Should I send my mother a birthday card? I imagine many people will recoil at that question because they assume everyone should send birthday cards to their mothers, but my mother is different. She’s a narcissist who has manipulated and abused me all of my life. Five years ago, I decided I didn’t want her in my life any longer, though “want” is not exactly the right way to put it. My deepest longing was to have a wonderful relationship with my mom, but after much therapy, lots of contemplation, and years of trying to make it better, I concluded the only way I’d be free of her cruelty and chaos would be to end all contact with her, so I did.
When I explained my reasons for this decision, my mother screamed at me viciously and threatened me with all sorts of ugly things, which I expected because that’s her way. I cried, but remained calm, wished her well, and said goodbye. We haven’t had any contact since then and I’ve never regretted my choice, as painful as it was to make. I have, however, had to continually process the trauma and sorrow I carry because of her life-long treatment of me. I won’t go into the details of all the things she’s done, said, didn’t do, didn’t say, but please trust me when I tell you that I estranged myself from my mother for legitimate reasons. Furthermore, I didn’t do it to punish her (though I’m sure she’s framed it that way), but rather to extricate myself from the drama, shame, confusion, and sorrow she brought into my life. It has been such a relief not to have that turmoil! I’m grateful I shut the door between us.
Still, here I am, turning this silly question over in my mind. My thought about sending my mother a birthday card most likely came up because we both have milestone birthdays this year. She’s turning 70 and, a month later, I’m turning 40. In one of our rare, good moments several years ago, we talked about going on a trip to Hawaii to celebrate these particular milestone birthdays together, so perhaps that’s why it arose, but it’s more than that. I’m so much stronger now than I was the last time I saw my mom. I’m freer, happier, and more comfortable in my skin. Part of me wants to write her a birthday card to tell her I’m doing well and to say I hope she is too, which I mean sincerely. Another part of me is afraid she’ll interpret that gesture as an invitation to step back into my life. It’s not.
What do you think, Sugar? Having read your work, I know you’re estranged from your father. Do you think I would be undoing all the progress I’ve made if I temporarily crack open the door I shut between my mother and me? Where’s the instruction manual for adult children who are estranged from a parent? Where’s the map? I need both, Sugar, but if you don’t have either one handy, please tell me a story that will help me figure out how I’m supposed to live in this limbo state, where my mother is alive, but essentially dead to me. Thanks.
Dear Estranged Daughter,
My father died last month, two days after Father’s Day. Alone in his house, he woke with chest pains, called 911, then died of a heart attack before the paramedics arrived. When my sister Karen called to tell me the news a few hours later, we didn’t cry. We said wow. We said huh. We said I don’t know how I feel because I don’t feel anything. For some stretches we sat in silence, letting the disorienting fact of his death settle into our bones.
My father had five children by two women and every one of us was estranged from him because of the harm he’d done to us and to our mothers. My communications with him since my parents broke up when I was six consisted mostly of letters that would arrive a couple of times a year in which he wrote that my mother was a whore; later, when I was an adult, he left comments on my Facebook page calling me the same. I blocked him again and again, but, like a weed with an astonishingly deep root, he’d always re-emerge. The last time I saw him, I was 15. I’d spoken to him on the phone only twice since then. His death was new information, but it didn’t feel like a loss. I’d grieved him decades ago.
I couldn’t stay long on the phone with my sister because that morning I was scheduled to give a talk online. I showered and did my hair while watching myself in my bathroom mirror, feeling outside myself, like someone acting in a play. My father is dead, I thought as I buttoned my shirt. My father is dead, I thought as I put in my earrings. My father is dead, I thought as I blotted my lipstick on a square of toilet paper, the way my mother used to do on the rare occasions she wore lipstick.
My father was dead, but I wasn’t sad about it. I was sad about not being sad.
I gave my talk. I sat at my desk and gazed pleasantly at the green dot at the top of my computer screen addressing people in San Francisco and Auckland and Tokyo whose faces I’ll never see, smiling and laughing and talking as if nothing had changed. Had anything changed? I wasn’t sure, but in those early hours, I thought not. Yes, my father was dead, but—like your mother, Estranged Daughter—he’d been dead to me for years. I’d dealt with all the things I could deal with in relation to him. I was okay. I was great. Like you, I was free/happy/comfortable in my skin because I’d done the hard thing you did. I’d made my life better by estranging myself from someone who hurt me and kept hurting me and, like you, I didn’t regret it. Not even a bit. My life was better without my father in it because my father was a menace.
And yet, after I finished my talk and closed my computer and walked across the room and went to the mirror to see if I still seemed like a woman who was acting in a play, I realized I was trembling. It came from deep inside, this tremble. It was like a tiny bomb had detonated at the very core of me; an almost imperceptible blast that announced that there was a difference between my father being dead to me and my father being dead. That to be sad about not being sad was actually pretty fucking sad.
