I’ve mentioned before that, like many people in a weary world, I grew up with some rough stuff. Many of us did. If you didn’t, I’m truly happy for you, and I hope you’ll take a moment to appreciate the awesome people in your life who made that true for you. If you grew up with rough stuff, too, I’m truly sorry it happened to you, and I hope you’ll take a moment to appreciate the ways you are able to make informed choices about your life today, and the amazing people you’ve quilted into your family.
Informed choices are there for us to make every day. The Offbeat Empire is a place that celebrates our sometimes non-traditional but always authentic-to-us decisions about life, style, and lifestyle. What has worked for me may not work for you, but in looking back over the last few years, satisfied with my informed choices, and able to glean lessons from my experiences, I want to share — because maybe you or someone you know is in my shoes.
Let me explain — no, there is too much; let me sum up
My parents split when I was eight. I was ecstatic about this. My father was equal parts terrifying and teacher. I learned so much from him, but I also experienced incredibly damaging physical and emotional abuse. I have many scars, visible and invisible, from the battlefields of his ire. His temper was tempered by honeymoon periods of all the crayons I could wrap my chubby little hands around, and getting to go with him to Long John Silvers. He made no secret of the fact I was his favorite, his eldest, and his golden child. This was a mixed message that still gives me pause sometimes, because I was also the target of many of his worst blowups and beatings. I cringe at the cliché “you only hurt the ones you love.”
My mother spent the next ten years trying. She was equal parts martyr and creative. I get a lot of my love of crafting things from her, but having found the strength to leave her husband, she subsequently sank into a quagmire of shifting blame for everything that happened to her from then on to him — everything was his fault. She made valiant efforts to give her children resources so that we could heal, but she also made huge mistakes that sabotaged those efforts and damaged us in new ways. She made no secret of the fact that I was his favorite, his eldest and his golden child. No matter how hard I worked to be amiable or to please her, I was branded his, and worse, I look like him. I cringe at the cliché “a face only a mother could love.”
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger
I think it’s fair to admit that it can bring us to our knees and leave us feeling weak as newborn babes, too. Rough stuff isn’t simple to recover from, and healing doesn’t happen overnight. However, it’s my firm belief that there is a lesson in every experience, and learning the lessons helps us to avoid making the same mistakes. Sure, we may make new ones, but we don’t have to make the same ones. These are the lessons I have learned.
Parents aren’t perfect, but there’s a difference between imperfect and unhealthy
We all make mistakes. As parents, people make mistakes, too. Sometimes these mistakes have consequences. There’s a difference between making mistakes and creating patterns of behavior and treatment that are unhealthy for your family. It’s one of life’s hurdles to reach the point where we look at our parents and say “you are not the god-like beings I thought you were when I was small. You are human, just like me, and you have thoughts, reactions, and feelings that are human. It is ok that you are not perfect.”
The realization that grown-ups who have huge influence and speak with authority are just as human as I am is a turning point. Life is less capricious and arbitrary when you realize that “because I said so” is a grasp at straws, and that someone just as human as you are is on the other side of the orders and decisions. Suddenly you can see where parents make choices, and yes, sometimes mistakes. You also start to recognize that patterns of behavior and treatment are either mostly healthy or mostly unhealthy, and the difference is staggering. When your parents’ behavior or treatment is unhealthy, it’s time to take a step back and assess.
Assume best intentions, but recognize bad intentions
Realizing our parents are only human is a turning point. Assessing unhealthy behavior and treatment takes stepping away from your relationship and putting on your objectivity goggles. In any relationship, I believe it’s fair to approach any interactions assuming best intentions. Parents usually make decisions for their children’s welfare hoping to do the right thing, even if they do make mistakes. My father’s honeymoon periods of crayons and hushpuppies were a genuine best intention to make up for what he recognized to be poor decisions when he abused me. My mother’s attempts to make resources available so I could heal from that abuse was a genuine attempt to help me heal and apologize for allowing the abuse to happen. Assuming best intentions lets me strip away the venom of my anger about their actions.
Recognizing bad intentions, though, is important, too. Even with the best of intentions to “make up for” abuses, my father couldn’t seem to contain or restrain himself. For years after their divorce, I was his punching bag literally and figuratively. There is no magic quantity of crayons and battered fish that could even the scales, and his bad intentions — to take out his anger on his child — have to be recognized. My mother, ever eager to bemoan the lack of resources available to people in our position, slipped into a martyrdom where she turned away help from those who would have given us everything we could need. She relished explaining our “situation” to people and rebuffing their assistance so that she would be seen as a strong woman making it on her own. We went without, impoverished and hungry, and we shouldn’t have. Her best intentions — to offer us therapy — aren’t outweighed by her bad intentions — to play the part of the martyr.
