Opinion

What it’s like being estranged from a parent during a pandemic

There is nothing like a global pandemic to make you feel the full weight of choosing to be estranged from a family member. 

Last year, I got married. A couple of weeks before the wedding a friend told me that I “really needed to think about whether I wanted to invite my dad to my wedding”, and that I would “live to regret it if I didn’t because who knows what might happen in the future”.

I’ve been estranged from my father since I was 21 years old – I mean, apart from a few times where I tried and failed to pull up my sleeves and get over my daddy issues.

So the “you might live to regret it” line isn’t new to me. It’s often quoted by people who don’t understand the emotional energy that’s already been invested into reaching the decision to become estranged from a family member. And, while I can acknowledge these comments often come from a place of ignorant-but-well-meaning compassion, I can’t say that the judgement didn’t sting. Especially when that’s added to the piles of judgement I’ve already placed on myself on a near-daily basis since my relationship with my dad faded into estrangement in 2008.

I chose to stand by my choice. I did not invite my father to my wedding in September 2019. And, in truth, for me it felt natural, like it wasn’t really a choice or a decision that needed to be made. For me, deciding whether or not to invite my father to the wedding was akin to the mental energy I used to decide if the cake should be fruit or sponge. Or whether or not I wanted to wear a veil. I don’t mean that I took those decisions frivolously or lightly – but, just like those, the decision not to invite my father was considered. Both options weighed up in a fraction of a second with a clear and obvious direction for the answer. As I walked down the aisle hand in hand with my mum, I didn’t think of his absence. It didn’t even cross my mind – although I had worried it might. I was overwhelmed by the presence of love from the people I’d chosen to be there, who had chosen to be there for me.

It wasn’t a ‘fuck you, dad’ moment, it was a ‘fuck me, this is brilliant’ moment – and I was so glad of that.

wedding

But there is nothing like a global pandemic to hit you straight in the face with the full weight of your choice to be estranged from a family member. 

The loosely veiled judgement that people who chose to become estranged from their family members often experience – aka the threat of their loved ones possible impending death, and, in turn, the failure to be moved by that – feels even more tangible now. I think about my estrangement almost everyday. But with this fresh Covid-19 context, I felt its tension tighten more so than usual. I felt I was being forced to face my choice again, but this time the threat was coming from inside my head.

At the height of the pandemic in April, I wasn’t just battling a complete and sudden change to my working and personal life. I was also battling inside myself about whether the self-justifications I’d been making about not having a relationship with my father for the last 10 years stood the test of this “unprecedented time”. For many, lockdown became an opportunity to take stock of their lives and either reset and redirect, or reconnect with things that have fallen by the way side with the demands of normal life. I wondered if my estrangement was one of the things I should address to “do lockdown”.

A million questions ran through my mind. Do I continue to stand by my choice when it’s a possibility, with my father teetering into the vulnerable age category and having smoked since he was 14 years old, that I might be proved wrong? And the ignorant-but-well-meaning naysayers might be proved right? Have I made a decision I could live to regret?

And a much bigger question hit me between the eyes. Let’s say, for one minute, I reconsidered the estrangement. Could I cope with trying to build a relationship with someone I feel like I barely knew when they were in my life, let alone now? And all on top of the world appearing to fall apart: economies, careers and life as we knew it was seemingly over?

Everything came down to one big question: is now really the best time to give reconciliation a fair chance?

During this time of isolation I’ve been able to reflect on this question even more closely than I usually do. And, while I reserve the right to change my opinion in the future, I’ve been able to hold on to five points which have helped me reconcile my estrangement all over again in this new context – and I know they will be useful way beyond it too.

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Just because someone might die doesn’t mean you’re ready to reconcile

I cower at how callous it feels to express that thought, but I refuse to shame myself for honestly acknowledging my feelings. I wonder if anyone else has felt ashamed of those feelings too during this period? I know I’ve tried to make myself ready to reconcile in the past because it felt like the socially acceptable thing to do. And because I thought it would make me more palatable for the friends, colleagues, and families who might unwittingly inherit the baggage that comes along with a person who is estranged from a parent.

I’ve spent a good few hours in the therapist’s chair in my time, and I’ve come to realise these attempts to force myself into reconciliation perhaps push me further back. Each time I’ve tried I haven’t felt strong enough. I’ve accepted now that trying to prove you are capable of reconciling isn’t the same as actually being ready for it. Previous attempts have shown me I’ve been too afraid to accurately express the hurt and pain that sits behind the estrangement; too afraid to really lose my shit without inhibition for fear of proving I’m the “bad person” he thought I was.

The people-pleaser in me still goes along politely when I’m in his presence and that’s just not going to cut it for me anymore.

