Coping without having parents?
February 21, 2015 5:24 PM   Subscribe

Coping without parents in your adult life?

For most of my adult life, my sibling and I have been without real parents. My mother was the first to leave - she quickly remarried after divorcing my dad and made it very clear to my brother and I that we had no space in her new life, except as occasional ornaments at times of her choosing. To be honest, my relationship with her has always been strained and when she tried to blame us for "not being there for her" during her divorce to my dad (that mostly happened because she had cheated on him), I was thankful for having barely any contact with her. She is malicious, to be honest, and so a few years ago I decided not to respond to contact from her.

My dad looked like he was trying with us, but he's been in a really on-again, off-again relationship with a woman close to my age for several years. This lady is very competitive with me and basically competes with me for my dad's attention. He often refers to her as "one of his kids," which is totally creepy. She's having a baby (not his - she got AI) and he's now just super distant from us, not at all interested in our lives, and basically has no idea what we do. At xmas, he treated us like unwanted baggage and could not wait for us to leave so he could spend time with his girlfriend. At xmas, we also found out that he's cheating on his girlfriend (while she's pregnant). Anyway, the long and the short of this is - it suddenly dawned on me that my dad really does not want us in his life anymore and has been trying to tell us that for at least a year. I don't think he would ever say this directly.

It's been hard coming to terms with the fact that not only are my parents shitty people, but they are shitty people who do not want to have me or my brother in their lives. We are therefore basically without parents. This has been the reality for the past year or so but I haven't been able to accept this. I'm looking for any advice from people who are in similar situations. If you are not in a similar situation, it would be great if you did not provide advice. I find that people who have not experienced this very rarely offer good advice.

Thank you.
posted by thelivingsea to Human Relations (21 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
While I don't have anything like your particular situation, I do have the kinds of parents - who are still miserably together - that aren't and never were capable of offering much in the way of solid parenting and trusting parental relationships, and are essentially emotionally unavailable. My way of coping, and something I did naturally and not consciously, was to form trusting relationships with other, older adults outside of the family who essentially served as supportive role models for healthy behaviors and attitudes. It's important not to force that role of parent onto someone else, but rather just cherrypicking whatever positive interactions you can glean from other sources. I'm sorry for this situation, and I empathize with you.
posted by MeFiMouse at 5:43 PM on February 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

Chosen family is the big answer here. At some point everyone realizes their parents are fallible at best, some much worse; as heartbreaking as that is, know that you have the ability to fill your life with people of different backgrounds and different generations who can fill this need for nurturing for you.
posted by mchorn at 5:57 PM on February 21, 2015 [9 favorites]

One of the things that has helped me immensely has been taking a really good, honest look at my own strengths and abilities. I am capable enough, smart enough, and strong enough that I don't need anyone to take care of me in the way that parents (in theory) do. This has given me a huge amount of comfort on many occasions. In areas where I am not super-confident, I seek out ways to acquire the skills/info/whatever that I'm lacking.

Don't get me wrong - it is wonderful to have people care about you, and care for you. That's where chosen family comes in.
posted by VioletU at 6:12 PM on February 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

So, first of all - chosen family. People who are awesome and dependable and can help you out in shitty situations and people who share your genetics are not one and the same.

Secondly (and this is the harder part, IMO), is working through and untangling the damage that's been done in previous years. You probably already have coping mechanisms that have helped you deal with your parents in the past, even if you don't recognize them as such. They might not be healthy coping mechanisms. And God, I wish I had a better answer than self-reflection and a ton of therapy, but that's all I've got. Well, and reading captain awkward. There's an entire 'parents' category, if that helps.
posted by dinty_moore at 6:36 PM on February 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

"I find that people who have not experienced this very rarely offer good advice."

So true! So true! Thanks for the laugh.

Seriously, though. You should think about not feeling sorry for yourself longer than the grieving process takes you to complete. I mean, nothing has really changed if you think about it deeper. They were not there for you, even when they were around. Meanwhile, you are actually better off without these toxic people in your life. You are much much better off without the taxing pretense their physical presence requires while they are being actively neglectful and shitty towards you. Holy Toledo is that demeaning. It crushes your self-esteem to accept being treated like that. Good riddance to that life experience!

I'm going to offer you some truth. I hope it helps.

