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"I'm no insolent, misguided child." What's left unsaid in the 'estranged child' narrative.

The author of this story is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. The feature image used is a stock photo.

I can’t help feeling wary when I hear a mother talking about their estranged child. I can’t help wondering what’s not being said: the child’s experience that is being erased; the role of the parent that is being overlooked.

I’m talking about adult children, and it’s the mother-daughter relationship that has particular resonance for me.

I know that there are women who have lost contact with their adult children who are not like my mother. Sometimes loving relationships fall apart under the strain of complex family dynamics. 

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There are women who have turned themselves inside out trying to work out where things went wrong and what they can do to make it right. Some engage in serious self-reflection to try to understand what their child has experienced and their role in it.

But there’s a particular narrative of the estranged child that puts the mother at the centre as the wronged party and situates the child as the one who has wronged them. 

The child has estranged herself. If there’s any self-reflection about why the child cut off contact, it’s distorted to minimise responsibility. The need to control the narrative just continues the lack of validation that drove the child’s decision.

This is what led to my decision.

Just before Christmas, I made the choice to cut off contact with my mother. Actually, it was a choice that made itself. There was an inevitability to it that left me with no other option. My mental health and wellbeing were at stake.

My mother had tried to provoke an argument with me about nothing in particular. It’s something she does when I’m in her house in an attempt to assert some kind of displaced authority.

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This time I refused to be drawn into it. 

Instead, I suggested that her perspective was just that and there were others she might want to consider. Not only did I fail to gain traction, but she turned nasty in the way someone does when caught on the defensive. She dismissed me with snide resentment. I felt my words sticking in my throat as I knew they weren’t getting through.

It hit me like a ton of bricks. 

She doesn’t value anything I have to say. She doesn’t value who I am.

In an instant, I was reliving the childhood pain of being silenced and of doubting my right to exist. I felt the pain rise up from deep inside and find its way out in a full-throated scream. 

I screamed that I’d had enough of all the years of not having a voice; of not being valued; of counting for nothing. It had been a long time coming.

RELATED: 'I believed I was an unfit mum.' What I learned from being the mother of an estranged daughter.

As I was leaving she didn’t express concern for the obvious distress I was experiencing but for what the neighbours might have heard. She was worried about how it might reflect on her.

The feeling I had as I arrived home was unlike anything I had felt before. 

It was dizzying and disorienting and liberating at the same time. I knew instinctively that I could no longer have anything to do with her. I needed to let go of the pain of an emotionally abusive childhood and the grip that it still had on me.

I later heard from a family member that she had been talking about "my performance". She was positioning me as the unhinged crazy one and conveniently overlooking her actions that drove me to react as I did. It was nothing new. I could almost hear her saying: "I just don’t know what’s wrong with that girl."

In the months to come, she will tell people that I am estranged, as though it’s an irrational act performed by someone not thinking clearly.

In her narrative, she will erase the childhood abuse that I experienced.

My mother and I never had the loving bond that I observed between other mothers and daughters. I was never told that I was loved, or that there was anything good about me. Instead, she told me that she wished she hadn’t had me and that I should have been a boy because they were much less trouble.

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From very early on it was clear that she favoured my two brothers, and it was the source of a double standard that persisted into adulthood. It was a strange internalised misogyny that remains a mystery to me.

She did nothing to build my self-worth but plenty to erode it.

She belittled me, shamed me and criticised me. She taunted me about my weight. She would often do these things in front of others who she encouraged to collude with her.

RELATED: "It’s a choice I live with daily." 4 women on why they're estranged from their parents.

If I was upset, I would be chastised for making a big deal out of nothing and for being difficult. She never believed me, never saw my side and blamed me for things I didn’t do. 

She told me I was a horrible person and that no-one would want to be my friend. I believed all these things about myself because she was my mother.

I believed her because her twisted reality became mine. I was discouraged from expressing my feelings and when I did, they were invalidated. I learned to keep quiet; to fade into the background and be invisible. Much later, I learned a term for this kind of manipulation: gaslighting.

As well as emotional abuse, there was physical abuse. 

For a long time, I rationalised it as typical 1970s parenting. I had heard plenty of people talk about how they had 'got the strap'. Whilst far from a legitimate disciplinary strategy, I think in many cases it was a measured response to a perceived infraction. 

It was very different from the way my mother chased me with a wooden spoon and thrashed me once I was cornered with nowhere to go.

It’s not the physical impact that stayed with me but the look of menace on her face as she terrorised me. 

The emotional abuse was the driver. I didn’t know what I had done wrong, just that I was bad and I was responsible for her being unhappy. 

I couldn’t escape my badness any more than I could escape the wooden spoon.

I’m sure I’ve blocked out a lot of what she did but the essence of it has stayed with me. I wasn’t in denial that it happened but that it equaled abuse. 

I clung to the belief that I had a normal middle-class upbringing. We had the outward appearance of a family that was functional and well-provided for. But I can’t pretend it was normal or okay anymore. I need to name the abuse for what it was.

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I know that she would deny all of this. She would accuse me of making it up to cause trouble. She doesn’t recognise what she did as abuse so my experience is erased in the story she tells.

