(Nine Alternatives to Reconciliation)
Winner of the 2021 Spring Nonfiction Contest
“Is the Great American Novel you’re working on, the story of a young girl, who was emotionally abused and misunderstood as a child, only to grow up, into an angry lesbian? And, will there be chapter upon chapter of “Mommy Bashing”?
—text message from my mother
I went once, a year after I stopped talking to her. My friends and then-girlfriend kept asking what I was going to do about our estrangement. I wasn’t sure. Quietly, I thought, I’m already doing it.
God, what I remember most about the meeting was how full the room was. So many wrecked people. I was late, and I don’t like being late, and it was raining, and I don’t like being wet. The room was steamy, overflowing with miserable bodies in a big cluster. There had probably been rows to start, but so many chairs were crammed together, there was no room to walk. Everyone’s knees banged up against the chair in front of them. There was a stack of extra chairs in the corner, and when I walked in, the person sitting closest to them had to lift one off the stack and pass it over their head to the next person, who passed it on to me.
They were taking turns reading out loud from one of the steps. Maybe step three? It involved admitting something or giving something up to a higher power, which I didn’t want to do. I hadn’t realized Al-Anon uses the same steps as AA (AA is the meeting for alcoholics; Al-Anon is for their collateral damage: anyone whose life has “been affected” by someone else’s drinking). I flipped through the reader. There were no steps for people who’d been wronged and wanted to feel sour about it. What I wanted was to be angry and meet other people who were angry. Where were their steps? I wanted to lounge on my anger like it was a sofa and invite my new friends to come sit next to me, or set my anger alight in a pit in my backyard, five thousand miles away from my mother, and hand out marshmallows. When I was a kid, I was too busy trying to control her behavior—by getting perfect grades and staying quiet—to be angry. What I had now was proof of concept. I did not want to give it up.
I started running in college. After our estrangement, which happened not long after I turned thirty, I started crying on my runs. The first time was coincidental—I was listening to a Kelly Clarkson song and thinking about how my mother loves Kelly Clarkson. My siblings and I used to tease her for liking pop music, but I’d changed my mind as an adult and regretted the razzing. Why did we give her so much shit, I thought, Kelly is so good. We were so mean to her. When did we learn to treat her like that? Now, that didn’t matter. We would never be besties who went to concerts together. And so, I cried and ran (literally) through my tears. It felt good to grieve. It still does. It’s never over.
Now I make cry-running playlists. I like that, by running and crying, my body is a juxtaposition: part conditioned machine, all thighs, part an obvious fucking mess. I fall apart. I keep moving. I have cried on three-mile runs. I have cried on six-mile runs. I have cried to Cher. I have cried to Feist. I feel it all, I feel it all, etc. I have cried in fall, slipping on leaves and blowing snot into my gloves. I have cried at six a.m. on white-hot mornings in July. I once spent two years crying on a treadmill at work because my employer provided us with a little micro-gym.
The songs that make me the most emotional are ones I’d dance to at my hypothetical wedding, if I ever get married. I imagine that I will twirl my beloved in front of everyone. We will be so happy. I cannot see my mother attending, but I also cannot fathom her not being there. I cut off contact with her after she walked out of my cousin’s wedding. I don’t remember any of the music from after she left, which was just past cocktail hour but before the reception. I was so focused on having a good time despite her; I didn’t hear any of it. Now, I like cry-running to any song that sounds like it could have been played that day.
We’re not that close is like shooting a marble through a conversation. It’s so smooth. It feels like a fact, the way a rock is a fact. We’re not that close might be describing a state of being that just… is. Like how the sky is blue. We’re not that close. Most of us don’t know or remember why the sky is blue, and we’re okay with it.
Sometimes I say we don’t talk that much, because that much is so big and so empty. It’s for when I want you to think we share something. That we’re members of the same grown-up adult society of people who don’t call their parents enough. Oh, I say, you don’t talk to your mom that much? Oh, once a week? Yeah, me too! We’re so bad!
I used to be honest. In conversations I’d say, we’re estranged, we’re not speaking right now, I don’t know how she’s doing. But I didn’t like how people followed up, wanting to know why. Or how they helpfully replied that I was hurting my mother. They could not imagine not talking to their own mothers. Did I know I only had one?
People mean well, especially my friends. They get so much out of their relationships with their mothers. Their lives are just as complex as mine, and yet they make something work that I cannot. They are horrified at what is happening with me and my mother, and they are right. I know I am hurting her.
But they think I have moved to a planet my mother isn’t the core of. This is not true. What I have given up trying to explain is that I think about my mother every day. My silence is not a void. This is the fix. I choose it. Every time my mother calls or texts and I don’t answer or respond—I choose it.
It took several years to find we’re not that close. I also auditioned my mom sucks (infantilizing; it made me sound like Bart Simpson and wasn’t correct—a lot of things about my mom were excellent and did not suck. She had a beautiful voice. I liked that I looked like her. She drove me from activity to activity for years in a purple minivan. She threw memorable parties. She always wanted me to have more fun.).
