You know, e v e r y holiday and birthday is like a dagger in my back. Sometimes I just lie on my bed and cry my eyes out. I adopted Maria when she was two-years-old as I couldn’t have children of my own and had no husband. Her mom died of a drug overdose. She was the cutest little girl and loved following me around. I became her everything. Every time I left the room without her she would scream for attention. It took a long time for her to be a relaxed, regular child. She was quite popular with the other kids at school who thought she was charming and smart.
Unfortunately, when she got to be a teenager she would stay out over night with friends and not come home. Finally she would come home after I nearly lost my mind and then she acted as if everything was OK. She told me I was the best mom in the world. I eventually took her to counseling and was told Maria has an attachment disorder. I didn’t really understand what that meant. But I eventually learned. When Maria turned 18, she ran off with a boyfriend and has never been heard from again. It’s like I never mattered to her. That was 20 years ago. My only comfort today comes from knowing through indirect contacts, that she is still alive and that my suffering over her loss at least indicates how much I loved her and still do. This is not something I talk about with friends although many of them already know my story and feel sorry for me. Every holiday I privately ask, “Maria why won’t you come home?” I never hear from her.
Hardly anything is more heartbreaking than having one or more of our adult children simply disappear from our lives for no apparent reason. Yes, it seems inconceivable but it happens a lot more often than we think. The cruel grief of such a loss is often more than any of us parents can bear. Even the idea of such losses sounds absurd and can send most of us packing. The sadness and possible shame we bear is not something we discuss idly with fellow parents, many of whom are enjoying seemingly rich connections to their adult kids and grandkids.
It can send shivers down our spine to know that our kids are alive but not seeing us. The trauma from losing our kids in this way can be worse that losing our children to death. Such pain affects all of our relationships. Generally we may choose to not even listen to happy talk about family life, even though we very much approve of others enjoying their children and grandkids. Obviously it’s very easy to blame ourselves and ask, “What did I do wrong?” There’s no hiding from the guilt and shame. It haunts us and cannot be put into words.
Parental abandonment is especially hard around holidays, birthdays and family ritual times. It is made worse when everything on the TV and media excessively praises the joys of extended family. Such ordeals may visit us year after year much like trauma memories disturb their victims. Due to our own shame and vulnerability most of us abandoned parents find such losses unspeakable.
There are other reasons why we lose words over such losses. They’re simply incomprehensible. After all, how do you tell a friend, “Oh yeah, my daughter never calls me or visits during the holidays or my birthday” or “You know I haven’t seen my son in years. We used to have such a good relationship when he was a boy.” The most obvious response from a friend is, “Why would your children not contact you? Have you done something to turn them away?” The unfortunate truth is that you cannot explain, even to yourself, why your kids have distanced from you. There is no obvious reason for it. In sympathy, caring friends may react to us with silence or well-meaning reassurances. These efforts only make things worse. Most of us simply lack our own explanations for why our kids just drift off from us in their lives. Most of us hate to burden our friends with suffering we ourselves can hardly bear and are very reluctant to let the cat out of the bag regarding our wayward children. Hence, we live in the isolation of unspeakable silence.
Let’s be clear. It’s indeed not normal for kids to disown their parents. As long as they are not currently being abused, adult children do in fact have a natural drive and responsibility to acknowledge parents no matter how imperfect their childhood may have been. It’s reasonable for parents to expect calls from kids on holidays, birthdays and uneventful days throughout the year. But in fact many parents do not get such calls. It’s not something parents want to talk about and it’s not something that parents are even able to talk about, even to themselves. Hence such losses are unspeakable.
If this article applies to you, know that you are not alone. Almost all parents have at least one adult child they can’t talk about because it is so painful to do so. Some parents have it even worse than you do. It’s normal for you to have recurring and intrusive anguish over being ditched by your kids. Often nothing easily can be done about it. Some of us are just appointed in life to bear burdens for no particularly good reason. Unjust suffering is a fact of life, according to Buddhists. There are benefits to suffering we do not choose. One of which is learning how to self-forgive. It is possible to move beyond and grow beyond unspeakable losses.
Why do children disown their parents?
