by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
Jaylene, a widow whose only daughter is estranged, said she recently looked in the mirror and—in her words—saw a cold-hearted mother staring back. “I decided not to give my estranged daughter holiday gifts this year,” she said. “I’ve become indifferent. I guess I’ve healed so well that I no longer care.”
But she did care. She cared so much about being a good parent and a forgiving person that she harshly judged herself for the various actions she’d taken over the last ten months to save herself. Suddenly, she was in turmoil.
Healing from estrangement: Your feelings
Over the years, I’ve heard similar accounts from other parents as they work at healing from estrangement. Kind, loving mothers and fathers who had come to realize that letting go was the only sensible choice. Leaving their happiness in their adult child’s hands wasn’t an option. They’d been down that sad road of wishing, hoping, trying, and being rebuffed. No matter how apologetic or accommodating they were, their adult children spewed hate, assigned blame, made fun of them, or refused to talk at all.
In our discussion, Jaylene said she and her daughter used to have fun together. Then, when her daughter reached her late 20s, she changed. Suddenly Jaylene was the enemy. In shock and worried, Jaylene had eggshell walked for years. Things would go smoothly for a little while, but Jaylene was always on edge. She was careful to keep her opinions to herself around her daughter, whose eyes might suddenly narrow as she centered on a misplaced word or unintended slight. Jaylene was forgiving, helpful, and accommodated her daughter’s lifestyle, schedule, and opinions without complaint. In short, she loved her daughter, and hoped that one day, she might be kind and caring again.
Each time her daughter cut her off, Jaylene was the one to smooth things over. When her daughter finally reconnected (after weeks or months), Jaylene tried to keep the peace. She prayed for patience, ignored her daughter’s snipes, and even made excuses for her behavior. She remained devoted and friendly. Yet, without fail, her daughter eventually hooked some imagined offense to her revised version of their history and left her mother in a lurch again.
A turning point
Ten months ago, as the New Year approached, Jaylene stared down her upcoming 60th birthday and decided she’d had enough. Her daughter was 33. Much too old to act like a petulant child. Jaylene saw a new decade ahead and began to wonder how many years she had left. Did she want to spend the rest of her life drowning in her daughter’s disrespect? No.
When Jaylene first contacted me, the stress of an angry daughter she was forever trying to please was harming her health. Jaylene was exhausted, frustrated, and hurt. When she looked at her life going forward, she knew things had to change. Rather than continuing to placate a daughter who clearly did not like her, it was time to go with the flow instead of fighting the inevitable.
Healing from estrangement: What’s in your control?
Take a hard look at what you can and can’t do. Evaluate the dynamics of the relationship. What were your own responses, reactions, and coping tactics? Were they effective? Were they hurtful? Did you maintain your own integrity? Did you lose yourself?
Deciding to change
To move in a new direction, Jaylene first had to let go of the idea that she could make her daughter happy, and then shift gears to please herself. As is true for many parents, this required dropping the lens of negativity about herself that she’d accepted from her daughter, looking back at their time together with clear eyes instead, and seeing all the good she’d done as a mother. She also had to drop the rose-colored glasses of hopeful wishes and see the current situation as it was.
Jaylene used the exercises in Done With The Crying to reclaim her identify as the loving, supportive mother she’d always been. Then, she could affirm her decision to free herself of meanness and disrespect she didn’t deserve, and work at moving forward for herself and her own happiness.
At first, letting go was difficult. The chasm between them grew. Jaylene saw more clearly that, for several years, their “relationship” had been one-sided.
Jaylene set her sights on a new way of life. She focused on whatever brought her happiness and was consciously grateful for any good in her life. She took up new hobbies, made more friends, and after nine years of widowhood, considered what it might be like to find a romantic companion. Most of the time, Jaylene was happy. She didn’t know how many years she had left, but she did know she’d make the most of them.
In the last 10 months, Jaylene had progressed considerably. She no longer felt the need to try and make her daughter love her. And she’d accepted that whatever it was that had caused her daughter’s change, whether that was mental illness, substance abuse, societal influences, or something else. She couldn’t fix those. Jaylene had taken charge of what she could—in her own life—and she was happy.
Then, as the trees began to turn color, the pumpkins and costumes appeared in the stores, and the holidays loomed, her outlook dimmed. That’s when she looked in the mirror and had a tough time seeing herself as anything but a terrible mom. Instead of focusing on her own life, she took on the familiar “mother guilt” that had once made her responsible for her daughter’s happiness. Jaylene wrung her hands, fought indigestion and overeating, and repeatedly asked:
- What will my daughter do for the holidays if I don’t invite her?
