I'm estranged from my mother. Should I reach out to her?
May 18, 2020 5:11 AM   Subscribe

My mother was both damaged and damaging, and most times I just get angry when I think about her. Sometimes, though, I get wrenches of pain and sadness at the thought. Am I being selfish?

My mother was absolutely a product of her horrific upbringing, and it showed. The men and life she chose? Found herself in? Was doomed to? as an adult reflected everything she was raised in and raised her children in: child abusers and molesters, hoarded home, neglect, food insecurity and addiction.

I used to think I would understand my parents when I became one; becoming a parent to a wonderful daughter ten years ago instead made me seethe with rage. Where I thought I forgave much of my upbringing on "they did their best" or "they couldn't change" before, now I'm stuck in a loop of "how did they fucking dare?" anger when I see the difference in how I treat, respect and care for my own child. I had 80% of the childhood trauma as my mother - yet I would never send my daughter to school with no food, dirty clothes, from a house that should be condemned in which unsafe people reside. I work every day to be the best person for myself, the world, other women and her. I do the things that keep me sober. I read every book I can to help me develop healthy opinions on raising kids. I am not at all perfect, but I am at least proud to be the mother I wish I had.

As my daughter reaches ages I remember well, the anger returns and I add it to the "fuck that noise" pile of bad parenting stories. Since my daughter was a baby, I have been too angry to talk to my mother in any way that could foster a relationship. Soon, my anger and resentment was easier to abate from a distance, which cooled me down into a "why bother putting the effort into this at all?" feeling. And more: "I don't feel like parenting my mother now I have a daughter I am obligated and happy to parent". Weeks passed, then months and then years. I've not spoken to her in seven. She still sends my daughter cards and writes me cards I don't read, but also don't throw away. For the most part, I'm happier this way.

Except: every so often I will get a knife twist of sorrow. I'll get a memory of something she did that makes me smile. I'll get a glimpse of how desperate and alone she must have felt. I'll appreciate the small slivers of effort she did make. What she allowed in her own sickness was unforgivable and I don't feel like forgiving - on top of this, only a superficial relationship will ever be possible between us to protect the healthy boundaries I need. I know even a superficial relationship would delight and soothe her as she advances in years.

I know you're not my therapist, but I would be genuinely grateful to see a range of opinions and experience.
posted by katiecat to Human Relations (38 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
My mother is a narcissist who used me as a scapegoat to mollify my physically abusive father. She also took all of the insurance money from my father's death (500K) and spent it on her boyfriend (my sister's HS boyfriend that my mother groomed and stole). She has actively tried to break up my marriage. She constantly lied to friends and family about my wife and myself.

This is just a sampling of her behavior.

I've had no contact with her for 11 years. My life is much better for it. My siblings that have staid in her orbit are dealing with so much drama and negative shit.
posted by anansi at 5:22 AM on May 18, 2020 [7 favorites]

I know even a superficial relationship would delight and soothe her as she advances in years

Would it delight and soothe you though? It doesn't sound like it. I don't think attempting a relationship will do anything for the "knife" of sorrow you occasionally feel. That sorrow will be there no matter what, because it sounds like it is a kind of grief for what you didn't have. A relationship now won't change the past.

There might be reasons to attempt a relationship with your mother, but nothing that you have said here sounds like one.
posted by lollusc at 5:28 AM on May 18, 2020 [19 favorites]

I promise not to thread sit! But to explain: she was not in the same ilk as my narcissist father - everything was down to her inaction and inability to give care and protection.

In terms of "why would I even consider it?": I worry that the example I'm setting for my daughter is "write people off when they cause you discomfort", which I am absolutely too quick to do as a solution even when I shouldn't. I worry I will regret not having any relationship when she dies (I was surprised at how much I was affected by my estranged father dying, and he was a truly awful person).

I appreciate both of your answers. Thank you.
posted by katiecat at 5:40 AM on May 18, 2020

The example you are setting for your daughter is that it's OK to write off people who consistently fail or harm you, and who show no sign of changing to any useful degree.

Good luck to you and your daughter.
posted by Weftage at 5:44 AM on May 18, 2020 [29 favorites]

Sober person here and the mother of a biological son that I had when I was still active. I placed him in an open adoption when he was an infant. He and I are not in contact by his election.

You mention sobriety in your description of your life and allude to addiction ... on your mother's part?

If your mother was active in an addiction while you were growing up, and has become (and stayed) sober since, AND has done recovery work like 12 step work or therapy... hmm. It might be worth finding that out. Sometimes family relationships improve astronomically when a parent stays in recovery.

Then again, there is the very much non-zero chance that nothing has changed with her, and that you would simply be opening an old wound.

It might be worth it to read some of her notes to see if she mentions anything about longterm recovery, like going to meetings. If she seems to be trumpeting that, though, don't pursue it any further.

Be aware that you absolutely do not owe this, or anything else, to her. Reading the notes, or not, is for your own peace of mind. And a literal thank you for not repeating the same patterns in your adulthood.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 5:55 AM on May 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

This info might help inform the answers you get: How old is your mother? Has she made any attempt to apologize or acknowledge the harm she did? Are you working with a therapist? Is she sober? Is she stable?

These questions might help you reflect on the situation and get some clarity about moving forward:
What do you want from reconnection with your mother? Is she in a space where she can provide what you want? Are you in a space where you can firmly set boundaries? Do you believe that she can respect your boundaries?

It really seems like this decision is worth multiple conversations with a therapist about 1) whether to initiate contact and then, if yes 2) how to do so. Would you see her once a year, talk only on the phone, go to her home or meet her halfway? What will you do and not do, what will you tolerate and not tolerate?

