Estranged at the Holidays? 8 Strategies to Get Through
Dealing with the fallout from going no contact with your mother.
Posted Dec 11, 2018
Along with Mother’s Day, this season presents the greatest emotional and psychological challenges to daughters and sons who are estranged from their families of origin, even when the choice to go no contact has been theirs. Set against the backdrop of images and ads depicting happy families gathering in a cozy living room, exchanging gifts with smiles on their faces, as well as the excitement of those who embrace seeing their relatives with joy and anticipation, it’s a stressful time of year. One woman echoed thoughts I remember having myself many years ago when I too had no “home” to go at the holidays:
These are weeks I just have to get through, dodging questions about what I’m doing while everyone else at the office is chattering about family plans. I don’t want to broadcast my situation or its specifics but it’s tough negotiating, neither lying nor being aloof. I’m going to my boyfriend’s family this year which is lovely but that doesn’t stop me from feeling like an orphaned pup someone is taking in.
The mother myths that animate our cultural vision—that all women are nurturing, that mothering is instinctual, that all mothers love their children—are out in full force, of course, especially at Christmas for reasons that need not be explained. That affects the daughter who’s gone no contact even more directly because if there’s estrangement, the cultural stance is that she’s to blame. (Interestingly, the cultural biases about men—that they’re not nurturing like women and not as emotional—somehow place less blame on sons for being less than dutiful. That’s especially true if the son has a family of his own.)
As I have written many times before, in the court of public opinion, it’s always the daughter who’s on trial and the verdict is usually guilt- and shame-inducing. The culture prefers to paint these daughters as willful and impetuous but the truth is that estrangement is never a spur-of-the-moment decision, made in the heat of anger; it is almost always deeply considered for years, if not decades.
Estrangement: the last cultural secret
The reality is that adult child/parental estrangement is not so rare. One study by Richard Conti, with primarily female college and graduate students participating, found that 43.5 percent had been estranged at some point and that 26.6 percent reported extended estrangement. He concluded that estrangement “is perhaps as common as divorce in certain segments of society.”
Another study conducted in Britain by Lucy Blake echoed these findings with even higher percentages of estrangement; of the 807 people interviewed, 455 were estranged from their mothers. Homing in on the reasons for estrangement, Blake reported mentions of emotional abuse (by 77 percent), divergent expectations about family roles and relationships (65 percent), clashes in personality or values (53 percent), neglect (45 percent), and mental health issues (47 percent).
In answer to a question Blake posed about the possibility of reconciliation, most respondents strongly agreed with the statement, “We could never have a functional relationship in the future.” What daughters wished for from their mothers will be achingly familiar to anyone who has gone no contact: more positive, unconditionally loving, warm, and emotionally close; more accepting and respectful; less critical and judgmental; and greater recognition of hurtful behavior.
Going no contact is the last resort.
Staying afloat: dealing with the holidays
The following are observations gleaned from my own experience and interviews conducted for my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, which examines the costs and benefits of estrangement in detail. It’s common for daughters to reconsider and second-guess their decision to go no-contact during the holiday season, and a few actually fall into a loop of hopefulness that this time there will be a magic wand to fix things at hand. A small study of 25 people conducted by a sociologist in Australia did a good job of underscoring what’s really going on. When asked, what participants missed was having “a” family—and not their actual family of origin. Indeed, that’s a specific source of loneliness not just this time of year but on birthdays and anniversaries as well as Mother’s Day.
Here’s what you need to keep in mind:
1. Realize you’re not the only one (and not tainted either)
Again, while it may feel as though everyone else in the world got lucky in the Mother Lottery of Life, it simply isn’t true. Don’t devolve into a puddle of self-pity or self-recrimination. It’s not a happy-making resolution you’ve reached but it doubtless is more peaceful and, most important, gives you room to recover, reclaim yourself, and regroup. Trust me: You have plenty of company, alas.
2. Confront your feelings of shame
Recognize their source. Is it cultural? Does it stem from your own unease with your decision? Or are you still thinking, deep down, that somehow you were to blame for your emotional history with your mother and family of origin? Understanding where those feelings are coming from and getting to a place where you can face them fully and talk back to them is absolutely key and not just for the holiday season.
3. Get a bead on your feelings
Instead of pushing off from your feelings—which may be conflicted—try sitting down with them and work on naming them. Is it sadness at your situation, or anger, or perhaps a combination of both? Do you feel frustrated or do you feel isolated? Empowered or disempowered? Recognizing that your childhood probably encouraged you to look away from or armor yourself against your deepest emotions is an important step too. Trace your feelings back to their roots. Recognize that the more precisely you can identify your feelings, the better you will get at managing them. (Yes, that’s emotional intelligence.) Using journaling as a tool to look below the surface is a good idea too.