These people never loved you. They don't love themselves, and they don't love the other people in their lives, either. They don't love you, sadly they were never capable of loving you, and not being "loved" by people like that is a blessing.

You now have room in your heart and in your life to choose only genuine and stable people. You will be lonely because sometimes those people are few and far between. Other times, your life will be full to bursting with fulfilling companionship.

You have yourself. And your main job from here on out (after you finish grieving) is to be a better person than you were yesterday. Your main job is not to pass on your parents' dysfunction in your current and future relationships.

I can't tell you how normal you will feel by owning your new (trauma & drama-free if you work at it) reality. It's not weird at all, it's just different. If you make it better, it will be better.

Grieve those people like they are dead (certainly any hope you had of them being the parents you wanted is indeed, dead) and move forward strong in the knowledge you are self-sufficient.

There's an adjustment period. You'll get over it. A few years from now it will hardly be a blip.

ProTip: don't accept "orphan" Thanksgiving or Christmas invites to friends' celebrations unless you know their family really well and you like them a lot. Spending the holidays with well meaning strangers sucks ass and I highly recommend against it. Go on vacations, go to fancy restaurants with your sibling, have a big celebration with friends at your place - but do not be anyone's pity guest on the holidays.

You'll be fine. Best to you.
posted by jbenben at 6:36 PM on February 21, 2015 [39 favorites]

Blood may be thicker than water... but sauce is thicker than blood and I don't remember what water is supposed to represent there.

Stupid metaphors aside, a therapist may help you identify what mental hurdles you need to overcome... and can teach you different techniques for coping.

Choose family (and be the kind of person that you would choose) that you can practice these techniques on until you find the ones that will put you on the other side of this as a stronger, wiser human.
posted by rideunicorns at 6:45 PM on February 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

You may not have parents, but at least you are not alone. You have a sibling in the same situation and you can use something like this to bring you even closer if you both want. Another bright side- You don't owe your parents anything, including having to take care of them in their old age. Fair warning: Parents who are abusive (and your parents do sound like they are emotionally abusive towards their kids) tend to live on the assumption that they can treat their kids however poorly they please and still get their kids to take care of them as they age. When/If they realize that is not the case, they do tend to treat you nicer- but it's only out of fear that they won't have the means to take care of themselves later on- not out of any love for you.

I'm estranged from my family, but my situation is a bit different. I'm not only estranged from my parents, but my siblings as well. My sister turned out to be as selfish and emotionally manipulative as my parents. My brother is a wonderful human being and I would do almost anything for him, but since he is male my parents treated him like an angel on earth as they come from a very sexist culture. So despite my brother and I living under the same roof, our experiences of growing up with our parents is very different. Since he witnessed some of the things I went through growing up, he understands to some extent my distance from the family, but it's not an experience that we share. It also means that I have to keep my distance from him too because the more time I spend with him the more my parents hassle him to force things on me (because they are not allowed to get close enough to me to do it themselves) and this puts pressure on my brother that I don't like him having to go through. So I keep my distance from him as well for his sake. He asked me not to, but I could tell that the family was putting more and more pressure on him and I couldn't allow that to happen anymore. This means I'm on my own entirely during the holidays if my partner isn't available.

Try to look on the bright side and see that while other children are putting in their time and resources to take care of their beautiful parents as they age- you don't have to feel guilty about not doing anything for your parents. Instead your time and resources can go towards your 'travel around the world' fund. Secondly- you and your sibling grew up under similar circumstances so you're not alone, which is better than a lot of people in this situation have.
posted by rancher at 8:01 PM on February 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

You are not alone. Loads of people, far more than you think, live parentless lives. People don't talk about it, because a non-rosy-glow family is seen as awkward, inappropriate, and alienating conversation. The cruel flip-side is that talking about one's fun, loving, close family is never seen as over-sharing or saying something inappropriate. This leaves us parentless folks as silent sufferers, as if we've screwed up somehow, just by living our totally normal and common lives.

Not having parents sucks. It is really, really hard, and yes you ARE missing out on all kinds of great stuff. So grieve. Grieve hard. Feel angry and sad and cheated. In tandem, recognize that while this fact will always be terrifying and enormous upon inspection, during every day life it actually shrinks quite small. You like grilled cheese sandwiches, you're great at karaoke, and you have no parents. You're a great friend, you love horror movies, and you have no parents. It's just another thing about you, and it's a fact like any other as you live your life.