What do you have to lose? What do you have to gain?

Your daughter can also learn from you that she does not have to maintain relationships with people who cause her harm. You can model through other relationships how to tolerate people who are goodhearted but difficult, and set boundaries.
posted by bunderful at 6:00 AM on May 18, 2020 [5 favorites]

I’m gonna provide some anecdata here, because I think I’m one of the few people who has successfully accomplished what you’re trying to do: have an arm’s-length relationship with an abusive parent. My dad was physically and emotionally abusive, and after college I basically just stopped talking to him. We reconnected in my early 30s, but he didn’t seem particularly interested in putting in any work, so I decided I would give the same effort he did, and as a result, we didn’t talk for another five years or so. He missed my wedding and the birth of his first grandchild. Then one day, he randomly reached out. We met for lunch, which was nice. Since then, we’ll talk occasionally. He texts on holidays, I’ll send him pictures of the kids, and about once every four months or so, we’ll have a short phone call about politics or sports. It’s never anything substantive, and he’s never really talked about anything in the past, either recently or my childhood. (That’s actually pretty important; like a lot of addicts and abusers, he’s always been pretty heavy on guilt-tripping, so the fact that he’s just ignoring the fact that I didn’t invite him to my wedding is actually kind of progress.) I don’t expect to have a really deep relationship, but it’s nice to not completely avoid it. Like you said, no matter how bad things got, there were some nice times too. It’s nice that I can share those memories again.

So that’s one data point. I’m not saying you should reach out to your mom necessarily, just that you’re not crazy to think about it. Obviously there are a lot of variables that had to go right for me and my dad (I also didn’t mention the fact that we live in different states), but they did, and it seems to be working. Good luck to you whatever you decide to do.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:13 AM on May 18, 2020 [4 favorites]

In my own family estrangement, I definitely have those moments of sorrow when I think about my brother and the enormous pain he is carrying around. I am so sorry for him. But so far, that sympathy has not outweighed what felt to me like real dangers of staying in contact.

Once you have really separated and grown in strength and some of the vulnerability of yourself as a child has dimmed, I can see that it might feel less risky to be in contact. But is the catastrophe you avoided any less real because you avoided it (to the degree you did)? Someone put up an FPP recently about the real risks of Y2K, which were only mitigated by hard work and enormous resource allocation. Does that seem in any way analogous to your situation?

In your position I would live with those occasional spikes of pain. They speak well of your strength and understanding.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 6:22 AM on May 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

As the daughter of someone who had a shitty, horrible, abusive mother they tried to keep in their life out of a feeling of guilt and obligation: please don't. I get where this guilt and obligation came from, and I don't blame my parent, but I WISH they'd been able to cut their mother out entirely. It would have saved our family so much pain. It would have taught me some lessons about toxic people I was forced to learn in very different (harder) ways down the road.
posted by fairfax at 6:35 AM on May 18, 2020 [10 favorites]

This is a difficult question. The first thing is: right now, you are doing the right thing. The distance is clearly good for you, and you don't owe your mother anything at all. I can tell you from personal experience that your daughter is learning the right thing from you already. Don't worry. Keep your distance.

On the other hand, you are posing some relevant questions. Grief does seem to be harder when the relationship with the deceased person was unresolved. It could be meaningful for you to talk with her about the decisions she made. It might be that you need to forgive her in order to care for the neglected child inside you.

About my personal experience: my mother and my childhood and youth is so similar to yours that I am crying as I type. My mother didn't date my sister's boyfriend, but one of my students, when I was a young teacher, and yes, she gave him all of her money. All the rest is exactly the same. And I have had a lot of the same thoughts and ways of coping. I've gone through several cycles of distancing though my life, and they have all been good for me. I recommend.

In recent years, a sequence of events have meant that I have felt it necessary to help her. And just recently I understood how damaging that has been to my mental health, and how harmfull it has been for all of my other relations. Just before the lockdown, I had a good talk with my doctor about it, and it was very helpful, but to be frank, this lockdown has saved me from becoming a complete wreck. I mean this in a very serious way. I was not suicidal, because I know I have to be there for my wonderful children and grandchild, and my siblings and their families. But I felt everything was overwhelming and I had regular anxiety attacks. The reason was that I was regressing into my 12-year-old self: a very small, hungry and fearful person trying to survive and to protect her siblings. The lockdown, and the forced distance from my mother, has let me grow back up. I'm not fit for fight yet, but I can see the light.

So I'm not actually recommending that you contact her. But, there are a couple of buts. During these years where I have helped her out, I have been very direct with her. I don't bother to be polite. And I have asked her about memories and other stuff I don't understand. Those conversations have been helpful, and I am happy I had them.
Also, for some time, while I was living in another city, I found a great psychotherapist. She was a bit woo, but she was very empathetic, too. The therapists I've been able to find where I normally live have found it impossible to imagine that a person like me can have had an abusive childhood. I'm not sure it's them: like you I have worked hard to become me, and I'm probably not good at showing my softer sides. But that little old lady with her pictures of angels really helped me. While I still could talk with her regularly, I could stay sane.
One thing she really helped me with was to "find the helpers" -- to remember where that little hungry girl found some care (and food) sometimes, and to build my adult life on that love and care rather than on the rejection of my mother's values. It was good advice.
posted by mumimor at 6:40 AM on May 18, 2020 [6 favorites]

What has changed? Has she acknowledged her behaviour? Has she at any stage since you left got help? Be it therapist, sobriety program or whatever might have been needed?