There are numerous reasons why adult children abandon their parents, for what appears to be no reason. Most of these reasons don’t amount to a hill of beans when you as a parent are in the throes of traumatic lost memory. However later, when you are calmer, you may want to understand why such losses occurred. In the example above the daughter was diagnosed as having reactive attachment disorder — when a child cannot securely bond with an adult, has a fear of being abandoned and does not easily hold on to emotional experiences with a primary caregiver.
Most of us cannot get our parents out of our head. These children can do that quite easily, and they find it terrifying to stay connect with parents that they have abandoned for years. Such adult kids when asked might say, “Oh I have the greatest mom in the world. I just haven’t seen her in a while.” It’s hard to grasp such thinking but it is quite common for unattached people whose whole life is about surviving, and not bonding.
Sometimes, children who were once close to us have been manipulated by the other (usually absent) parent in a painful parental alienation syndrome. If the other more absent parent is vindictive and sees the children as objects to be used, then he or she can brainwash the children into not liking you through lies or bribing children to distance from you. Often such behaviors occur with the children’s partial cooperation as they long to please the absent parent and also enjoy the spoils of being catered to. Finally, if children have grown up in a hidden traumatic childhood experience, in adulthood they may not want to touch their families with a 10 foot pole later in life, while they simultaneously truly love their most caring parent. Few of us grasp the strong impulses of traumatized people to flee and we instead see our children as rejecting us. Such children are not running away from us, they are running away from being mentally out of control and helpless. The love for us caring parents is always somewhere in our children’s bodies even when they disown us; it’s just too painful for our kids to access it.
I have two adult boys who live in the Twin Cities and they want nothing to do with me. They are good looking kids and used to be my little sweethearts. I send them cards, invite them over for dinner and remember every birthday they have. I get nothing back from them. Times were hard when they were young but we stuck together as a little family, sometimes without a home. My ex and I used to drink and he would beat me up. Finally one day I told him I had enough. I took the kids and we lived on our own. I had three part-time jobs and we made it as a family. My ex told me when I left, “Someday I’ll get them back.” Well, over the years he did. He sobered up and started being like the Disney Land dad to our boys. And he also started telling the boys what a whore I was and how I had kicked him out of the house. When the boys got to be teenagers they decided they would move in with their dad and his floozy girlfriend. Over time the boys started not seeing me. They might think that it was me that ruined the marriage. They don’t know what it was like being beaten every day. Sometimes I hate myself for not staying. Mostly I just cry and miss my boys.
Personally I think there is a special place in heaven for those of us disowned parents, near where Mother Teresa lies. Often we have been the best thing that ever happened to our children. The problem is that we ourselves don’t think so. Many of us are haunted by unending feelings of failure for how our children turned out. Sometimes we have done some ill-advised things around our children in their growing up years, only compounding our shame. We are only human. At least we were the ones around our children.
It is critical to understand that no matter how problematic our childrens’ childhoods were there is absolutely no justification for their rejecting us today from their lives. If they do so, they are doing so out of their own spite and cluelessness, not because they were harmed in childhood. All of us are obliged today to forgive our parents. If you have any doubts just ask yourself, “Would you disown your own parents today for the mistakes they made years ago?” Most of us know the answer to that question. Sadly, adult children who disown their parents are only abusing themselves and making their own lives worse.
Beyond these observations it’s best to allow yourself to grieve the unspeakable loss of your children while doing the best you can to minimize that loss. Let yourself be as sad as you need to be, for as long and repetitively as you need to be and don’t expect that such losses will go away easily. Often, personal shame and guilt will be part of the feelings of loss. It is best to accept those feelings too, not as facts about your behaviors, but as normal responses for people who grieve unspeakable losses. If the shame gets too bad, focus on something positive in the present, like how beautiful the flowers are on your table at home, the flowers you bought for yourself to comfort your loss. Consider being more open with close friends about the complex grief of being a rejected mother or father and ask them to check in on you every anniversary and holiday. Don’t dwell on your pain more than you need to. Move on with your new life in positive directions, perhaps by involving children who would like to be around you. There are plenty of kids out there who would love to have you as a substitute parent. Keep in mind that your adult kids are not running away from you. They are truly running away from the positive way you live inside them. You will live forever in your kids.
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). Call 651-699-4573