Recognizing that even in the face of assuming best intentions, there can be bad intentions is another turning point. My parents were going through rough stuff of their own, and they were human, I’d already realized this. Now, recognizing that their patterns of behavior and treatment were both unhealthy and sometimes made with bad intentions, I had more information.
Halp! I need an adult!
The best decision I’ve made in my life was reaching out to the people who I trusted to be grown-ups. People who were not my parents, but who had better intentions and healthier patterns — people who I could want to be like when I, too, grew up. Their advice, love, and parental guidance filled the voids I had.
Where do you look for a grown-up, especially if you’re already supposed to be one, yourself? I looked to my best friend’s parents, to start. I’d been slowly adopted into their family already, and I realized one day with a start that her mom was a mom. That I’d always gently envied their relationship, and that I trusted her implicitly. One day, while driving home with them, I asked her mom if she would mind filling in for mine a bit. I wanted to bring home my guy to someone who’d make sure I was treated right, and I didn’t trust my mother’s confidence or experience in that arena. I know I surprised her, but she agreed. When I brought my now-husband home to meet her, she knew I’d found the right guy. When she came to our wedding, she introduced herself as my “other mom” and she was so right. She’s been my other mom for a long time, comforting me when I am in sorrow, celebrating my joys and triumphs, and just spending time with me, knitting, quilting, or watching basketball. My best friend is like my sister, and her mom is like my other mom, and I get to love and be loved. It’s a huge win.
Another place to look for a grown-up, when you’re already supposed to be one, too – your extended family. I grew up Roman Catholic and when I was baptized, my mom’s youngest brother was named as my godfather. When I’d done some of the soul-searching required to recognize that my parents didn’t just make mistakes, they were unhealthy, and that they didn’t always have good intentions — when I was ready to reach out for grown-ups — I reached out to my godfather and his wife. My life has been better ever since. The first night that I mustered up the courage to ask them what they knew about my rough stuff, we stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, talking openly and honestly, and it was as if the dam burst inside me. From that point on, when I have had grown-up questions, needed advice, or just needed a home, they’ve been there for me. They’ll talk — or listen — and help me work out what to do in tough situations, and whatever I decide, they support me. They’ll argue about football and politics and play Cards Against Humanity. They’ll feed me, clothe me, shelter me, love me and let me love them right back.
Where else can you look for a grown-up? Maybe it’s a friend, a mentor, or a distant relative — whomever you find to be your adult can help you navigate the murky waters of rough stuff. Finding a grown-up who is healthy and has best intentions doesn’t mean you’ll never make mistakes again, but it does mean you can observe and emulate patterns you admire and appreciate. I want to be like my best friend’s mom and my godparents when I finally grow up. Now I have them to look up to.
You get to choose your own adventure
For me, coming into adulthood has meant a transition from compliant child, eager to please, to a self-sufficient woman with healthy boundaries and informed choices. I am not a statistic. I am a person. I still people-please, and I still find remnants of patterns I don’t like, but I get to recognize them and work on them. I make my own choices. I am not bound by the patterns I learned from my parents. I can choose to build new patterns based on the healthy, well-intentioned grown-ups in my life. I am an adventuress, and the star of my own life. It is not up to me to be the best supporting actress in my parents’ lives. Their adventures have been cobbled together by their own choices. I get to choose my own adventure.
Know when to walk away, know when to run…
Life’s a gamble. Here’s the thing: Sometimes, your own best intentions and healthy patterns can’t cancel out the choices your parents make. It isn’t an easy decision to come to, to make, or to act on, but sometimes estrangement is the right choice for you. It was for me.
My father’s abuse was a no-brainer — running and not looking back wasn’t hard for me. I grew to have only fear and anger toward him, and removing him from my life was a great relief. Your mileage may vary and all situations are different, I know this, but for me, the day I decided he was out of my life was a red-letter day. A jubilee. I celebrated the anniversary of it for a few years until one year the date came and went without a thought — and that’s when I knew I had let him go. I’m quite content to have severed our relationship.
