The word “estrangement” was never part of Sheri McGregor’s vocabulary before it happened to her in 2011. A mother of five grown children – the unthinkable happened – one of her sons in his 20s walked away from her and his family.
Like many parents, she was ashamed and reluctant to talk about it. (68% of parents who are estranged from a family member believe there is a stigma attached.) But once she started researching, she realized she was not alone.
An estimated 20% of American families are navigating an estrangement — where one family member voluntarily and intentionally distances themselves from an ongoing negative relationship.
Determined to reclaim her life, she stopped wallowing in the past and moved forward by helping other parents. She founded a website and online support group — rejectedparents.net. She also published a book in 2016 called Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children.
As she sought out information, she discovered that thousands and thousands of regular, nice people suffer estrangement. She knows there are situations where adult children leave parents for good reasons. But that’s not what she’s talking about on her website. She’s talking about regular parents who are kind and supportive. People who sacrificed and even took out mortgages on their house to pay for their children’s college educations.
All the advice she was seeing felt very judgmental toward the parents, placing blame and the responsibility of reconciliation on them. That made her mad. She decided that her son’s choice to leave his family wasn’t going to define her. She knew she was a good mother, a good person, and part of a good family. Slowly, she started putting herself back together.
She used her education in human behavior to conduct an online survey and connected with thousands of parents of estranged adult children. She began using her experience as an author to put a book together to help other parents, and filled it with the techniques she was using to help herself heal.
Sometimes people judge her and other estranged parents who have moved forward. They say they would never “give up” on their child. She understands their feelings and says she would welcome her son back with open arms. But sometimes giving in to an adult child’s decision is the only sensible choice. She wishes her son the best. She truly hopes he is happy and well. “But I count too,” she explains. “And that’s what I want other estranged families to know: If you can just let go of all those ‘whys’ and ‘what ifs’ and move on to what’s next, you can live a fulfilling life.”
Done With the Crying
After McGregor’s son dumped her, she felt embarrassed, isolated and alone. She looked for information and what she found put the onus on parents. She found the judgement made her feel worse. She started looking at her son’s childhood differently – her mind looked for mistakes and then magnified those mistakes. They became a symbol of her fault. Our society places so much importance on a mother’s influence over her child that she started isolating herself from her friends.
When she finally realized she was a good parent, she wanted to write about the topic to help others get past their hurt. She created an 8-question survey and posted it on her website. She got over 9,000 responses which became the core of her book. The survey is on her website and she’s now received over 30,000 responses. She was surprised at how much people shared in their responses and how good it made them feel – feelings they’d been holding in. People saved their answers because they were helpful in reflecting back on those feelings.
Estrangement happens to all kinds of families – single, married, divorced, and dysfunctional. It can be caused by mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction, third party adversaries, children who disown parents, and divorce. It can be especially heart-breaking for grandparents who walk on eggshells for years to maintain some kind of relationship with their grandchildren. Often the grandchildren are used as pawns.
McGregor emphasizes that just because parents move forward doesn’t mean they’re giving up hope. Some parents feel guilty if they don’t feel sad or grieving. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person but it’s a miserable feeling to be stuck. “Parents deserve to be happy and get back to who they are,” McGregor says. “Our lives are winding forward, time is fleeting, life can be good again.”
Note: The information in this post is a summary of a Good Housekeeping article by Ashley Edwards Walker and a podcast on National Association of Baby Boomer Women by Anne Holmes.