I’d been dreading this moment for 27 years, since the day my older daughter was born. As I stood holding her at the hospital window that night, looking into the darkening intersection of Sixth Avenue and 11th Street, I thought Someday she’ll leave me.
She did, of course, moving out after college to a city several hundred miles away. I’d just about gotten used to her absence when it was my younger daughter’s turn to trek halfway across the country for grad school. Some parents can’t wait for their children to go; I’d been ugly-crying every night for months, my face pressed into the pillow to muffle the sounds. I wanted my daughter to fly toward her own life with an easy heart. But it felt like my heart was breaking.
This sounds like overreaction, I know. But those of us who have been estranged from a parent—especially a mother—tend to have abandonment issues. Even when we know we aren’t really being abandoned. Even if we’re the ones who chose that estrangement in the first place.
For my entire adult life my mother and I had an on-again off-again relationship. When it was off I felt relieved but guilty. When it was on I jumped each time the phone rang, afraid I might pick it up and find myself in yet another screaming match, falling down the rabbit hole of her anger and neediness. Even the most benign contact felt bruising, leaving me anxious and often incapacitated, stuck on a merry-go-round of self-loathing and panic. Years of good therapy helped me unpack my own issues, but it couldn’t change our dynamic enough to make our relationship better.
The periodic estrangements extended way beyond the two of us. My conflict-avoidant father refused to see me if I wouldn’t see my mother too. Aunts and uncles and cousins called to chastise or cajole. “You only get one mother,” one reminded me. As if I could forget. “You’ll be sorry when she dies,” another warned. Would I? I wondered. What I wanted to say was I’m sorry now. I’m sorry she’s so critical and mean. I’m sorry I spent so long feeling like a terrible person because she told me I was. I’m sorry I didn’t have a different mother. I wanted to say Her death won’t change a thing.
Still, like most people who eventually choose to break ties with a parent, I tried over and over to fix things, sure that if I could say the right words in the right order at just the right moment, the anger and hurt that flared between us would morph into mutual understanding. We had a few good moments over the years, but the calm between us never lasted. I learned to predict my mother’s emotional outbursts but I never learned how not to be traumatized by them. It took years before I realized my life and the lives of my husband and daughters would be better without her in it. And they were.
Not that estrangement is easy or painless, a get out of jail free card for familial entanglements. There are social, emotional, and financial consequences from breaking a connection we’re hard-wired to preserve. I’ve interviewed dozens of people about their estrangements, and every one of them told me grief was a huge part of the process: grief for lost connections, for loneliness, for the hole inside marked mother or father, sister or brother. Mostly people grieve for what they’ve never actually had, for the illusion of family they’ve clung to.
Everyone finds their own way through such grief. For me, parenting was the anodyne, the way I discovered how irrevocably I was connected to other people, to the rest of the world. Most people learn this as infants in the circle of their parents’ love. I learned it holding first one, then another newborn daughter in my arms. I learned it tumbling with my girls and husband on the couch, the four of us giggling and cozy. For the first time in my life, I felt safe on some cellular level. For the first time in my life, I belonged.
Now that my youngest daughter was leaving home, I was afraid that sense of belonging would evaporate. I would lose my tribe. I would be alone again.
To ward off the fear, I focus on practicalities. Over the next week, the three of us drive a thousand miles west, collect furniture, help clean and set up the grad-student apartment. We buy pillows and shelf paper and dishwashing soap. We set up the WiFi router, hang pictures, arrange knives and forks in drawers. “I screwed up,” I whisper to my husband one night in bed. “I never taught her to sew on a button. I meant to show her how to cook a chicken.” And more, I’m thinking. So much more. How to polish silver with toothpaste. What to do when your heart feels like it’s breaking.
My husband looks at me over the tops of his reading glasses. “You’re acting like you’re never going to see her again,” he says mildly.
He’s right, I realize. I left my parents’ house at age 16 because I knew if I stayed another year I would go under. After I left, my parents and I grew further and further apart, tangents grazing a circle but never entering it. I talked to my mother as little as possible, out of guilt or necessity or duty and without intimacy. If I’d been brave enough back then it would have been good-bye forever.
Now I’m worried that the same pattern will unfold with my daughters. Intellectually I know our relationships are different; I’m not my mother and they’re not me. We haven’t spent the last 20-some years wounding each other in every way possible.
But still I feel as though this is the end of our proximity and deep connection. The end of our lives together and, therefore, the end of feeling loved by them. My mother told she loved me over and over, often with tears streaming down her face, and while I comforted her as best I could her words left me cold inside. For a long time I thought that disconnect was on me. I must be missing some vital emotional capacity to love and be loved, or her insistent declarations would make me feel better, not worse. Research shows that young girls under stress who hear their mothers’ voices produce lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and higher levels of oxytocin, the so-called love hormone. Or, as researcher Kristina Scharp of the University of Washington put it, quoting one of the estranged adults she studied, “What kind of person does not love their mother? Prisoners and rapists love their mothers.”
There’s deep shame and stigma in breaking that primal parent-child bond. What will other people think? What do you think about yourself? As another estranged daughter said, “As a mum myself I worry constantly that ‘karma’ will bring the same situation to me with my children. I think the stigma is that if you don’t honor your parents you can’t be a good parent yourself.”
Or as my mother put it: “Someday you’ll have a daughter who will do to you what you’ve done to me.”
It took years of separation to help me see that the problem lay between us, not in me. Only after she died was I able to think clearly about my feelings for and about my mother. “That’s because she can’t hurt you anymore,” my husband pointed out. Right again.
Still, a tiny part of me worries that my mother’s curse will come true. That my daughters will turn away from me as I did from her. No wonder this grief feels so deep, so powerful, so dangerous. No wonder I can’t stop crying.
We say goodbye outside a coffeeshop. I hug my daughter, feel for a moment the shape of her body as I did when she was a baby, a toddler, a child. This isn’t good-bye forever, I remind myself. I’ve already made plans to visit in a few weeks, and then she’ll visit a few weeks later, and then it will be Thanksgiving and winter break and then I don’t know what will happen. But I will see her again, and talk to her. We will navigate this new configuration together. And my tears will come from awe at her shining essence as much as from my own grief.
So I take a breath, in trust and in
hope and in love. I let her go.
 Leslie J. Seltzer, Ashley R. Prososki, Toni E. Ziegler, and Seth D. Pollak, “Instant messages vs. speech: hormones and why we still need to hear each other,” Evolution and Human Behavior 33, no. 1 (2012): 42–45
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