There is no instruction manual for this kind of sorrow, Estranged Daughter. There is no map. There is only the story you lived through, the story you survived, the story you wrote for yourself, the story you will keep writing. It’s the story of the elegant, heartbreaking, brave way you’ve done the limbo for nearly forty years and the story of the way you will continue to do it, even though it hurts. You didn’t get what most people get and what all of us deserve—a mother who regards you as her richest treasure—and yet here you are at forty. Free. Happy. Comfortable in your skin. Strong. Neither sending a birthday card to your mom or not sending a birthday card to your mom will obliterate that, Daughter.
So, trust your gut. Don’t think about how your mother will react. Think about what you want to do. You can write to her and say what you want to say without opening the envelope of her reply, if you’d like. You can write to her and not send the card. You can silently narrate birthday greetings to her in your mind and breathe them into the air. You can decide to not think of her at all.
Whatever you do, remember that the most powerful thing you learned in the enormous effort it took to shut that door between you and your mother is that there is no door. The door is a metaphor we use so we can pretend there’s something solid to crouch behind. But there isn’t. We are the solid. The door, dear Daughter, is you and me and all the people reading this who relate to these words. It’s built by our strength and our courage; our wisdom and resolve; our suffering and our triumph. The people who harmed us can only come inside if and when we allow them to.
Let that be the truth that guides you. Let it be your instruction manual. Follow it like a map that leads to your richest treasure.
When I was in my twenties I made a promise to myself that when my father died, I’d attend his funeral. Not out of spite, but to honor the love I once had for him—the love I couldn’t have helped but have for him when I was a baby and young child. I also wanted to go because I’d been denied so many things as his daughter that it gave me comfort to know that for one day I’d get to claim my rightful place in his life. That I’d be among the bereaved, even if only ceremonially. But, as it turned out, there wasn’t a funeral for my father. He wasn’t particularly close to anyone by the end of his life, so it didn’t make sense to have one. Instead, my sister’s son took over our father’s Facebook account and posted a brief announcement of his death.
My sister told me I should read it. She said there were comments from distant relatives and people who’d gone to high school with our dad in the small Pennsylvania town where both he and I were born. I entered his name in the Facebook search box, but I couldn’t find him no matter how I spelled his name—Ronald, Ron, Ronny—and then I remembered it was because I’d blocked him. I unblocked him and sent him a friend request and a few minutes later it was accepted, even though he was dead. We were connected at last, my father and I. We were friends.
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On December 7, 2020, my brother died of cirrhosis of the liver. He was 53 years old. You don't die of cirrhosis of the liver at 53 unless you've started using at a young age and then kept at it with a vengeance for decades. My brother actually had people around him that loved him when he died, but I wasn't one of them. He'd started to sexually and emotionally abuse me when I was three. He threatened to kill me when I was seventeen. I cut off all contact with him then and only ended up being in his physical presence less than a dozen times until his death; two of those being when our father died.
I came to understand the depth of the attachment issues that drove my brother to be so destructive to himself and to me. I found some compassion in my heart for that hurt little boy. But that didn't change the fact that the grown man he was was a vicious, hateful bastard literally every single time he got a chance to come for me.
When he died I felt the weirdest and most poignant sadness. There was no denying it; there was never going to be any redemption arc for us. He was only ever going to be exactly the one he was and I was only ever going to be able to do exactly what I did to wrest my life out of his hands and make it my own. And yet, I had loved him so long ago. And I had wished at various times that our story had been different. But it wasn't. It would not ever be. And at the same time, I felt released and defiant. The bogeyman of nearly my entire life was dead and I was still standing. And not just standing, but dancing and singing and living, well-loved and safe and fucking formidable.
It is okay, Estranged Daughter, even after all of these years, to feel love for your mom, or yearning for the mom you wished she had been, even as you stand in the midst of your life now and feel how good it is to be separated from her. But let whatever you do now be an expression of the love that you have found for yourself. Hold fast to that, even as all the other feelings wax and wane. It will carry you and protect you, always.
Oh, this letter frightened me, so very much. It felt like watching a horror movie, where the character running from the monster has escaped, finally found safety, and then you watch them decide to maybe go back into the house, really quick, to just grab that thing they forgot, and you shout NO DON'T DO IT but then they do it and the monster devours them after all. This brave woman finally freed herself of the monster. And I get why she wants to just go back into the house, really quick, and wish the monster a happy birthday. Because what every person wants and never ever stops wanting, is to be loved by their parent. No matter who that parent is or what they have done or how old we have grown, we want our parent to love us. So that card, it's that hope, that never-ending deep desire to say, Mom, do you love me?... But she should not go back into the house. The monster isn't going to say, thank you for the card. The monster will try to devour her.