It is good & healthy to understand that your parents too are products of their upbringing & that their mental health issues may have caused how they bought you up. You also do not know all that your mother went through despite what you may think. Your mother was also a product of a different time & different expectations from the world. But none of that matters if they're not themselves understanding that or trying to understand that & seeking help all that will do is stir up more pain & dysfunction for everyone involved.

What exactly would that contact look like if you did reconnect? What are you expecting from it/
I mean actually expecting not the logical things you wrote here, but the expectations of the little girl inside you. Is she wanting an apology, recognition that her mum messed up, closure? None of those things are likely to happen if your mother hasn't been getting help.

Also frame to yourself what that contact would look like. Does the contact need to go past the Christmas & birthday card stage? Is she going to know your address, does that worry you if she did? Does she grasp technology well enough for text communication or facebook or whatever? Establish clear boundaries in your own mind before contacting her.
posted by wwax at 6:41 AM on May 18, 2020

Bad grandparents are way worse than no grandparents. Find other older people in your life who can be the aunties and uncles you wish you and your child had.

I cut my mother out for damn good reasons, and my ex has maintained a relationship with her. She is hurtful and difficult even from a distance, but I am so glad that my youngest will never have to suffer through her meanness. My older kids are puzzled why their grandparents are lousy but I raised them with very very low expectations for grandparents so they are meh. It stings but compared to what I've heard from my siblings who had way more exposure with their kids, SO SO much better.

Also, what helped me live with the estrangement is that I told my mother I was willing to have contact if she could say that she was abusive during our childhood. Or that our childhood was abusive. She refused, and instead made third-party interventions to make me feel guilty and embarrassed, but having that bare minimum - agree the bad stuff happened - and have her refuse was very freeing. I've made mistakes and apologising/reparations, acknowledging the shared truth of the problem is critical. It's not on me to reach out or fix this.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:44 AM on May 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

Also, if you want her to stop with the cards, go ahead and lay down that boundary. I would HATE to get cards because it's poking a wound that is healing very very slowly.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:46 AM on May 18, 2020

If you choose to reconnect, can you deal with the pain of future rejection/them playing out the same behaviours that caused you problems when you were a kid? My experience is that no matter how much a previously-abusive parent appears to have changed, there is always at least the chance that the abusive parent will end up doing hurtful things again.

I'm in contact with an abusive parent (if it matters, the less-abusive of two abusive parents; I was on the road to cutting them both out of my life when the more-abusive parent died, and I ended up not cutting contact with the less-abusive one both because I felt sorry for them and because I was much less clear at that point on who was responsible for what when I was growing up and I felt [somewhat incorrectly] that the more-abusive parent had largely been to blame). 99% of the time it's fine and we can get along well enough to see each other in person a few times a year in the non-plague times and keep up an intermittent family group chat, though neither of us are really phone/video chat people.

It's the 1% of the time that it's not fine when I most regret not cutting contact previously. I have learnt that there are topics that are much better avoided than confronted, specifically around my own memories of (primarily negative) childhood experiences vs their memories of those experiences. Surviving parent is not a reliable narrator about how my past went or the role they played in it, and my attempts to put across my own perspective have ended very badly for me. Think surviving parent telling me in a kind, caring voice, genuinely believing they are trying to say a kind caring thing, that it was 100% my own fault that I did not receive medical care for my severe depression/anxiety, eating disorder or escalating drinking problem as a teenager because I did not adequately advocate for myself or correctly identify the one safe adult in the family system whom my parent (claims in retrospect) might have listened to if I'd taken my problems to them.

My perspective on the same issue is that my more-abusive deceased parent actively prohibited me from seeking such care because their own internal guilt/shame/self-disgust about the effects of multi-generational trauma and abuse on our family system and fears that my issues would reflect badly on them as a parent (which they should have done, because it was largely bad parenting that caused those issues!) were stronger than any feelings of care or protection they might have had towards me, their suffering child.

This stuff still cuts me to the core, even after years of therapy and a lot of time to process it all and a life that is so much better now than the one my parents subjected me to under their "care". I was struck just earlier today at how awful it was that more-abusive parent prioritised their own internal gross feelings over the suffering of their own child who badly needed help. I get strong "but whyyyy?" and "who the hell would do that to their own child?" feelings when I imagine having a child of my own and doing that to them (an option I have already taken off the table surgically as I am so afraid of inflicting this crap on another generation that it seems safest to me just not to create that generation). I think about all the good parents I know and cannot imagine them making the same decisions about their children and justifying them as in the child's best interests. The last time my surviving parent and I talked about this, it ended with them understanding my position no better than they did before I spoke about it, and me profoundly hurt and wondering why I bothered maintaining contact with them.

Which is to say: can you handle those lows? Do you want to handle those lows? If you're confident you can interact with your parent and they either won't pull that shit or you can absolutely handle it, then I would say proceed with caution (but only if you want to, like actually want to, not just feeling guilty because your parent is older and lonelier; they still made the choices that made you want to cut contact in the first place). If you don't trust them not to and you can't handle it, I would suggest continuing to stay out of contact with them.

My surviving parent seems "better" on almost every metric than they were when they were still married to my more-abusive parent and when I was a dependant child in their home, but they are still absolutely capable of wounding me deeply, which is something I hadn't fully realised based on how surface-"better" they seemed after my more-abusive parent died. I learnt that lesson the hard way, several times over, and now we are still in contact but there are things I absolutely refuse to discuss with them. I used to fantasise about winning them over with my side of the story and getting some validation from them for it; now I mostly fantasise about how little I'm going to mourn them when they're dead.

