This article is a follow-up to Karen Westerberg Reyes’ article, “Coping with Estranged Adult Children,” from the September/October 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.
I don’t know what I expected when my semi-estranged daughter Mia came to visit. It was the first Thanksgiving we would be together since she left home some 30 years ago. These were difficult and tense years during which our relationship eroded to the point of almost non-existence despite my numerous attempts to keep it alive.
I had high hopes for this holiday get-together. At best I fantasized that Mia would tell me she was sorry for being so distant, she would beg my forgiveness, and I would again be reunited with that happy, funny, outgoing person she was during her younger years. We would talk way into the night and determine that the whole thing was a huge misunderstanding. We would laugh and maybe cry a little about the collection of absurd breakdowns of communication, the silly disagreements, and the unintended sleights that took place over the years. We would resolve to never let them occur again.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
What did take place was a slow, almost imperceptible coming to terms with the fact that each of us was still nursing a collection of emotional wounds that we learned (were still learning) to live with, to rationalize, to understand. There was the realization that neither one of us really understood what the exact problems were, and maybe we never would. There was no blaming, no finger pointing, no censure. And, sadly, there was no dramatic reconciliation. What we found was a sort of benign coming to terms with the reality of our blood relation, our inevitable and undeniable connection, and most important, our intact — albeit fractured — love for each other.
We both agreed that it was that love that has held us together all these years: A thin, sometimes fraying connection, but one that had, despite periods of complete estrangement, never completely broke. It was during this coming-to-terms moment that I asked her what she thought of the article I had written about her. Her answer: “Different perspectives, Mom, different perspectives. You’re going to have to accept that I’m never going to be your little girl again.” That statement brought home to me in glaring color my own culpability for many of the problems in this relationship. Maybe a lot of the problems. I owned up to my unrealistic expectations, we talked about them, and I immediately felt the relief of confession and, most important, of Mia’s absolution.
We eventually came to a quiet agreement that we would proceed from here with fresh intentions. Mia would not give me fodder for my guilt about mistakes I might have made raising her. And I would not continue to expect her to resurrect her childhood attitudes. It was less than I wanted but more than I expected.
The first night after Mia flew home I had a dream. I was standing outside of a locked door looking through its window into a room where I could see Mia. She was setting the dinner table. That used to be her responsibility when she lived at home. Apparently she was unaware of my presence even though I was knocking very hard. Still no reaction. I started pounding on the door and screamed her name. I became desperate and more distressed because I didn’t know if she was ignoring me on purpose or if she really didn’t hear me. I didn’t know whether to be angry or concerned. Then, all of a sudden she looked up. She saw me, smiled, and started walking toward me.
Lying there after I woke up, I decided the dream was an apt metaphor for our past relationship. Mia, detached and unresponsive; me fretting and second guessing Mia’s intentions. But the end of the dream captured my hopes for our future relationship: Mia finally hearing me knocking.
Mia was always my favorite. Oh, I know parents aren’t supposed to have favorites, but here’s a flash — they do. They can’t help it. I love her brother and sister more than my own life, but I always loved her just a smidgen more. Cut her a bit more slack. And in return, she was the model child. Where her brother and sister were often spirited and rebellious — demanding so much of my time, patience, and energy — Mia never seemed to give me any trouble.
She was a happy kid who did well in school and had lots of friends. When I would arrive home after work each evening, she would be the first one to run and greet me, just bubbling over with stories about her day.
But in Mia’s late teens, she started to pull away. She’d argue with me about doing her chores, she became sullen, and she even ditched a couple days of school in her senior year — all things that were completely out of character for her. And the day after she graduated at 18, she moved out of our house. She had taken her savings and rented a small apartment without even telling me. A couple years after that, she moved out of state.
Our relationship continued to deteriorate. It didn’t happen all at once. It was a process almost too slow to monitor until it hit me one day that she was now not only geographically but emotionally distant. It’s not just that she didn’t regularly contact me; she didn’t contact me at all. If I hadn’t reached out, I wonder if we ever would have communicated. And when we did, she was always remote, monosyllabic, closed.
I travel to visit her at least once a year. I go to her; she never comes to me. She doesn’t exactly make me feel unwelcome, but there’s a palpable awkwardness between us when we are together that I just don’t understand. I want to hug her, hold her, feel the presence of that sweet little girl I once knew. She’s my child, my baby. Why is this happening? Just because she’s a 40-something adult shouldn’t change this bond.
I have asked her dozens of times why our relationship is so strained. She has no answer. If only she would tell me, I could explain or ask forgiveness. Was it the fact that I maintained a career during the years she was growing up? She always said that she wished I was the kind of mom who was home more, waiting for her after school with hot chocolate and homemade cookies. It was a running joke between us. But now I wonder if it really was a joke. Was it because I divorced her father? I’ve tortured myself about these big things and even a multitude of minor incidents that took place during her childhood. Did I handle them correctly? Was I too tough? Too lax?
