There are people in the Adult Alienated (or Estranged) Children community who believe we (the parents) should apologize to our adult children for “our roles” in the estrangement. It’s a sentiment that sticks in my craw for many reasons, but I understand it thanks to a woman named Margaret. She had an epiphany one day about “her role” in her abusive relationship. Her role was merely being there as a target for her husband’s abuse. Having a role in it doesn’t mean we caused it.
The purveyors of this philosophy suggest it’s a way to open the door for some hopeful someday potential reconciliation. Well. Isn’t that optimistic?
I don’t believe we’ll ever reconcile, because when you decide on a course of action or attitude, you’re married to it for life, and changing your mind would prove too embarrassing after you’ve gone to extreme pains to gain a following for whatever your anger du jour happens to be. I think you’ll remember the confusion among the family members in trying to figure out whether J was your BFF today, or a pariah to be vehemently bashed.
All that notwithstanding, I realize I do owe you an apology, despite how many times I apologized in the past for things other people did that I tried to fix or help you recover from but couldn’t because I was just a bystander, not a participant. In fact, I owe you many more apologies, so I’m giving them to you now. It’s part of my Mother’s Day present to myself this year. You don’t want me there to say it to you in person, so I offer this, in public black & white:
I’m sorry I couldn’t heal your heart. I’m sorry I couldn’t be the everything, the enough, to fill the gigantic hole in your heart and soul left there by people who should have loved you but didn’t. The people who should have cared about you, protected you, defended you, fought for you, held you, nurtured you, taught you proper things and the right ways to be in the world, but harmed you instead when you were so young and I wasn’t there yet.
I’m sorry I wasn’t a part of your life sooner. I’m sorry your biological mother left that opening for someone else to walk into. I’m sorry I didn’t know your parents when you and your brothers were born, because God knows I would have intervened, and your life may not have unfolded as it did.
I’m sorry your father used you and your brothers as targets for his explosive anger. I’m sorry he conducted most of his terror campaigns and physical abuse when I was out of the house, and swore you to secrecy to protect himself from prosecution after I turned him in when I saw those first cuts and bruises. I’m sorry the steps his command and CPS enforced weren’t enough to wake him up and get him the help he really needed so he might actually understand he had a serious problem. It might have stopped more of what he did behind my back.
I’m sorry he used you as pawns to get to me because he knew better than to ever lift a finger toward me. I’m sorry he wants you to hate me because he is so filled with bitterness and fear that he can’t tolerate other people’s joy, and he feels too threatened by the truth of things he’s done to want me in your lives as a potential reminder. If you’re not exposed to me, he doesn’t have to worry. He forgets that we all loved how much he made us laugh, that not every moment was about his rages. Everyone has good parts. I always remembered his.
I’m sorry your extended family didn’t listen. I’m sorry they instead circled the wagons to protect one of their own from the truth that he was abusive, rather than working with me to make him stop and support you in what you and your brothers knew was happening.
I’m especially sorry that your grandmother was so consumed by guilt about her husband’s abuse and her own parenting that she became determined to deny the truth of what her son had turned into, and made me the enemy so she didn’t have to face it. I’m sorry she believed that having you and your brothers turn against the one woman who had the guts to stand up to your father and a heart big enough to love you all was preferable to encouraging you to understand how strong I was to have been able to do it, and give me the respect I deserved and the continued relationship with me that you all deserved.
I’m sorry I couldn’t run away with you to Chicago. But I’m glad I showed you Chicago and Milwaukee and and Niagara Falls and Union Station in DC.
I’m sorry I tried so hard to “make” your father step up and be the parent I believed he could be and that you all deserved. I never believed that could go so wrong; I always believed he had it in him, and I’m sorry for that, because I was wrong. I’m sorry you never got to be a Daddy’s Girl, because I know how desperately you wanted that, and I’m sorry that turning on me wasn’t the final thing that could make it happen.
I’m sorry I didn’t understand much sooner that all he needed was someone to be there so he could have his final tour, and never intended to stay once he retired. If I had, I might have done what he asked and stayed with you in Moyock while he completed that final tour. I can’t say for sure, but I think it might have outed him to the family much sooner, and they’d have been much more supportive of us and things would be very different now. But I felt at the time that you’d have been devastated when you realized what it meant that he left us there for a three-year tour in another state.
I’m sorry I was sick. And I’m really sorry your father used that against me to try to make you believe I was weak.
I’m sorry I wasn’t your biological mother. If I had been, and if the Universe would have still put the four of us together, I’d have taken you away to a safe place of unconditional love where your father couldn’t hurt you.
I’m sorry my best wasn’t enough to change things more than they did. While we may have lived in nicer houses and neighborhoods and you got to do things you wouldn’t have done otherwise, it didn’t remove “The Problem.” I wish I could have made you understand that if I left, I couldn’t take you with me because I wasn’t your biological mother. It would have meant I’d leave you alone with your father, and that I couldn’t do because I knew what your lives would turn into if I did. I don’t regret staying, because some things worked out in positive ways they would not have otherwise. But I’m sorry it apparently only prolonged the inevitable and kept us walking on eggshells for far, far too long.
I’m sorry I can’t change the past or take away your pain. If I could, I would. You all deserve joy, and while you can find happiness, you will never know the freedom of having had a happy childhood of love and acceptance for being exactly who you are.
