TW: Parental estrangement, shaming, victim-blaming
In June 2017, Psychology Today published an article about unloved daughters, and how our culture often sides with estranged parents.
The author starts out by noting that when a mother-daughter relationship sours, “it’s always the daughter who’s on trial.” She notes that culturally, we sympathize with parents who are estranged from an adult child. However, we do not extend that sympathy to adult children estranged from their parents:
Instead, the culture goes on the attack and labels her as ungrateful, impetuous, narcissistic, and more. She is reminded again and again that she was fed, clothed, and had a roof over head as if having her emotional needs met in childhood were a throw-away extra and that if love and support weren’t extended to her, she has no one but herself to blame. Or that she’s exaggerating or being dramatic since, on the surface, it seems that she turned out just fine. The culture finishes up the job of marginalizing and criticizing her that her mother and perhaps other family members began, and tries to shame her in the process.
I’ve experienced this sort of reaction myself. From well-meaning friends and acquaintances who respond with a tentative, “but she’s your mother…”, to people who have attempted to strong-arm me into resuming contact, I’ve experienced a gamut of reactions that imply that it’s my responsibility to fix whatever is wrong.
To that, I say…
It is not, in fact, the responsibility of someone who was a victim of parental abuse, abandonment, or on the receiving end of any hurtful or toxic behavior to forgive that parent. Nor is it healthy for anyone to continue to be on the receiving end of toxic behavior.
This is where the cult of ‘unconditional love’ comes into play. We have this idea, culturally, that all mothers love their children unconditionally. This, however, is a harmful assumption that results in adult children of abusive parents being frustrated at best and retraumatized at worst every time someone tries to make excuses for the parent (“She’s only being hard on you because she loves you!”) or implies that unconditional love deserves unconditional forgiveness (“But she’s your mo-ther! You have to forgive her!”)
When that happens to me, that’s when I pull out my little truth grenades.
- Not all parents love their children unconditionally; some parents (yes, even mothers!) don’t love their children at all.
- Providing children with basic needs (food, clothing, education) doesn’t mean a parent did a good job.
- Providing children with things beyond basic needs (toys, vacations, other niceties) doesn’t mean a parent did a good job.
- Nobody owes their parents anything for raising them; you take on that responsibility when you choose to have children, and it’s on you to live up to it. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t be grateful at all, ever; it simply means that your parents should not expect or demand your constant praise for doing their jobs, nor do you owe toxic parents your love or loyalty.
I save the biggest bomb for when people insist that I need to get in touch with my parents. I need to apologize, or smooth things over, or do whatever it takes to re-establish a connection.
There are several things wrong with this.
First, you’re assuming that I have something to apologize for, and that it’s on me to make the first move toward reconciliation.
Second, what I’m hearing when you tell me that is that people who I cut out of my life for being in some way toxic have rights to be in my life despite their treatment simply because we’re “family.”
Third, there’s often an implication of regret that goes along with this – “they won’t be around forever” – and that if I fail to smooth things over, I’ll feel bad about it later on.
Rather than get into the fine details of why these are really insensitive and really wrong-minded reactions, I simply say this:
If I told you that my husband was constantly belittling me, calling me names, intentionally humiliating me, and making me feel like I was worthless, and I left him for it, would you encourage me to forgive him and let him back into my life?
Sometimes that works. Sometimes the parental apologists say, “Well, that’s different!”
No, it’s not. It doesn’t matter who’s abusing you – abuse is NEVER okay, and no one is EVER obligated to forgive their abuser, or allow that person back into their life.
To tell someone who was abused by a parent or parental figure that because of the familial nature of that relationship, they’re obligated to forgive and tolerate the presence of their abuser is shockingly cruel. It implies that keeping familial relationships intact, even superficially, trumps someone’s physical and/or mental health and well-being.