Families and Estrangement

Joshua Coleman:

Many fathers and mothers tell me they feel betrayed by their children’s lack of availability or responsivity, especially those who provided their children with a life they see as enviable compared with their own childhoods. As the University of Virginia sociologist Joseph E. Davis told me, parents expect a “reciprocal bond of kinship” in which their years of parenting will be repaid with later closeness. The University of Chicago philosophy professor Agnes Callard told me in an interview that this expectation of reciprocity is fraught because “today, the boundary of parenting is unclear. If receiving shelter, food, and clothing is enough, then most of us should be grateful to our parents, irrespective of how our lives go.” However, if parents are supposed to produce happy adults, then, fairly or not, adult children might hold parents responsible for their unhappiness.

In my experience, part of what confuses today’s parents of adult children is how little power they have when their child decides to end contact. From the adult child’s perspective, there might be much to gain from an estrangement: the liberation from those perceived as hurtful or oppressive, the claiming of authority in a relationship, and the sense of control over which people to keep in one’s life. For the mother or father, there is little benefit when their child cuts off contact. Parents instead describe profound feelings of loss, shame, and regret.