Mother’s Day Is No Celebration For Mothers Of Estranged Adult Children

"I sat on the bench by the back door as she rolled her suitcase past me. I silently screamed, 'Please stay; we can work this out,' but her expression was determined, her eyes fixed and resolute."
The author and her daughter sometime in the '90s.
The author and her daughter sometime in the '90s.
Courtesy of Diane Forman

Mother’s Day is no Hallmark holiday for mothers of estranged adult children. On that Sunday in May, most will not see or hear from their sons or daughters, while knowing that other families are sharing cards, flowers, meals and memories. For many of these mothers, it is a day of grief and shame, not of joy.

The day my 18-year-old daughter said that she could no longer stand to live with me, I cried for the first time in decades. I thought I’d forgotten how, but there is deep muscle memory to crying, almost like riding a bike. It comes right back, like you’ve always done it, like you’d just coasted down that street the day before.

Later, I sat on the bench by the back door as she rolled her suitcase past me. I silently screamed, “Please stay; we can work this out,” but her expression was determined, her eyes fixed and resolute. In just a few moments, she and her boyfriend were gone. I followed them wordlessly as far as the garage before they disappeared into the night.

I didn’t yet understand that I couldn’t knit us into a single skin, forgetting where I ended and my children began.

For months after my daughter left, when our only communication was reduced to screaming or blame, I stumbled around town bawling behind my sunglasses, observing what I could through the mist. Sometimes I paired the glasses with a wide-brimmed hat, because hiding my face was one way to hide feeling like failure.

As a young girl I often felt alone, and promised myself that when I had children one day, I’d always be there. So I parented my kids in ways that were delicious and unfamiliar to me. Gifts weren’t just for birthdays or Christmas. I purchased Build-A-Bears with new outfits or packs of Pokemon cards just because I loved my kids. I was available to pick up, drop off or listen, at any hour of the day or night. I considered myself an attentive, loving mother.

My daughter became estranged anyway.

Between tears, I kept telling myself, I didn’t do anything to deserve this.

I was shocked to learn that according to one survey, 27% of Americans age 18 years and older have cut contact with one parent. Before I became part of that statistic, I had no idea there were so many fractured families. I’d always thought that adult children only become estranged from their parents due to serious abuse or neglect.

I had waited six long years for this beloved daughter. Between her brother’s birth and hers were a miscarriage and a chemical pregnancy, a cruel joke with a positive pregnancy test and a day or two later, a heavy period. I didn’t look too closely at the clump in the toilet, though I did grieve. I loved that clump of cells already.

But now my living daughter was gone. If she no longer wanted to talk to me, was I still her mother?

On days when I felt summarily dismissed, I shuffled around, trying to keep up pretenses, and learned to inhale slowly and fully, my breath smoothing out each gathering sob. Every Facebook post expressing love between a mother and daughter triggered an abyss of rejection. I created a barrier between myself and those mothers, refusing to talk about where my daughter was or how I felt. My shame was my secret.

I’d read Brené Brown’s books and watched several of her TED Talks on shame, but I’d never known anyone with an estranged child, which I viewed as the ultimate of mothering failures. As Brown writes, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment.” I allowed the shame of my daughter’s estrangement to bloom like a well-fertilized fungus. Even now, many years later, I have trouble writing this story without somatic reminders of that silent humiliation.

After my daughter left, I discovered Rejected Parents, a website that attracts 60,000 to 70,000 visitors a month. Then I realized that I wasn’t alone. There were common themes amidst the stories, including heartache, isolation, shock and regret. Most of the parents who posted their stories and questions had no idea what they’d done to drive their children away.

“I didn’t know that estrangement can be born from loving too much, from love that can border on enmeshment or codependence.”

According to psychologist Joshua Coleman, who has researched child estrangement extensively, “Estrangement seems to affect a small but significant portion of families in the United States, and it is happening today against a backdrop of record-high parental investment.” But increasingly, as Coleman discovered over four decades of investigation, “you can be a conscientious parent and your kid may still want nothing to do with you when they’re older.”

Coleman and other researchers are rightfully careful about culpability, but I know that one path to reconciliation is acknowledging the adult child’s experience and making amends.

I didn’t know that estrangement can be born from loving too much, from love that can border on enmeshment or codependence. One of the downsides of careful, conscientious parenting is that our children sometimes get too much attention. As psychologist Coleman writes, they get “not only our time and dedication, but our worry and concern. Sometimes children are unable to find their footing until they’re safely beyond the parent’s reach.” My daughter had to leave home and eventually move to a foreign country in order to cleave from me, to individuate and find herself.

But I, like most estranged parents, wasn’t thinking about individuation. It’s much easier to get lost in pity, regret and shame. The shared holidays and vacations we’ve missed. The cards that never came, the lost memories that can’t be recovered. Some parents posting on Rejected Parents had grandchildren they’d never met, interactions that didn’t come to fruition due to their estrangement. Their grief was especially deep and visceral, yet most blamed their children for the alienation. Most believed they’d done nothing significant to breach the relationship. I’ve seen this pattern again and again.

However, it’s a rare adult child who becomes estranged without thought. Behind most estrangements, full or partial, is a child who felt invalidated or unheard by their parents, even those who were doing the best they could. Yes, a parent can be extremely loving, as I saw myself, but unknowingly controlling or with poor boundaries. These are often unintentional, usually familial patterned behaviors, but as my daughter later pointed out, still impactful.

Despite long gaps in communication, my daughter never cut me out completely, though she tells me that she often considered it. Nevertheless, tense texts, teary or angry phone calls, and short, usually unsuccessful attempts at face-to-face visits continued for five years. During this unrelenting period, I often despaired, dreams of our reconciliation fading. I tried to have hope, but hope is a slippery fish.

Some estrangements last a lifetime, but I am fortunate as ours did not. In order to rebuild our fractured relationship, I had to listen carefully and deeply, although it was often painful. There were accusations. And blame. An estranged parent can find it difficult to acknowledge the feelings and experiences of an adult child, but this denial continues the estrangement cycle. I learned that the best way to healing and wholeness is to listen, validate and apologize, if possible.

Slowly and deliberately, my daughter and I found our way back to each other. I’ve worked hard to change long-patterned behaviors, rediscovering myself and allowing my daughter to be exactly who she is, unhindered by my expectations, worry and fear. And she kept showing up, because despite our past difficulties, she cared deeply about saving the relationship. Now we freely talk or text almost every day, a gift I could never have imagined a few years ago.

If I could offer any advice to a grieving mother dealing with estrangement this Mother’s Day, it is this: Be kind to yourself. And when you are ready, listen to your adult child’s experience. Respect space and distance if it’s requested. Trust, even when sad or terrified. Even when you know there is no road map. And remember, that in the end, we all want the same thing: to be loved and accepted for exactly who we are.

Diane Forman is a writer and educator.

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