One final thing: I've been able to draw at least some boundaries with this parent, although they were hard-won (think putting down the phone or physically leaving the room to show them I meant that I didn't want them to talk to me about something, when verbal boundaries did nothing). Surviving parent loves to bring up family "jokes" that I was inevitably the butt/scapegoat of growing up, which are only funny if you're also getting a kick out of making fun of child-me; I can now ask them not to bring those things up and they will usually stop doing it, even though I don't trust that they "get" on any level why I might want that or why those memories might be painful for me (but they will at least stop doing it when asked).
posted by terretu at 6:48 AM on May 18, 2020 [5 favorites]

I'm sorry that your upbringing wasn't very good, you sound like an incredibly strong and resilient person, despite the lack of positive role models.

I read your update about writing off your mother, I encourage you to reframe it as setting boundaries You are not being unkind to her, you are being kinder to yourself. Be the best parent you can be to your child.
posted by jennstra at 7:15 AM on May 18, 2020 [4 favorites]

It's okay to have the rare positive memories you have and not reach out. I think nearly everyone has stuff like that with the toxic people in their lives, or those people wouldn't have been in their lives at all. However, everything you've said makes it sound like you're doing really well without her, you're able to get the space you need to process your feelings and raise your kid, and you haven't identified anything that you would get out of reconnecting with her. Unless and until the list of things you'd get out of reopening that door is significant, I'd leave it closed.

Also, you're not teaching your daughter that it's okay to cut people out for superficial discomforts, because that's not what you did. You cut ties with someone who was awful to you on every level, despite the social and societal pressures to always forgive family members.

Enjoy the life you have, and congratulations on getting away from your childhood and finding healing.
posted by bile and syntax at 7:16 AM on May 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you reconnect, you are potentially putting yourself (and your daughter) in the position for caring for this person as she declines. I'd send the cards back as they arrive. It's OK to feel that occasional sorrow. You're mourning what could have should have been. But you don't have to do anything more than that. When you feel that knife twist, take your daughter out and make a wonderful memory together with her.
posted by cyndigo at 7:24 AM on May 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

Not a mom so I can't fully answer your concerns, but I do struggle myself with keeping my distance from a parent who is/was verbally and emotionally abusive and neglectful and remains in denial about this. I periodically have pangs of sadness and guilt that are so strong they can send me into a tailspin from my otherwise calm, content life. I sometimes imagine that my parent is also sad and feeling lonely without me, and the image gets fixed in my head. Sometimes I reach out, but this rarely if ever turns out to be rewarding for either of us.

A recent insight helped me a great deal: this sadness is not shared by my parent, it's a creation of my own imagining. It's more than likely a projection of emotion *I* am feeling about what I, someone in touch with these things, would feel if I was ignored or isolated. But the evidence has shown that if I am not around to stroke my parent's ego and/or act as a sounding board for their verbal attacks, they will find another target. It's sadness because I am not a person to this parent, just a vector for their reactive behavior.

In my understanding of this parent I hold empathy for the child she was who did not receive what she needed from an overbearing mother. But as an adult she had choices, and her choices leaned toward self-protective narcissism that did not leave room for parenting me. I must protect myself, first, in order to be a functional adult. My parent will never be able to see or acknowledge what happened, or to acknowledge how well I've done despite their shitty parenting. I choose to avoid situations that will harm me further even as I work to unwind the damage that happened when I was unable to protect myself. I still feel plenty of guilt because I "should" feel love and concern for my aging parent who lives alone several hours away. But I think that this is a trap that keeps me from being the parent to myself that I need to be (because my parent was not what I needed). I am able to maintain light social contact in the form of sending gifts and cards at appropriate times, but I try not to dwell on the relationship we didn't have and remember the one that we did, especially when it contradicts my parent's version of the story.

I think your anger is a natural outcropping of realizing that things didn't have to be that way when you were growing up. It's a sign of strength, really, and growth, because you are able to differentiate between what you experienced and what you can offer your own child. Do be gentle with yourself: remember that you are *not* your mother, and you have the agency to ensure different outcomes for yourself.
posted by Otter_Handler at 7:33 AM on May 18, 2020 [5 favorites]

I'm struggling with a similar situation, and I wish I knew the "right" answer to this. Any way you slice it, it sounds like choosing from the least bad option, rather than a good option.

You have to decide what is going to be the best outcome for yourself and your daughter, and leave your mother's feelings out of it while you're making this decision. Your duty is to protect yourself and your daughter. I agree with other folks who've said that you're not modeling that it's OK to abandon people - you're modeling that it's OK to step away from harmful relationships. A very important lesson for your daughter to learn!

So far, I've opted to go no-contact with my mother because it just feels like too much work to have the discussions and set boundaries and all of that. So far most attempts I've made to set boundaries (e.g., "stop fishing for information about my other brothers, they'll talk to you if they want...") have not done any good. It feels horrible, most of the time. But so does talking to her. So. I wish you all the best in navigating this and more wisdom than I'm in possession of while doing it.
posted by jzb at 7:47 AM on May 18, 2020

This stuff is really hard to process alone, but it's worth trying to pick apart "sorrow/discomfort = a mandate to change the status quo (in re: your relationship with her)" vs "grieving the relationship you should have been able to have but did not and cannot".

Your daughter should learn to walk away from people who cause her discomfort. That should 100% be her first instinct; we ruin this in children in order to make them more obedient (on the benign end of the range) and then abandon them to adulthoods without the skill of having boundaries. She should learn to recognize danger, get herself safe, and then assess the situation from a safe distance.

But: One day, it may be possible for you to have a superficial relationship with her and to supervise an extremely superficial relationship between her and your daughter, because you're not wrong that her ability to do the kind of harm she did when you were young is pretty limited now, since you have no physical dependency on her for survival. I don't think you can do that without doing some rigorous healing work that gives you a toolbox not just for dealing with whatever she might do but for managing the internal upheaval just of having any sort of contact with her. You need to make sure you know how to back away when you sense danger.

