In Part Deux, I got a little more detailed about my history with my daughter, who was the only one of my three children who turned on me completely and lashed out. However, I’m betting that if she had her way, my sons would, too. It’s something I never understood. More on that below.
This series was prompted by a lengthy comment left by my daughter on a blog post of mine. I was shocked to see things that were patently untrue, while I was also reading identical things to what I have seen for the last five or six years in groups I moderate for people in positions similar to mine.
In this post, I want to dispel some more myths and share some more of the dynamics of the process and where there is hope for people in this situation. I ended the last post with:
Myth Numbers Four & Five: We believe that if our kids know we love them, that will solve everything; and we are angry at our kids and deserve their anger back if we speak honestly about what happened or share our perspective.
Neither of these are true. We know better because we’ve experienced the reality. An initial reaction of a parent being excoriated by an adult child is “but I/we love him/her! What’s going on?! I don’t get it! How could this happen?!”
It usually entails some version of feeling sorry for ourselves, portraying ourselves as victims or heroes or both, but in reality we are horrible people who deserve to die miserable deaths and then rot in hell.
A trademark of estrangement is that while they’re spewing this, they typically claim to never have been brainwashed, influenced, encouraged, or even talked to by anyone; they came to this conclusion entirely on their own and wholeheartedly own it and stand by it. They’re happy, they say, and we can’t stand that. We just want to suffer and drag them down with us.
I’m sorry, does this crack up anyone else? If you’re in the thick of it, I know it doesn’t. In the thick of it, it’s like you’re standing on a sinkhole that has started to cave in. There is nothing funny about it.
But let’s ask this question: Do people who are genuinely happy — I’m talking happy, through to their hearts happy — entertain ideas like this? About anyone? Never mind a person who aided their entre into earthly life and by all accounts was pretty normal until — well, whatever “happened” that created the life-altering rift?
Another short answer: No. They don’t. Happy people don’t. Happy, emotionally and mentally healthy, stable people don’t.
People in some kind of pain do. So we’re guided to wonder about what they are in pain.
Divorce? Abuse? Dysfunction? Drugs? Alcohol? Some other kind of loss?
We also know that “arrived at this on my own” is often a load of manure. Cues are also written into the bashings. Who else said these words? An ex? Another family member? An in-law? A boyfriend/girlfriend/new partner/husband/wife?
It’s there. It is rarely born out of thin air. It may be deeply hidden and if it ever came out, the targeted parent would be gape-mouthed, saying, “THAT?! This — years of this is all about THAT?! I had no idea that was such a big deal!” Then asking, “why in the world did you never say so?!”
They’ll claim they did. They’ll claim you knew. But it is buried in the lashings that make no sense whatsoever when the recipient hears it in the vacuum of nothing other than just that rage with no explanation.
In my home, because my kids had been subject to so much from biological parents and others, I worked my derrière to the bone to cultivate an atmosphere of safety to get things out in the open, discussed, and worked through to a resolution everyone could live with. None of them were afraid to talk to me about anything. When they hit their teens, they hid things like all teens do, but as far as feelings and important issues, the only one who stepped off the “mom can hear this” train was my daughter.
Her go-to was to take everyone with her when she was upset with someone. She’d be angry at her dad, she wanted to run away with me — sometimes with her brothers, more often, leaving them with him. We all felt the peace envelop the house with the absence of the eggshells my now-ex took with him whenever he traveled, but she was adamant that everyone be on the same page with however she felt about him at any given moment. To this day, I can say positive things about him, despite some really awful things he did. My girl is very much her father’s daughter — black and white — it is this, and it has always been this, and you must feel that way, too. Her BFF annoyed her, everyone had to be annoyed with her BFF.
Now, of course, that has translated to me. She “wasn’t brainwashed,” she said, but one of her brothers asked me a question about child support while he was on the phone — with her — related to his wanting to live with me after his father tricked him into going out of state. (When my ex left, I never filed for it, hence I never got it, and it never came up. They had enough to deal with. Their father, did, however, file for it from me. He did that with his first wife, too.)
Myth Number Six: We want to fix it. By extension, we will do anything we can for as long as we can to accomplish that.
Not always true. For some parents, yes. Especially if the family was relatively normal when the child was growing up. There are predators out there, in fact, who count on this, and charge outrageous sums to “coach” families interested in reconciliation. There is genuinely good advice out there, some people charge for courses or workshops, but unethical people rely on desperation to take money out of grieving people’s pockets. It’s disgusting. I advise everyone in my groups to BE! CAREFUL! When I was new at this, one targeted me. I scraped him off before he got very far, and had him banned from all the pages and forums with which I was affiliated.
Once we’ve been at this for a while, though, we get used to not getting used to it. Or we actually get used to it. We see the stories of what others have been through and think, Jesus God in Heaven, no way I’m setting myself up for that. Not only do the adult kids do and say some pretty crazy stuff, they get their kids in on the act. So now these parents are dealing with being verbally manhandled by grandchildren as well as their adult kids. No thanks.