I’m sorry I lost the war. I’m sorry it was a war. It was disguised as a decent family in nice homes with kids in good schools with many pretty things that good families have. But it was a war between demons and angels, where the prize was acceptance and the punishment was rejection, and you and your brothers and the bond we worked so hard to have and to keep were the casualties. You had no choice but to follow your hearts and hope someday you’d win what you wanted so dearly. I’m bitterly sorry for all of you that you can’t get blood from a stone, and I’m sorry that will take you so very long to learn.
I’m sorry, as all parents are, for my mistakes. I know I made them, because all humans do. What I’m glad for is that I made it right when I caught them, to the best of my ability, so you at the very least knew what integrity looked like. But I wish I hadn’t made any.
I’m sorry I wasn’t perfect. No parent ever is; even if kids came with handbooks, parents would fail to use them properly and only recognize that in retrospect. Failure and imperfection are built into parenting. If there were a Master Plan, I’m sure that would be a part of it. It’s how kids learn. It’s just that some lessons are much more painful than they ever should be.
I’m sorry I let you down. I fully believe that while we were living together you never thought I did; as you got older, you saw and understood much more about what our lives were all about, but I know you always resented that I couldn’t fix so many things I know we all wish I could have, and that I didn’t take you away from it. My hope – for you, not for me, because my role in this is over – is that someday you will understand more of what’s possible and what isn’t for someone in the position I had. It will ease your heart to understand that I truly meant for only the best and I worked as hard as I could to achieve it, but that some things really are impossible. In 12-step groups, they say that expectations are planned resentments. I had too many of myself and of your father that I was wrong to have kept for as long as I did. I am really sorry for that.
I’m sorry for the times I called you out, because I know how much you hated it. There were times I let you come to your own epiphanies, but sometimes I tried to force them. That was wrong.
I’m sorry I can only go so far in what I can take responsibility for in the dissolution of our family. I remember – I will never forget – how many times you told me and I heard you and your brothers, and even your grandmother, tell other people that I was the glue that held the family together. I was. I know that. But there are times, especially now, that I wonder if I should have done things differently and let the chips fall where they may. Maybe we wouldn’t have held out hope for so long that your father could change, which hope crumbled before the ink was dry on his final Navy paperwork. Hindsight is supposed to always be 20/20, but when I think about the “what ifs,” to me it’s still muddy because of how violently you all reacted when he left. I think if I had abandoned the family at any point before you all rejected me, you’d have resented me a lot more. I think you’d never have gotten over that. The way it all ended, you got to do the rejecting rather than the reverse, which I think gives you a certain kind of strength, and a power you never felt you had. I also think it allows your heart to stay hardened so you believe you may never be hurt in that way again. But I think if you allowed yourself to remember what I did right, and how much of it was right, you’d realize you are allowed to love whomever you choose, and not everyone will hurt you or run away. This could help your heart to understand: It’s OK for you to believe I never did and I never would, because I proved it.
There are people out there, especially in your family, who would be happy to think I’m miserable on Mother’s Day, but I’m not. I loved the cards and letters and gifts you gave me, and I still have all of them. Sure, I used to cry when I looked at them, but the truth is that I did that more when I was living with you than I did after we all parted. While your father and grandmother demanded that I “BE THE MOM” and do it like Donna Reed did, they never let me forget that I “WASN’T YOUR MOM” and how imperfect at it I was. I still have the poster board you made for me, made from cut-up photo albums, where you placed baby pictures of you and your brothers in my arms, after I’d said so many times I wished I were your bio-mom because I felt like I was. THAT made me cry. Good tears. The sadness was in how your father never wanted you or me to feel as connected as we really were.
But now I get to look back and know how many things I did right, and I know how hard I tried to make your lives better, and I know for a fact that in many, many, many ways I did. It is unthinkable for many people to consider stepping into a monster’s den and protect the others living there from the beast. I did that. What I knew was that 1) I wasn’t equipped to do it alone; and 2) I couldn’t legally take you away, and I refused to bail. I exposed you to unconditional love, and you all knew that then, and if people didn’t want you to believe otherwise, you’d allow yourselves to remember that now. No, I wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t have to be. What I was was present and loving and generous, and I fought like a tiger mom against people who harmed you.
Being with you made me a mom, you’ve heard me say that and seen it in print hundreds of times throughout your lives. So I always will be a mom, and no one – not you, not your father, not your grandmother, not anyone, ever – can take that away from me. And despite all my mistakes and imperfections and failings, I know I did my absolute best, and I know I did a good job. You may hate this, but the many good and positive things you’re doing now are a direct result of the things I taught you and brought into your life. I get to have that, too.
You want your heart to be hard, and I know that. But because I still love the girl I raised, whose heart I know so well, I hope that someday you will allow yourself to remember you had a loving mom – one that you prayed for, and one the Universe delivered. It doesn’t matter whether you ever tell me that, but it will help you love the children who enter your life, whether in your job or avocations, or ones you give birth to or adopt. Anyone can be a mother, but no one can be a mom without a heart open to love.
You always got that from me. I know that. YOUR heart will begin to heal if you can allow yourself to know it, too.
And in future Mother’s Days, the children in your life will thank you.
PS — I’m sorry I caved to your father’s torment about it and gave away my treasured piano, that you used to love to play for Jack the Dog so he could sing. So this year for Mother’s Day, I bought myself a keyboard. And this one, I’ll keep. 🙂