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  • While father-child estrangement is much more common, 6% of adult children are estranged from their mothers, a percentage that increases across time and distance.  Tweet This
  • Some children are unhinged by inheritance issues or perceived slights and inequities, or harbor grudges after mom and dad divorce and family dynamics shift. Tweet This
  • No matter the reason, mother-child separation hurts. Tweet This
Category: Women, Parents

Due to wind, our bike ride was longer than usual. When we arrived at the restaurant, we found only seats at the bar. It was Mother’s Day, so we should have anticipated the celebratory crowd; however, we didn’t think squeezing in a party of two, mid-afternoon, would be a problem. So, we bellied up to the bar and ordered champagne. When my husband headed to the restroom before our meals arrived, I found myself alone with our young bartender.

I beamed. It was, after all, Mother’s Day. I didn’t need much to put a smile on my face! That had been guaranteed 30-some years before upon the birth of our first son, then sealed shortly thereafter with the birth of our second. Few days pass that I don’t smile reflectively or am not warmed by memories of our two sons, now grown and living faraway. 

 “Have you wished your mother a Happy Mother’s Day?” I asked him jovially, expecting a cheerful and affirmative response. 

“No, and I probably won’t,” he replied flatly, continuing to pour our drinks. “We don’t have a good relationship.” 

“Oh, you must call her!” I pressed, unmoved by his response.  “I’m sure she’d be thrilled to hear from you! I know she loves you very much.” (Which of course, I did not know, but I was sure that she does. After all, truly, what mother does not love her child and want to hear from him or her on Mother’s Day?)  

This time, he didn’t bother to respond. His eyes remained flat, as he simply prepared another beverage. 

My husband and I finished our meals, bid adieu, and as we left, I once more encouraged our young bartender to give his mom a call.  

Fast forward to Mother’s Day one year later, and, as we are a family of tradition, the same bike route, same crowded restaurant, same bar, and yes, same bartender! It was meant to be. 

I engaged my old friend. “Did you call her?” I implored, presuming that, of course, he remembered me from a year ago and had immediately left his post behind the counter to call his mother and pour forth loving sentiments. 

 “Nope,” he mumbled, his eyes averting mine, “still no communication.”                                                                                                             

Now, one might think I would dismiss those chance encounters, yet here we are, another Mother’s Day, and they instantly come to mind. I won’t be celebrating with my sons or daughter-in-law this year—and my own mother is long-gone. But you can bet I’ll once again be pedaling (against the wind), returning to the same restaurant bar where I may (or may not) find that same young bartender. Chances are slim, of course; five years have passed since our first encounter. 

If I do find him, though, I won’t check up on this mother-son relationship; it’s really none of my business. Nonetheless, I have plenty that I wish I could say to him.  

I’d start with an apology. His relationship with his mother is really none of my business. That I know. Even though my intentions were good, I may have inadvertently added angst to a day already permeated with difficult emotions.

Let’s face it: relationships can be complicated, often more-so with those we love most. While father-child estrangement is much more common, 6% of adult children are estranged from their mothers, a percentage that increases across time and distance. 

I don’t know why my bartender friend was estranged from his mother, but research tells me that he likely initiated the separation and that it could have been for a variety of reasons, some that make total sense to all, and others that seem valid to only those involved. Most estranged parents aren’t in the dark about physical, emotional, or sexual abuses, or drug and alcohol problems, and are generally aware of feelings of disrespect or hurtfulness their children may perceive. Some children cite a lack of maternal support: “Hey, she was never there for me, and she certainly didn’t protect and direct me the way she should have.” 

Other children are unhinged by inheritance issues, perceived slights and inequities, or harbor grudges after mom and dad divorce and family dynamics shift. Even healthy families wrestle with transitions, which are generally not the cause but can trigger estrangement. Nevertheless, reasons for estrangement are unique to each individual and may be perceived differently through the eyes of those involved. 

The separations that are toughest to resolve appear to be those tied to deeply imbedded personality disorders that cause great distress and challenge one’s own mental, physical, or emotional well-being, leading a child (or a mother) to determine, “This relationship is toxic; I’m no longer willing to pay the price.” 

No matter the reason, mother-child separation hurts. It is considered one of the most painful life experiences for both and often leads to a silence, not only between family members, but among those outside the family as well. It’s tough to talk about the sadness, shame, guilt, or deep sorrow that accompanies an outcome that diverges so widely from societal norms. 

I suspect it takes more than a phone call to heal a rift between mothers and children, but it’s a start. Some need help from of a professional to truly understand what caused the separation in the first place, and help too building relationship skills.  

It’s generally not a flip decision to part ways, nor is it a flip-of-the-switch decision to reconcile; however, the good news is that most estrangements do end. On average, mother-child estrangement lasts around 5 or more years. It’s usually the child that controls the timeline—his or her willingness or efforts bridging the gap to make amends.

So perhaps I wasn’t wrong to have urged my young bartender friend to call his mother on Mother’s Day, nor was I necessarily out of line to have professed her love for him. For, I still believe that wherever she is, she loves him fiercely. Perhaps he needed to hear just that.

I’ll probably never know, but I’m hopeful that this Mother’s Day, as I celebrate my family from afar (yet anticipate a toast-filled reunion in a few more weeks), my bartender friend—and others who might be estranged from their mothers—are somehow, somewhere reconnecting with them.

Rhonda Kruse Nordin researches and writes on family issues.