Which leads back to Myth Number Five, about being wrong for outing ourselves or describing what happened in our families.
We’re not. A caveat is that you can find people who are incensed about being rejected by their adult kids and stay stuck in their anger. (Or are heartbroken and stay stuck in their grief.) However, for people who pursue healing, neither has to last. On the scale of grief, acceptance eventually arrives and we can lead very enriching and fulfilling lives. It doesn’t mean nostalgia won’t be a part of our lives. But we can live with it without being consumed by it.
There is no shame in telling others. Resorting to the same kind of bashing we’re receiving is a tricky proposition, isn’t it? We slide all over that slope. But there is a huge difference between sharing truth, expressing pain, and lobbing bombs back and forth. When I’ve been angry, I have said “I’m angry.” (This was something my kids’ therapists and I worked very hard to get them to do and I tried to model because their father, who suffered from explosive rage, never did.) Pushed to our limits, if we suffer from emotional injury-related triggers, we can fail, but we can work very hard to express feelings rather than hurl insults and attacks, and as I have said numerous times, own and correct failures when they happen.
During the last months of awfulness in the breakup of our family, we were all dealing with such overwhelming confusion and pain, the kids and I were strained to our limits. All kinds of things went wrong, particularly between me and my daughter. I lost count early in our relationship of how many times I reminded my ex that I wasn’t his enemy. My goal was never to retaliate, despite the affronts he perpetrated on me and his own biological children, because I was trying to ensure they could see what fairness looked like, working with someone not against, and that love is free, not riddled with conditions and punishment if it was given to the “wrong” person. I never understood how my ex, then my daughter, did the complete opposite.
Sound familiar? If you’re experiencing estrangement, it probably does. A lot of us are shocked to learn in the beginning that we could write each other’s stories.
My go-to whenever I confronted things I didn’t understand was research and connecting with others in the same situation. Sharing our stories is immensely helpful in knowing we’re not alone.
There is a lot of judgment in this kind of situation, coming from all sides. For a while, when it’s new, we figure we had to have done something wrong, and the adult kids have no problem telling us how right we are about that and what scum we are for having done it. There can be judgment from outside, because people hearing about it can’t figure out how it could have happened if you really didn’t do anything wrong to cause it. Then, of course, we get to hear all about it from the kids — if they deign to communicate at all. We don’t hear “can we talk? I’d like to understand/clear the air/hear your side/etc.” Their side. That’s what matters, and that is all that matters. What comes from it in these instances is rarely anything other than torpedoes.
For many of us, there comes a time when enough really is enough. I fall into that category. I got it from their father. I got it from their grandmother (when I wasn’t a saint anymore, I fell hard and fast — I made the mistake of telling her more about her son than she wanted to hear, and I called her out on criticizing me to my kids). I got it from my own mother, who seems more interested in my kids now than she ever was when I was raising them. I got it from my sister. I got it from an extended family member when I reached out for help. “They’ll circle the wagons if you say anything,” she said. “You don’t want to speak out.”
What I heard more from people than anything else, when I was going through the worst of the worst times, was “they’re not your kids. LEAVE.”
What’s interesting, especially when it comes to my daughter and her memory, is that is one thing no human being ever once heard from me is “they’re not mine.”
Never. Not one time. Because they always were mine. Parents of their friends, teachers, coaches, camp counselors, therapists – all were surprised to learn I wasn’t a bio-parent. I was one thousand percent invested, up to my eyeballs and beyond. To this day, my daughter even calls herself, even in her rage-filled missive, my daughter. Along with her biological parents and her extended family, my fingerprints are all over her life and in a lot of the positive things she shares with other people; she’s been volunteering with children since she was in middle school. I helped her get started.
I’m sure she could still list all the things I helped her with, and helped her do, good things that are with her to this day. I’m sure your child(ren) can do the same thing. However, in estrangement, especially when the estranged child has taken on the attributes of a controlling other person or people, the plusses are always followed by “BUT…!” and a torrent of wrongs is unleashed, whether they have any basis in reality or not, and regardless of how small those things were when they happened. What we rarely see in cases of this kind of estrangement is the adult child(ren) bonding with the healthier parent. It is almost always with their childhood abuser.
I also read on a daily basis in my groups how controlling siblings wind up demanding loyalty at a high price from other siblings against the estranged parent, not realizing they are playing out the same exact thing a controlling parent did to them, or what a new controlling partner is currently demanding of him or her. The sentiment, however it is communicated to the sibling attempting to maintain a relationship with the estranged parent, goes like this: you CANNOT love or have further contact with that person; you MUST adopt what I’m telling you; nothing else will do; anything other than what I demand will be considered betrayal, and you WILL pay the consequences: CHOOSE.
This has also been happening in my case since shortly after my now ex walked out. The counselor I took my boys to see after their father left cautioned that it might happen. The only things that surprised me were how quickly it did and how vicious it became.
