Alienation. To be estranged, hostile or indifferent, especially where attachment formerly existed.
We most typically think of alienation as the thing that occurs when couples separate or divorce. Alienation always precedes such break-ups. Bookstores have a wide swath of self-help books for those dealing with the alienation of a spouse. I can’t tell you if any of them are really helpful or not. I quit reading self-help books when I figured out that I needed a self-help book to motivate me to read the self-help book on my bedside table addressing my lack of focus.
Tim and I were 20 some years into our marriage when we figured out the best way to keep from alienating each other was by supporting each other’s interests. As I write this, he’s in another room down the hall playing the mandolin. He plays music for self-care and I write. I don’t make him read everything I write and he doesn’t make me listen to every song he’s learning to play until he’s learned to play it.
In other words, we give one another space enough to grow but not grow apart.
It’s a delicate balance to be sure. And we don’t always get it right, but we continue to work out the kinks.
Working out the kinks is probably something one of the self-help authors advises. It’s good advice as long as you have a willing partner. But what’s a gal supposed to do if the alienated party isn’t interested in working out the kinks?
Relationships can’t be one-sided, unless you have a multiple-personality disorder, in which case it would only take yourself and your other self to work things out. And maybe a third self, depending on how many personalities you had to contend with. Then again, if one of those personalities was anything like Marjorie Taylor Greene, then I could see where the other personalities might not want to work things out with the dominant bitch in the trio.
But what happens when it happens to be your kid, not your spouse, or your many selves, that you find yourself alienated from?
What’s a mother to do?
In full disclosure here, I am not writing about myself here. My kids and I are all on good speaking terms. Whatever mistakes I’ve made as a parent, whatever quirks I indulge that embarrass them, whatever hopes they had for me as a mother, they’ve long since come to terms with and have chosen to claim me as their mama anyway. Now that might just be a season we are currently in. Perhaps down the road, if I switch to the Republican Party or start sending money to Marco Rubio or Rafael Cruz, all that loving feeling they have for me might very well be replaced with a DNR order.
But I make mention of this because I am at that age where several of my girlfriends find themselves estranged from their adult children.
It’s a curious thing to me. Particularly because I happen to know that several of these women were much better moms to their kids than I was to mine. That’s not a false humility; it’s just the honest truth. I know these woman. I watched them love on their families. For entire decades of their lives, these moms put the needs and desires of their children before their own. They ran carpools, volunteered at summer camps, packed untold number of school lunches, washed heap loads of jock straps and jog bras, spent their weekends sitting on the sidelines cheering for whatever sport of the month was happening at the time. They forked over thousands of dollars for athletic wear, band uniforms, dance outfits, piano lessons, drama trips, birthday gifts for classmates and teachers, and retreats for spiritual growth. All for the occasional “Thank you. You’re the best mom ever!” hug.
Yet, some are so alienated from their adult children that it’s been years since they’ve received a birthday card or phone call. They don’t get invitations to holiday dinners, or summer vacations. They often are cut off from grandchildren as a result of the alienation.
“If only someone would tell me how to fixt this, I would fix it,” one mother said to me recently.
These estrangements are not the result of political disagreements, nor the result of abuse. I am not at all advocating that those who suffered abuse or neglect as a child or an adult child ought to overlook the wrongs done to them. That’s not at all what I am saying. I am speaking to the fact that some of the best moms I know woke up one day to discover that their adult children were no longer speaking to them. They did not return phone calls. They did not answer letters or emails.
It is baffling to me to watch women I love and care about endure the heartache of alienation from their children. I was angry at my own mother plenty of times, sometimes with good reason, but I never quit talking to her. I never quit trying to heal from all the hurts. I never gave up on the idea of having a healthier relationship with her. And I don’t think she ever gave up on it either.
Experts in the field say that up to 50 percent of children go through some form of alienation, usually in their early 20s. And as much as 20 percent of us remain estranged from our parents as we become parents ourselves.
There’s a shame to adult child alienation.
Most of the women I know who are living with this estrangement feel like they cannot talk about it with anyone. They think that the fault must be all their own, so they go to therapy, they read the self-help books or their Bibles, they lie awake at night ruminating about all the ways they may have failed as moms. But like sex abuse survivors, they don’t talk about it with their dearest friends because the immense shame and sense of failure they feel. No matter how much therapy they get, no matter how many other accolades or awards they’ve received in their professional or civic lives, no matter how many non-profits they serve, nothing ever makes up for the sense of overwhelming failure they feel when a child stops communicating with them.
And if the point of the adult child is to hurt that mother, it works. There is a part of that woman that shuts down. She may look to nurture others as a substitute but it never heals the brokenness she feels.
Society expects a great deal from moms, especially right now. I watch as my three daughters hold down fulltime jobs while homeschooling and tending to seven children among them, all ages 8 and under. I witness as they find creative and nurturing ways in which to educate their children, to raise them up to be caring and loving people, kindhearted humans capable of working through hard things for the benefit of the whole of humanity, and I marvel at their relentless commitment to be good mothers.
I do not mean to leave fathers out of this. I know these things happen with dads as well; it’s just I’ve had this conversation lately with several woman, and let’s face it, women are the primary caretakers for both children and aging parents in this patriarchal culture of ours.
It’s devastating when you, a father or a mother, realize that the thing you poured your life energies into – raising up a family – is broken, seemingly beyond repair.
I just want you to know I see you. I watched some of you raise up that family. I know you were a good mom. I wish I could release you from that overwhelming and misplaced sense of shame. I am praying that one day your child will heal from whatever has hurt them, and they will return to you soon.
Before it’s too late.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of CHRISTIAN BEND: A novel (Mercer University Press).