There was also my mom’s an alcoholic (too dramatic, always too much of a reveal), we don’t talk (so sullen!), and, during a brief and volatile phase, I don’t have parents. That one I regret ever saying. It was mean and not true: I have a mother and a father. (Where is he, you might ask? He is with my mother.) I didn’t spring fully formed from the head of Zeus; my parents’ parenting methods and histories and idiosyncrasies are stamped all over me. They helped pay for my college degree. I have my mother’s face, and her mother’s face, and her mother’s face. I have her address. I could go to her house right now—which is precisely the thing that makes estrangement its own stinging nugget of hell: my mother is here on Earth, alive and well and somewhere in Florida, and we love each other, and it isn’t enough. No conversation will fix it. Close friends who know still occasionally ask about her. My aunt—who also doesn’t talk to my mother but wishes that I would—always wants to know when I last heard from her. She breaks out the box of gluten-free blueberry toaster waffles she keeps stashed in her freezer for when I’m around and we play out what would happen if I started talking to my mother again. A tearful phone call. Pressure to visit. Hugs, like an aluminum can being crushed. Dinner. My mother drinking, getting high. Her sappy, sloppy confessions, weeping, more drinking. Accusations, screaming. Her preferred darts: you’re lazy/ungrateful/a lesbian. My mother, stumbling, melting, passing out, forgetting. Sleeping. Good morning. I love you.
This mess is so much more common than we admit. There are a few estimates floating around about the prevalence of family estrangements. Like my mother and I, they do not share a unified vision of the truth. One study at Iowa State suggested that 11 percent of mothers across all races and religions are estranged from at least one child. At the University of Washington, another researcher put that figure at 20 percent. Researchers at Kean University found that among a sample of over 350 undergraduate and grad students, 43.5 percent reported a family estrangement. There are so many of us. I wish these numbers made me feel less alone. I wish I could scoop up everyone who ever answered one of these surveys in the affirmative and set them down gently in an all-purpose room with a big banner in front that says “Welcome to Bad Mom Club,” with a platter of cookies and a pot of coffee brewing in the back.
When I was in my twenties, my mother and I were on a road trip, in the car together for five or six hours. I said something like wasn’t it funny that we never did long car rides when I was a kid.
Well, my mother said, one day, when she was very pregnant with me, she was driving somewhere alone for a while. She was in traffic, with me snuggled up inside her. Maybe she was listening to the radio and singing along (I like imagining Fleetwood Mac). Maybe she was staring quietly out the window, thinking about what kind of baby I’d be. It is very possible she had a perm. Whatever she was doing with her thoughts and her hair at that moment, I unsnuggled myself. My tiny fetus fist or foot kicked her from the inside, very hard in her abdomen—so hard that she involuntarily pooped. It was so upsetting she didn’t go on long car rides for the next twenty-five years.
In her essay, “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About,” Michele Filgate writes: “Our mothers are our first homes, and that’s why we’re always trying to return to them. To know what it was like to have one place where we belonged. Where we fit.”
It’s reassuring to think that I was always uncomfortable here, even in my first home. That even when I fit perfectly inside of my mother, I wanted out.
6. Rabbit Hole
There are not many good resources out there. The articles at the top of Google are directed at the parent side of parent-child estrangements, and at a particular subset of parents: those who say, I don’t know why my child won’t talk to me! Please tell me why!
It’s unsettling watching a psychotherapist on the internet try to provide these parents with comfort. She sounds exasperated, but she gently offers that the passage of time “changes everything.” It’s only at the very end that she mentions a potential factor in length of estrangements is… you. You know, the parents. Work on yourselves, she suggests.
Who are these parents who have no clue why their children don’t talk to them? Are there that many children who cut off contact without explaining why? What is going on here?
I couldn’t describe it until a friend sent me an internet resource/manifesto on the world of estranged parent internet forums, called Down the Rabbit Hole. The writer, whoever they are, spent years reading forum posts on websites for estranged parents. Parents who know why their children are estranged––for example, because of substance abuse issues or religious cults or abusive partners––don’t linger in these forums. (The writer hypothesizes that these parents find targeted support systems like Al-Anon or NAMI.) The parents who remain stumble around Mr. Magoo-like. They know why they’re estranged, Down the Rabbit Hole argues, but they can’t admit it. They share a set of distorted beliefs that keep them from moving on:
- My child is responsible for my happiness.
- Any limits my child sets on me are a power play I must resist.
- My child was most real and true to themselves when they were a preschooler (and had not begun to defy me).
- My child is living half a life if they don’t have a relationship with me.
- If the relationship had any good times at all, the child has no justification for breaking it off.
- If I put up with a certain level of mistreatment from my own parents, then my child should put up with that level of mistreatment from me.
- My pain is the complete justification for why my child should resume a relationship with me.
- Children have no right to break off relationships with their parents.
- Refusing to have a relationship with me is abusive.
These parents, including my mother, are trapped in terrible fun houses. The mirrors point at everyone but themselves.
I’m pretty sure I told my mother why I couldn’t have a relationship with her anymore. I still worry that I haven’t been clear enough. There is no magic combination of words that will reach her.