Did I screw up? Absolutely, I screwed up. There is no way to be human and not screw up sometimes as a parent. In my case especially, when they were eight, six and three years old when I met them, and brought into the world by two other dysfunctional people, there was no way not to screw up sometimes. Hell, it was built in. But I did my best. I did a damned good job of doing my best, too. Right up until the end, when some alien creature showed up in my daughter’s body, then told me to fuck off.
I fucked off. LOL You want it, you got it. Less drama for me. Or so I thought at the time. More followed, but that’s covered in how she began relating to her brothers when it came to me. These aren’t quotes from her, but the situation was like, “fuck off! Oh, you’re going to fuck off? Fine! I’m telling everyone how awful you are!” (Wait, what? But there it is. You can’t make some of this stuff up.)
What my daughter is choosing to miss is that I owned it when I did mess up, along with the battles I fought for them and with them, and never batted an eye. Her, most of all. Her brothers were younger. She had sustained the most severe injuries to her emotional wellbeing. I knew that walking in, that first night she “flashed” me with her vest. I didn’t run. I never left. She did.
She supports her position, according to what I read, with a foundation of complete bullshit, exaggerated misunderstandings, and things she refuses to admit were fed to her by people who never had her best interests at heart, or had her back. I messed up just like all parents mess up and make mistakes sometimes. But I always had their best interests in mind. *I* had her back. I had all of their backs. I AM the good guy.
This is how it happens for a lot of us. They walk away. They blame us. They have to. It only makes sense that way. My kids’ biological parents both did it to them. She decided to do it to me. Plain as black & white. Accepting the reality of what her father had done by walking out on his family was too much. So she listened to his “reasons,” married them to the arguments she and I were having that normally we would have gotten past without too much fanfare, and badda-bing, he doesn’t have a problem — mom does.
I wasn’t physically sick (I was; I had worsening Hepatitis C) — but now, for her case against me, I was “having meltdowns.” She didn’t blow her first semester in college because she took on too much and refused to listen to all of us who were trying to get her to scale back, she failed because she was stressing about me. Suddenly I wasn’t interested in my son’s happiness and helping him live where he wanted to, I was sitting around collecting child support (see above – never happened). I didn’t tell her she needed an attitude adjustment, I told her I never wanted her in my house again. I wasn’t being a mom with typical mom rules, I was controlling.
This is what they do. This is what they have to do. If you’re in this, I know you have your own examples.
Our estranged kids want to believe we take on the things they say about us to justify banning us from their lives. Some do. Most don’t. We’re baffled and perplexed, but we study and we learn. Estrangement is a thing. They don’t read about it, because we’re the ones with the problem, not them. Nothing to understand. They have washed their hands, and for good reason.
My daughter, like perhaps your son or daughter, is also ignoring a basic thing I taught my kids: When you commit a wrong, do your best to make it right — not just for the other person, but for yourself. It’s integrity. You will never be wrong for that. I called out lies, I called out bullshit, I called out wrongs, no matter who did what to whom, and I admitted mistakes and apologized when I did, to model what I was describing to show it to them.
Estrangement comes with bitter pills and lots of resentment on many fronts that takes effort and willingness to heal. Anyone can isolate events, exaggerate them, make them into things they were not, and use them as excuses to bash anyone, friend, family member, or stranger. “YOU DID ‘X’!” is not the same thing as “I heard from someone you did this. Did you?”
And it is most definitely not “I screwed up. I was wrong. I’m sorry.”
Hope exists, and the kind of hope depends on the type you seek. Is there hope for reconciliation? Yes. Does it always work? Unfortunately, not always. It takes time, patience, effort, and willingness to listen on the part of each party. It can be painful. It can be difficult. The best outcomes are often in cases where loyalty to an abusive/controlling family member or partner isn’t an issue.
Is there hope for parents’ healing absent reconciliation? Absolutely! That’s the really good news. We never forget our kids (and truly, our kids never forget us, regardless of what they say). We always will have the memories, we have pictures, we have the boxes of their kid things they made when they were little. Being a parent never goes away. But we can choose to not engage with the drama; we can choose to close contact if they are abusive, verbally or otherwise. We can cultivate peace and live with that, secure in knowing who we are, regardless of who they want to believe we are, or want us or others to believe we are.
Some of us stop talking about them. Some of us come up with answers to questions about our kids that don’t encourage more questions.
There are books, web sites, groups, forums, blogs. I encourage people to read, read, and read some more. Some people say to never lose hope (for reconciliation). I encourage people to do what works for them to feel as peaceful as possible. If your adult child is bent on creating havoc, it really is OK to let him or her go. Sometimes all parents need is permission and a sense that they’re not wrong or bad for doing so. You deserve the same peace we always wanted for our kids. It’s up to us to claim it. It’s healthy, it’s right, it’s necessary for our own wellbeing.
Journal, write, seek counseling, do things that ease discomfort, and reach out to people who get it.
I appreciate being able to share my journey and see the feedback I’ve gotten from people it’s helped, and as always I wish you all the best.