Depending on how young you are, unfortunately the "oh, do your folks live in town?" or "what do your parents do?" is seen as such an innocuous thing, a standard get-to-know-you routine. Please, do not feel like you need to go out of your way to make others feel comfortable. Say straight up: Oh, I'm estranged from them; we have no contact. You'll be surprised at how many people can connect with that, and to those who immediately get flustered and awkward? That's life. Life bestows terrible things on good people all the time. Their uncomfortable reaction says much more about them than it does you. If more people started talking about their non-Hallmark approved families, we'd find each other much faster, and in surprisingly large numbers.
posted by missmary6 at 8:40 PM on February 21, 2015 [13 favorites]

ProTip: don't accept "orphan" Thanksgiving or Christmas invites to friends' celebrations unless you know their family really well and you like them a lot. Spending the holidays with well meaning strangers sucks ass and I highly recommend against it. Go on vacations, go to fancy restaurants with your sibling, have a big celebration with friends at your place - but do not be anyone's pity guest on the holidays.

This! A thousand times this. It's counter-intuitive--especially to the well-intentioned who insist on inviting you and are mortified at the idea that you would be alone and/or or not doing something holiday-themed if they didn't--but I wished I had figured years and years ago that holidays are less painful even alone than they are as another family's "plus one." That's not a fun role.

And yes, there are more of us out there than you think but we don't exactly advertise. Anyone you're not close to or don't trust with this info--you give a one line, "We're not close" or "I wish I could be in touch, but there are some issues there that don't make that possible, sadly" and IMMEDIATELY transition into asking about their families/plans/parents/whatever. Because most people who would gawk at or rubberneck your situation would want to talk about themselves instead even MORE.
posted by blue suede stockings at 8:53 PM on February 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

There's an adjustment period. You'll get over it. A few years from now it will hardly be a blip.

If I could give jbenben's comment a dozen favorites, I would.

I will also add two of my own thoughts.

First, living well is the best revenge. And not for the way it initially sounds. Aim for as many moments as you can where you think to yourself, "I wouldn't choose to be any place else right now. I wouldn't change a goddamn thing." A dinner with a new friend, a phone call with an old, being successful at something you love, travel (Christmas in Paris- do it!). You will wake up one day with this beautiful life without those toxic people. Even better, when someone asks about them (which is scary at first, but gets way easier) you actually think to yourself "who"?

Second, the grieving process is not linear. It's a dance that flows back and forth, and your "stage" is defined by whatever is prevalent. So some days anger or sadness will crop back up when you thought those stages were done. Sit with it, be with it. Realizing that you don't have parents now is still a huge loss, even if you know intellectually this is the right course. Don't be afraid to get help from a therapist with the processing.

All the best to you. It's tough now, but I promise you it gets better.
posted by susiswimmer at 9:10 PM on February 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

"The cruel flip-side is that talking about one's fun, loving, close family is never seen as over-sharing or saying something inappropriate. This leaves us parentless folks as silent sufferers, as if we've screwed up somehow, just by living our totally normal and common lives."

I probably could not disagree with the bolded part of the statement more. First of all, it is entirely possible to be genuinely happy for other people and feel happy for yourself, too.

Reality is your friend here. You don't want the dysfunction and drama (read: shame and dread) your family brings to your life. By being happy for someone with a healthy family, that's recognizing this is the group you belong to now, too. So being happy for their lifestyle is also being happy for your lifestyle.

Somewhere in the distant past of that happy family you are hearing about, an ancestor like you broke the chain of toxic dysfunction and laid the groundwork for the stable family group you are seeing today. It didn't happen any other way. It's not magic, it's courage and effort to create positive and stable relationships.

You're not "other." Sooner or later, every person and every family will evolve. Family dynamics can also devolve without care and vigilance. Nobody is better or worse than you.

You're not "other." I also agree that, "we're not close" is commonly used code for this part of the journey. No shame, and you don't have to espouse on aspects of the situation if you don't want to.

I'm afraid I'm starting to ramble. Just letting you know if you shift your perspective, there is absolutely no reason to feel left out or suffer.
posted by jbenben at 11:28 PM on February 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

ProTip: don't accept "orphan" Thanksgiving or Christmas invites to friends' celebrations unless you know their family really well and you like them a lot.

