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We can't choose our parents, but we can choose whether or not to have a relationship with them. This week, the Sugars discuss parental estrangement. It's a follow-up to a conversation the Sugars had recently on the show about parents who feel alienated by their children.
After that episode was released, an email appeared in the Dear Sugar inbox from a woman who believed the Sugars had discussed her father's letter. She wished to share her perspective — that of the child who has chosen to estrange herself from her parent for her own well-being.
The Sugars dig in to this side of the story with the help of Stephen Elliott -- founding editor of The Rumpus and author of the books “The Adderall Diaries” and “Happy Baby” — who estranged himself from his abusive father.
I'm a 19 year-old from Canada. I've been backpacking around the States on my own for over a year.
I left home after my dad left my mom for a woman closer in age to me than him. He had been cheating on my mom for months and left us all. My mom is kind and sweet, and even though I believe they were probably not meant to be together forever, there was nothing visibly terribly wrong with their marriage. One day my dad just left. My mom was heartbroken and shocked. My dad spent months after this manipulating my mom, my sister and I to bend to his will. He tried to get full custody of me and my sister and tried to make us meet his girlfriend and move in with him. He completely disregarded my feelings and also my sister’s. His obliviousness to human emotion sickens me.
I could go on about the things he did, but I’ll just jump to the conclusion: I cut him out of my life because he is emotionally abusive and toxic. The last thing I need in my life is another middle-aged white male thinking he can tell be what to do and who to be — thinking he can use me against my mother. The only thing I could do to free myself from the incredible weight he pushes upon me every day, was to stop contact with him for awhile. I did it myself, so that I could feel OK — so that my life wouldn't be bogged down by his negative impact on my well-being.
I haven't spoken to him for over a year, though recently he emailed me. I was shocked to read that he wrote to you, Cheryl Strayed, my favorite author, about his relationship with me. He said there is a podcast about it and all that went through my mind was, "My dad is in correspondence with Cheryl Strayed about me?!!!”
I could barely listen to the podcast. It disgusted me to listen to how, in his letter, my dad acts like he's so perfect and innocent and that he wasn't cheating and that his relationship with my mother was bad. You just need to know, Cheryl, I'm a huge fan of what you did. You're human and you admit to your mistakes. My dad doesn't do this. He erases all the bad parts and then contacts his daughter’s favorite author, acting like I'm the bad one for cutting him out of my life. I did what I needed to do.
My mom, my sister and I have a tighter bond than ever. My dad and his 29-year-old girlfriend are expecting a child soon. He's moving on and soon he won't have time for me or my sister.
I'm free and I don't need my father right now. I guess I just wanted you to know that. Sometimes it's better for kids to not talk to their parents, and sometimes fathers can send extremely deceiving emails to their daughter’s favorite authors just to get under some skin.
Sugar, how does a woman free herself from the heavy weight of the patriarchy when her father is a misogynist?
Oh wait, I already know the answer. Go to the woods, go away from society, go hiking. The trees will heal you.
Steve: That’s a lot of pain and anger in a very short space. One thing that is curious about this letter is, the daughter says that we answered her dad’s letter in our parental alienation episode, but some of the ways that she describes her family structure in this letter don’t match the letter from the father in question. We wrote to her, and she clarified that her father hadn’t written the exact letter that we responded to, but she related so deeply to it that she felt compelled to write us this letter. It’s such a powerful indication of how people can be struggling with completely different lives, but the parallels are so eerie that she thought, my dad wrote to my favorite author.
Cheryl: This letter really stopped my heart. I feel an enormous amount of sympathy for Daughter. I am estranged from my father, and I chose to do that for some of the same reasons Daughter is talking about now. He’s toxic. One of the most healing parts of the story for me has been acknowledging, he has a right to his version of events. He feels betrayed by me. If you read a letter from my father about our relationship, he would say, “Her mother turned her against me.” Even though that’s not true, it’s what he believes. I’ve had to learn in my own heart to make room for his right to tell his story. That’s what I wish for you, Daughter, and for your father — that you both can find a way, whether it’s in relationship with each other or not, to have a sense of peace and harmony and forgiveness about what is past. I think it’s too fresh to do that now but, speaking many years out from this, I can say that it’s possible.
I am estranged from my mother. She is beautiful, wickedly funny, an accomplished artist, and the mother of two children, neither of whom speak to her. She struggles with a toxic combination of narcissistic personality disorder, alcoholism and some un-diagnosed bipolar madness.
My estrangement from her has come in phases. Following a crazy night during which she tried to strangle me when I was in my early teens, I did not speak to her for almost five years. I missed her. I longed for her. I had taken care of her for so many years. I was her therapist and trusted friend. I was never her daughter. Eventually, I caved to these feelings and I re-established contact with her. At this time, I was also actively seeking therapy and continue to. I tried to establish boundaries. I thought that I could manage her by making rules: only see her in public, always have a getaway car.
