'Life Without Her Is a Joy': Women Talk About Divorcing Their Mothers
"I was done with the fights, done with the criticism. I felt freed."
Illustration by Ellen Swadling
Five years ago, Marci went to the zoo with her mother, brother, and her brother's wife. It was an enjoyable afternoon, but it soon devolved into chaos.
"Afterwards, my mother asked me what was going on between my brother and his wife, as she knew they had been having issues," Marci says. "I told her, 'I don't know'—and then she asked again." The interaction ping-ponged until, in a crowded elevator, "she got so frustrated with me that she just slapped me across the face. At 35-years old."
Marci cut her mother off a few years after that incident. Their relationship had been strained for a long time, she says, but it wasn't until Marci was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis that she began to take the stress of her relationship with her mother more seriously. At her doctor's insistence that she reduce every possible source of stress in her life, Marci informed her family that she would no longer be in contact with her mother. It was the right decision, she says. "I felt great, like an enormous weight had been lifted off my shoulders."
Looking back, Marci says she failed to set boundaries with her mother. "I was like, 'That's [just] your mom—she's crazy, she doesn't know what she's doing... let it go and things will be fine.' But then it wasn't." She is more than happy to explain her decision to people, simply telling them that it was a choice she made to live a better life. But unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees it was an okay thing to do. "Several friends say they will pray for me. I just respond, 'Thanks, but if you're going to pray for anyone, pray for her to see the harm she's done.'"
Marci's post-split relief from her mother isn't an uncommon reaction, but nor is it the only reaction. "Family estrangement can leave scars of trauma," says Mark Sichel, a clinical social worker and author of Healing from Family Rifts: Ten Steps to Finding Peace After Being Cut Off from a Family Member. "This can include psychiatric symptoms of anxiety or depression, or both. Despair over losing a child or parent is common. Even more so when a daughter 'divorces' her mother. In this instance, the mother often blames herself, and her self-recrimination can damage her self-esteem in profound ways.
"Divorcing a parent, though, may have [the opposite] effect," Sichel explains. "In the words of one patient: 'My mother and I were at odds my entire life. Somehow I mustered the courage to tell her I was done with her: done with the fights, done with the provocations, done with the criticism. I felt freed, like a slave being freed from an evil tyrant. Overall, life without my mother is a joy.'"
That isn't to say every woman who 'divorces' her mother finds herself on cloud nine. And, depending on the type of abuse or conflict, the next phase of the split may be the most challenging of them all. Rebecca Bland, founder of the U.K. organization Stand Alone, which services adults experiencing family estrangement, says the process of separating from a parent, even if ultimately beneficial, can be messy and confusing.
"Not being in contact with family or a key family member can be a source of shame and isolation," Bland explains. "Often people have low self-esteem because they couldn't make it work, which can lead to a greater sense of detachment and separation from others.
I realized that this person did not have my best interests at heart.
"Our beneficiaries report the need to hide their circumstances for fear of being judged. This is particularly true of a mother-daughter relationship, which is said to be sacred [and] close. Media like films, books, and magazines advocate and promote that our mother should be our best friend."
A study conducted in 2014 by Stand Alone found 68 percent of their 807 interviewees believed there was a "stigma around the topic of estrangement," and "a general lack of understanding." This stigma, along with the blow to one's self-esteem, is why many women delay the estrangement, Bland explains. Fear of the social ramifications can keep a woman in contact with her mother for months, sometimes years, before committing to a complete break.
At this point, many have built up such high levels of anxiety and stress around the dynamic that the event that ultimately triggers the divorce is often seemingly small. For 32-year-old Amanda*, who separated from her mother in 2015, two years after her first attempt in 2013, it was as simple as a lone remark. "My mother thinks we parted ways because I was upset over a cake," she says, "but actually, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown over a number of personal issues. I confided in my mother about these issues, and in return she told me that I just needed to 'get over it,' to stop being 'selfish.'
"There was something about that moment that just flicked a switch in me," Amanda continues. "I realized this person didn't have my best interests at heart. I needed to get away from her in order to repair myself." People around Amanda were confused, but what they didn't realize was that her mother had been dismissing her emotions since day one. It had been a constant pattern throughout Amanda's life.
Thirty-two-year-old Drew* also remembers the split from her mother several years ago as anti-climactic. "The last time we spoke was through a sibling," she recounts. "He told me she was angry with me and for the first time in my life, I just never called her to apologize. Mostly because I felt I had done nothing that warranted an apology. And she never tried to contact me ever again."
Manipulation and rejection were constant for Drew growing up. Although the grieving process has been emotionally unpredictable, finally realizing that the mother she had was never going to be the mother she wanted was, she says, "freeing."
According to Sichel, women start to think about "divorcing" their mothers at any age, but generally begin to seriously consider the idea in their 20s and 30s. "Family estrangements of any kind are usually due to developmental issues, where mothers try to thwart normal developmental milestones of separation and differentiation with their children. Essentially, the 'crime' that causes the cut-off is an adult child refusing to comply," Sichel says.
You quit feeling like you're shameful.
Bland notes that often, when a woman meets her partner or becomes financially independent, her willingness to separate from her mother increases because the risk has been significantly reduced. Of course, it's difficult to pinpoint one particular reason a woman might want to cut off contact. Beyond mental and/or physical abuse, sexuality, religion, and money can also play their part. As Sichel explains, "There are so many different plot twists and unpredictable events in family life, that predictions and generalities are impossible to make."
But if a person can move beyond the irregularity of their situation, "It can be liberating," Bland says. "Despite what is seen in our media, 80 percent of people in our research said something positive had come from being estranged from family."
Take it from Drew, who describes her post-split life as "a scatter plot chart with the overall trend moving upward." It turns out, she says, that "when you don't have to be around someone who treats you as if you're shameful, unworthy, and immoral, you quit feeling like you're shameful, unworthy, and immoral."
*Some names have been changed to protect identity.