Parental estrangement is a miserable topic to be sure, but unfortunately for some, it is a common part of family life. Several weeks ago, I planned to blog about this topic but then I came across a story that made me re-focus my thinking which I described in my monthly Home News Tribune column.
Be sure to read Dr. Woolverton's email to me (below)
Frederick Woolverton’s essay on parental estrangement, The Most Hated Son in the New York Times Magazine, had a deeper message which became apparent to me. In it, he describes his estrangement from his aging mother (now 89) and his efforts to improve their relationship after three decades of silence “before it was too late.”
Woolverton states, “We’d been estranged since I was nineteen, when I made harsh, yet true, statements about the horrors of living with her at the custody trial for my younger sister. My family’s unstated code had been that nobody was allowed to reveal my mother’s alcoholism. She was enraged that I broke the rules of secrecy.” I can only imagine what went through Woolverton’s mind before he testified against his own mother, knowing that she may never speak to him again as a result of his testimony.
What particularly caught my attention in his essay was when Woolverton described a recent trip he took with his daughter to visit his mother and described, “My mother had cut off all my siblings over the years, and my brothers and sister were shocked that I even went to see her, especially because she always hated me the most — even before the divorce trial. I was the smallest, weak and sick as an infant. She once screamed that she’d wanted to let me die, like an injured animal. Did I forgive her? Absolutely not. Would I protect her now, if she needed anything? Yes. On the ride home, my daughter said what my own mother couldn’t: You are a good son.”
In my opinion, that last sentence says a world about parental role modeling. We have all heard people say that their children hear and see everything, or that a particular incident will be permanently embossed on their child’s memory.
But what I think is more important than what a child retains from a singular event, is what she retains from the on-going series of events known as daily family life. As parents, we have opportunities every single day to be good role models, or the opposite. When we make a mistake, we need to admit it, apologize for it and our child will benefit from that experience exponentially. When you least expect it, they will hear you or see you doing something. This applies to both good and bad role modeling.
Woolverton regretted his estrangement from his mother and attempted to make amends. The unexpected byproduct of bringing his daughter along was what his daughter witnessed and the enduring impression it left. He can be comforted by the fact that he likely won’t be transmitting estrangement to future generations by showing his children that even an all but lost relationship, deserves sincere effort and determination.
Be Counted columnist Dr. Alan Singer is the author of Creating Your Perfect Family Size (Wiley 2011) and is a Marriage Therapist in Highland Park. Please respond to this column via his website www.FamilyThinking.com
I read your piece on my visit to my mother and appreciated your understanding and description of my daughter's unexpected part in that visit. What you wrote seemed insightful and very accurate, thank you.
Frederick Woolverton, Ph. D.