Your Authentic Life: I Am an Imperfect Mother of an Imperfect Family

Check out this post by Marlena Fiol the author of Nothing Bad Between Us

My perfect little grandson at birth

Years ago, I published an essay about the anguish of our estrangement from a few of our adult children. I titled it My Big Happy Illusion, because one underlying issue in our particular estrangement story was my powerful illusion that we were perfect. I had a perfect family.

Guess what? There’s no such thing as a perfect family. And there’s probably no such thing as a perfect family member (except for the possibility of perfection at the moment of birth).

You’d think I would have been smart enough to know that.

Parental estrangement is common today. According to a list made by ranker.com, numerous famous actors, actresses and musicians have been estranged from their parents, among them Jennifer Aniston, Angelina Jolie, Eminem, Kate Hudson, Drew Barrymore, Christina Aguilera, Demi Lovato, Adele, Tracy Morgan and Kelly Rowland. Their stories have made the headlines.

Most of our stories aren’t told. Dr. Joshua Coleman, my guest on this week’s podcast, and author of When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along, calls parental estrangement a “silent epidemic” because so many of us are ashamed to admit we’ve lost meaningful contact with our grown children.

I was ashamed.

I never imaged it could happen to me.

Our estranged children were good people in the world outside of our family. And despite mistakes we surely have made as parents, we are unaware of having committed any serious crimes against them. Dr. Coleman describes parental estrangement this way. “This is not a story of adult children cutting off parents who made egregious mistakes. It’s about parents … who made mistakes that were certainly within normal limits.” I would add that it also isn’t usually a story about evil adult children.

Why then the epidemic?

Demographers Strauss and Howe point to potentially telling generational features. Many of our children are Gen Xers, born in the 1960s and 1970s, during arguably the greatest anti-child phase in modern American history, underscored by legalized abortion, the availability of the birth control pill, absent fathers, working mothers and latchkey kids. Sometimes cast as perpetual adolescents, they have frequently turned to social media to find their voice, especially Facebook, where according to Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist on Fox News, they “can fool themselves into thinking they have hundreds or thousands of “friends.” They can delete unflattering comments. They can block anyone who disagrees with them or pokes holes in their inflated self-esteem.” Have we as a society failed this generation, and now wonder why they block or even delete us from their lives?

I also wonder, are we, their aging parents, living too long? Atul Gawande, author of Being Mortal, describes the impact that increased longevity has had on the relationships between parents and their adult children. “Traditionally, surviving parents provided a source of much-needed security, advice, and economic protection…But once parents were living markedly longer lives, tension emerged…the traditional family became less a source of security than a struggle for control.”

As I replay the e-mails and conversations that led to my family’s breakdown six years ago, I catch glimpses of my role in that struggle for control, a woman desperately holding onto a seemingly stable system to keep it from falling apart. It is only now, after seeing it shatter, that I begin to understand the burden my big-happy-family-illusion placed on me and on other family members. No one could live up to that illusion. Not they. Not I. As one of my teachers Richard Rohr has said, “Perfectionism … makes ordinary love largely impossible.” Is it any wonder I came across as threatened and insecure every time a crack appeared in the image of my perfect family?

Thankfully, we are gradually rebuilding the broken trust with our children, and we’ve all learned to be more compassionate about and tolerant of each other’s numerous flaws. Our imperfections.

I am an imperfect mother of an imperfect family. Knowing this truth is powerfully freeing.


Nothing Bad Between Us

A Mennonite Missionary’s Daughter Finds Healing in Her Brokenness

This story differs from similar accounts of childhood domination or abuse because it tells the story of the author’s seemingly paradoxical responses to the powerful forces in my life, but doesn’t leave it at that. It sheds light on the social and religious dynamics underlying these responses, giving readers insights into and understanding of her otherwise incomprehensible choices, as she found my way back into loving relationships with her parents and the Mennonite community.