I’ve realised me reconciling with my father in this pandemic would be exactly that: people-pleasing.

Standing by my choice is not akin to me saying I wish him (or don’t care if he faces) harm. It’s about acknowledging what I want and need to protect myself from harm too – that context hasn’t changed and that is okay. 

How responsible can you be for your choice if you feel you had little agency in that choice?

Of course, in calling it a decision to be estranged acknowledges that it is a choice, that is unavoidable. But I have to remind myself of the perspectives to explore this. I have to ask myself what type of person would make this choice if they didn’t feel that it was essential to their wellbeing, their happiness, and their own self-worth?

Walking down the aisle with my mother was without a doubt the best moment of my life; but what type of person would choose to make such a public and exposing statement about the state of their failed relationship with their father at a time when you want people to believe you can “do relationships well” - unless they felt that choice didn’t exist? I wanted to walk down the aisle hand in hand with someone who has loved, accepted, and most importantly liked me for as long as I’ve been on this planet. She was the only – and perfect – choice.

Just because the circumstances of the world might have changed, and the threat faced upon our potential to reconcile in future (if at all) looms over us – for me, it doesn’t render my choice any freer, or my options any more open.

Estranged

Everything (and nothing) has changed. I still haven’t got what I needed

While it all remains blurry to me, and whether my mind serves me memories of events and conversations which serve to justify my estrangement, I’m not sure. But in my memory, I believe I’ve clearly stated many times what I needed to move forward; I didn’t get it then – I don’t have it now.

I needed my parent to acknowledge responsibility, some (and not all) fault – and to be more aware that they were coming to the situation as a victim with the desire only to blame others. I made it clear that wasn’t a narrative that felt true or fair to me and I wouldn’t engage with it. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons (pride, shame, who knows?) my parent wasn’t able to do that, and to me it became clear that being right (or in his case, claiming to be “wronged”) was more important than having their children in their life. In the years that followed we have had the same conversation a couple of times since then, always with the same outcome.

What I needed still hasn’t happened, and while the context of our lives and the world has changed – this has very much stayed the same – whether we’re in a global pandemic or not.

I feel like I’ve already done my grieving, and they have likely done theirs too

It took me a few years to realise it – and forgive me for sounding macabre – but I realise I’ve already grieved for that part of my life and the role he was supposed to have in it. I realised I was angry (selfishly perhaps) that I didn’t have anyone feel sad for me that my Dad wasn’t there because technically all of this was my choice. But to me, he felt gone and he feels gone now. My life has moved on.

Through partners and friends, I’ve been able to observe what a loving relationship is supposed to look like with a father figure and, while I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve often looked on with resentment and jealousy, I’m glad I’ve been able to witness it all the same. My perspective and expectations of fatherhood have moved on with each of those experiences, and I don’t think I could or will settle for anything less than that now.

I also know (or perhaps, hope) that, just like me – he might have gone through the same grieving process that I have, and that he’s learned, reflected and developed in his own relationships to create separate but healthier and happier lives for those around him, and himself too.

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Is now the time? Excuse my language, but the world is fucked.

During one of my first therapy sessions, the therapist asked me how long I planned to work with her. At first, it felt awkward, as if she had asked me that question only to understand the monetary potential of her work with me. She followed up her statement (probably in response to my awkward silence and “I don’t know, how long will it take to fix me?” expression) by explaining before we “got into it” she needed to understand the context of what was happening in my life at that time. Do I feel stable in the rest of my life – my career, my family, my relationships and friendships?

Since then, and during lockdown, I’ve reflected on how important that question was, and is, when exploring estrangement. Getting into it can be ungrounding, disorienting and understandably traumatic, and you need to be in a position where you can strengthen yourself up to those emotions for it to be a positive experience. With the economic, health and political crisis as it is, layered on to the microclimates of a crisis of careers, financial struggles and potential strains on the other relationships in our lives – while Covid-19 might initially appear to be the perfect catalyst for Daddy Daughter 2.0, I would argue it is completely the opposite.

Estrangement layered onto isolation and a global pandemic has forced me to reinforce what I already knew before it all started, which is that each day we should ask ourselves if reconciliation is really what we need. It will be something I know I will wrestle with for many years to come; the second-guessing, the guilt of not being grateful for having that parent in the first place when so many others don’t, and the endless and exhausting wondering if they are wondering too. But each time Tim McGraw’s song Live Like You Were Dying comes on Spotify (forgive me, I’m a country girl!), each time I bawl my eyes out at father-daughter dance at weddings and each time I see my husband so openly and unconsciously express his overwhelming love for our nieces in a way that once felt alien to me – I know I’ll address it anew, and know whatever choice I make at the moment – pandemic or not- well, it’s the right one for me.

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