I'm not sure if I misunderstood this, but none of the 'orphan' holiday parties I've been to have ever involved anyone's family. At least where I am, there are plenty of people with no family, or no available family. Sure, you might still not want to join in a holiday party with friends, but make sure you are avoiding it for real reasons and not because of some unvalidated assumptions.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 2:40 AM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Understand their inability to not be there was a about a deficit in them and NOT you two. Consider their own parents to try and get some perspective on it (god it's hard). Look up empty chair work and try it with a counsellor who knows about attachment and/or Gestalt. Read up on Alice Miller. Know you are not alone in this. Read up on the narcissistic family. Take your time with new relationships of any kind as the need can be so great... Work on your inner child and read up on learning how to parent yourself. It is rough but not impossible. I personally don't believe 'blood is thicker than water' rhetoric. If something sucks it sucks. Ultimately you will be emotionally safer for not having this in your life, but you need to grieve the parents you never had. But most people won't get this so be careful where you take it. There's a hell of a lot of denial about family generally. Look up Daniel Mackler on the family. Hugs to you both.
posted by tanktop at 3:01 AM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am so sorry. I was estranged from my family (parents, adult brother, baby sister) for approximately 10 years when I was in my 20s. I came out as a lesbian -- my mom told me she couldn't love me -- I rejected them and then later they rejected me when my mom thought my partner was being artificially inseminated and that we would ask her to act as the baby's grandmother.

I found the book Toxic Parents to speak to my situation. Perhaps it will be helpful to you.
posted by elmay at 6:28 AM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am estranged from my family and I think jbenben is on the money when she says that nothing has essentially changed. Your parents (my parents) weren't/aren't there for you when they were technically in contact with you. You are describing parents who have abandoned you. Those selfish assholes, and morally ambiguous fuckers.

When I weigh up the last 4.5 years of not being in contact with my remaining (alive) parent, I feel like I did a good thing for myself and I feel more solid in saying 'I'm not in contact with my father' and don't bother explaining, unless it's to an intimate partner I trust deeply.

Advice: I'd be judicious about choosing people to whom you tell your family story. I've had it used against me because for whatever the facts are (ie there's a shit ton of people who don't have contact with their family of origin for Good Reasons) the deeply ingrained notion that Family is Everything blames the child. Well meaning people have tried so hard to get me to 'move on' from this situation. I used to try to justify, and now I don't. So, advice: don't justify. It's too hard, too personal and I don't think that whatever I've said to justify has really made a difference to others.

Abandonment, that is a big thing and no matter how old you are, or how 'grown up' you feel, that stuff is archaic and big, and you need to find some ways to be held through this. It is great you have solidarity with your sibling. You have a home roost if you like, somewhere to find strength and validation when you feel that abandonment more at certain times (Xmas, birthday, holidays).

I wish someone had told me how freeing this would eventually feel. How much more freedom I have to be who I am instead of a receptive unit for crap. You wouldn't tolerate this crap if a friend did it around you; you wouldn't put up with a partner who neglected you, ignored you, cheated around you etc. There are so many good people in the world and since my estrangement, I have space for them and a much greater respect for goodness in others.
posted by honey-barbara at 10:38 AM on February 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

This is hard because there is a myth in our society that having children changes people for the better. That there is a an unbreakable bond between parent and child (usually focused on the mother, but also applies to fathers, grandparents, etc.). The truth is, some people do not, in fact, bond to their children. Instead they might even resent them. My parents and I have had a complex and distant relationship most of my life which I suppose makes dealing with their lack of presence easier as an adult. I find that it bothers me most at this point when other people express distress at my situation in view of their own, more positive, family relationships. My way of dealing with that has always been to point out that it is more common than people like to admit to. If you feel the need to connect with family, focus on your sibling, your friends, or your relationship. All of these social interactions are as significant as any you might have had with your parents if not more so. It may also help to try to understand that you are your own person and not an extension of them. Downplay their importance as much as you can.

I'm sorry your parents are jerks. I'm sorry mine were, too. But I'm more sorry that as a culture we make people feel awkward and ostracized by that, as if an inability to have a relationship with one's family is some kind of failure. They are just people, subject to the same quirks of personality and selfishness as anyone else. Having had children doesn't provide a miraculous cure.

