It’s been 2 1/2 years – years! – since I wrote anything here. Because in all honesty, I’ve been broken. I’ve been living with a weird kind of grief and I’ve been living with a secret shame. But I can’t keep hiding behind my grief and shame, so I’m coming clean.
There’s a Sandra Bullock movie called 28 Days, about an alcoholic who goes to rehab on a court order. During her 28-day stay, she and the other patients attend several therapy sessions, wherein the root cause of their addictions are laid bare. To help remind themselves and the other patients that repeated patterns of behavior keep causing the same issues in their lives, the patients often have to wear cardboard signs around their necks with their behavioral slogans written on them.
For instance, the main character’s sign reads “Confront me if I don’t ask for help.” Another character’s sign says “Confront me if I people please.”
I’m pretty sure I could walk around with both of those signs on my neck as well as others like “Confront me if I avoid confrontation,” or “Confront me if I live in the fairy tale instead of reality.”
The premise of wearing the signs is to show that if our vulnerabilities are exposed, the hold they have on us will have less power.
We all have things we’d prefer not to share with the world at large. Things that we’re afraid will make us look less capable, less beautiful, less intelligent, or most of all, less worthy in the eyes of the world:
Divorce. Health issues. Struggles with addiction. À la The Breakfast Club, a home life growing up that was less than ideal. A job loss. Keeping up with the Joneses, much less the monthly bills. Depression and anxiety. Relationships that aren’t what they should be.
You’re afraid if everyone knew this about you – really knew – the world would turn its back on you. Maybe we don’t consciously think this, but deep down, we’re all afraid that our secret shame makes us unlovable. To be perfectly honest, I’m afraid that if the world knew that my own child has turned his back on me, people would see what a horrible parent I must’ve been. People will see what a horrible person I am. Because of the fact that my child hasn’t spoken to me in almost four years – and I don’t really know why – must insinuate I’m a horrible person, right? It must mean that I was and continue to be a less than stellar parent. Well… yeah, I’m less than stellar at just about everything.
The important stuff… the knowing what to say, how to say it, how to give and show love in a healthy, healing way, how to handle rejection, how to set proper boundaries… I’m so-very-less than stellar at those things.
The meaningless… remembering movie lines or the name of my favorite “Friends” episode (The One with The Prom Video), buying shoes when I don’t need them, giving too much thought to what others think of me, well, I’m good at those, unfortunately.
Even though those things are kinda sorta shameful, I’m not going to wear a sign around my neck that says “Confront me if I can pridefully answer all the Trivial Pursuit questions about Ross & Rachel” or “I’m secretly thinking that you’re showing way too much cleavage.” Those aren’t really what I need to set free in my life.
My shame, my deepest shame and torment is that my beloved child has, for whatever reason, decided to throw me away. Surely he has a reason he hasn’t spoken to any of his family in a long, long time, and it’s probably an important one, but I don’t know what that reason is.
No, no concrete reason given during our last contact.
(Please, adult children who’ve estranged your own parents, don’t tell me that I do know the reason. Don’t tell me that he somehow implied the reason during previous conversations and I should understand his motives based on those implications. Because, no, he didn’t imply anything. He didn’t straight out tell me and he didn’t dance around a cause either. I was there and you weren’t. Even if he did imply a reason, implication is not effective communication.)
Over time he just spoke to us less and less, until one day, he said that he needed time.
“From what?” I asked.
“From you,” he said.
“Why? What did I do? If I did something, I’m sorry, can we please try to fix it?”
Then he said something like, “It’s not about you, it’s about me.”
And then he hung up.
Expecting me to extrapolate “the reason” without a clear-cut explanation is akin to the stereotype of a wife yelling “Fine!” when her husband asks her how she is. And yet, “Fine!” means exactly the opposite. It suggests that she’s really harboring a grudge of some kind, but doesn’t or can’t verbalize it without being vulnerable. That husband, not so good on picking up non-verbal clues, can’t read his wife’s mind; he only knows that she’s saying she’s fine, while clearly, she isn’t. Likewise, I can’t read my son’s mind. He said one thing, but I think it means the opposite. Yet, I can’t say that with 100% certainty because there’s absolutely no conversation.
Just because he doesn’t want to communicate his problems with us, does that constitute justification to totally sever every tie with our entire family? People that have known him since he was a baby? What did his brother and sister do to warrant their estrangement from him? His aunts and uncles? All 15 cousins? Grandparents? If he is angry with us, his parents, why take it out on everyone else as well? Have we all irreparably harmed him? Did we all do something so unforgivable as to deserve this silent treatment? Is every one of us toxic to him somehow? I can’t change to “right my wrongs” without knowing what those wrongs are.
However, I most assuredly have changed.
My son doesn’t know the soul-crushing weight I’ve been carrying since we last spoke. He doesn’t know the hours I’ve spent on my knees praying. The hours I’ve sat in a therapist’s chair trying to unravel my behaviors, actions and feelings from any unhealthy emotional patterns. He doesn’t know the daily battle that it’s been to learn to be less reactive. More thoughtful. To watch what I say and how I say it. He doesn’t know that unless someone’s actions are going to prove harmful to me, I’m learning to keep my mouth shut and just let them figure out their own journey and live with their own consequences. He doesn’t know that I acted and said things out of fear, but now that the thing I feared the most has happened, I’ve somehow learned to let things go. To trust that God has a plan. To recognize that mistakes will still be made and that I can forgive myself for them anyway. Whether he knows it or not, his absence has forced me to work on fixing the lesser-than aspects of my character. Even if he can’t love and respect me, I’m learning to love and respect myself.