My mother was a different story. In my family, women never age past 29. Your 29th birthday is a thing. I’ve had three 29th birthdays now, and I hope to have as many as my grandmother did. It’s a teasing, sweet, funny quirk about the women in my family, and something I looked forward to in the few days before my first 29th birthday, a few months before my wedding. My mother and I had argued a few months before and she’d told me she didn’t like me very much and she never wanted to see me again. Some part of me still thought, “but it’s my 29th birthday! She’ll call!” She didn’t.
A few days later, I called her. In curt phrases she told me she didn’t like me very much, she didn’t know if she loved me, but she’d think about whether she’d make it to my wedding. I was gutted.
I summoned my strength and stood up, even though we were on the phone, and took a deep breath. You see, I already knew she was unhealthy and operated with bad intentions. I’d already found adults to emulate and I was choosing my own adventure. I had made healthy patterns, boundaries, and informed choices. It was time for me to walk away.
“Mom, I’m sorry you feel that way. We’ve chosen not to invite anyone to our wedding who doesn’t love us and like us a whole lot. I’ll be sending you a play-along-at-home kit with all our favors and an invitation to watch our ceremony streaming on the webcam, but I’m afraid I can’t ask you to be there.”
“You don’t want your mom to come to your wedding?” she was surprised
“Of course I do. But I won’t have anyone there who doesn’t love me and like me a whole lot.”
“Oh. So you’ll send me a box?”
Gutted. I’d offered her a healthy relationship, but only confirmed that she didn’t like me very much, and wasn’t sure she loved me. She didn’t come to our wedding. You know who did? My other mom, and my godparents. My godfather walked me down the aisle. I didn’t miss my father or my mother. I was choosing my own adventure, and had assembled a party of adventurers whom I loved and who loved me.
You get to write your own epilogue
My story isn’t about my childhood. It’s not about the mistakes my parents made or the unhealthy behaviors and treatment patterns they created. It’s not about their intentions. My story is about choosing my own adventure, about assembling my avengers and quilting together my family. My story is about making informed choices and consciously deciding to buck the statistics. It’s about finding people who love me and let me love them back, and about letting go of the people who don’t.
My story is not your story, and you have to choose your own adventure. I hope that if you ever have rough stuff, the lessons I’ve shared help you smooth it out. In the meantime, if anyone needs an adult, I think I’m almost ready.
Comments on My mom doesn’t like me: parental estrangement and lessons learned
Thank you… I’ve been struggling for years on whether or not to cut my mom out of my life. One week it’s all fun and discussing literature and parenting, the next, I come home from a visit bawling my eyes out and reach for a shot glass. I’ve still not made that choice (it makes it a little harder because my mom is of the “I love you, I swear” category… and I truly think she does, she just learned neglect at her mothers knee…) but I’m thinking about it again…
I’ve struggled with cutting her out for the past few years. I finally decided recently to step back from our relationship and re-evaluate things. It has not been easy, I have cried a lot and my emotions fluctuate quickly from anger to sadness to disappointment, etc. Ultimately I think this is the best decision for me and cutting her out may be the best for you too.
Good luck and be strong in whatever you decide.
Thank you for sharing your journey. My mother’s favorite line was always, “I love you because I have to, but I really don’t like you.” It was such a normal thing in my house, I didn’t realize how toxic it really was. Then one day when I was 16, after she had already left me, I got into a fight with my boyfriend at the time and said it to him. He looked at me like I was crazy, and explained that you can’t love someone you don’t like. You are not “forced” to love people. After years of physical and emotional abuse, years of neglect and abandonment, that was the moment I realized that my life, my childhood, was wrong. For me, that was the first time I realized the difference between mistakes and bad intentions.
I haven’t been able to walk away. There is a part of me that is still so desperate for at least one of my parents to like me. (My father left when I was little) Then even today, one email can make me feel…not liked. I think you are a superhero. You are an inspiration. I hope that I finally end up with a fraction of your courage to let go and choose my own adventure.
I so understand the desperation for at least one parent to like you. I’d be lying if I said I never felt pangs of longing for the close relationships I wish I’d had, or if I said I never felt like I might be broken somehow — with the fact that even my parents don’t like me as the damning evidence.
But I’m not broken, my relationships with them are.
You’re not broken. Your relationship is. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to take care of yourself, so step away just enough to put on your objectivity goggles. If someone you loved was telling you all about the things you’re going through… how would you advise them? How would you comfort them? How would you guide them to take care of themselves?
We usually know how to let go, we just feel like we can’t because our parents are our very first ties in life. But if we’re honest — if these were not our parents, but friendships or romantic entanglements — we’d know what we need to do.
