Across the United States, families are confronting a holiday season like no other. Early data suggests that millions of people are still traveling to see loved ones despite public health recommendations, but certainly far fewer than usual.
Families are hunkering down and staying home, which for many is a sad end to a long, hard year.
But for adults who have chosen to be estranged from their parents, this COVID-19 holiday season is a relief — making them feel less like outliers, and erasing any residual pressure to reconnect.
“It’s so much less stressful not worrying about seeing her,” said 34-year-old Melissa, speaking about her mom.
They have been estranged since Melissa had her first child five years ago, due to what Melissa believes to be undiagnosed borderline personality disorder. (Melissa, like all of those interviewed for this story, used her first name in order to protect her privacy and that of her parents.)
Dealing with her mother’s outbursts and suffocating control issues simply was too much. And Christmas was always a challenge. Her mother was rigid, insisting, for example, that everyone be assembled to open presents by 6 am. If they deviated at all, she would lose her temper. But now the pressure is off.
“Once we cut ties, every year at the holidays we’ve just felt more and more relief,” Melissa said.
It’s unclear how many adults in the U.S. are estranged from their parents by choice, but many experts believe it is far more common than is generally recognized — and on the rise. The limited estimates that are available suggest that up to 20% of young adults are estranged from their parents.
Of course, there are many factors that drive children to cut ties with their mother, father or both, though a recent report from the U.K. suggests four are especially common: emotional abuse, different expectations for family roles, conflict based on personality or values, and neglect.
But even when adults are certain that estrangement is the right choice, it can be emotionally difficult. Amanda, a 40-year-old mom of two, cut her father and stepmom out of her life when her own children were 5 and 7. They had long been critical of her life path, going out of their way to berate her. She did not cut contact, however, until she saw them being unkind to her kids.
During an unannounced visit to Amanda’s house, her father and stepmom criticized the state of her house — taking particular offense at seeing toys in her front yard. When they finished yelling, they left, not taking a moment to talk to their grandchildren who had been patiently waiting to say “hi” since their arrival.
Despite that kind of behavior, Amanda still has moments when she wishes her children could see their grandparents — particularly during the pandemic. Her father and stepmom have a large piece of property about 30 minutes away where her children once loved to run around. “There are days when I think, ‘Gosh, that’s something my father would love to hear,’” Amanda said.
She has had moments when she wonders what it would be like to spend more time with them. Then she remembers why she cut ties: She wanted to protect her children from being made to feel that they are somehow not good enough.
And for some estranged adults, the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly difficult. Nicole, a 40-year-old mom of two, has not spoken with her father in a little over a year. Around that time, she told him she needed him to be more emotionally supportive of her and her family. He responded in an angry letter calling them “hurtful names” and making accusations Nicole described as “just horrible.” She never wrote back.
The months since have been tough. Nicole, who works in health care, finds herself worrying about how her father is doing and whether he is healthy. He sent Christmas presents to the house for her children, but unwrapped — to Nicole, a small sign of the lack of consideration she notes from him in ways big and small.
It is challenging to be apart around the holidays, but her desire to keep her children and husband safe emotionally and physically trumps everything else. And in that way, the pandemic has only strengthened her resolve.
“I miss him,” she said. “But I feel strong instead of sad.”