Mia’s semi-estrangement is something I don’t readily discuss. When acquaintances ask me how she is, I always tell them she’s doing great. I hide our situation as I would an ugly sore beneath a Band-Aid. I try to ignore it, not think about it too much, but it continues to hurt. Sometimes in the wee hours of the morning when sleep eludes me and my worries attack me, there it is. It makes me so sad.
The only consolation, if you can call it that, is that I’m not alone. On a whim one sleepless night, I Googled “adult children estranged from their parents.” Thousands of hits came up, including a multitude of blogs, self-help websites, and the titles of dozens of books and other publications exploring every facet of this subject. “It’s a silent epidemic,” writes psychologist Joshua Coleman in his book When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along. “It’s sadly very common.” Other experts on the subject agree.
Just within the circle of my own friends there are many stories. Mary and I have been best friends for almost 40 years. She and her daughter had always had a loving albeit prickly relationship. After her daughter graduated from college, married, and moved out of the country — “as far away from me as she could,” bemoans Mary — their bond continued to deteriorate, especially after her daughter had a baby.
Stan, who is married to my friend Ellen, has been estranged from his son since shortly after he and his first wife divorced more than 40 years ago. “I tried to visit him early on,” he says, “but it was just too hard. My ex-wife just wanted to get on with her life and she didn’t want me involved in any aspect of it. Neither did my son.”
Coleman writes that divorce is often the cause of parent-child estrangement. I sometimes think that my own divorce from Mia’s dad might be at the root of my Mia problem. She was only 15 when my husband and I went through an especially difficult breakup. There were several separations followed by reconciliations that didn’t last. The emotional yo-yoing went on for a couple of years, and it took a terrible toll on our whole family. During a visit to see Mia on her 40th birthday, I asked her about it. She told me, yes, the divorce was especially hard on her. Not so much because her dad moved out but more because I was, as she put it, “just so out of it.” I told her how sorry I was and tried to explain that the breakup of my 25-year marriage was the most devastating event of my life. I figured, now that she was a married adult herself, she would understand. But if the truth be told, having that discussion didn’t seem to melt the ice between us.
Divorce, however, isn’t the only common denominator for these familial rifts. My neighbor Judy’s son cut off contact with her just when she was most vulnerable, after the death of her husband of 45 years. It left Judy bewildered and even more broken because she had no idea her son had been hiding these feelings for so long. “He told me I never treated his father with the respect he deserved,” Judy says. “I still don’t understand.”
In an appropriately titled book, Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents, author Jane Isay writes that one of the reasons for this plague of estrangements is that adult children become progressively more focused on their own lives as they get older, a natural development that some mothers and fathers have a hard time accepting. “Parents can adapt themselves to no longer being the center of their children’s lives,” she explains. For most parents that’s easier said than done. It certainly was for me since almost from the moment my children were conceived, my life was centered around their well-being. Then, all of a sudden, they were grown, on their own, and I was expected to just step off to the side.
About six months ago, I sent Mia a chatty email that included a question about some remodel work I was having done on my house. Her husband used to own a construction company. She took an especially long time to respond. After I conveyed my impatience to her, she let me know quite bluntly that she was very busy with her job and life and friends and I shouldn’t expect her to drop everything to immediately respond unless it was an emergency. I felt dismissed, disrespected, and angry.
That was when I finally decided that if I wasn’t able to change her attitude toward me, I was going to have to change my attitude toward her. It was a liberating moment, one that Sheri McGregor talks about in her book, Done with the Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children. I read about the emotional suffering she went through because of her estranged son. Like me, she spent years feeling guilty and trying to figure out why it had happened. Eventually she came to the realization that, after all her failed efforts to change the situation, it was time for her to get on with her life and let her son get on with his. That’s exactly what I had to do.
In an email (I didn’t trust myself to verbally relay this message), I let Mia know for the first time how her behavior had affected me all these years, how unfair I felt it was for her to be so aloof and uncommunicative. I told her that I loved her but that I was done feeling guilty and tiptoeing around her feelings. I explained that when and if she wanted to have a relationship, I would be here. If she didn’t, I would accept her decision.
Almost immediately I felt like a weight had been lifted from my heart. Mia now knew exactly how I felt. This baring of my soul was hard, and it involved a lot of soul-searching. I came to the realization that perhaps I was the problem all along because I expected Mia to continue acting like the adoring little girl she used to be, something she wasn’t able to do. If that were the case, we both now would be free of the emotional ties that had caused us so much angst.
It’s been several months since I sent that email. Since then I’ve only heard from Mia once — on my birthday. It was a short and cordial phone conversation. And, surprising to me, I was just fine with that. My life is, well, less clouded by my trouble with Mia. I still worry about her, but every time I do I remind myself that she is a very capable adult who has a right to decide how she wants to relate to me and the rest of her family. Then I go about my own business.
Karen Westerberg Reyes’ last article for the Post was “Don’t Patronize Me!” in the November/December 2016 issue.
This article is featured in the September/October 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.