A month has passed, and I haven’t heard from her. I’m not really expecting to. It will be a relief to her that she no longer has to deal with her strange complicated daughter. 

She will be telling people about how I’m going through a strange phase and am quite unstable.

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I don’t know what went wrong with my mother. Perhaps she couldn’t understand an unusual child who turned out to be autistic and queer. 

Perhaps she just didn’t know what to do with a daughter. I don’t know. 

But I know that it wasn’t my fault and there is no justification for how she treated me. I was a child and I relied on my mother for my sense of security, safety and self-worth and she failed me.

You don’t ever really get over childhood abuse because it shapes the person you are and the experiences you have in life.

I’ve tried to take responsibility for my life and not use poor parenting as an excuse. But the way you are parented is integral to the person you become. 

Parents provide your frame of reference for your concept of self. There is no underestimating the impact of your self-worth being dismissed by the person who was meant to nurture and cherish it.

Growing up with an internalised belief that there is something wrong with you or that you are less than has implications for the relationships you form. 

Understanding on a rational level that you are worthy of love only gets you so far. It hasn’t stopped me from unconsciously seeking out relationships that confirm the belief that I’m not deserving of love.

When you emerge from childhood without a base-level of self-worth, you’re constantly trying to top it up in whatever way you can. When things aren’t going so well, the default is feeling that there is something wrong with you. 

Whilst not the sole factor, it’s been fairly central to my constant struggle with depression and anxiety.

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I’ve needed therapy to help me become the person I want to be. My psychologist telling me firmly and insistently, "There is nothing wrong with you", was the signal I needed to start rebuilding my sense of who I am; to re-parent myself.

You can choose to end relationships with family members who aren’t good for your emotional wellbeing

There is a concept in the LGBTQ community of chosen family. It’s based on the acknowledgment that our families of origin aren’t always the best people to provide us with the nurturing and support we need and deserve. 

It’s people exercising the right to choose to be with people who value them and to not give their time to those who don’t.

Continuing a relationship with someone who eats away at my self-worth is not a compromise I’m prepared to make anymore. The fact that it’s a parent makes it even less excusable. A parent who makes you feel sh*t about yourself is just a sh*t parent.

You don’t owe them anything. Cutting contact with them is a perfectly valid decision to make.

For a long time, I did what I thought was the grown-up thing and tried to maintain a relationship with my mother. 

But I have always managed it very carefully with clearly delineated boundaries. In recent years, I was mainly doing it for my daughter. 

I was trying to preserve her right to make her own choice about a relationship with her grandmother. Now she’s a perceptive and insightful 11-year-old and I’ll be guided by whatever she decides and help her to facilitate it.

The relationship I was trying to manage was a charade. Besides, maintaining boundaries is hard work; especially when you’re the one expending all the emotional labour. Sometimes the only adequate boundary is no contact.

And yes, I know I’ve made things difficult for myself. My mother is the only family member I’ve ceased contact with. There are others in my family who I value and who value me and have a place in my life and my daughter’s. It’s a practical challenge, but it’s worth my mental health and emotional wellbeing.

Somewhere in here is my father and his role. My parents are still together. I’m still grappling with this: to what extent he has enabled her, to what extent he was just oblivious to what she was doing. He’s conflict-avoidant and mild-mannered and I think standing up to my mother is beyond him. On balance, I think there’s a sort of passive benevolence. He’s a kind, decent man and he’s kept the lines of communication open.

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Choosing to discontinue a relationship with a parent is not misguided.

The parent who questions their adult child’s judgment in cutting off contact is assuming they know what’s best; that their child can’t be trusted with the agency to make their own choices for their own reasons. In their mind, the adult child still is actually a child.

They may think the child is running away from something rather than trying to 'fix it'. But sometimes there’s nothing to fix, the relationship is irrevocably broken.

The parent believes that once their child sees the light, the child will come back to the fold and the natural order of things will be restored. They might persist with letters and gifts in an attempt to get their child back onside, not realising that it only further alienates them. I can’t actually imagine my mother doing this unless it was to make herself feel better; to be seen doing the right thing.

I’m no insolent, misguided child. The time of teenage rebellion has long passed, albeit stunted in my case. This isn’t about refusing to defer to the wisdom, expertise and judgment of senior years. I’m a 49-year-old woman who has had enough of my sense of who I am being strangled by my childhood experience.

Conclusion.

My daughter’s relationship with me is nothing like my relationship with my mother ever was. 

I value what my daughter says and thinks and I value the person that she is growing into. I make a point of telling her how much she is valued and loved. I can almost detect an eye-roll as she says, "I know that." Like it was the most obvious thing in the world. 

And that’s how it should be.

It has taken me a long time to come to terms with how the emotional abuse of my childhood has impacted my life. 

The key thing is to know that there is nothing wrong with you and that you are valued. If you are experiencing these issues, I urge you to seek out those who make you feel valued. If you are able to, arrange some therapy sessions. 

You are worthy of love and you deserve the best that life has to offer.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

Feature Image: Getty.