You can choose your own adventure. You are the star of your own life! Courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s doing what needs to be done in spite of fear. You have it in you.
Good journey, fellow adventurer!
Thank you for this. I have such admiration for you, for finally being able to walk away from these relationships which don’t serve you. So much of your rough stuff resonated with me, and yet, these are relationships I continue to revisit, and I feel such a deep longing to connect with my biological parents even with the sound knowledge that they’re not capable of fulfilling those roles or needs. When I was 18 I went away to school and put 1600 miles between us, but almost a decade later I still find myself making phone calls and reaching out when I should make it a clean break. It’s only been recently in considering forming a family of my own that I’ve allowed myself to consider whether or not it’s in my best interest to let go completely and sever ties – sometimes it’s far easier to make decisions to protect others (in my case, hypothetical future children) than it is to protect ourselves.
One of my favourite quotes which I think addresses this nicely and has been comforting to me is from Joss Whedon:
” I am a great believer in found families and I’m not a great believer in blood… to me I’ve always felt that the people who treated you with respect and included you in their lives were your family and the people who were related to you by blood might happen to be those people but that correlation was a lot less strong than society believes it is.”
I think this is true, too. My strength to talk to my mom came out of wanting to protect my family-of-two. Our wedding needed to be a celebration, not anxiety-provoking angst-fest.
I’m still a firm believer in offering opportunities for growth, change, and compromise, but when they’re not taken… gotta know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em…
And thank you for the quote from Joss Whedon. I couldn’t agree more.
This was tear-inducing and beautiful.
This couldn’t have come at a more perfect time in my life. My relationship with my father has been strained for many years. I tell myself that I had a good childhood, and I did in most respects, but he was always so angry. Right around the beginning of high school the bottom dropped out of our world. He broke down. He became this living breathing hate filled entity that lived in our house, and broke us down just to know that he could. It had been a slow process, so we didn’t really think to much of it. His favorite phrase was “King, castle, peasants”. Referring to my brother, my mother and I. We were just the puppets in his life and he strung us along to whatever sick tune was floating around in his head at the time.
Anytime he was particularly awful, or he would make one of us cry, he would apologize and make you feel like he really got it. Like he would change his ways and really love you now. But as always it came and went. I went through a string of bad relationships. Some physically abusive, but the majority of them were me trying to obtain a level of love and want that I would never get from them. Always, trying to get that love and approval that I never had.
My husband is everything that I could ever want in a man. He loves me, unconditionally, for the person that I am. He has never once made me feel not good enough, and he supports me in my decision to estrange myself from my father.
Today I wrote my dad a letter telling him that I need space from him. That I harbor negative feelings towards him, and that I need time to figure things out for myself. That I feel as if I had two separate fathers, and reconciling them into one physical person tears me apart. I told him I know he did the best he could, and that I loved him, but that for my own mental health I needed to take a step back. This hurt and anger does nothing to him, it only hurts me. So in order to be a healthier person, I have given myself the permission to let him go. Because I get to chose my own path, and I have felt guilty for long enough. So I’m choosing myself instead of the guilt I’m holding onto. Because I’m worthy of love, and self love is very very important.
Thank you for being so honest.
Late to the party reading this but here goes… Thank you for sharing your story, I really appreciate it. I have been estranged from my parents for several years. My father understands and has backed away. My mother on the other hand is a different story. She is a hound dog, I think her ideal job would be a private investigator, she knows where I live, has shown up to my home unnannounced on several occasions, sent letters, called me before I had my number changed, and just recently found out I had a child. The woman will not leave me or my family alone.. It really does not matter if we ever move, because she will find us. It is just nice to know that I am not the only person in the world who just cannot have a healthy relationship with their family.
I feel like I wrote this myself. When my parents split 17 years ago I went with my mom. I remember her being so strong at first. Working two jobs to make ends meet, finding resources to help us pay the bills, and trying to be supportive. Somewhere along the road though she stopped really trying and our roles as mother and daughter flipped. Suddenly I was the one taking care of the bills, buying groceries, and cleaning. As time went on I felt more and more responsible for her and worked harder to take care of her and make her happy.
My fiance and I bought her a house around the corner from us last summer. I hoped that she would move here and build a life for herself like I did ten years ago. She didn’t. If anything, she was more dependant than ever and couldn’t seem to handle even the simplest tasks without calling me for help. As a reflex I instantly offered to take care of things but I don’t think I can anymore.
