My neighbor “Lisette” was telling me about her mother and how she’s struggled to take care of her as she ages. She finally came to the painful conclusion that her mother really needed to be in a managed care facility, and felt conflicted. She’s considerably younger than I—not too many of my peers have living parents—so she asked me what I’d done. Well, of course, I’d done nothing because I divorced my mother when I was 38 and she was 64 and healthy, and told her that.
Predictably enough, I saw Lisette’s opinion of me change in a nanosecond; it was something I’m used to by now since it’s been a part of my life for over thirty years. “Wow,” she said and then she paused before she continued, “She couldn’t have been that bad because you’re strong and successful and a good mother yourself. What a pity.”
It was a pity, actually, but not for the reasons that came to Lisette’s mind.
In the court of public opinion, it’s always the daughter who’s on trial. I’ve written it many times and it remains true. It helps, of course, that there’s a misunderstood Commandment to back that up.
A cultural secret hiding in plain sight
The cupboard of secrets—including how many mothers are unloving or downright cruel to their daughters—contains another: Adult child-parent estrangement is nowhere near as rare as most people think. The gossips who find grist for the mill at a missing parent at a wedding or the absence of a grandparent at the birth of a child gain traction because the culture willfully ignores the reality.
Research into how many adult children are actually estranged is recent, and here’s what we know so far. A 2015 study by Richard Conti, which focused solely on college and graduate students (and the sample skewed predominantly female), found that 43.5 percent had experienced estrangement at some point and that more than a quarter of his sample (26.6 percent) reported extended estrangement. This finding led him to surmise that estrangement “is perhaps as common as divorce in certain segments of society.”
A British study conducted by Lucy Blake of the University of Cambridge looked at why familial estrangement happened; of her sample of 807,455 were estranged from their mothers. Emotional abuse was the most common reason (77 percent), followed by mismatched expectations about family roles and relationship (65 percent), clash of personality or values (53 percent), neglect (45 percent), and issues relating to mental health problems (47 percent).
The culture tends to portray adult daughters who cut their mothers off as being hot-tempered, reactive or ungrateful; in fact, I have never interviewed anyone who hasn’t spent years making this painful decision. My anecdotal observation is backed up by Kylie Agllias’s work (she’s an Australian social worker), as well as a study by Kristina Scharp, which posited a continuum of estrangement. In my research, most daughters have backed into going no contact after trying to set boundaries or going “low” contact first; contrary to the cultural stance, maternal divorce is the last resort.
Dealing with cultural shame and how it affects daughters
My brief interchange with Lisette pretty much sums up what daughters who go no contact experience, and it adds shame to the mix, along with the pain and complexity of estrangement. Keep in mind that maternal divorce is the daughter’s last effort to resolve what I call the “core conflict” in my book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
What is the core conflict? It’s the tug-of-war between the daughter’s recognition of her emotional wounds (and who is hurting her) and her continuing need for her mother’s love and support. Estrangement happens when the daughter’s recognition of her wounds and her need to protect herself become paramount, for the moment at least.
I say “for the moment” because many daughters attempt reconciliation at one point or another; for most, it usually doesn’t work. I call this “going back to the well,” a reference to the fact that you know intellectually that the well is dry, but emotionally you still hope it isn’t. I went back and forth for twenty years before finally divorcing my mother for good.
Shame plays a part in the daughter’s efforts to try again, as does hopefulness and a need to belong. Alas, it usually is just another spin on the carousel.
What should we do?
We should stop promulgating the myth that adult child/parent estrangement is rare and always a daughter’s fault. And if we’re witnesses or bystanders, we should listen before we judge. No one does this on a whim.
Photography by joselbafotos. Copyright free. Pixaby.com.
Conti, Richard P. “Family Estrangements: Establishing a Prevalence Rate,” Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science (2015), vol.3(2), 28-35.
Blake, Lucy. Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood. University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research/Stand Alone. http://standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/HiddenVoices.FinalReport.pdf
Scharp, Kristina M. “You’re Not Welcome Here: A Grounded Theory of Family Distancing,” Communication Research (2017), 1-29.
Agilias, Kylie. “Disconnection and Decision-making: Adult Children Explain Their Reasons for Estranging from Parents, Australian Social Work (2015) 69:1, 92-104.
Agllias, Kylie. “Missing Family: The Adult Child’s Experience of Parental Estrangement,” Journal of Social Work Practice (2018) vol. 31(1), 59-72.