That is a conversation you should be having with your therapist, and if you haven't/aren't specifically engaging in therapy for complex childhood PTSD, I think you need to explore that before you can even decide what to do. The feeling of guilt, when that's your legacy, is a long line of big orange warning cones because guilt-shame-inadequacy is such a major mechanism in getting you to comply with your own abuse, especially as a child.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:55 AM on May 18, 2020 [6 favorites]

In my own life, these urges to reconnect to similarly abusive people have usually been a signal flare for some other need in my life that’s not being met. Or, it’s something that feels (badly) familiar to my brain in times of extreme stress or uncertainty. It’s usually not about the other person at all. For me, it’s been hard to feel like I did enough (I did), or that I made the right decision (I did), or that maybe, just maybe, time and distance will make this attempt different (it won’t). Trying again is an attempt at control and rewriting the narrative.

I will also say that These Times are bringing up lots of old grief and coping mechanisms that are manifesting in complex ways, so if these feelings have been extra strong the last two or three months, it might be indicative of our global grief response rather than a situation you need to address.

Trust yourself. You did the right thing. If you don’t have a therapist, now is a great time to find one with everyone offering telehealth appointments. Sending you validation and support!
posted by stellaluna at 8:36 AM on May 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

In terms of "why would I even consider it?": I worry that the example I'm setting for my daughter is "write people off when they cause you discomfort", which I am absolutely too quick to do as a solution even when I shouldn't. I worry I will regret not having any relationship when she dies (I was surprised at how much I was affected by my estranged father dying, and he was a truly awful person).

The example you're setting for your child is that you're respecting yourself and the relationship you have with your daughter. You're showing her that we get to grow up and become our own selves and define our own identities. You're teaching her about consent in relationships.

My grandmother was not as bad as your mother, but still a narcissistic, emotionally abusive, petty person who damaged my mother a great deal. But my mother broke the cycle of abuse and did a great job raising me, and she and I have a good relationship. I wish my mom had cut off her relationship with her mother YEARS before the inevitable, hurtful estrangement came. My mother maintained a relationship with her mother because she didn't know of another way to be, because she was gaslit about her childhood, because she didn't want to deprive me of grandparents, and because she still held out hope that she would win her parents' affection and approval.

It didn't work. It wasn't worth it. Fuck that noise. I even understood this when I was a small child. I had some good moments with my grandmother but also didn't really like her. (And then she dumped us when I was about 13.)

My mother is 85 years old and still letting her dead mother hurt her feelings. Maybe if she had loosened up on this notion that blood family members must be more intrinsically special than chosen family, she would more consistently understand that she and I have a good relationship as adults because we CHOOSE to be kind to each other. It's not a magical thing that just happens out of luck or obligation.
posted by desuetude at 8:39 AM on May 18, 2020 [6 favorites]

Have you come around to the notion that you are grieving? Grief shows up at all sorts of times in our lives. I think your "knife twist of sorrow" is actually grief. You didn't get the upbringing you deserved, and you grieve it. You didn't get the mom you deserved and you grieve the loss especially when comparing your daughter to yourself. Your mom's continued existence aggrieves you.

If you are satisfied with your life in estrangement, you can learn to incorporate the acknowledgement of grief into your life with the help of a therapist.
posted by juniperesque at 9:21 AM on May 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

In terms of "why would I even consider it?": I worry that the example I'm setting for my daughter is "write people off when they cause you discomfort", which I am absolutely too quick to do as a solution even when I shouldn't.

Why shouldn't you do this/she learn that? Discomfort in this case comes from a history of abuse and neglect by a primary care giver. Listen, there is "uncomfortable" and there is "This person is a danger to my existance." You 100% should write people off who are/were chronically abusive to you unless they have made EXCEPTIONAL, consistent efforts to validate and help you heal from it (which, shock, most abusers won't), and that is a good lesson for people, especially women, to learn. This is way different than, say, developing health conflict and coping mechanisms. And honestly, I don't really see the problem with not wanting to be around people who make you simply uncomfortable either as that tends to be your body sending appropriate signals.

I used to think my (estranged, similarly abusive and neglectful) mother was just sitting around in pain thinking about how much she misses me since I've gone no contact but any time she reaches out I know it's just another effort to control me. So meh.
posted by Young Kullervo at 9:35 AM on May 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

This isn't so much advice as it is a recommendation for a book: Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents. One of the best books I've read so far about this subject.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 9:46 AM on May 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

I made the opposite choice, and then what my kids have learned over the years (along with some good things) is "grandma treats mum badly sometimes and she allows it." The same thing that made my upbringing nuts is there...it's mitigated by a number of factors, like distance and I can frame things for my kids.

Their grandparent-grandchild relationship is different, and when my kids were small it was relatively uncomplicated. But now I have a 14 year old who is observant and asks good questions and it's clear to me that he will share a small part of that legacy of dysfunction. It comes out in some smaller ways -- weird gifts, cringeworthy family stories -- and larger ones, like every so often my mother gets triggered and acts bizarrely at a family gathering, and sometimes that leaves me gasping, which is something my kids notice.

A concrete example is my mother gifting me a piece of furniture...from my grandfather who raped me, and admitted it to her...on Christmas, in front of my kids, telling me it would be nice to share happy Christmas memories from my childhood with them. No, I don't know how she does that.

But you know, if she could have done better it would have been when I was helpless and alone as a child.

So please erase the idea that if you do stay in contact, it will be "Good" or "Normal" because...it won't.

