For a long time I tried to bear the unthinkable absence of my son from my life alone. It’s such a secret kind of grief that I truly thought I was the only mother suffering so much.
But the truth is there are thousands of us, all united by a loss no one else can quite understand.
When I found an online forum, I learned others felt the same deepest, coldest, loneliest despair I did each day. I chose a group almost randomly, introducing myself to share my story and read about others’ experience. From Manchester to Melbourne, I found blessed relief in others who were going through the same stages of grief and anger and deep sorrow as me.
The reasons for our estrangements vary from the depressingly common situation where, like me, our child’s partner doesn’t want us in their life for whatever reason. Often there’s post-divorce manipulation from a former spouse which causes divided loyalties and a rift, and sometimes there is no third-party involvement and the adult child is experiencing their own difficulties or disappointments, and chooses to blame the parents.
No matter our stories, what unites us is our grief. I don’t think any parent of a grown up child would say that they were a perfect mother or father – I think we all have regrets in our lives – but I do see that all of us love our children deeply.
“I think of my estranged son, and the grandson I am yet to know, every day of my life.”
I have a wonderful close relationship with my other child, which is a huge consolation, but I think of my estranged son, and the grandson I am yet to know, every day of my life. One day simply waiting in a cafe for coffee, a young mum sat with a small fair haired boy who reminded me of my son. He became restless and his mum took a little car out of her bag for him to play. I was transported back to when I carried little cars in my handbag too, and the grief overwhelmed me anew. I sat there, a woman alone at a table in a park cafe with tears streaming down her face.
I often think of waiting outside nursery all morning on his first day in case he cried and needed me; of birthday cakes and parent’s evenings and making forts from cereal packets; of forgotten gym kits delivered to school; of driving lessons and teenage transgressions. My son was such a sweet and funny little boy. All those years of unceasing love and unfailing support seem to be forgotten, and here I am in this second year of our estrangement, the heartache, shame, guilt, embarrassment and pain still growing.
Our estrangement doesn’t just hurt both of us, of course – our whole family is affected. I try my best to limit any conversation about the rift with his brother. I don’t want him to feel torn between us, but inevitably their relationship has also damaged, adding yet one more layer to my sadness. Other members of our close family try not to take sides, but the reality is that my son has lost not just his mother but his extended family too and my heart aches for his loss as well as mine. There are no winners in our situation.
“Being estranged from a child can all too easily eat away at your self-esteem, and indeed your very identity.”
Because our estrangement isn’t generally talked about or known outside of my family, there is little sympathy or compassion. There are no comforting words or hugs or the little acts of extra kindness and none of the sensitivity we show to the bereaved. Estranged parents are bereft too, but we are mostly left alone with our memories and regrets and our deep sorrow.
Inevitably I meet people who ask how many kids and grandkids I have and I’m sometimes forced into brief, embarrassing explanations. Sometimes I feel defensive or ashamed, as if I had committed some terrible unforgivable sin that a ‘good’ mother would never have committed.
Being estranged from a child can all too easily eat away at your self-esteem, and indeed your very identity. Because the moment a child is born, you become a mother, and for many of us that role becomes our very identity. Even if my son and I never have the same relationship we once did, I am still and always will be his mother.
The day he was born, he was so beautiful I fell totally in love in an instant. Part of me already knew that one day, in some way, I would have to let him go. Our job as parents, after all, is to prepare our children to live safely and happily without us.
But not like this.
Malka Austen is a writer, writing under a pseudonym
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