But a person like this is all-encompassing — a wave. She would manipulate me into staying the night at her house, or she’d come to my place and refuse to leave. I broke it off again in my early twenties for another stretch of years, but again it tortured me. I felt her pain. I felt her aloneness. I waited for an apology from her. I waited for her maternal instincts to kick in. I waited for her to come and find me and take it all back. It never came. She projected onto me and told me I was her abuser. She sent me vicious emails. I caved again, my heart swollen with blame. I was happy to relieve both of us of the silent agony we’d both been suffering. But she was always horribly, tragically and diagnostically the same.
Our estrangements left me feeling raw, paranoid, and sick with guilt. I’d be walking down the street and I would see her in everyone. I felt her eyes on me everywhere. The guilt chewed on me like a rat. I dreamed of her constantly. She was always chasing me down the side of a mountain or swimming across a large lake towards me. Other times in the dreams, we are hiking together and I’m a baby in a backpack. She is wearing a felt hat with feathers in it, and it is quietly snowing. She is singing Joni Mitchell to me. I wake up, hunch over and cry in the dark. Her subconscious presence bulldozed me. She always came back. I always brought her back.
I am now approaching 30. I have built a life of peace. I have an incredible relationship, and friendships and a family that isn't sick with narcissism. This has taken me unimaginable work and time, Sugars. I have had my fair share of relationships with alcoholics, self-mutilation, anxiety.
Most of the time when I tell people of my estrangement, especially those who have lost a parent early, they are stunned. I’m judged for being too hard on her and for taking her for granted. In this society, I am selfish. People who lost their moms young tell me what they wouldn’t give to have their mother still here. I am told, “You will regret this.” But death is different than estrangement. Death is permanent, this is chosen permanence. Hard-won freedom. Occasionally, I meet someone who is also experiencing the loss of a parent by choice and estrangement. We are a small, shameful group of people. Estrangement is barely talked about. Usually, it’s a deadbeat father who is never around who eventually just phases out. We need to talk about parent loss by terrible choice.
My mother and I are now estranged again. This time I am resolving permanence. I miss her terribly. I am grieving her. But I’m trying to live a life that doesn’t include abuse. I am trying to approach this in black and white.
Yet, I think about her still. I want to call her and have it all be different. Can I make it different? I think about her walking the earth, the woman that gave birth to me, and I am irrevocably heartbroken. My question used to be: Should I have contact with my mother? But I know that answer now. I should not. But my question to you is: How can I live without her? How do I move out of a constant state of guilt? This choice feels wrong in my bones, but it is absolutely the right decision in reality. How can I live the rest of my life without my mother, who is living in the same zip code?
Motherless By Choice
Cheryl: Motherless by Choice, the first piece of grieving this loss is to forgive yourself. It’s a big deal to permanently cut off an essential person in your life. But you’re not doing it to be cruel — you’re doing it for reasons that run deep and are never going to change. The line in this letter that hurt me the most was, “Can I make it different?,” because that tells me that, even though you know you can’t, there’s still a tiny piece of you that thinks, “But maybe…” Until you can teach yourself that it won’t be different, you won’t ever truly accept this reality and let your mother go. I recommend that you begin there, and weed out the judgement you have absorbed from the culture. There are points we reach with our parents where there is no going back, and you need to end a relationship permanently so you can continue forward with greater strength, clarity, and light. Find people who support you and a therapist who can talk to you honestly and openly about how to recover from such a profound and primal loss.
Steve: Motherless by Choice, you tried to heal your mother into being someone who would take care of you. That leaves you unable to rid yourself of the guilt, but also of the dream, that if you can just be loving and empathic enough, you will be able to restore the good parts of your mother that exist between the shards of dysfunction and abuse. You have to get free of that, but that doesn’t mean you have to abandon the parts of your mother that were beautiful and illuminating.
Cheryl: For me, the process of estranging myself from my father was ongoing — until the final one, about 10 years ago. When that happened, I knew it was the final one, because I wasn’t in conflict anymore. I had made a decision, I felt peace, and I had an expansive sense of goodwill towards my father.
Steve: Daughter and Motherless by Choice, I can see you locked into the dynamics of afflictive love. The process of estrangement is about not letting that pattern to continue to prevail and about finding a way to manage the crushing disappointment of having a parent who is unable, in one way or another, to live up to what you deeply desire, and what you deserve.
Cheryl: And forgiving yourself for the time that you have stayed locked in it, too. This is part of you learning how to make good choices for yourself. And if that choice is letting go, you are on the journey of discovering that. I also want to say, Motherless by Choice, you got the mother you got. You ask us, “How can I live without her?” What you do is what you always do when things feel impossible: you just keep going.
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