There aren't really great answers - like there is not one solution that will solve the problem of your mother's inaction and warped thinking. I am at this stage content with my choice as I am okay, but I wanted to share.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:49 AM on May 18, 2020 [5 favorites]

Don't mistake the desire for something with a possibility of getting it. Your natural instinct to want an archetypal mother and your memories of some things that were not awful are not insubstantial things. Just because you have the natural instinctive feelings for your mother does not mean that acting on those instincts would result in positive encounters. An analogy is that you might look off a building and think of falling to your death as feeling like falling asleep as you embrace the certainty of release from your daily worries. However if you actually jump the adrenaline spike, and the sensory experience of wind rush is not going to have a calming dreamy sound track to go with it.

There's an old saying that if you love someone you accept them as they are. In principle it's not so much if you love someone as if you love yourself. You get hurt if you sentimentalize people and try to manipulate them or hope they will be other than they are. And this is almost certainly the massive failure pattern that your mother lived. She tried to make her relationship with your father into a viable one by convincing herself that he was and could be a viable partner, at least some of the time, even when a clear cost-benefit ratio indicated that the damage he did enormously outweighed the times when he was doing other stuff and not actively damaging his family. His negative contribution massively outweighed his neutral, let alone his positive contributions. But your mother likely craved a love rush of belonging and connection and he was giving it to her sometimes, so she kept on with him, having no other way to get it and probably no clear way to get away from him anyway.

Having observed your mother do this (as well as myriad other people in real life and fictional media) you are tempted to look for your own love-rush of connection. For the probability chance of it working this time, simply look at the past history of your relationship with your mother and come up with a percentage of time when she did things that made you feel loved, secure and bonded and compare that with the amount of time she did things that made you feel ignored, or belittled or exploited. Assume a similar ratio will be in effect now.

Pursuing your mother, like your mother's pursuit of your dad, is a desperation strategy born of a natural need. Assuming you couldn't connect with your mother and decided to look for an older women to be a surrogate mother to you would you choose to start your search among women who live the same lifestyle that your mother now leads or would you consider women who have it better together a better place to hunt for a mentor and adult mothering? Your mum is a bad bet by every metric except the genetic one. You're going to a well which is dry because you are thirsty. The time you take traipsing out to the dry stones is time that will delay you from quenching your thirst.

Your desire for a mother and nostalgia are real things, and worth acting on. But like the desire for a good night's sleep is not justification for jumping off a building, reconnecting with your mother is not the solution for wanting to experience some good moments and rekindling old memories.

Your mother has indicated that she will not harass you and that she has not cut off contact. This is actually a very good position for you to be in, and destabilizing that is something to think hard about before you act. Having to go no contact with her again might be damaging for you, your daughter and your mother. Your mother is in fact observing boundaries well at this time, and you are the one struggling.

I would suggest that what would benefit you most is thinking about how to communicate with her that you are willing to keep getting those letters and not currently seething with hatred and contempt, but that you do not want to get any more deeply involved again. Consider if your daughter, replying to your grandmother were to include a line like "Mom sends her best wishes". Would that offend your mother so much that she cuts off contact with your daughter? Would that result in a drunken three AM phone call where she tells you that she really was a good mother, really, but you blame everything on her? Or would that tell her that she is welcome to keep sending the letters but should not expect direct contact with you? If you are not perfectly sure how you could get the third result from a carefully selected message (not necessarily one through your daughter) then you are taking a big risk to your emotional well being by sending /any/ message. What you have now is a functional relationship with your mother, maybe realistically the most functional relationship you could have with her.

But this doesn't mean that the need for a mother and the nostalgia you feel are not unmet needs and that you should ignore them. You might enhance your life by addressing those things in ways that don't involve interacting with your mother. You could tell your daughter good stories about your mother, putting her in a positive light to feel closer to her. You could look for an older woman mentor as substitute relationship. You could recreate some of the things your mother did for you, doing them for yourself, or for you daughter or both. You could listen to the music, or look at Google street-view of the places that mattered if that does something for the nostalgia. If you are thirsty walking all the way out to a poisoned well or a dry well does nothing to quench your thirst. Think of other places that will provide water that can refresh and nourish you.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:55 AM on May 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

I cut off all contact with my father over thirty years ago. My kids, who were in their teens at the time, have seen him a few times over the years. He's 93 now and fading into dementia. My sisters, who were not abused as badly as I was, have maintained relationships with him.

I remember some of that same thinking as my 3 sons grew up, like how could he have been such a horrendous parent. to a child that young. In my father's case it certainly wasn't something from his own childhood that made him that way; he grew up in a stable loving family with a large extended family close by.

Yeah, I remember some good things he did too, but not enough to make me accept the burden of forgiving him for behaviors he cannot admit to being wrong. I tried that when my kids were little, it didn't work.

I was a much better parent than my parents (my mother is another story I won't go into here), I was not perfect, I fucked up a fair amount. But I'm really delighted to say that my kids are all wonderful parents and have wonderful loving long-term partners.

If any of them had ever told me they were cutting off all contact with me, or had refused all my attempts to get in touch with them, I would have been at their door as fast as I could be and done everything I could to resolve the problem. Fortunately, that has never happened.

Your daughter will be fine.
posted by mareli at 10:01 AM on May 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

My comments are based on my observations of my husband’s relationship with his parents, and the effect it has had on our family.

The main thing I have learned over the past couple of decades is that my husband will never stop wishing he could have a good relationship with his parents. It’s just something he has had to get used to.

He has some good memories too. I think the best way to think about these is that they are the intermittent reinforcement that gave him hope, and kept him under their control, as a child. But as an adult he realizes that it was always a false hope.