I want to erase, “I was pretty sure I’d told my mother,” and retype it as, “I told my mother,” but it’s tough to let go of the idea that maybe I didn’t try hard enough to explain myself when she will never believe it. My therapist, best friend, and aunt have all reminded me that I have done my part. I do not need to make any more lists of every shitty thing she ever said or did. I don’t need to tell you a single thing about her for it to be real. There are people who believe me. I want to be one of them.
Sometimes I just need to hit someone.
8. Better Things
I love Better Things, the FX show about a white, middle-aged single mom and actor raising three daughters in LA. When I watch the show, I am reparented. My mom loves the show, too; I know this because she’s tweeted at creator and star Pamela Adlon eighteen times since March 2020. She tweets mostly about the storyline involving Frankie, the middle daughter on the show, who is briefly estranged from her mother, Sam, in Season 3:
@pamelaadlon Just finished Season3. I also have a “Frankie” We are estranged. Ur portrayal was like a Mirror into my soul.ThankU for the validation.Hoping U and Yours are Healthy and Safe!
@pamelaadlon I wish my “Frankie” would confide in me, and make me Peppermint Ice Cream! I keep praying (sad emoji) #BetterthingsFX
@pamelaadlon Still waiting for my “Frankie” to reconnect. Still, incredibly grateful for Your Show. #betterthings
April 14, 2020
(tweeted with a photo of me)
@pamelaadlon This is my “Frankie” Season 3 finale Gutted Me and gave me Hope, at the same time. Now u c why this story resonates with me so much! #BetterThings
May 9, 2020
Replying to @pamelaadlon
Have reached out to @pamelaadlon several times, telling her how deeply moving and personal this show means to me. I HOPE SHE READS MY TWEETS!
May 10, 2020
Reply to @pamelaadlon
Mother’s Day makes me sad. Still waiting for my “Frankie” to come back to me……(It’s been 4 years)
June 30, 2020
I’ve told you this before. Your relationship with Frankie, actually your relationship with all 3 of those beauties, has guided me through some Rocky Shit with my own 3! Can’t wait to see how the story (4 BOTH OF US) continues!
The show doesn’t explicitly spell out why Frankie leaves. It can’t; the show is from Sam’s point of view. What do we know? Frankie is a middle child. Angry. Of the three kids, she treats her mother the worst. She’s working out her sexuality, her gender identity, her feelings about her family, her parents’ divorce, her future.
When Frankie returns home, Florence and the Machine’s “Shake It Out” plays in the background. She walks into the family kitchen to ask if she can stay. She apologizes for “being a shit.” It’s nice (fine, it’s wonderful; I bawled). In the following season, her relationship with her mother is more solemn. Adult. Respectful. Frankie begins to understand the extent of her mother’s sacrifices. I love Frankie—like me, she’s gender creative; like me, she hides her pain under sarcastic, cutting quips. We both have excellent, curly hair. The actor, Hannah Alligood, has a clown’s sense of movement that I love watching. Knowing that my mother loves watching her, too, makes me think that she can’t—or won’t—acknowledge the differences between Frankie and me. Her tweets about Frankie make me think she cannot accept that I am an adult. Frankie is fourteen. I am thirty-four. In her tweets, my mother refers to me as “her Frankie” six times. Sometimes I want to point my body in the direction of Florida and scream, I am not in the middle of an adolescent fugue. (And then I crumple into my partner’s lap, fearing that I have just proven my mother’s point.)
I can tell from Twitter that my mother spent at least a few nights of the pandemic at home alone with my father, watching Pamela Adlon’s show and waiting for me. Maybe she’s hoping I will show up at her condo, throw myself into her arms, and initiate girl talk over ice cream. I feel sad that this is what the show has given her.
I blocked my mother on Twitter last year because I needed to stop looking at her feed. It was my choice, and I think it was the best one. My mother made hers a long time ago. I hope she finds peace with her choices. I will keep trying to find mine.
Did you know that, when you block someone on Twitter, you can still read their Tweets? Twitter will ask, Are you sure you want to view these tweets? There’s a red warning button in the corner and a green “View Tweets” button in the center. You just click through.
I click through. There she is, liking Tweets by Debra Messing, replying you go girl to Katy Perry. She retweets my dad. I can see her. She’s still there. Blocking my mother on Twitter does not remove her. I cannot remove her. The only thing I can remove is myself. The only thing I can make invisible is me.
(they/them) is a writer and comedian who lives in Philadelphia and will begin an MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan this fall. Marne’s essays, short stories, and criticism are forthcoming in Smoke Long Quarterly and We’ll Have to Pass. Marne tweets @JetpackMarne. Find out more at www.marnelitfin.com.
Art by Ishika Guha
Every First Time
Mixed media, oil and acrylic
Ishika Guha is a self-taught abstract artist with a strong focus on abstract expressionism. She lives in London. Ishika is diverse in her choice of mediums; she uses oil, acrylic, watercolors and inks in her paintings. Most of her artwork is inspired by poetry and her real-life experiences, including all those struggles and hopes that give her the boost to splash some colors down.