When I showed my four year old this photo of me and my mom, I asked him who the baby was. His response, albeit cute, sent shockwaves up my spine. He thought the baby was him. Before I could respond with something witty about genetics and twinning, I thought hard and loud inside my head “I would never, not ever, leave you alone with my mother”.
I was surprised that he thought I would, just for one second, until reality came back in and reminded me that my son is a well adjusted little boy who could never understand the sad dynamic that lead to my maternal estrangement. Most people I know and meet, including almost all of my family members, can’t really grasp this either. As much as the people who love me try to understand, it’s simply not natural to turn away from a parent completely. It’s hard work and most often, the harder decision for a child of abuse or addiction. It was easier for me (on the outside) to keep everyone else comfortable, including my mother, by having her tornado my life at free will. While it perpetuated the abuse and added insult to injury for me, it still made everyone else around me a little calmer to know that I wouldn’t/couldn’t actually divorce my mother. And it’s possible that had I never decided to become a mother myself, I would have been trapped in this vicious cycle of abuse for life.
The day my son was born was the most beautiful day I’ve experienced and the beginning of the darkest days of my life. My painful relationship with my mother came crashing into my psyche the second I began to bond with my own child. Dear God, the things I missed as a baby. My God, how could she? Oh God, how I am going to parent this child and love him as he deserves with my own role model a living embodiment narcissism and addiction? And this is when I finally decided once and for all, I’m no longer going to participate in this cycle of abuse. I’m breaking the cycle right here and now, regardless of the discomfort headed my way. The judgement. The guilt.
The Discomfort. It’s uncomfortable to spend the entire day thinking about your estranged parent, especially on their birthday or Mother’s Day. It’s very uncomfortable to explain to a toddler why your mommy is alive, yet you never see her. I squirm when people ask me about her because I know that my answer is going to make them uncomfortable. “I don’t know” is my automatic go-to for most questions regarding my mom, but that typically only precipitates more questions. “When was the last time you saw her?” “You haven’t talked to her at all?” There is a lot of discomfort for the child in the estrangement. It is not for the faint hearted to divorce a parent, regardless of how they treat you. Like little puppies, you can do just about anything you want to a small child and they will sadly continue to come back for your approval and affection. We don’t learn very quickly that our most prized possession in life is in fact a mentally ill alcoholic addict that will harm us in short order with absolutely no rhyme or reason.
The Judgment. Being judged by and for my mother’s behavior has always been a source of embarrassment and stress for me. As a child, I was tied so tightly to her that when she was drunk, I felt made fun of. When she was mean, I felt shamed. As an adult, making the only logical choice to evolve, I feel that same judgment in my estrangement from her. I know that it’s difficult for people to accept that a parent could be cruel enough to deserve estrangement, but I’ve lived it. A parent can be that cruel. Do people think that children who were molested by a parent grow up to be best friends with those parents? Do people think they leave their own children with that parent? They don’t. They protect themselves and their families. My situation isn’t much different, although a different form of abuse. Judging a child of abuse for protecting themselves has always baffled me, but it’s extremely common. Divorcing a parent is a form of self-defense and preservation and a decision that should not be looked upon with judgement.
The Guilt. Children of abuse are prone to guilt. It’s how we were raised. “Feel bad about you, and I won’t have to feel bad for you.” Walking away from an abusive relationship with anyone is hard as hell, and particularly hard with a parent involved. For a short period of time there is a strong sense of self identity and power, but it dwindles quickly and the ugly beast that is Guilt trickles in. I’ve learned several ways to deal with this, but I often go back to feeling bad for my mother, which can occasionally spiral out of control. She may have destroyed her life, but she was once a baby, right? An innocent child? It wasn’t her fault, I shouldn’t be so hard on her! Full stop. HALT. This is when my brain kicks in to full survival mode and reminds me that I am a competent, intelligent woman who makes good decisions, including the one to let her go. I stand by that choice, even through the pangs of guilt. My son will occasionally point to a female stranger and ask “is that your mommy, Mommy?” and I’ll have to breathe through the moment and remember that he doesn’t know her because she’s dangerous, not because I don’t love her.
Being estranged from a parent is the ultimate Catch 22. It’s very painful to live with them, and equally painful without. Do you know anyone who has divorced a parent? Have you had to create distance in your relationships?
I’ve had to divorce not just one parent, but both. With my dad, it was easier, because when my parents separated, my mom gave him a choice and he refused to give up his addiction to have his family back. My mom was a much more difficult process, and I didn’t fully do it until I became a mother myself. Thank you for sharing your story. Outside of my close group of friends, I don’t share mine, because like you said, no one understands.
AMEN. I cut my dad out of my life for similar reasons – not drinking, but verbal and emotional abuse stemming from a painfully obvious mental illness he’s unwilling to address. He’s a minister, so very few outside of our family actually know the extent of what has/is going on. The rest of my family (except my sister and one aunt) thinks I’m being irrational and have tried to guilt me in to bringing my kids around him. It’s so hard to have to constantly defend decisions that I know were right for me and my kids while still trying to not go into a lot of detail about why we don’t talk to him. It’s so hard. I’m sorry you are going through this too, but it is nice to know I’m not alone.
Hang in there, Celeste! I don’t think you should feel any sort of shame at all, in fact, I would expect that many questions aren’t from judgy people but rather from people who want to understand and support you.
My husband’s parents deserve a divorce, they are awful people. Both have serious personality disorders that destroyed their children. My husband being the youngest was heavily protected by his older brothers and sisters so even though he’s not as messed up as the others he is still challenged by demons. Unfortunately because of his guilt we still travel a long way to go see them once/year and we do it with big, fake smile on our face to appear to look “normal”. We keep it short and, like you, there is no way we would ever leave our children with them unsupervised.
Sadly, many people don’t break the cycle but instead they become exactly what it is most that they hated. Maybe others will read your post and not be ashamed to distance themselves from a toxic relationship.
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