How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child! — Shakespeare, “King Lear”
In 1972 Richard Nixon established the third Sunday in June as an “an occasion for renewal of the love we bear to our fathers.” While many fathers will, no doubt, experience pure joy in the bounty of the day, there is another group of fathers who approach the day with, at best, a bittersweet sense of dread.
There are no reliable numbers for the amount of families that experience parental estrangement or alienation, but in my personal and professional experience I have found that it is an extremely common phenomenon and under-reported for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the perceived shame of giving others a glimpse of one’s less-than-perfect family dynamics.
In talking and working with estranged families, I’ve almost always seen more pain experienced by the parent than the estranged child. I wondered about the reason for this and eventually came to the conclusion that the answer has something to do with the fact that parents have simply had a larger quantity of memories associated with the parenting process.
Parents begin building positive memories about their children at least nine months before they are born. On the other hand, most children have trouble remembering anything before their third or fourth birthdays so that the estranged children have “forgotten” at least four years of childhood memories. Since the first four years (including the nine months of pregnancy) are often the most positive and emotionally intense, parents who suffer estrangement/alienation almost always, feel the greatest loss.
Complicated family dynamics
Families who haven’t experienced this type of loss imagine that for this to happen, a parent must have to have committed an egregious offense, but more often than not, there are no clearly identifiable antecedents (or villains) to the estrangement, just a complicated set of family dynamics. Unraveling this ball of twine becomes an almost insurmountable task, even in the hands of highly trained professionals. When one or both of the parties won’t participate, then the task becomes that of accepting the cruelest of life’s rejections.
While no one would want to minimize the tragedy of losing a child through an early death, parents of estranged children often describe the experience of estrangement as a slow, tortuous death, complete with all the stages of grief with the added element of rejection. Of course, estranged parents almost always harbor a modicum of hope for reconciliation, while parents who have suffered the death of a child, struggle with the non-negotiable finality of loss.
Mostly they avoid talking about it
How do parents of estranged children deal with the other people in their lives? Mostly they avoid talking about it. There seems to be a great deal of shame attached to “losing” a child through rejection. When they do bring it up with friends, the responses often reflect a trivialized understanding of the situation such as “Why don’t you just call them and talk it over?”
After a while, friends stop asking and the parents stop bringing it up in conversations, but it is there, always there, for the loss of a child, whether through death or rejection stings like no other injury.
So, what is the proper way to support fathers of estranged children? Ask them once in a while how they are doing with the issue and in the same way you would comfort a grieving parent, ask them if they would like to talk about it. Don’t offer gratuitous solutions (they have already thought of all of them), but offering your help, if needed, is always acceptable.
Father’s Day is a great day to remind them that the estrangement of a child does not negate their years of dedicated parenting, and that is something to celebrate!
Rod Martel is a licensed psychologist and parent.
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