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What I’ve Learned After Almost 8 Years of Being Estranged from my Adult Child

What I’ve Learned After Almost 8 Years of Being Estranged from my Adult Child


I haven’t written here in ages, mostly because I’ve chosen to be creative in other avenues. But writing has always been and will always be my primary mode of therapy. As an introvert – and highly sensitive at that – I find it very difficult to share my innermost thoughts and feelings with others, so it makes sense that writing is still the best way that I’m able to process them. Throwing it out there on the World Wide Web feels a little safer somehow than writing for and to people that know me, yet I believe that when I release my thoughts to this netherworld, someone might recognize that their own situation and feelings are similar to mine and know that they’re not alone.

So every once in a blue moon, I come back here and read this online journal of my thoughts and feelings.

Estrangement is a very unique beast. For the parent of an estranged adult child, it’s a living death in a way. Coined by Pauline Boss, one of the meanings of the term ambiguous loss aptly describes a physical absence but a mental presence. My son is physically gone, but he holds space in my heart and memories. The mental and emotional toll it takes to deal with the reality of a child choosing to remove themselves from you is immense. For almost eight years of absolutely no contact from our son, my feelings have been all over the map. I’ve spent days, weeks, months and now years cycling through the Kubler-Ross 5 Stages of Grief. Some stages I’ve spent more time in than others, but depending on my state of mind and what other life challenges I’m experiencing, on some level I keep looping through them again and again.

So when I come back here and read what I’ve previously shared regarding estrangement, sometimes I nod my head in understanding, sometimes I weep with compassion for my former self, and sometimes I’m mortified that I was so strident, angry and unforgiving. I recognize me in all of it though. I was and am a very fallible human that merely wants to be loved despite my mistakes and failures. Because mistakes and failings I have indeed made.

What have I learned from working through all those emotions in these past 8 years? More things than I can write in this space, but here are some of the most important:

Don’t define yourself by what happened to you. Defining yourself as an estranged parent – or divorced person, abuse victim, addict, cancer patient, etc… – isn’t who you are. You are so much more. It wasn’t until I was forced by the estrangement to unpack my flawed and counterproductive patterns within important relationships that I noticed I continually defined myself by my relationship to others; I was S’s mom, D’s daughter, J’s wife. An extension of that was also defining myself as an estranged mom. Even if I didn’t exactly say it that way, I thought it and that was enough. Specifying yourself by what’s happened to you affects everything in your realm negatively. Instead, if I were going to label the core of who I am, it would be writer, painter, runner, traveler, adventurer, gardener, designer, reader, listener, advisor, college football lover and more. Those are things I’m passionate about. Yes, I love my family. Deeply. I want to be a good wife, mother, daughter and friend. But I also want to plug into the things that stir my soul with joy. I’ve heard many women say that their kids are their life. Once upon a time, I probably would’ve said that too. Now though, after almost 8 years without one of those kids, my life isn’t centered around any of them. I’m more than just their mom. I have my own life too and I want to live it in the best way possible.

I’ve learned that I need to set boundaries. I was great at putting myself second to everyone important in my life and even those individuals that weren’t. I put others’ needs ahead of mine 90% of the time. While my kids were growing up, I still did some things for my physical and mental health. I trained and ran for a couple marathons. I went on some girls’ weekends. When they were older, I left them at home to go see a movie by myself when I was super stressed. But when push came to shove, if I could sense that someone needed something – anything, really – I’d do whatever needed to be done to take care of that need. I rarely said no. Not everyone is a people pleaser, but I am lifelong charter member. If someone’s needs clashed with my values or goals, I tried to figure out a way to make it work instead of having the uncomfortable conversation. Older and wiser, it remains a fight to allow conflict and confrontation when necessary. Being conflict avoidant and trying to maintain peace by making sure everyone is happy is a surefire way to make all parties – including me – less happy. It’s just papering over the problem. Setting appropriate boundaries is necessary so that the conflict moves the relationship forward in a healthy and non-dysfunctional way. This is continually an issue for me, learning how to do this, yet it’s worth doing.