4. Recognize your triggers
I will readily admit to a re-awakening of old feelings of exclusion during holiday ads. Then, again, as my daughter reminds me, I am prone to crying at Coke commercials, movie trailers, etc. so I’m not a useful barometer. But figuring out what triggers you most can help you navigate the season a bit better. Is it seeing mothers and daughters out together, or hearing about the plans other people are making? Is someone doing something benign like asking you about your plans? Understanding your triggers and the emotions connected them won’t just cut down on your reactivity and help you manage your emotions but can also give you real clarity about what it is about the season that's getting under your skin. Many daughters with families of their own whom they love and cherish still get triggered. It doesn’t necessarily boil down to being lonely in the present necessarily, although, of course, it can.
5. Mourn your losses
As I have written before, estrangement itself doesn’t heal you; it simply gives you the room to start breathing again and work on recovery. Mourning is an active part of healing, especially grieving the mother and perhaps the family you deserved. Since you never go no contact with just one person, the losses are usually complicated and broad; they may include fathers, aunts and uncles, cousins, and even family friends.
Part of dealing with the holidays involves actively mourning those losses because the bravado of denying them isn’t strong enough to battle the real stuff. Our dreams of family and our hopes die hard; that is the truth. The life vest you’ll need to navigate these choppy waters is truth.
6. Try not to be reactive or frantic
I absolutely recognize the fearsome self-blaming that can take a perch in your head amid the constant bleat of family togetherness and Christmas carols and how that might lead you to think, “Maybe I should call her?” “Maybe it can be fixed because it’s Christmas!” Mind you, if there have been signs of rapprochement and she’s been talking to you or other family members are trying to pave the way, that’s something else. But if it’s just you, worrying and spiraling, that’s another.
Think of the holiday season as a riptide. My mother trained for the Olympics in swimming and threw me into a pool, supposedly to teach me how to swim; as you can imagine, water is not my friend. But what they tell you to do if you’re caught in a riptide seems very accurate. To wit: 1) Try to keep your head above water and take deep slow breaths. 2) Don’t panic. Bring up calming thoughts.
BUT the final thing about rip tides is the best metaphor: 3) A riptide doesn’t drag you under. The currents only pull you further from shore. They suggest you swim parallel.
Swimming so you can see—parallel as it were—is a perfect metaphor.
7. Don’t curate or overcompensate
I’ve heard from daughters with families of their own that they often feel the pressure to have their holiday celebrations be “perfect.” One daughter had the horrifying realization that she was actually turning into her own mother—not allowing her kids to hang ornaments on the tree because it looked too sloppy, exhausting herself by making everything way too elaborate—until she finally realized she had nothing to prove. She scaled down and was happier for it.
Don’t fall into the trap of seeing the season as a way of proving your self-worth or showing off; it won’t make you happy.
8. Open yourself to joy
I’m not being a Pollyanna here—I know how hard the season can be for lots of different reasons—but staying receptive to happiness is also important. One of my favorite pieces of research is one that looked at what happened when you subtracted your blessings instead of counting them; the researchers were inspired by the moment in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life when the angel Clarence shows the beleaguered George Bailey what the lives of the people he loves would have been like if he’d never been born. And guess what? Participants were more grateful when they focused on subtracting their blessings rather than counting them! So practice subtraction on the daily!
Do take pleasure in small moments too. I love how some of New York City’s sidewalks smell of pine trees this time of year, for example; that’s enough to make up for the canned bleating of Christmas music in every store.
Happy Healing Days to everyone! These tips are worth remembering throughout the year; they’re not just holiday fare.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2018
Conti, Richard P. “Family Estrangements: Establishing a Prevalence Rate,” Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science (2015), vol.3(2), 28-35.
Blake, Lucy. Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood. University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research/Stand Alone. http://standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/HiddenVoices.FinalReport.pdf
Scharp, Kristina M. “You’re Not Welcome Here: A Grounded Theory of Family Distancing,” Communication Research (2017), 1-29.
Agilias, Kylie. “Disconnection and Decision-making: Adult Children Explain Their Reasons for Estranging from Parents, Australian Social Work (2015) 69:1, 92-104.
Agllias, Kylie. “Missing Family: The Adult Child’s Experience of Parental Estrangement,” Journal of Social Work Practice (2018) vol. 31(1), 59-72.
Koo, Minkyung, Sara B, Agoe, Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert, "It’s a Wonderful Life; Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improves People’s Affective States, Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 95, no.5 (2008), 1217-1224.