- Will she be all alone?
- How will my daughter feel if her own mother doesn’t send a card or gift?
Monster in the mirror? Santa Claus? Or just a tired parent?
The more Jaylene focused on her daughter’s possible pain—and took responsibility for it—the more she harshly judged herself. In talking it through, Jaylene began to realize that the holidays with their family focus had triggered her thoughts and feelings. Yet, she also realized she had come too far to let the joy-joy, family-family atmosphere derail her progress.
I hear the same reactions from parents when a birthday or some other special day rolls around. Your trigger might be a certain time of year or hearing about how close and loving a friend’s adult children are. Even a well-meaning individual who loves you but who doesn’t understand might say something intended as helpful that pushes you back.
The truth is a lot of people don’t have a clue about the complexities that sometimes accompany estrangement. Idealistic notions about parenthood and unconditional love may be beautiful, but they become unrealistic and hurtful given the circumstances. The verbal abuse and mind games that may have gone on for years can become a shadow that can entangle parents into thinking badly of themselves or believing that it’s too late to change.
Don’t let your thoughts enslave you
“I don’t like him anymore,” one mother said of her abusive grown son. “But that’s not how a mother should feel.”
“He’s mentally ill,” one father said of the manipulative adult son who had talked him out of money once again. “But if someone’s father won’t stay loyal, who will?”
Like Jaylene, these parents were caught by a wave of emotion stirred up by the holidays, triggered by a special day, or fueled by the latest chaos. Instead of looking outward to the adult children who treat them badly and seeing their own desire to retreat as normal and even healthy, they see a monster in the mirror.
Believing that the children we have loved so much might love us back when they become adults is natural and normal. When they don’t, and we grow weary of trying to maintain or nurture a relationship to no avail, we can still face the mirror. We don’t have to reconcile their uncaring, unkind, or dismissive behavior with our own growth and self-discovery, and judge ourselves harshly for working to heal.
Don’t berate yourself. When adult children so hurt you and desecrate the relationship, your feelings of strong dislike or indifference are normal. You might even wish you’d never had children, but your entire history as a parent or as a human being must not be defined by the thought. These feelings are usually fleeting, the result of frustration, anger, or desperation. You can acknowledge your losses, accept your feelings for what they are, and adjust your outlook. By recognizing and accepting your feelings, you validate yourself and your experiences. It’s okay to make your healing from estrangement about you and your growth.
Healing from estrangement: An honest look
After reading an advance copy of my latest book, Beyond Done With The Crying: More Answers and Advice for Parents of Estranged Adult Children, Mara Briere of Grow a Strong Family sent me an email in which she called the book, “REAL. Honest. Helpful.” She added, “It is an important, must-read for anyone impacted by estrangement, and especially the well-meaning and misguided professionals who think they can help families traumatized by this phenomenon.”
This new book provides a raw look at parent-and-adult-child estrangement. It’s a follow-up to my first book for parents of estranged adult children, Done With The Crying, and I encourage you to read that one and work through its exercises first. Done With The Crying shares my story and takes a gentler approach in helping parents face reality and venture forward for their own well-being.
In Beyond Done, the gritty experience of estrangement with its frequent chaos and complexities is cracked open and laid bare. Mental health issues are included. Even parents who have made mistakes they consider huge, and not the typical ones that all parents may inadvertently make, will find themselves represented—and more importantly—supported in moving beyond their guilt and pain.
With new information and innovative exercises that build resilience and growth, parents can face themselves square in the mirror no matter their thoughts, acknowledge their responses as normal given the circumstances, forgive themselves as needed, and move toward a happier, freer future.
Ongoing healing from estrangement
With support, Jaylene made decisions about the holidays that sustained her self-growth and forward focus. She would send an e-card because it didn’t feel “right” not to acknowledge the holidays—and admitting her hope was honest. She would not send a gift or otherwise reach out though because that would feel like stepping backward into pleasing-her-daughter mode. She could live with this decision. It didn’t mean she was a bad person, cold-hearted, or even indifferent.
No matter what you’ve decided for yourself or your relationship with your estranged adult child(ren), get ready for the holiday season early so you’ll be prepared. Would a charity appreciate your help (whether monetary or hands-on)? Can you do something different this year and make a new tradition?
I know how resourceful those who read this blog are! I hope you will leave comments to this article here, where you can learn from and help other parents who are healing from estrangement. What do you think: Does your healing make you cold-hearted? Is it okay to be indifferent to someone who doesn’t treat you well? What will you do to make the holiday season bright?
Write your thoughts in a comment so we can learn from each other.