Dear Person with an Average to Happy Childhood,
First off, congratulations! You, through the blessing of one or more good parents, are likely fairly well-adjusted. Chances are, you have a decent sense of self, and know that you've got a comfy spot to park your tush around the family table every holiday season. When you look back on your life as a child, you think of it fondly. And you rest your head at night knowing that your loving caretaker(s) did the best they could.
Statistically, you are in the grateful majority. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: Children's Bureau, only 1% of U.S. children are found to be the victims of child abuse by social services each year. Granted, these numbers only represent cases which are both reported, and substantiated, but in any case, the ratio of abused children to well-treated children is a huge one, leaning far over to your side of the Happy-Childhood spectrum.
So I can see, with great folks like yours and the statistics, why you might not be able to fathom the thought of a person deliberately avoiding their parents as adults. I mean with what you experienced first hand and the numbers on your side, maybe you think people like me who have decided to be estranged from their parent as adults are ungrateful, whiny and read way too many self-indulgent pop psych books. Surely, I need to get over myself, eat a big fat slice of humble pie, and call my mother already. After all, she's the only one I've got.
Let's rewind a little bit here. I'm making assumptions that you have no trouble with your parents at all, aren't I? And how fair is that? I don't even know you. Maybe you are able to recognize mistakes they made, but unlike me, you've practiced forgiveness and unconditional love. You know that your parents aren't perfect, and see their flaws. Maybe they even whipped you, and you, being a reasonable person, know that this wasn't abuse, but healthy discipline. And you don't let it stop you from browsing the Mother's Day section of a Hallmark store, unable to decide which card your mom will love the most. Because in the end, you know that your parent saw your flaws and loved you anyway. They bathed you, diapered you, fed you and kept a roof over your head. What more could you have asked for? The least you can do as an adult is give them the respect and love they not only deserve, but earned. And I would suppose you believe I should do the same.
Now what if I told you that your unconditional love is a lot more conditional than you might realize?
Hear me out, please. What if, that roof that stayed over your head as a child, also held a lot of secrets? Secrets like physical punishment that went beyond discipline and into the realms of abuse. Or secrets like sexual abuse. Or others like constant yelling, cutting remarks and put-downs toward you, a child. What if you lived your early years in fear? I can assure you, the color of your decision on which card to buy at Hallmark won't be "Which one will make mom the happiest and show her how much I love her?" it will instead be "Which card can I buy that won't make me die a little on the inside with it's frilly lies that don't really apply?"
The reality is, I don't know you. And you don't know me. But the difference between the two of us is that I don't expect you to adhere to my values, and I don't judge you for your decisions without all the important information. I don't invalidate your choices and experiences because they aren't mirroring my own. You, and larger society, however, do frequently judge, invalidate and offend me.
You don't know that the reason I keep my mother blocked from emailing me is because if I don't, I can expect a roughly 50 line email outlining what a loser she believes I am, about every 2-3 months. You don't know that the reason I don't bother to call my mom on Mother's Day is partly because she's forgotten my last 14 birthdays. And you don't know how painful the phrase "Love your mother, she is the only one you have" is. As if I needed reminding that I grabbed the proverbial short straw when Destiny was assigning parents. Any kind of mother is not better than no mother at all. Not in my case anyway. Having a relationship with my mother at this age means me accepting silently her verbal and emotional abuse. It means my total submission to her controlling and erratic behavior. It means me giving up my own voice, my own life, my own dreams, and living life in service of her. And perhaps that wouldn't be so bad if this was something she's only grown to become as we both got older. But the truth is, my mom was never a source of comfort and love for me. In fact, I spent most of my time under her roof and beyond wondering what was wrong with me that my own mother would treat me so badly. And it took me 31 years and a lot of expensive therapy to realize that it wasn't.
When I was 10 years old, I was an A student. I was on the elementary school cheer squad. I had a lot of friends. The time I spent away from home was happy, and aside from maybe talking in class a little too much, I was rarely reprimanded for my behavior by other authority figures. When I would ride my bike home from school, I remember taking my time, trying to drag out my freedom as long as possible. Because I knew what was waiting for me: a parent whose mood would go from one extreme to another and I never knew if it was a good or bad day until after it was already too late. There were times when I was slapped in the face while the front door still swung open because I'd forgotten to take out the trash in the morning before I'd left for school. My mom bought groceries, yes, but never cooked me a meal once I was tall enough to see over the stove. The soundtrack of my childhood was, in part, punctuated by sexual noise coming from the wall her bedroom shared with mine, with many numbers of men.
