The word estrangement was never in my vocabulary before it happened to me seven years ago. And like many parents, I was ashamed and reluctant to talk about it (68% of those who are estranged from a family member believe there is a stigma attached). But once I started researching, I realized I’m not alone (just search the word “estranged” on Facebook and dozens of support groups pop up, including mine).
My son Dan* and I had a typical mother-son relationship. We both like hiking and photography, so we would spend time together doing those activities. He was a charming boy who grew into a strong, capable man. I could always count on him, whether the car battery was dead or the computer malfunctioned. Or, for a laugh or a hug.
When I first met the girl Dan would eventually marry, she was in the car with my daughter. It was dark, but I can still remember her smiling face lit up by the dashboard as we were introduced. I know it sounds cliché, but I remember thinking she was cute as a button — and she was. She and Dan had gone to school together, and a friend told us she’d always had a crush on him. After that, we started seeing a lot of her at our house. She and I both really like fashion, so we would talk about clothes sometimes. One winter day, she piled into my car with Dan, his sister and me to go shopping. A cashier remarked that we were all wearing plaid flannel. Not exactly high fashion, but somehow we’d all matched!
Dan began renting a little house from my husband and I in town, and when she moved in a few months later, we were happy.
As the months passed, Dan and his girlfriend talked openly about marriage. One day when Dan came to visit, I asked him if he’d proposed yet. He cracked a goofy grin. “What’s so funny?” I asked. Dan confessed that he planned to ask her at Disneyland, on the castle bridge outside Fantasyland. “I think she will like that,” he said. I called his dad right away and we decided to purchase the theme park tickets for them. Dan’s 24th birthday was coming up anyway. It seemed like the perfect gift.
After the engagement, I began to sense that Dan was comparing our family to hers.
After the engagement, things started to change. Dan’s future in-laws seemed pleased about their upcoming marriage and began making formal plans for the wedding. Dan and his fiancée were busy with that, so we didn’t see much of them over the next few months. When we did, I began to sense that Dan was comparing our family to hers. Once, he made a comment that her family had always had their children in sports. Then he said he doubted I had known anything about “the whole kids’ sports thing.” It’s true that my husband and I didn’t push our kids toward athletics, but we encouraged them to pursue the activities in which they expressed interest. What he said that day stunned me. I didn’t correct him, but it was something his dad and I talked about later.
GETTING THE CALL
The beginning of the end took place about two weeks before their wedding. One afternoon, I called Dan to discuss some of the details. I mentioned that the Big Day was coming up pretty quickly and asked him if he was certain about the marriage. Since they were so young, it was a natural question to ask. My husband and I have been married for over 35 years. We both had first marriages that didn’t work out, and we’d felt pressured into those vows. Dan knew that. When he responded, “Yes, I’m sure. I’m marrying her,” I felt good about it. We laughed and chit-chatted some more. Everything was fine, or so I thought. A few days later, Dan called again and I found out things weren’t fine at all.
It was close to midnight when the phone rang, and I grabbed it fast. My husband was sick and had just settled down to sleep and I was afraid it would wake him. I honestly don’t remember most of what was said in that conversation, but thinking about it now still puts my stomach in knots. I do remember Dan explaining, in a very clear, very matter-of-fact tone that he’d never used with me before, that his fiancée’s family would not be coming to the rehearsal dinner we’d planned. At first I was so shocked that I didn’t even reply. That’s when he put his fiancée on the phone and she said something like, “That’s my family.” To which I responded that I didn’t know what she meant. Dan came back on and said something about me being unfriendly at the bridal shower the month before. I was stunned. Hearing his accusation hurt, and Dan knew me better than that.
My husband and I were in disbelief. How could a person you’ve loved your whole life act that way? The next few days were spent in a sort of waiting mode, just trying to keep busy. When Dan did call again, it wasn’t to apologize or explain. He called to confirm that we wouldn’t be at the wedding. When he said he was just confirming that we would not be at the wedding, and that they needed to know for “the plates,” tears slid down my cheeks. I was his mother, diminished to a number on a catering order.
After that, I had no choice but to call our relatives who’d been invited and try to explain why we were no longer going to Dan’s wedding. Of course there were questions: “What happened?” Estrangement triggers so much shame, especially when the answer you’re left with is, “I’m not sure.” It feels like everyone is making judgments about you, believing you must have done some awful thing. There were a couple relatives who immediately rallied and said, “Something’s going on. Do you think she wants him all to herself?” Statements like that were supportive and kind. And my thought was, I don’t know, but I’m not going to say anything bad about anybody.
How could a person you’ve loved your whole life act that way?
The two weeks between that phone call and the wedding, I walked around in the daze. Every time the phone rang, my heart would jump. I would think: It’s got to be him. This can’t be happening. He’s going to call. But when it wasn’t him, there was also a sense of relief. He had been so cold, and I couldn’t bear the thought of hearing that cold tone in his voice again. I did tell his siblings, “You could probably still go to the wedding if you want.” But our four other adult children were very protective of my husband and I and felt that Dan’s behavior had been very inappropriate. Since we had already ordered Greek food, Dan’s favorite, for the rehearsal dinner, we decided to have a couple extended family members over to eat with us the night before the wedding.
The day of the wedding was very sad. I think we all woke up that morning thinking that Dan would surely call and make things right. But he didn’t. And so we did our best to avoid talking about the wedding. My husband and I were just numb and spent. That day we mostly alternated between sitting long-faced in front of the TV, behind a newspaper or in a patio chair gazing out at nothing. I remember feeling for Dan too, wondering if he was hurting there without his family. It seemed too painful to even imagine — even if he had chosen the arrangement himself.
