abstract void art

The Parental Void: When Estrangement is Necessary but Painful


Those of us estranged from our parents are familiar with some strong feelings that are seemingly at odds with each other.

Simultaneously, adults estranged from their parents might:

  • Know the estrangement is absolutely necessary for our own health and wellness
  • Have a deep longing for parents

An outsider might find this puzzling and wonder: if the estrangement is so painful, why don’t we just reconnect with our parents? If our parents are still alive, an outsider might see it as an obvious solution to a painful problem. Unfortunately, they’re underestimating the complexity of the situation.

The longing we have is not because we miss the specific people we were assigned to have as parents.

The key distinction is that the longing we have is not because we miss the specific people we were assigned to have as parents. Those people have proved to us over many years that they are not capable of fulfilling their basic parental roles (otherwise, we wouldn’t be estranged from them, right?). Instead, we are wishing for parents who can fill the parental void in our lives.

Social Norms

The pain from not having parents can get amplified when we witness people in our lives (our friends, neighbors, partners, coworkers, etc.) experience parents. Things that seem mundane or even a bit annoying can spark a pang of jealousy.

For example, we all know someone who lets out a big sigh when they see an incoming call from their mother. They quickly wonder if they should answer it and potentially be trapped in a long, one-way conversation about their mother’s trip to the grocery store. Do they really want to answer the phone and hear about the sale on eggs, or should they let it go to voicemail?

I can appreciate what that experience is like, and how it has become a near-universal experience. I absolutely don’t fault anyone for the internal groan they may feel at that moment. But, for me, the idea of a phone call from one of my actual parents fills me with the pure fear of a deer caught in the headlights of a speeding car.

deer in car headlights cartoon
Deer in Headlights by SkrullEmperor is licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0

I cannot relate to a parental experience as seemingly normal and boring as the aforementioned one. Truly, the idea of having a parent who wants to call me to share something as mundane as the great bargain they got on frozen pizza rolls is fantastically sci-fi.

Stigma

The absence of parents is incredibly lonely when it feels like you are the only person in the world without parents. Having parents is society’s default. Not meeting that default causes some of us dealing with estrangement to feel abnormal and “less-than”.

Because familial estrangement has such a stigma surrounding it, it is simply not talked about and thus us adults without parents can feel uniquely isolated and alone.

In reality, those of us estranged from our parents are not alone. There’s not a consensus regarding exactly how many adult children are estranged from their parents, but even the lowest estimates show a significant prevalence of adult children estranged from their parents.

Because familial estrangement has such a stigma surrounding it, it is simply not talked about and thus us adults without parents can feel uniquely isolated and alone.

For me, I was estranged from my parents for about seven years before I met someone who was also estranged from their parents (or at least, it took that long before I met someone who opened up to me about it). Having a conversation about it quickly bonded us, as neither of us had met another person experiencing a similar estrangement, and we both were desperately relieved to know we were not alone in experiencing parental estrangement and feeling a deep sadness about the parental void in our lives.

Therapy

Ah, therapy. We cannot discuss the complicated feelings of the parental void without mentioning therapy, right?

I am not a therapist, and reading my thoughts should not be a substitute for professional therapy. From my own personal experience, I strongly recommend that anyone experiencing familial estrangement seek out the help of a professional therapist. I think a good therapist can be helpful to just about anyone. But let’s be real. Not everyone has access to therapy. And more pointedly, not everyone has access to a therapist who is actually trained/experienced with parental estrangement.

So, as someone who has over ten years of complete estrangement from my parents, let me share a thought experiment that you can try out to help process your experience as an adult without parents. And, if you do have a therapist, consider discussing with them any discoveries you make during this exercise.

Thought experiment

If you’re already estranged from your parents, at some point you reached an awareness that your parents cannot meet the basic requirements of a parent. You decided it is better for you to move through life without parents. But you might still feel that deep longing for parents.

While no parent is perfect, and it is unreasonable to expect any parent to be perfect, here is a thought experiment to try.

Imagine your ideal parents

Give yourself some time to really explore this. Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

How would it feel when you are in the same room as these ideal parents?

What would you all do when you spend time together?

Would you have inside jokes?

Would you go to them for advice?

Would you hug each other?

If you had a terrible day, would you call them to tell them about it?

What would be important to you about your relationship with them?

Now imagine yourself as a child

Spend some time on this question, too. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

How would it feel when you as a child walked into the kitchen and found your ideal parents there?

How would they greet child you?

If you confided in them and told them something that was deeply important to you as a child, how would they respond?

How would they nurture you?

What sort of relationship would your ideal parents have with each other during your childhood?

Why am I suggesting this?

Isn’t fantasy unhealthy? Daydreaming to escape reality can’t be great, right?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting this thought experiment as a means to pine for what could have been or to sit around feeling sorry for yourself. Instead, I am suggesting you make a pointed attempt to identify what it is that you missed out on as a child. Identify what you’re missing out on now. What is it that you needed but did not receive? It will be unique to you and your familial situation.

In my experience, grieving is a long, active process, and you can’t really grieve what you missed out on until you’ve identified just what it is.

The reality is, you may be surprised by some of the things you learn about yourself from this thought experiment. Some of the things you missed out on are probably incredibly obvious, but if you’ve never sat down and reflected on what you personally needed and what that would have looked like, you might be surprised.

For me, I believe that in the aftershock of my estrangement I embraced a stoic persona as I tried to move forward from my past. I wanted to just get through this. I didn’t let myself think too much about the situation because, frankly, it just hurt too much while it was fresh. It felt like a big tangled yarn ball of pain and I had no idea where to start unraveling it. So I didn’t even try for a very long time.

Tangled red yarn

My tangled yarn ball of pain that I didn’t know how to unravel.

Dramatic? Sure. But in hindsight it captures how I felt.

Example

Here’s an example of this thought experiment. Your ideal parent is going to be unique to you. There is no “correct” answer to this thought experiment.

To get you started, here are some of my own thoughts:

It may sound silly, but when I imagine my ideal parents they are blurry blobs of warm light. They are ever-present in my life, but never overwhelming. There are two parents, but they are not very distinct from each other. They are a united front and I know they love each other as much as they love me.

I understand that family relationships are never perfect, and absolutely nobody has a perfect relationship with their parents. Those of us estranged from our parents didn’t do it to punish them, but rather to keep ourselves safe. And now we have nothing filling that parental black hole. There is nobody meeting even one of our parental needs, and it is difficult to express the loneliness of that pain.

While I am grateful that I made the difficult decision to disconnect from my parents, I am still devastated that I do not have a parent. It is something I will continue working through for a long time.

It’s not a wish for a luxury item. It’s just a wish for a parent who loves us. And I think we need to concede to ourselves that there is nothing abnormal about that wish.


Posted

in

by

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *