Mother’s Day Dirty Little Secret: Estrangement

Here, in honor of Mother’s Day, is an essay about my mother that appears today (in slightly shorter form) in the New York Daily News:

Mother’s Day is engraved in our hearts with warm images of families coming together to celebrate motherhood. In the classic holiday scenario, we give Mom a card and a gift, take her out for dinner and snap a few photos. We honor her for doing a job – giving birth to us, caring for us, loving us – that no one else is nearly as fit to do.

But this American tradition, now 106 years old, has a flip side, seldom seen and little talked about and none too photogenic. For just as surely as some families today come together to pay tribute to this singular figure, others remain apart, fractured by the ugly conundrum we call estrangement.

Nobody has statistics on how many mothers and children are alienated from each other, nor whether such ruptures are on the increase – some psychologists, based on anecdotal evidence, suspect they are – much less exactly why these breakaways happen in the first place. Certainly websites, support groups and online chat rooms have cropped up expressly to address mother-child estrangement. Yet this phenomenon remains little-researched, little-discussed and much-misunderstood.

As it happens, I’m an expert in estrangement. In 1999 I cut myself off from my own mother. Why we fell out I will skip here. Enough was enough. But in a sense, why is almost beside the point. Why makes no real difference.

I lost track of my mother for the next 10 years – one-eighth of her life and almost one-sixth of mine. No visits, no phone calls, no letters. I had no idea even whether she was still alive. I had no wish to hurt her, only to spare myself, along with my wife and children, any further hurt. But all the while, I struggled with my decision. Was I doing right? Was this helping?

So it goes for so many others. The causes are many – abuse, alcoholism and conflicts over everything from money and career choices to divorce, remarriage and sexual orientation. Estrangement springs from a single incident or is cumulative. The family itself has changed sharply over the last 40 years, too. Relaxed divorce laws, ever-increasing geographic mobility and the never-ending American pursuit of happiness have granted us a new freedom of choice. If anything bothers us, we want out.

That’s why today someone somewhere has somehow gone missing, leaving a chair at the dinner table empty.

Suddenly, about two years ago, I stopped believing I could go the rest of my life without seeing my mother again – one of us could die, denying us the opportunity – and about two years ago I decided once again that enough was enough, only in reverse. Our rift no longer seemed to serve any purpose. I wanted to get together with her before it was too late. We could start fresh. I sent my mother an e-mail. I told her I missed her and suggested we get together.

So, on a Saturday afternoon in April, 2009, the sky blue, the sun bright, I drove to the northern New Jersey town where I grew up to reconnect with the person once the most important in my life.

We met at the front door. Now 80, she seemed a little shorter, her hair all white, but still beautiful. We hugged each other.

“You look good,” I said.

“You look good, too,” she said. “My handsome son.”

We walked to a nearby diner to have lunch. There, in a booth under a skylight, we filled each other in on our lives over the last 10 years. She had a boyfriend. I had a new job. My two kids, absent from her life for a decade, had grown into adults. I also explained my abrupt change of heart.

“Everything that happened before no longer matters,” I said. “Who did what to whom – it makes no difference. None of it means anything anymore.” My mother nodded her understanding.

”We’ve both made mistakes,” I said. “We’ve caused each other and ourselves enough pain. Nobody has to forget anything – or forgive anything, either. I’m here today so I can see you and you can see me. That’s it. Let’s leave it at that. At this moment that’s all I care about — that we’re together now.”

“Okay,” my mother said. She reached across the table to pat my hand. “Okay,” she repeated, louder, more emphatically.

Estrangement remains largely a taboo topic in American life, a stigma, a dirty little secret, a silent epidemic. It flies in the face of all those homespun homilies about families sticking together through thick and thin. But I’m here to tell you such splits are rarely the answer. More likely, they’re a stopgap, a solution that only creates new problems.

Some of us deserve a second chance to honor our family commitments. I believe that to be true for children and mothers alike. Enough is indeed enough. For most of us, it should never be too late for Mother’s Day to feel like Mother’s Day again.

P.S. — Here’s the piece that ran in The News: http://www.nydailynews.com/opinions/2011/05/08/2011-05-08_estranged_from_my_mother_no_more.html

P.S. — Have you gone through anything similar? Please let me know: bobbrody@hotmail.com.

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