ACCEPTING A NEW NORMAL
One day I was in line at the bank and spotted Dan across from me in the grocery line. It was just this utter, Oh my gosh! There he is. But when he left the store, he walked right by me. I finished my banking, but I broke down in tears once I got to my car and cried all the way home. His car had a very distinctive sound and, a little while later, I heard him coming to drop off his rent check (he was still renting from us at the time). I hurried outside thinking maybe I could catch him in time and we could finally talk. But when I got down to the mailbox, he was already speeding away. I texted him, “Next time you see your mother in the store maybe you could speak to her.” He responded that he didn’t see me, but how could that be possible? As I looked back, I thought, Well, I didn’t jump out of the bank line and run over to him. Maybe he felt awkward. I do have a lot of empathy for him being that it was probably a distressing moment for him too.
A couple weeks later, Dan had gotten a new job and texted me that he’d be moving out of our rental property. I was pleasantly surprised when he agreed to meet in person and turn over the keys. As we drove up his street, I had this whole fantasy in my head about a tearful reunion. Unfortunately, it didn’t go that way. He was really guarded, and so were we. It was awkward, and Dan ended up rushing off. As he was jogging to his car I said, “I’m going to cry every day for the rest of my life.” Maybe that was a stupid thing to say, but that’s how I felt in the moment. And I did cry. Every day for months. But Dan didn’t even turn around when I said that to him. He just kept going and drove off. I considered reaching out after they’d had time to get settled. But after he’d been so cold toward me, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It was clear that Dan had changed. It seemed that he was done with us and that we couldn’t fix it even if we wanted to.
I thought, Will everyone else just leave me too?
I was a basket case during those first six months of estrangement, gaining weight, not sleeping or else having nightmares. That first holiday season was particularly tough. I rushed around wrapping presents and preparing food. But when Christmas was over, I lay in bed wondering if I’d done enough. I thought, Will everyone else just leave me too? It was pitiful, but fear of abandonment is common for estranged parents. You’ve devoted your whole life to your child. If that person can leave, then anyone can. That night, as I lay there in the darkness thinking of all the time and energy I’d wasted crying over a grown adult who didn’t want me, I couldn’t help but think about how much time I was wasting. I’d worn out my husband, my other children and even some of my friends with my sadness. They all missed the old, optimistic Sheri. So did I.
MARCHING INTO THE FUTURE
Determined to reclaim my life, I stopped wallowing in the past and marched into my future. As I sought out information, I discovered that thousands and thousands of regular, nice people suffer estrangement. I know there are situations where adult children leave parents for good reasons. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about regular parents who are kind and supportive. People who sacrificed and even took out mortgages on their house to pay for their children’s college educations. And yet, all the advice I was seeing felt very judgmental toward the parents, placing blame and the responsibility of reconciliation on them. That made me mad. Dan’s choice to leave his family wasn’t going to define me. I’m a good mother. A good person. We are still a good family. Slowly, I started putting myself back together.
I used my education in human behavior to conduct an online survey and connected with thousands of parents of estranged adult children. I began using my experience as an author to put a book together to help other parents, and filled it with the techniques I was using to help myself heal (Done With The Crying was published last year). Then, a year after Dan moved out of the rental house, he called. For part of that conversation, it felt like I was talking to a stranger. But there were also moments where I thought he was intentionally bringing up things that we had in common — like his new camera and some of the hikes he and his wife had gone on — to try and connect. Those were the moments when the distance fell away and I felt like, Wow, this is my son again. He assured me, “I’ll call you again Mom, soon.” That made me feel very hopeful.
Months passed, and he never called again. It was a big emotional setback. All of those feelings of loss came tumbling back, but by then, I had done enough research to know that it’s not unusual for adults who cut off their families to periodically return and then leave again. These episodic estrangements are the worst. Each time, the parents are devastated again. It isn’t right to inflict emotional torture on the people who have raised and loved you — and I’d had a taste of that. I decided to start taking better care of myself and became determined to help other estranged parents do the same.
If he knocked on my door tomorrow, I would open it.
In the years since, I’ve only seen and spoken to my son a handful of times. We did have one good visit about eight months after that phone call. Dan was apologetic and even a little tearful. It had all the earmarks of a successful reunion, and we were so hopeful. But when he stopped in unexpectedly a few mornings later, he brought his wife, and that meeting didn’t go as well. I apologized (although I didn’t really know what for) and, to her credit, Dan’s wife did too. But they refused to talk about what had happened. They were very clear that they wanted to move forward and forget the past. And our family just wasn’t comfortable with that. How can we move forward without understanding what went wrong?
Four and a half years ago, Dan and his wife moved to another state where her parents and siblings had all moved. He did come say goodbye in person, but it was mostly awkward and sad because we didn’t know if we would ever see him again (so far, we haven’t). I told his siblings that if they want to try and reach out to Dan or his wife, that’s their business. I’m not going to ask, and I would certainly never preclude them from having a relationship with him. They all know that if he knocked on my door tomorrow, I would open it. But as far as I know, none of them have.
Sometimes people judge me and other estranged parents who have moved forward. They say they would never “give up” on their child. I understand their feelings. But sometimes giving in to an adult child’s decision is the only sensible choice. I wish my son the best. I truly hope he is happy and well. But I count too. And that’s what I want other estranged families to know: If you can just let go of all those “whys” and “what ifs” and move on to what’s next, you can live a fulfilling life.
Sheri McGregor is the founder of the online support group rejectedparents.net. Her book Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children was published last year.
*Name has been changed.