It was the week before Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered us to shelter in safety; the threat of COVID-19 contagion was looming large on the horizon. Coming soon, but not quite here.
At the grocery store, people were panic-buying toilet paper and non-perishables, clearing shelves so fast that stores could barely keep them re-stocked. In schools, teachers and administrators were putting in place plans to transition students to distance learning. At my house, I chastised my tween daughter for mindlessly slathering cream cheese on her bagel. “I might not be able to buy anymore the next time I go to the store,” I warned her.
But really, it was my mother’s call that week which truly confirmed my sense that we’d entered into a state of cosmic imbalance — that something obviously was not right in the universe. I was working from home that day, so when my cell phone rang it simultaneously sounded on my computer as an incoming FaceTime call, and my built-in camera turned on automatically, showing my surprised face on the screen as I saw her name in the alert box. As quickly as I could, I declined the call and the camera’s light went dark. Crisis averted.
I took a deep breath to calm myself. My heart was racing as if I’d dodged a bullet; in a way, I had (more on that later). Before I’d had time to settle back into my work at the kitchen table, the landline started ringing in the back bedroom. When the answering machine picked up, I heard my maternal uncle’s voice recording a message. He was calling on what I assumed was my mother’s behalf.
I tried not to listen, to block it out, but I still managed to catch the beginning, “This is Dayton calling,” and I could hear the irritation in his voice that I hadn’t picked up (or maybe that he was being put in the middle of this uncomfortable situation). I could feel a familiar sense of dread filling my body—as if my mother herself had entered the room. With no more than a phone call, she’d broken down my barriers and invaded my home.
I am estranged from my mother — my choice — and have been for three years. But we’ve entered an even less familiar territory now. I find myself wondering what to make of this estranged—strange at best—relationship in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the safe shelters of our own homes, we are forced to think about the social, emotional and biological ties that bind us together. How do we reconcile ourselves to living in rupture with our closest relations in light of this knowledge of our incredible interconnectedness? What are the unwritten protocols for respecting the strangeness of estrangement in a time of epidemics?
I cope by creating a hard boundary, a cordon sanitaire around my heart to keep it safe from harm. This emotional distancing is a self-imposed form of estrangement. It makes the rules of engagement easier to understand, to think of our relationship in this way. We are estranged. She is my estranged mother. I am her estranged daughter. It means that the familiar—family—has become alien. Where there was once intimacy (let’s call it proximity), there is now distance.
Even from a distance, my mother compromises my sense of safety. She doesn’t respect my personhood. My wants or my needs rarely register with her; if they ever do, she sees them as obstacles to overcome. She doesn’t acknowledge my separateness from her. I’m an extension of her — a thing she made for her own enjoyment. Since my earliest years, she has treated me like an object: owned, but not loved. After the divorce during which she fought for full custody — because, I see now, she wanted the world to know that I was hers and no one else’s — she would boast to friends that her child-rearing philosophy was “benign neglect.”
Now that I recognize her neglect, she is no longer welcome in my life. I no longer make calls to her, nor do I answer when she rarely calls me. Same goes for emails and texts. Even the most innocuous reply on my end sets in motion a chain of events that will leave me feeling emotionally bruised and battered. Engaging with my mother is not good for my mental health.
Still, some might feel the temptation to reconcile with their estranged loved one at a time like this. When I got my mother’s recent call, my mind ran through the possibilities of what she might want from me. If it wasn’t a visit from her grandchildren, it could only be something to do with the health of my rapidly declining paternal uncle, for whom she now acts as a legal guardian. Was he in a bad way? What if he were dying? Would I hazard a trip back to Ohio for his funeral? And, in doing so, risk a confrontation with my mother?
The honest answer is that none of that feels even remotely tolerable right now. Maybe I will feel differently about it at some unknown future juncture when I’ve had more time to heal and to work through the pain of the past. Keeping my emotional distance, I’m realizing, doesn’t have to mean shutting off my emotions. The cord can remain in place without closing off the heart — if, and only if, the heart is spacious enough to hold conflicting, contradictory emotions. For me, the pain of separation from family when death is near can exist, side by side, with the pleasure of being in a position to advocate for my wellbeing.
Choosing estrangement is a strange choice. It flies in the face of cultural norms — or at least the ones reified in Hallmark cards and Lifetime movies. It is easy not to feel like the odd one out and to cloak this life choice in silence, lest it show the secret shame that those of us living with estrangement often carry. And yet I am learning, as I begin to share it, that this almost unspeakable situation is more common than one might think.
Living with the daily stress of quarantine has made me realize that I am responsible for my own happiness, even if I’ve experienced unhappiness at others’ hands. Yes, I could beat myself up about this failing—and failed—relationship with my mother (though I’ve already been doing that since childhood). Or I could find a way to accept it as the profound loss that it is for both of us: mother and daughter.
Holding out the hope that my mother will somehow change resists the truth of the relationship—and only leads to more pain. That is the wound that gets touched by every call or communication from her, whether I respond to it or not. Even though we’ve broken up, I still hold on to the fantasy that maybe this time we will connect—and that she will know how to love me.
My heart, while it’s been broken, is still open and receptive to repair. My therapist tells me that I can give myself now the love I lacked as a child. It means speaking to my hurts as I would my own children, with tenderness, patience and love. If I can give this to myself, then it’s possible I can give this same kind of love, rooted in radical acceptance, to those with whom I struggle, like my mother.
Estrangement is alienating, yes, but it need not make us strangers to our own sense of kindness and compassion. Now, living in crisis, we need self-compassion more than ever. It gives us the courage to re-create a sense of community when we’re forced into social isolation. It reminds us that to love and to be loved is what matters most when life is in turmoil. It’s the greatest comfort we can give ourselves and others because it allows us to be real with suffering and to work with it, instead of fighting against it.
Offering myself kindness as I would a child or a good friend isn’t intuitive to me It’s a practice, demanding both the heart and mind to learn new ways of opening and closing. Vulnerability lives in these cracks in our armor, but so does the opportunity to make what’s been alien feel more familiar. The crushing social isolation of the pandemic has convinced me that there is great urgency to this work. Right now is the moment to nourish relationships where love feels like a welcomed guest, instead of a stranger. Because if epidemic estrangement teaches anything, it’s that there can be no more waiting for absent love.
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