Estranged Parents Confront Their Children's Reasons
It's rare for a member of an estrangement forum to say why their child says they're estranged. Members prefer to give their own explanations—parental alienation, for example, or the jealousy of the child's spouse—or they summarize their child's words as "a bunch of lies" or "allegations of abuse."
Most of the members are also desperate for their child to tell them their reasons.
So when a member repeats her adult child's reason for estrangement, the community reaction is... telling.
This exchange takes place near the beginning of a years-long argument that a member—let's call her Sandy—had with her 15-year-old granddaughter over a$10,000 education fund Sandy had promised the girl. (Sandy isn't her name or handle, nor do I know of any other member called Sandy.) Sandy was in her late 50's and had been estranged from her daughter off and on since her daughter remarried three years earlier.
When Sandy introduced herself to the board, her relationship with her daughter was once again off. She said, "Now my 15 year old grandaughter will not talk to me either... because I expressed concern that her stepfather was insisting it was her responsibility to pick up her brother from school everyday and not his." Shortly afterward she wrote that she invited her daughter and granddaughter to lunch to attempt a reconciliation. She expected that her daughter would accept the invitation, but wouldn't bring her granddaughter because her daughter would "allow her 15 yr. old to stay in silence rather than talk to her Nana to resolve an issue." She asked the board whether she should send this letter to her granddaughter:
The forum members came through with excellent advice, pointing out that at 15 the granddaughter's loyalty was naturally with her mother, and that the letter would come across as pressuring or blackmailing her. Sandy took the members' advice and decided not to send the letter to her granddaughter.
Two weeks later, Sandy wrote that she and her granddaughter were still estranged. She emailed her granddaughter to tell her "how disappointed I am in her that all I ever asked for was to be shown the respect I deserve and that means having the courtesy to talk things out with someone you care about."
Evidently Sandy did tell her granddaughter she was attaching conditions to the education fund, because a month later, she posted that she and her daughter had a meeting to discuss reconciliation, and her daughter
[Name of the other grandmother removed.]
Sandy got what the members of estranged parents' forums long for: an explanation. Not the Golden Grail of reconciliation, but something close—call it the Silver Grail. The answer that lets the estranged parent either map out a path to reconciliation, or find closure in realizing the estrangement can never be resolved.
The other members were enraged.
They were quick to devalue the daughter...
Who do these EO [estranged offspring] think they are. The last time I checked, God was the only one who can judge and convict me....not some snotty nosed, no good, self righteous, brats!!!
...and the grandchildren...
Are your ungrateful grandchildren worth this? Mine wouldn't be.
...and they found sinister reasons for the daughter's actions.
[The daughter] is setting the stage for more control. Making sure that she presents it to the GKs so they see her perspective. Then she has a "team" that will no doubt keep grandma in check.
Don't feel bad when someone tells you a 16 year old "doesn't like you". 16 year olds don't like ANYONE. Teenagers are teenagers. I do think it is interesting that your daughter made a point to tell you that and used those pubesent feeling to validate her own feelings as a 16 year old. Perhaps she hasn't come to terms with those old issues and until she does you will always have "this kid or that kid don't like you" maybe as a way to 'beat-you-up' for her own issues.
[Sandy] - seems to me she is all about 'control', i.e., HER control. SHE wants to set the conditions for her children to visit YOU. I don't think so. Rules are rules and frnakly I admire you for sticking to your guns! It's called REALITY and your daughter needs to wake up.
This series of reactions plays out time and time again in estranged parents' groups. When a member gives a detailed account of their child's reasons for the estrangement, or better yet, posts the child's letter verbatim,
- Members apply double standards with different rules for higher- and lower-ranking people. It's right and just for a grandparent to tell her granddaughter that she won't give her granddaughter the promised education fund unless the granddaughter meets her conditions, but it's unacceptable for a daughter or granddaughter to give a grandmother conditions. (This sentiment is often worded, "Who are they to make rules for us? We're the parents!")
- The estranged child's criticism is heavily minimized, even in the presence of opposing evidence. Sandy admits that she tried to, in her own words, make her granddaughter "jump through hoops" for her college money, but she turns around and characterizes the "strings" she places on gifts as nothing more than asking her grandchildren to say thank you.
- The other members accept Sandy's minimized version without question.
- No one refers to Sandy's history; they work only with the details Sandy gives in the moment. Six weeks ago the members were unanimously against Sandy's telling her granddaughter that there were now conditions on the college fund, but now they're unanimously for it.
- The evidence is reread favorably. In the face of several discussions of the trouble the oldest granddaughter has with her grandmother, one member tells Sandy that not only is her daughter lying about how her grandchildren feel, but the oldest granddaughter will tell the younger children wonderful stories and make them long for their grandmother.
The reactions also demonstrate why so many estranged parents think their children have never told them what the real problem is. After Sandy's daughter told her flat-out why the grandchildren don't want to see her, the other members reply that:
- The grandchildren have no right to not want to see her.
- The daughter told her what was wrong only to hurt her.
- The daughter was using the explanation as an excuse to withhold the grandchildren, to use them as "pawns of war" and assert a "power position that [she] can hurt with."
- The daughter was lying; the grandchildren love Sandy and will reunite with her when they're old enough to get out from under their mother's thumb.
- The daughter's "karma" will come back to bite her when the grandchildren reunite with Sandy and learn what a liar their mother is.
This is emotional logic at its finest: If something you did hurt me, then you meant to hurt me, and I can ignore whatever you said because you only said it to hurt me. If your reason for hurting me doesn't translate to "I wanted to hurt you," then you're lying.
The members feel an overwhelming need to make Sandy feel better, a need so powerful that it overrides any benefit Sandy might have gotten from taking her daughter's criticism seriously. At least, that's what members say on mixed boards when other members call them on their willingness to overlook a member's dysfunction: The member is fragile and needs support, not more criticism.
But I think this is a fallback position. The truth is that most members don't stop to consider that a member's child might be right. Nor do they consider whether a member may be dysfunctional, or inconsistent, or self-defeating. Despite the awe-inspiring levels of dysfunction Sandy reaches in just the two posts excerpted above, the community makes no attempt to put the brakes on. In fact, as she picks up speed, they speed along with her. She declares that the next time her grandchildren come over she's going to reiterate the house rules, point out the two rules plaques she already has up, and put up another ten. The other members cheer her on. Much later, her granddaughter chooses a university she would need to drive to, instead of getting a ride with her mother. Sandy demands to have input into her granddaughter's school choice before she'll hand over the promised money. One of the commenters escalates with a proposed plan of action so long that it spans two screens. The gist of it is that Sandy is correct to take a hard line with her entitled "pissant of a GD," and should give her granddaughter the money only if the girl agrees to get a technical or nursing degree and presents her GPA to Sandy for approval. Sandy should keep the money in her own name, refuse to pay for books and supplies in order to keep her granddaughter frugal, and send funds directly to the school rather than allowing any to pass through her granddaughter's hands. It's an extraordinary demonstration of punitive control over a girl who insists upon choosing her own university. The other members agree that it's an excellent scheme, and Sandy resolves to put it into action.
The default position is "estranged parent good, estranged child bad," and members treat their children's and grandchildren's boundaries as a display of defiance that must be crushed. Nor do they display more insight when someone else's children and grandchildren are involved. In such an atmosphere, it's not surprising that the community bands together to reject the reasons members' estranged children give them for the estrangement.
But one of the cries of the estranged parent movement is, "Why won't they tell us why?" Watching how members react when they're told why is both revealing and, in the end, one of the saddest moments on estrangement forums.
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