I’ve been reading everywhere that the number of parents who are estranged from their adult children grows bigger every day. Some people explain this as a culture shift, that adult children raised over the past 30 years experienced a different world, where a ‘me’ culture exploded and the focus was on getting things for yourself rather than tradition and duty. So be it. But the heartache that any estrangement from a child causes for parents is something that has repercussions down the years and for future generations.
I’m not talking here about legitimate estrangement, where a parent has been sexually abusive or cruel, but the typical family where something has happened to cause a child to remove his or her parents from their life, almost as if they had died. For the parents, it often feels like this.
Having a child is an event that changes your emotional landscape for the rest of your life. The moment that tiny person is placed in your arms, until the day you take your last breath, they are on your mind. You are never truly free again and it’s an imprisonment that few parents would want release from. The joy, the love, the enormous and wonderful changes that children bring to your life cannot ever be bettered by anything, except perhaps your grandchildren. Even then, your own children, no matter how old they are, are etched on your heart and mind like those cave paintings in Chauvet, France. They will endure forever – if they are protected…
And that’s the thing. How long is forever? How long can the pain of estrangement be borne by loving parents? Time heals they say, but it also makes the reason for any split between parents and an adult child, shrink further into the distance, fading like an old photo. Like a bereavement, there are stages to go through. Eventually, memory diminishes and you reach a point where it is hard to remember even what your child looked like, let alone what cause the rift.
If relationships are not protected, not nurtured, not fed by the possibility of seeing those you love on a regular basis, what can parents do? Simply give up and die? That happens. Or do you, bit by bit, loosen the ties that bind you, until you have become ‘free’? Sorry to tell you this, but you will never be free. Those etchings will remain on your heart, but you may become resigned to the estrangement, as all hope for a reconciliation dies. And when hope dies, the future is bleak. This is what is happening in so many families today and the future is indeed, bleak. Across the UK, loneliness is rife. Old people go for days without seeing a soul. They may have been married and had several children, but they end up unloved and unwanted, a burden on society, a bed-blocker, people who are using up the resources of our beleaguered NHS, according to the media.
I have read articles by a variety of therapists who caution against contacting adult children after they have chosen to remove their parents from their lives. Their take on the situation is to let sleeping dogs lie; to allow the child space to see things differently. There are others who give different advice. They say keep writing and admit that the estrangement is the parent’s fault; to apologise constantly, even if they do not feel they are in the wrong, until the child softens and a reconciliation is achieved.
For me, I cannot make a judgement of what approach would be best. What I do know is that adult children today appear to be a lot more judgemental. And there seems to be little room for compassion, humour or understanding when it comes to dealing with parents who are ageing. Perhaps it is fear of responsibility? With so many divorced parents, maybe adult children opt out of keeping relationships intact because they do not want to provide care when their parents need it? After all, these are the parents who were able to buy their own houses, who went to university on grants not loans and who stayed, more often than not, employed. They can look after themselves, can’t they?
It’s a sorry tale, but whether you have one child or ten, to lose contact is becoming more acceptable these days than it was in the past. For myself, I would never take it for granted that my kids would be there for me in my dotage. I have always been independent and intend to stay that way. I hope that as I grow older, I will have the privilege of seeing them now and again and I hope that I will not become one of the thousands of old people living alone and lonely because their children have abandoned them. But, living in a country where the numbers of elderly people needing care continues to rise, the solution might be for adult children to include elderly parents in their lives when those parents are still able and independent, getting to know them as older people. That’s always difficult. We want to see our parents stay the same, and watching them age, or lose their faculties is distressing. It also reminds adult kids of their own demise.
There are two sides to every family conflict. I think that maybe, the secret is listening. Listening to each other in an non-judgemental way, giving each other time and above all, understanding that there is, under all the unhappiness and conflict, a great deal of love.