I miss my son and will always love him, but I don’t believe that he’s the same person I once knew. I presume this because I am not the same person I once was. Even if I hadn’t spent time and effort working with a counselor – and on my own – to address poor behavioral and coping patterns, estrangement changes you in untold ways. Fear, trust, grief, doubt, anger, sadness and a wealth of other emotions caused an enormous shift in how I dealt with and viewed the world. I can be a catatrophizer, but once the worst you can imagine has happened to you, you do what you need to in order to survive. At some point you learn that you can’t spend all day weeping on the floor so you make choices to enjoy what you have in front of you. That meant making adjustments with how I dealt with my other children. It meant keeping my mouth shut and agonizingly watching as they made not-so-great choices, then lived with the consequences of those. It meant standing on the sidelines when they needed to learn a lesson for themselves. It meant spending more time thinking about my life than theirs. These days, I check myself when I go into “mom mode,” trying to perhaps fix and control their situation. I didn’t realize that I manipulated and controlled at the time, but I have since learned that I did. Realizing that was a big step. Consciously working to change it is an even bigger one.

That also means… and this is where I inhale and exhale deeply… I let my son go. If I’m going to live my life for me, and let my kids live theirs, I had to stop thinking about how much I missed him. How sad I was over his decision. How sad I felt for him, missing out on relationships with the rest of his family. Of course I still have days when I wish things were different, but I’ve come to terms with this is how my life is. While I hold onto a shred of hope, I have zero expectations that we’ll ever have a relationship again. In fact, I acknowledge that I may never see him ever again. Eight years is a pretty hefty block of time. In that stretch, I’ve learned that holding an expectation that he’ll reconnect, let alone reconcile, could crush my soul if I let it. For the first couple of years of estrangement, so many people told me that he’d “be back” so I believed and expected it would happen. Now, not so much. Friends and family never mention him anymore. At first, that was painful for me; it felt as if he had never existed. These days, not hearing him discussed in the same breath as my other children doesn’t cause me to spiral emotionally. Not talking about him can never change that he will always be my son, my firstborn, and I will love him beyond eternity. But now I look at our relationship with the same affection and detachment as I do with old friends who have gone by the wayside. For instance, of my kids, he was the one who shared my interest in the Beatles. When their very last “new” song was released a couple of months ago, I wondered if he heard it and what his thoughts about it were. But I didn’t become despondent because I couldn’t have that conversation with him. I just let it – and him – go. One more time in an increasingly lengthy string of times. It’s a continual process of unwinding my thoughts and emotions from him.

I would never go so far as to say that I’m happy the estrangement happened, but without it, I wouldn’t have learned several important life lessons. Namely, I can’t change anyone except myself and I’m responsible for my own happiness. There are so many things about myself that I’d change but can’t: I’d be better at math, an improved athlete, less of a procrastinator, or someone who can fall asleep easily. I can try to progress in each of those areas, but genetics and lifestyle have inherent limits. So why I would think that I could change another human or be answerable for their happiness is absurd. As I said above, I’ve often spent time twisting this way and that to make the people around me happy and much of the time, the goalpost shifted during that attempt. Not always, but I discovered that the more I try to please everyone, the less happy we all are. If I’m sad that my son is missing, one more conversation about it with my husband or a longer run isn’t going to fill that hole. I have to conscientiously make a decision to change the narrative in my head. That’s a daily decision. I’m not perfect at it, but I’m making considerable strides each day.

Finally, the most essential thing I’ve learned from estrangement is that I’m not alone. I have a few well chosen friends with whom I can share my thoughts. Of course my husband and other children are there for me, but they have their own estrangement issues that they have to work through without worrying about mine. I’ve read statistics that estimate at least 25% of the population in the West is estranged from one or more family member. That’s astounding, but I don’t doubt that it’s true. In my very small bubble, I know of over 10 families who don’t talk to one or more of their children. That’s all well and good, comforting even to personally know others in the same situation. But that just isn’t enough for me. If you’ve ever read anything on this blog before, you’ll know that I’m a Christian. Defining myself as a runner might be more acceptable these days, but identifying as Christian is central to everything else in my life.

Philippians 4:13 says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Deuteronomy 31:6 says “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread…, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”

And Isaiah 41:10 says “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Human connection is wonderful. It’s necessary. But having relationship with my Heavenly Father is unparalleled. I can and do feel alone, sometimes in a room full of people. But God, He’s always there. Available. Compassionate. Wise. Loving. Strong. With others, it’s difficult to share my estrangement because most people can’t comprehend it. Or they’re judgmental. But God, He knows. He understands, because His children have turned their backs on Him too.

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