During my teen years, my mom drilled it into my head that I needed to make something of myself and go to college. When it came time for SAT prep and touring campuses however, I was on my own. My mom had other priorities. During my senior and junior years of high school, I wasn't even sure if I'd have a place to sleep every night. By now she didn't slap me around anymore, because I'd outgrown her, instead she'd let me know I was in trouble by changing the locks so I couldn't come inside. And I know a little something about those statistics I mentioned above....how few instances of neglect and abuse are reported and how even when they are, it doesn't always stop. Throughout my childhood there were 4 CPS reports (that I know of) filed by my out-of-state father, teachers, friend's parents and neighbors. Once, when I was 17, I called the cops myself after she'd changed the locks on me for the umpteenth time. This officer saw my mom give him the bird through our front door window with his own eyes, and hours later at the police station after my mother came in there crying and claiming I had run away and she was oh-so-worried about me? He lectured me on respecting my mom. His words still circled in my head when I felt the sting of her back-handing me for snitching her out, once we were in the car and away from his view. You have no idea how inaccurate those statistics truly are.
When I finally did graduate college after having left home, I asked her to come to celebrate with me. She told me she couldn't travel out of state at the time because she had a life threatening colon condition and needed surgery the same week. When I walked the stage, her condition was in the forefront of my mind and I worried very much about her health and knew in my heart she'd have been there if she could. Two months later, I found out from a friend of hers that her health was fine. The surgery she'd had was lap-band, and she wouldn't reschedule it because it was 6 months to the day from when she wanted to be bikini ready for a vacation she'd planned in Mexico. #Priorities
My humble request is simply this: Stop guilting me about my estrangement from her. Take a step back from your living Norman Rockwell and understand that others of us grew up Pollock-style, full of instability and chaos. And applying your values to my life is not only insensitive, but incredibly harmful in that it plays into the abuse I received.
Us abuse survivors? We're pretty good at beating up on ourselves. Thanks to our upbringings, we learned it was one of life's greatest past times to run through our minds a constant stream of negativity and self-bashing. As adults, we are guilt tripped by every corner of society. Religion tells us to Honor Thy Mother and Father, mass media reminds us of holidays meant for revering parents, and a trip down any Facebook newsfeed will contain any number of references to a "Mother's Love" that might as well be written in a font called SHAME. I'm not asking you to stop loving your own parents. (In fact, are they looking to adopt a 32 year old? I'm housebroken!) I'm asking you to stop telling me to love mine.
But maybe you think I'm coming from a place of anger, resentment and vindictiveness. Maybe you think that one day, when she dies perhaps, that I will regret my decision to keep my distance. And maybe you're right. It's hard to say for sure. But I know I won't regret learning to untangle the negative thoughts she cemented in my psyche. And I know from many experiences of giving it another shot with her time and time again, that I'm always left broken and beaten in the end. It has always been more painful for me to have a relationship with her than it is to not have one.
I'd like to make something crystal clear: I want a mom. More than I could ever express through words. I am so unbelievably jealous of people who have good relationships with their moms. Watching television shows and movies which highlight good parenting hurt like you wouldn't believe. It is a shot right in the feels and a constant reminder of how I never had, nor will ever have, that from my own mom. And that's the kind of feeling that's been known to make it tough to want to get up out of bed in the morning. But no matter how long I spend away from her, the yearning for a loving, unconditional, maternal figure never. ever. goes away. I have found wonderful substitutes throughout the years but there is always something left to be desired. Society tells us a mother loves her own children like no one else, so no matter who I find that maternal depth with, they will never be the person who brought me into the world. The one who was supposed to love me.
Here's the thing though: I can't do a damn thing about that. I can't make my mother love me. I can't make her proud of me. I can't make her approve of me, I can't make her feel regret, remorse, anything. I. just. can't.
So please, next time you find yourself in a conversation where as the subject of parents are brought up, the other person shifts their weight uncomfortably and mumbles "we're estranged" don't give them "the look." The look you get when you imagine your own amazing parent and how disgusting you feel even considering being estranged from them. Instead, practice compassion and hug them. Make a mental note to remember to hug your own parent/s the next time you see them.
Remember when you post that meme around Mother's Day on Facebook that for some of your friends, however few, it feels like a bullet to see that in their newsfeed. And whatever you do, please, for the love of all that is holy, do not attempt to help reconcile us. Chances are, we've tried more than a dozen different techniques of forgiveness by the time we finally chose to go no contact with them. Chances are, we spent years blaming ourselves. And while our first mental reaction might very well be "shut up, you don't know what you're talking about" within minutes, hours or days, that little conversation will bring up years of doubt, regret and shame. And it will likely take us days or weeks of living in that "Maybe they've changed, maybe I've changed, maybe this time it could be better." mindset. And whether we reach out or not, we're forced to suffer the grief of losing a parent we never had, all over again. I know you've never had to go through that, but please, put on your empathy hat when relating to those of us who have. It's all I ask.
-An Adult Child Abuse Survivor