I grew up with estrangement. My mom periodically was not speaking to her mom or to this sibling or that. My grandmother was periodically estranged from family members. And now I am estranged from my mom.
Estrangement is not uncommon in families rooted in trauma. There is an “us vs. them” mentality that comes with abuse — family secrets need to be kept in-family — and who is in and who is out might depend more on adherence to ideas about loyalty (you are with us or against us) than about love and respect. Adult children who choose their own partners or their own children over family of origin norms and expectations will likely face consequences and sometimes those consequences include estrangement.
For myself its meant extra vigilance as my oldest has grown to adulthood. I didn’t worry much about being my mother when my kids were small because I made fundamentally different choices in important ways (to my mom’s hurt and frustration). But I notice that as I figure out how to be a parent to an adult child that it’s trickier for me. My family tends to waiver between neglect and enmeshment. Extremism is a common thread where there is dysfunction; all or nothing is the norm. Either the parents are taking over the wedding or they have no interest at all. They demand to be the favorite grandparent or they’re forgetting to drop a card in the mail for birthdays. You are either in or you are out (with some exceptions, which I’ll talk about in another blog.)
The dance of building a relationship with an adult child calls back to the dance at every stage of independence. Your toddler wants your attention but also to do everything “by self!” Your 8-year old wants help building the model but freaks out if you overstep and build too much. Your teen expects you to keep them fed and clothed but absolutely do not ask what they’re doing when they hang out with friends.
For me those stages were easier because I could imagine what I wanted when I was that age and my son was awfully like me so that worked.
Being the parent to an adult is harder in ways I didn’t expect. I don’t want to over ask but I also don’t want to convey indifference. I care deeply about his choices but also know that most of them aren’t any of my business. I yearn to give unasked for advice but know that’s the surest way of overstepping boundaries. So I do the dance.
I’m fortunate that I can tell my son this. I can say to him, “I don’t know how to do this so you’re going to have to let me know.”
We had a disagreement last winter and he left our house angry. I was terrified. My reaction was completely outsized so I recognized it as a trauma response. It was my own fear that the demon estrangement was coming home to roost. I stayed in a stone cold panic for the day or two it took for us to reconnect, worrying that this was the beginning of the end. Even though my rational mind knew better — I am not my mother — I could hear my mom’s voice in my head handing the family curse down to me.
But I told myself what I tell my clients: I am not my mother. I listen to my son and respect him so when he tells me I’m out of line, I believe him. I don’t try to justify or defend; I listen. I take responsibility and recognize that conflict can foster growth instead of being a death knell.
It’s not that we don’t make mistakes, we You Are Not Your Mother parents, it’s how we respond to them that makes us different.
My son has always been the guinea pig seeing as how he’s first born and so we’ve had to try out all of our theories on him. And now he is the first born adult and we continue to make our mistakes as we figure out how to be parents to a full blown adult person with his own life, his own values and connections and thoughts and beliefs. In my family of origin, disagreement was a sign of disloyalty instead of independence and growth and I catch my knee-jerk reaction when my son steps away in big ways (my fear, my worries that estrangement is inevitable). The biggest way to interrupt my traumatic family patterns is to trust him. And I do. I trust him to make the choices that are right for him. I trust him to teach me more about the world by sharing his own point of view and experiences. And also I trust him to keep outgrowing us, to build his own way and his own family. I trust him to keep on loving us and I will continue to work and make it clear that we know that a relationship with an adult child is a privilege for both of us. We will keep on dismantling the traumatic structures we inherited, recognizing that this is hard work we’re doing but oh so worth it.