Six weeks ago I started the break up process. I asked her to give me some space to figure things out. Since then, she’s called almost daily with guilt filled phone calls trying to get me to call her back. I haven’t and probably won’t. Last week I sent her a non-confrontational email detailing some of the things I was feeling. Her response was very defensive and she took no responsibility at all for her actions. That is indicative of her view on life….things happen to her and she’s not responsible for anything.
It’s been a rough six weeks but I’m taking it one day at a time. Ultimately this breakup is no different than any other and eventually I will be ok. I just need to let go of the idea that she will change and be the mother I always wanted.
This stirs my guilt-stricken bits. I know what you mean about the reflex to take care of everything, and the inability to sustain that forever, about the role reversal that is inexplicable and sudden, and somehow… feels normal at the time.
You’re right that this is a breakup. My heart goes out to you.
It’s simple, but it’s not easy. She may never be the mother you always wanted, but it doesn’t mean you’re a “bad child” or that you’ve somehow created or deserve the situation.
Keep taking it one day at a time. You can do this.
What a beautiful sharing! What strength! Wishing you all the best!!!
Yesterday I told my dad that I don’t want him in my life or at my wedding & called him poison. He has done something with good intentions, but the repercussions are destroying my life in the process. I’m still yet to speak with any loved ones about what I’m dealing with because I don’t want people to view me differently, as a victim. I’m yet to talk properly to the police because I don’t want to know what my brain has buried deep.
I’m in complete turmoil to be honest. I swing between rage and pity. When I speak with him directly, confront him, he doesn’t speak from the heart. He speaks in cryptic religious lessons, and then I’m right back to furious. I daydream about punching him in the face. So I said I wanted nothing to do with him, I blocked him on social media. Now I’m back in the pity party, reminding myself how emotionally fucked up he is and what an awful childhood he had. Wondering if I should give him a chance to apologise, but knowing that he’d be more likely to say ‘God is forgiveness’ and think that makes everything ok.
I’m truly sorry this is happening in your life. I hope that you’re able to find someone to speak with and lean on to help you through this. You’re not alone, and you can do it. Take care of yourself.
Thanks for writing this. A good portion of it is so familiar that I could have written it myself. My problem is that I want to be estranged from my father, but he and my mother are still married and I want to have a relationship with my mother. My fiance’s suggestion is to limit my contact with them both after our wedding next month. I am hoping that will give me some time to work things out before we have kids and have to see my family more often.
It has definitely helped me to surround myself with family that I chose. They like me and love me and want to be in my life. And that’s what is important.
Your mileage may vary, and it’s definitely a stickier situation when you want to estrange yourself from one half of any couple, regardless of the relationship, so I don’t envy the decisions you have ahead of you.
I do think it’s wonderful that your fiance is supporting you and your healthy space, as much as that’s possible.
What some folks do in this type of scenario is to limit the time spent with the offending party (in this case your father) by meeting the other party (in this case, your mother) in public spaces to spend time together over lunch, etc. This limits your contact/conversation about the person you’re unwilling to continue a relationship with, while giving your plenty of opportunity to continue the relationships you do want to nurture. I hope that whatever you decide to do, you find stability and peace.
Good journey, fellow adventurer!
Wow. I’ve been looking for something like this. I’m right at that crossroads right now, except my parents won’t get divorced or let me go for pride reasons. But I’ll be 18 in a month, and I can’t keep living like this. Hearing about how other people got out of these situations is incredibly useful and nurturing. Thank you, I know it must still be hard to talk about this stuff!
Great article. A good resource that has done wonders in helping me build a framework of understanding as well as learning boundaries and coping skills is the book “Will I Ever Be Good Enough” by McBride. This is a book written for daughters with narcissistic mothers. Narcissism is surprisingly difficult to spot, if you are a woman and your mother doesn’t seem to be able to love you in a way you think is reasonable, I encourage you to consider reading this. https://www.amazon.com/Will-Ever-Good-Enough-Narcissistic/dp/1439129436
Thank you for this article. As a kid, my mother said to me “I may not like you, but I love you.” I knew what she meant. She was outgoing, and I was a shy kid and she was always trying to change me. Always showing how others were more outgoing and telling me to be more like them. She even would tell me me that I was a zero after being at a gathering where I wasn’t outgoing enough for her. I think I embarrassed her. She gave me things I asked for materially and would spend time with me, but it always seemed like she thought I was dragging her down or a burden. I truly think she was right, she loved me but really didn’t like me.
Thank you. So much.