My husband used to make excuses for his parents. That they had a difficult childhood, they did their best, they didn’t know better - but that they were “good people.” As our kids got older this turned into “how could they?” Then the realization hit that they did know better, because his parents knew enough to hide what they did from others, or to lie about their actions. And that they didn’t do their best, because they played favorites, meaning they did their best with some of kids but not others.

The hardest thing for my husband to come to terms with was that his parents weren’t good people. That good people don’t do bad things like his parents did. This was especially difficult to accept this because he had been raised to internalize shame and victim blaming, and to place his parents on a pedestal.

How has this impacted the way we have raised our children? Basically, we cut off my in-laws completely the very first time they treated our kids poorly. My husband had always insisted that his parents had “changed” because he saw how well they treated their older grandchildren. We gave them the benefit of the doubt (because I was young and stupid), but we never left our kids alone with his parents. Sure enough, one day my in-laws showed their true colors to my oldest while in our presence.

We haven’t seen his parents since then, and I can tell you without hesitation that they will never see my kids again for the rest of their lives. Luckily, my oldest long ago forgot what her grandparents did and how badly it made her feel. But, we have talked about “bad” people and always encouraged my daughter to stay away from people who aren’t nice to her. She has learned to recognize when people are pushing her boundaries and how to push back, or else leave the situation.

Nowadays my in-laws are internet stalking my oldest but we’ve talked about it and she knows how to keep everything on private, and she blocked them without hesitation. Luckily my youngest never had to deal with any of the crazy, because he doesn’t really exist in the eyes of my in-laws. They are simply obsessed with my oldest, who projects an aura of perfection. Not because they admire her, because they want to own her, devour her, and ultimately, destroy her. My in-laws have succeeded in doing this twice before, the first time with their own daughter, and the second time with their oldest granddaughter. Not going to happen a third time!

By protecting yourself from your abusive parent, you are also protecting your child. It may not be possible to have a superficial relationship with your parent, with the healthy boundaries that you need. It depends on your parent, and how much they desire to have a relationship with you, I guess. Now that you have your own child, the most important thing to protect your mental health so that you can be the best possible parent. If trying to establish a relationship with your parent is ultimately going to cause you more harm than good, maybe consider just maintaining the status quo that you’ve described.
posted by GliblyKronor at 10:10 AM on May 18, 2020 [6 favorites]

In terms of "why would I even consider it?": I worry that the example I'm setting for my daughter is "write people off when they cause you discomfort", which I am absolutely too quick to do as a solution even when I shouldn't.

In your mom’s case, you’re setting the example for your daughter that it’s healthy to cut off contact with people who have harmed you physically and emotionally, and they don’t just get to come back in your life when they make the right noises. That’s a really good and important lesson for her to learn.

It sounds like there are some other people you feel you may have cut off too quickly. That’s worth exploring with the help of a therapist. But don’t conflate those situations with having cut off your mom for very good reasons.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:23 AM on May 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

1) This sounds, to me, like a different version of you getting upset at relevant ages --- you're being triggered into attempting to play another unhealthy role, that of designated adult/parentified child.

Your daughter is probably at a point where you, at that age, were "trying on" ways of being an adult and differentiating yourself from your mother. This response is a very common late-pre-adolescent one. You feel "grown up" enough to handle things that you shouldn't have to handle, and in trying on that adult role, you seek to minimize your mother's culpability and the gravity of her actions and you seek to maximize your feeling of being beneficent/generous/able to "handle it all."

Nothing wrong in this kind of coping mechanism, but I would argue that your feelings, while more intellectualized than they were at younger triggering ages, are not actually reflective of reality.

One thing that strikes me as a fantasy / a distortion -- not in a bad way, but in a "normal coping mechanism way" -- is that you state that you know that your mother would be delighted by contact, but this is not actually something you can know. Many parents who did horrible things or allowed horrible things to happen to their children are actually happiest and healthiest when they have predictable, minimal, controlled contact with their children. This is depressing as hell to accept because she should be happy and delighted to hear from you. You are a blessing and she is very lucky to have such a wonderful child. But the reality of mental illness and trauma is that your re-entry into her life has at least as much of a chance of destabilizing her as it does of delighting her. The fact that you "know" that it would delight her is a strong indicator that you are not completely seeing this situation for what it is. (Again, no blame -- at all -- you're doing a wonderful job with this.)

Similarly, your portrayal of her behavior as "inaction" seems inaccurate to me. Yes, she put herself and portrayed herself as passive and helpless, but that does not actually equate to inaction, and it's her version of things which you are adopting as your own. Realistically, she may not have been capable of behaving differently. But that is different from her being a complete victim in the same way you were. This seems like you being parentified, and identifying yourself as the active, responsible party while reducing her to a helpless figure seems like a distortion that you may have started effectively making as you reached the age where she could lean on you to do more active, adult things that she did not do.

2) You have to put your mental health and your daughter first. Your mother is not a helpless child, and you're wanting to reinvest yourself in that role for whatever reason, but the risk, even a small risk, of destabilizing yourself is not worth it for your child's sake. This is not something you'd be doing for her, frankly, it is something you'd be doing for your mother and maybe you. You can teach your daughter anything you want and there is zero reason that opening up this deeply painful and highly unpredictable trauma bomb is justified for your daughter's sake.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 11:36 AM on May 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

The second point should read:

2) You have to put your mental health and your daughter first. Your mother is not a helpless child, and you're wanting to reinvest yourself in that parentified role for whatever reason, but the risk, even a small risk, of destabilizing yourself is not worth it for your child's sake. This is not something you'd be doing for her, frankly, it is something you'd be doing for your mother and maybe you. You can teach your daughter anything you want and there is zero reason that opening up this deeply painful and highly unpredictable trauma bomb is justified for your daughter's sake.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 11:43 AM on May 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

Those little bits of sadness that you feel? That's grief. You're grieving the mother you SHOULD have had, the mother you deserved. The mother she was never, and will never be.

