UK charity Stand Alone suggests that estrangement affects at least one in five British families.
Claudia Tanner spoke to Sarah*, 38, from London, about her reasons for maintaining no contact with her estranged mother after she has messaged her to urge her to talk to her due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A lot of people are worried about their loved ones, and are finding it hard to be isolated from them for months under lockdown. For those who are estranged from family, feelings can be complex.
I haven’t spoken to my mother in six years. Then out of the blue last month, she sent me a Facebook message urging me to mend bridges before “it’s too late with this virus killing the elderly off”.
I didn’t for one second entertain the idea of re-establishing contact. Some friends understand my response, but I’ve had one who have tried to delicately say, “But are you sure you won’t regret not speaking to her if something happened?” I know she means well, but I’m confident I’m doing the right thing for me.
There are very good reasons why I cut off contact with my mother. Pandemic or no pandemic, those reasons are still there.
And it took me a long time, and a lot of pain, to get to come to the conclusion that our relationship will never work. I battled for years with feelings of depression, anger, frustration and guilt to arrive at a more peaceful place where I gave myself permission to put myself and my well-being first. I promised myself I would never go backwards.
‘Belittled’ as a child
When I was a child, my mother often got into rages with me. If I came home after stepping in dog muck, or I knocked something over as I was playing, I was belittled and called “stupid” and “useless”. My interests and hobbies were never encouraged. The soul-destroying feeling of not believing I could ever do right became deeply ingrained.
My docile father, often bearing the brunt of her anger over the smallest things, mainly stayed quiet. It was when I was a teenager and my parents divorced that it began to dawn on me that my mother’s behaviour wasn’t healthy.
I lived with Mum while Dad moved out and she used me as a pawn, relishing in the power she had over him as the main carer. I remember seeing Dad’s face drop as I watched through the window when he’d turned up to see me and she sent him away because he was three minutes late.
She raged about Dad leaving “us” – there were constant insinuations that he had abandoned not just her but me as well. His new partner was “a bitch” who kept our family broken, according to her, despite the fact they met a year after their separation.
For a while, as an impressionable youngster, I believed that it was the most selfish thing in the world to leave your family and make a new life for yourself. In reality, Dad had needed to escape from my neurotic, angry mother and he was trying his absolute best to stay in my life despite the obstacles. He also never bad mouthed Mum to me.
Becoming more independent as I grew older put a huge strain on my relationship with Mum. She barely had any friends of her own and she’d talk me out of anything I wanted to do that involved venturing out on my own. I went to a local university and stayed at home because she told me if I went to halls I’d be bullied for my buck teeth.
At 21 I got excited about the idea of travelling, and I’m pretty sure Mum faked a cancer scare to get me to stay. Her “scare” went on for over a year, and looking back I was naive to believe someone wouldn’t get a diagnosis or the all clear for that long. When that excuse ran out of steam and I told her I was going, she raged at me for being “selfish” for leaving her and she threatened suicide.
Cutting the cord
Gradually, over many years as an adult still struggling with her behaviour, it dawned on me that my relationship with my mother was toxic and abusive. I believe she has some sort of personality disorder. At the risk of sounding like armchair psychologist, it sounds a lot like narcissism to me.
I read all the self help books I could on the topic and joined Facebook groups for support. I tried to lay down “personal boundaries” as advice suggested. She raged even more and we’d have ferocious arguments.
At one point I felt really depressed by it all. I was overeating and drinking too much and getting angry at people over the smallest things. I begged her to see my point of view and make some steps to change. She’d taken in my dog while I was in the late stages of pregnancy. The day after, she “lost” him on a walk. She blamed me for making her upset and distracted. I was devastated.
That was the tipping point, where I realised that firstly, she could never change, and secondly, I deserved better than a mother who makes threats, manipulates and punishes me for wanting to have my needs met and shows a complete lack of empathy towards me. Plus, I was 32 and had just had my first child and I wanted my focus to be on her.
I felt peace and in control for the first time in years when it dawned on me that it was perfectly justifiable for me to cut her out of my life.
It was an extremely difficult thing to do, I had many doubts along the way and I felt extremely sad for how things had turned out. But I felt free to live my life and be joyful and happy, and that’s the main thing.
‘I’m making the best choice for me’
I am choosing to be happy and healthy for myself and to support the people around me
When the coronavirus outbreak began, of course I felt concerned about my mother who is in her 60s. I don’t wish her any harm. I wondered if anyone would be around to help her with her shopping.
But I am careful to not allow myself to be guilt-tripped. I feel speaking to my mother would wreak havoc in my life again and cause more pain.
For a moment I felt the need to explain my reasons to her, but I ignored her because there is the danger of being sucked into the toxicity again. Part of my recovery is understanding I don’t have to justify myself to anyone. I’m making the best choice for me.
I’m just focusing on doing things that give me joy. Spending time with my daughter and my partner; cuddling my pets; and lots of self care like reading, yoga and pampering myself. Life is too short for negativity.
I give myself permission to feel my emotions. I acknowledge when I feel sad about my relationship with Mum and I just sit with that feeling, reminding myself that I don’t have to fix it or numb it. I feel it then let it go, which gives me more energy to focus on the positive things in my life.
These are challenging times and I am choosing to be happy and healthy for myself and to support the people around me.