And man, I am jealous of you having a sibling you can commiserate with! If only we had managed that, I think it would have been that much easier.
posted by palindromeisnotapalindrome at 12:35 PM on February 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

Seconding what honey-barbara said above about not sharing your situation widely. People have absurd sentimental notions about families and often really don't get how horrible it can be to have horrible parents and how liberating it can be to minimize or eliminate contact with said parents.

I cut off contact with my father over 20 years ago. I have never regretted it. I rarely mention it to people unless I've known them for a while and I know them well. Some members of my family still occasionally give me crap about getting over it, I ignore them. He's almost ninety, I have no intention of seeing him.

My mother died a long time ago, but I saw very little of her too.

Yes, you will find that you can get many of the things we all hope to get from our parents from other people, a bit here, a bit there. It adds up to so much more than what my parents ever gave me. Don't expect too much from any one person and be generous yourself to others, even if they seem to have had the loving family that you lacked.

I will get better.
posted by mareli at 5:26 PM on February 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

Sorry, typo, It will get better!
posted by mareli at 5:33 PM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

To be honest, I'm not sure what question you're asking. Most people are giving you generalised reassurance and support, but I think it's worth asking if there is something specific you would like advice about, or help with.

First of all, there are people who actually have no parents, as in their parents are both dead. Your question, which seems to deal with disowning or "divorcing" your parents, is really not the same thing. If what you want is advice from those who have chosen to sever their relationships with their parents, it might be worth stating that. Becoming an orphan is something that is increasingly likely to happen to people as they get older and if you're not interested in those people's experiences, probably best to say so. Though you never know, they may have something helpful to say.

You may, in fact, find that reacting as though your parents were dead - going through the stages of grief, from anger and denial through to bargaining and finally acceptance - are helpful. Whether actual death or figurative death, the process is more about dealing with your emotions. Allow yourself to grieve and mourn the parents you never had, that you're now admitting to yourself are not part of your life from now on.

My parents are not dead, but I basically separated myself from them when I moved halfway across the world 20 years ago. They are pretty estranged and distant from my siblings who live in the same country as well. It helps to talk about it with my siblings, because that way I know I'm not alone. It helps to talk to my friends who are actual orphans. It helps to focus on the other relationships I have built for myself, that I did not inherit. But I had to do this in a big way with the moving halfway across the world thing, and yes, it took a long time and was very hard in the beginning. I echo the advice about not letting yourself be a +1 to someone else's family holiday; spend it with your brother/friends/loved ones outside of the family context, or by yourself if you can do that without feeling too terribly sorry for yourself. Basically make your own family, your family of choice rather than the one you're born with. There are lots of us out there doing the same thing.
posted by Athanassiel at 7:14 PM on February 22, 2015

OP, I think it might be helpful to reflect a bit on what specifically "being without parents" evokes for you.

Is it worries about practical issues--that you won't have those experienced people in your life to give you guidance about the responsibilities of adulthood (houses, careers, money, relationships, childrearing, whatever)? That they won't be willing to help you out financially if you're in a pinch? That you won't have a place to stay when you're in town?

Is it worries about home, in an existential sense, like you don't have a place to shelter you if life really goes sideways for you?

Is it the sense of personal rejection, the sense that you are unimportant to them?

Or are there other angles to it?

I think what you do to cope depends on what aspects are really resonant with you. For what it's worth, I think this is an excellent thing to find real life support about--either individual therapy, or actually several places I've lived have had support groups about this kind of thing. Because really this is more common than you think, and finding people in your life who really get it is so valuable....
posted by Sublimity at 10:19 AM on February 23, 2015

I think anger and grief are fair, here. They are choosing not to be good, safe people for you. They can or will not provide the love, security and support we expect from good parents.

This sucks. I understand that. Its ok to be angry, hurt, feeling abandoned, and any other emotion you like. But, honestly, it will pass. You are an adult, and you have your own life. In fact, I would be so bold as to say your life is almost certainly better WITHOUT such unsafe people in it.

Love yourself, provide yourself with whatever emotional and physical support you can, and enjoy your life. YOU are still worthy, even if your parents can't see it.
posted by Jacen at 2:26 PM on February 23, 2015

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