I’d been dreading this moment for 28 years since my daughter was born. As I stood holding her that morning, watching the sunrise over Pleasant Valley Parkway, I thought, Someday she’ll leave me.
She did, of course, move out. She married a wonderful man, and she and her husband live miles away.
Some parents can’t wait for their children to leave the nest. I’ve been ugly-crying every night for a year, face pressed into the pillow to quell the sounds.
This chimes like an overreaction, I know. But those who have been estranged from a parent tend to have abandonment issues.
Even when we aren’t really being abandoned.
Even when it’s our choice.
My father and I had an on-again, off-again relationship until the night he died. When it was off, I felt relieved but sad. When it was on, I shook each time he smiled at me, scared the endearment would end as quickly as it came. Even the mildest contact felt bruising, leaving me edgy and often incapacitated, stuck on a merry-go-round of self-loathing and hysteria. I suppose therapy might have helped me unpack my own issues. Still, I don’t imagine it would have changed our dynamic enough to improve our relationship. We had a few good moments over the years, but our truce never lasted. I always thought that if I could say the right words in the proper order at the right moment, the anger and hurt flared between us would morph into mutual understanding.
And now I’m experiencing an on-again, off-again relationship with my daughter.
Not that she’s entirely abandoned me.
Not that it’s at all been a choice.
Estrangement isn’t easy, nor is it painless. There are social and emotional consequences of breaking a connection we’re hard-wired to preserve. I’ve read articles written by dozens of people about their estrangements. Everyone says grief is a considerable part of the process: grief for lost connections, loneliness, and the hole inside marked wholly for mother or father, sister or brother.
Sure, everyone finds their own way through grief. For me, parenting was the anesthetic, the way I discovered how irrevocably I was connected to other people and the rest of the world. I knew it the first time I held my daughter in my arms. I learned it tumbling with my daughter on the couch, the two of us giggling and cozy. During that time in my life, I felt safe on a cellular level. I belonged.
There are many sayings about parents during their golden years and the empty nest they are left with. Most clichés start with “when your child leaves the nest…” The expression, sadly, is a bit different for me. My daughter hasn’t left my nest; She’s pushed me out of hers.
At the moment, we’re off again.
Intellectually I know our relationship is different. But still, I feel as though this is an end. That my daughter has turned away from me. No wonder this grief feels so deep, so powerful, so dangerous. No wonder I can’t stop crying. My tears come as much from awe at her shining essence as they do from my grief. So I take a breath, in trust and in hope and in love.