There is nothing wrong with completely letting her go. Allowing her in your life will allow her in your child's... and your child doesn't deserve that.
posted by stormyteal at 12:27 PM on May 18, 2020 [4 favorites]

...the anger returns and I add it to the "fuck that noise" pile of bad parenting stories. ... I have been too angry to talk to my mother in any way that could foster a relationship... anger and resentment ... cooled me down into a "why bother putting the effort into this at all?" feeling. And more: "I don't feel like parenting my mother now I have a daughter I am obligated and happy to parent"... I've not spoken to her in seven. She still sends my daughter cards and writes me cards I don't read, but also don't throw away. For the most part, I'm happier this way.

Except: every so often I will get a knife twist of sorrow. I'll get a memory of something she did that makes me smile. I'll get a glimpse of how desperate and alone she must have felt. I'll appreciate the small slivers of effort she did make. What she allowed in her own sickness was unforgivable and I don't feel like forgiving - on top of this, only a superficial relationship will ever be possible between us to protect the healthy boundaries I need. I know even a superficial relationship would delight and soothe her as she advances in years.

I have a family member from whom I am estranged. Substance abuse on their part is a factor. I got a Happy Birthday text during PandemicTime, and decided to call to check in, at least in part because I worry about them all the time, especially now. We had an emotional call. Within 2 days, they trespassed boundaries, cruised my house, and it sounds like substance abuse is still causing money issues. They sent a Can I visit? text, I sent a strong No, they replied with courtesy, an improvement over typical abusive texts when I say No. All of which is to say Estrangement is hard.

I developed and maintained fierce boundaries with my own alcoholic, bipolar Mom over a period of many years; we developed an okay relationship. I basically left the house, got off the phone, left town, whatever, whenever whenever she was unkind or manipulative. It's a lot of effort. I think it would be very kind of you to reach out enough to say I hope you're doing okay in the Pandemic.. I think if she dies before you are ready to reach out to her, you will feel an ache. But I can also say that she may behave badly. It is absolutely okay for you to maintain distance, or to reduce it a bit, with extreme care. I find the fact they she sends cards is encouraging. Only do this if you have the energy to maintain your boundaries. My very best wishes for good luck with this.
posted by theora55 at 1:19 PM on May 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

Also, another thought, as someone who grew up in similar circumstances, I've had to face that I'm a little bit addicted to crisis/drama. I sometimes deal with times of relative quiet by seeking to shake things up. Some of this has been channeled in a healthy way (stressy but remunerative and stable career); some of it sometimes leaks out in these kinds of "well why not try [x]" impulses. You may be withdrawing a bit from the high-dopamine crisis point of COVID and part of the timing of this might be an attempt to get that kind of stimulation again by shaking things up. I can say that this is a totally normal thing if so, but I've also learned that these kinds of impulses go away in like a week or so and then I can't really see any motivation to do whatever it is I thought might be a good idea at the time.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 1:28 PM on May 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

I am so overwhelmed and grateful for all of the points of view, history and insight here. I hadn't expected such personal responses and I am just...touched and impressed at how forthcoming these answers are. I'm so inspired by all of you, who have shown me that there is more than one healthy way to think this through (and show me where I maybe need to seek more help and the specific goals I may consider). For some reason, hearing stories from people who have gone through similar heartbreak are easier for me to understand than books and some therapy sessions. I would never, ever suggest this as a "silver lining" to any of our (or partner's or parent's) childhoods, but rather a recognition that you brave people who commented were uniquely positioned to help me with this.

A number of you hit home with the fact that the sadness I'm projecting on to her is not a fact but a reflection of what I would feel in her place. This was the thought that led me to the light. I can see where I need to go, and it's such a nice feeling to have a map. I will keep this thread open for a long time, I think.

I welcome any DMs from people who may not have wanted to comment publicly - I know how hard it is to hit "post" sometimes.
posted by katiecat at 2:03 AM on May 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

This is something I struggle with quite a lot too. Aside from the addiction and being a parent parts I could have written your post word for word. It's so much more complicated when your parents were absolutely terrible parents out of extreme incompetence/mental health issues/abusive upbringing rather than malice (at least for one of my parents...the other is much less of a victim).

Though I'm not a parent, my sibling who has a small child has expressed strikingly identical thoughts to what you say here, especially about your perspective changing after having your child. My sibling is currently fully estranged from both parents and happy about it. One separation was intended to be temporary but many months later, I'm not sure if that is still true. I am a little sad to see the child miss out on a grandparent relationship, and sad for my parent who is heartbroken, but I also know the reality wouldn't be like the imagined "normal" relationship anyway and could easily be damaging for my young relative.

For myself, I am almost fully estranged from one parent and low, very superficial contact only with the other. I keep it at a level I can tolerate, which is quite low as they are both extremely difficult people to interact with (many months between each contact). I hesitate to pull the plug completely mostly out of guilt/feeling bad for them. I'm not sure if I should just cut my losses already, or if I should be more forgiving, especially of the parent who has had quite a hard life (in large part - but not entirely - due to their extremely poor decisionmaking, including choice in partners).

I'm just not sure. So I stay carefully balanced between estranged and not estranged, for now.
posted by randomnity at 8:14 AM on May 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Penelope Trunk blogged about re-connecting with her mother recently.

posted by squink at 7:52 PM on May 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

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