) and of how to put that understanding into words that resonate with us all. Thank you for your article, I’ve kept it on file, personally. It is so well-written in how I have felt myself,
    Thank you,
    Aussiemom

    Reply
  3. AvatarRainbow

    Sheri, your article on Mother’s Day has touched my heart ever so deeply. Your words resonate with me, with all of us here on this forum. You know the depths of our pain and the feelings we carry in our hearts because you too have walked this painful journey. God Bless You for starting and keeping this website up and running, for your book which I consider the go to “bible” for every estranged parent, for giving us a voice, and a safe haven. I will be thinking of you and all of my forum friends on Mother’s Day. Love and of course, lots and lots of hugs (((((((((((((((((((((( )))))))))))))))))))))) Love, Rainbow

    Reply
  4. AvatarMiniMe

    It’s a strange feeling. I find comfort in knowing I’m not alone in all this, and I am also so mad I have this to share with anyone! None of us should be going through this. I was and still am a good person and I thought I was a good mom. My older daughter would tell you I am the best mom in the world! Yet my youngest daughter has someone rewritten our past, erased all memories of us together as if they never happened and she tells a story of our relationship as one I don’t know or care to hear. It’s maddening. I received a text from her about a month ago for my anniversary to her stepdad. No text for Easter. I put my phone away that morning in a drawer so I didn’t have to wait around all day looking at it, hoping for a text that never came. That night when I pulled the phone out of the drawer, there were dozens of well wishes from other people but none from her. Why is it that we can have so many people that love us but we always seem to focus on the one person that doesn’t show us love? Mother’s Day is coming and I’m trying to figure out how to feel whether I get a text or not because the truth is: I am hurt beyond words and a simple text feels like an empty obligation anyway so why am I so hoping I get one?

    Reply
    1. Avatarpeachy19

      minime,
      i was just thinking the same thing will my son remember all the special times? or will they just be my memories, we went to the park,the beach,all things i never did with my parents when i was young, then the special times i thought i had with my granddaughter where we would go to the book store i would read to her , take her to the movies, the park until her parents convinced her that i never took her on vacation, reading was boring, my apartment was too small for her to run and jump in she stopped wanting to come over and event cried that she didnt want to spend the night again i was so hurt

  5. AvatarCamgolfer

    Seems like your son wants reconciliation even if the relationship would be different. I find this article discouraging.

    Reply
  6. AvatarSasha

    I often think if I ever went to a therapist they would become very rich, lol. There are so many things I haven’t dealt with from way back. I say to myself…oh if only I would have had the b**ls to speak up every single time someone hurt me. I was always too shy and introverted to open my mouth. This last time when my son got on my case, I finally said something and he got extremely upset. I felt better that I did , and my husband did as well.

    Reply
    1. AvatarMiniMe

      I know that feeling. It feels good to be true to yourself and say what’s on your mind. I found myself acting so foolish around her when she came back the first time. I am embarrassed to think of it now. I was so foolish. I wasn’t myself. I was nervous around her. I cooked for her and bought her things. All to keep her around and happy. And she left again anyway. Sometimes speaking your mind feels more dignified and self respecting.

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  8. AvatarMiniMe

    Peachy19
    I can’t imagine the hurt you feel also being estranged from your grandchildren. I’m so sorry. It’s very sad.

    Reply
  9. mutterflymutterfly

    Sheri, thank you for this honest and enlightening post. Rainbow has stated it so well, I just need to say, ditto! Happy Mother’s day to you and everyone reading this, we are all good moms. Keep on searching for your joy!!

    Reply
  10. Avataroceanwaves3

    My oldest daughter cut all contact with us 3 years ago. She had one child at the time and through other family members found out she had another child. I feel very hurt that I can not love them and that she thinks its better they do not know me.

    Reply

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