Right or wrong, though, until I know otherwise, I harbor a wellspring of feelings that I somehow deserve the shame. Estrangement and shame walk hand in hand; it’s an issue that carries a giant stigma. That’s why I’m baring my soul with the virtual world today… Like sex trafficking, the world doesn’t understand just how pervasive estrangement is. However, that does estranged parents everywhere a huge disservice. Just Googling “parental estrangement,” there are almost 200,000 results from the query. Online support groups for parents estranged from their children. Online support groups for children estranged from their parents. Family therapists specializing in estrangement. Facebook pages. I mean, it’s a thing. Meghan Markle, anyone?
Upon hearing you’re estranged, there’s an awkward silence as people search for something polite to say, but you can see that they’re thinking, “if your child won’t talk to you, you must’ve done something terribly wrong.” Well, yes, it would seem so. But then again, maybe you just made “normal” parenting mistakes, thinking you were doing the right thing with the information, experience, and understanding you had at the time. Maybe you were – are – a loving parent, yet you feel as if your child thinks of you as the second coming of Ted Bundy, Hitler and Donald Trump (or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – take your pick) all rolled into one. I thought I was a decent parent. Not perfect, but certainly not The Loser Parent of the Century either.
Facebook algorithms often send me something I posted in the past. Not too long ago, the memory that was shared was this:
It doesn’t matter what you get done if you’ve undone a heart – and there are no real accomplishments apart from relationship.
Bingo. Stick a fork in me because I’m done. I’ve ruined a relationship and I don’t know why or what I did.
But, and this is huge… I can’t continue to live stuck in this thought. Like any person who has experienced the death of a loved one, in estrangement you grieve but somehow learn to live with it. That pain will never go away. Nor will the sadness and heartache. But you have to find a way to live with pain and despair while moving beyond them.
If you read any forums or posts from children who have estranged from their families, a thread of self-care emerges. Going no-contact will supposedly improve their mental health, lessen anxiety, etc… This would seemingly go along with our son saying it was “about him.” So after almost 4 years, I’m beginning to understand that if my son can do what he needs to do to protect his own health and well-being, I’m allowed to do that too. I’m learning not to wallow in the “what-if’s” and “why’s” like I did at the beginning when I was raw from anguish and sorrow. Like I did when I cried myself to sleep for months on end. Instead, I’m slowly beginning to move forward with my life and learn to be happy apart from our son. Some days it’s easier said than done. I can’t truly live a good life if all I ever think about is what I did wrong. All the ways I estranged my son. All the ways I failed in relationship.
We fail every day in any relationship. In every relationship. I’m human; you’re human. I’m imperfect; you’re imperfect. I’m a failure; you’re a failure.
But we’re also so much more than that. Despite the wrongs we’ve done, we’ve also done things right. We may not be perfect people, but not everything we do is imperfect either. When our insecurities and failures threaten to swallow us up, we have to remember that no one can do everything right 100% of the time. Why do we think we should be able to? When I start getting wrapped up in all the ways I failed as a parent, I have to literally have force myself to think about the things I did right.
I enforced bedtimes so young bodies got the right amount of rest. I instilled in my kids the love of reading (well, except for the dyslexic one). In fact, I taught them how to read, how to write, how to add, subtract, multiply and divide. I ingrained in them the value of learning. I imbued them with a love of travel and adventure. I helped them learn that there are two sides to every issue. I fed them, some of it even delicious at times. I encouraged them all to volunteer and give back to the community. I took them to the doctor when they were ill, nursed them through fevers, broken bones, and sleepless nights of the stomach flu. I made sure they knew how to iron shirts, clean a toilet, do a load of laundry, cook a meal, weed a garden, wear a seatbelt, make a bed, say “please” and “thank you,” and so much more. I’m not taking credit for making them who they are, but I helped them get there.
I also have to tell myself that there are other friends, family and acquaintances that believe I’m a kind person. Helpful. Thoughtful. Compassionate. Intelligent. Funny. Hardworking. Wise. Even if he doesn’t think I’m these things, his isn’t the only valuable opinion of who I am. In fact, these days, I’m learning that only God determines my worth.
All over the world, there are parents like me, parents who bent over backward to attend every sporting event, dance or piano recital, who gave up sleep so that homework could be done on time, parents who’ve been discarded like used gum wrappers. Parents that sacrificed their time, finances, energy and more find themselves wondering what happened and why their child despises them so much. Did I spank my kids? Yes. Was I harder on them than I needed to be sometimes? Yes. Was I easier on them sometimes than I needed to be? Again, yes. Although I made mistakes, I wasn’t Cruella De Ville, nor was I a free-love hippy ultra-permissive parent either. My husband and I were pretty middle-of-the-road, normal parents. I think that’s true of most of the parents I’ve come across who are in the same boat as us. Which, when you don’t talk about estrangement in polite company, those people are hard to find. When you do find them though, they’re people you’d want to live next door to you. People that would walk your dog and get your mail when you’re away. People that invite you over for a cookout, a cocktail and let you borrow their yard tools. People that bring you casseroles when your dad dies. People that mow your yard when you’re sick. You know… good people.
Most estranged parents I’ve met are good people who don’t know what happened. Where they went “wrong.” Why their child thinks that they’re evil, unloving or suffocating… take your pick. No, they’re good people. Not closet serial killers. Not violent abusers. Not alcoholics. Not chronically incarcerated. Not parents that abandoned their kids. No, good, normal people.
And yet, as parents who’ve been estranged, we’re somehow found intolerable for making mistakes that, in any other generation, might be overlooked, but would, at least, be dealt with by a face to face discussion. Things would be worked through. Communication would be a given. Respect would be a given. LOVE would be a given.
These days, that’s no longer the case. And somehow, because it is, it’s become my secret shame.
But that ends today.