The success of love is in the loving. —Mother Teresa
A few days ago I read the first post I ever wrote about my two eldest children, Jacob and Abbie, and how they came to live full-time with their dad. I sat at my computer, eyes goggling half-out of my head, unable to believe I had accomplished the mental-gymnastics necessary to believe what I wrote.
Like hell it was better, but I definitely believed it at the time, at least at the top of my consciousness. I was mostly (sort of? who knows) convinced that Jacob and Abbie’s dad was a better parent than I; that I was, if not abusive, at least profoundly deficient.
Truth? Yes, I’ll tell the truth: in some ways, in the very beginning, it was a relief to have them gone. I missed them terribly, but at the same time, Carter was so sick that I was living far beyond the limits of my emotional and physical resources and I was stretched much too thin.
More truth? In spite of all that I believe now, and all that I am about to say, I was at my low point as a parent when Jacob and Abbie left. The things other people did and said can’t absolve me of my responsibility, and I am responsible. I did the best I could under terrible circumstances, but that isn’t the same as being innocent.
When they moved out, I never imagined for one minute that they would go away and stay away. I assumed that, given the freedom to choose, they would spend most nights at their dad’s house and just one or two (as opposed to four, as it had always been) per week at mine. I thought they would come around a few days a week after school, or hang out with us sometimes on Saturdays.
When I didn’t see them for a few weeks, I thought they needed some breathing room, a chance to decompress from the difficulties of life at chez Jones, and so I gave it to them. This was not a decision I made lightly. I prayed and pondered and agonized, staying up late at night writing and crying. Ultimately, though, I decided to live by the credo, “This is a family. We take volunteers, not hostages.”
So while I continued to invite my kids to dinner and other family events, and kept calling them several times a week, and texted them every night to say goodnight and tell them I loved them, I didn’t push or force. I stepped back, focused my energy on Carter and helping him get stable, and I waited.
As carefully as I made that decision, it was absolutely the wrong one. What I didn’t see, the giant piece of the puzzle that I didn’t even know I was missing, was this: my kids’ dad and other members of my family were actively working to keep my kids away from me. That, combined with their anger at my genuine shortcomings, stewed in a broth of early-adolescence, created a case of parental alienation syndrome (PAS) that I didn’t recognize until it was two years entrenched.
The kids’ resentments against me grew and deepened both because adults they love and care about encouraged (in overt and covert ways) those resentments, and because they saw me so rarely (we didn’t see each other for months at a stretch sometimes), I didn’t have enough time to show them that I wasn’t the person they had created in their minds.
Starting in the summer of 2011, when I began to push hard in any way I could to have more time with my kids, I watched it happen: when they were with me more, they started to soften. Their defenses began to relax as they let the reality-mom impact idea-mom. Then, something would happen (something always happened), I would see the kids less, and the fierce, hateful, horrible words would come from the kids’ mouths to my heart again. The same words that their dad and other people spoke to them about me.
Never, ever, ever underestimate the power of a good story.
My family’s experience of parental alienation syndrome is unusual in that the alienation began long after the divorce itself. In fact, Robert and I co-parented fairly peacefully for quite a few years. Or so I believed; I know now that he wanted our kids all to himself long before he got them, and when the opportunity presented itself, he took it. If my kids’ PAS had been more typical (that is, happening during the immediate post-divorce months or years), someone probably would have identified it sooner. As it was, I flew blind for a long, long time before I knew what was happening.
My 18-year-old son and I remain fairly alienated (though I see signs of progress), but my daughter has been home with me now for several months and, while PAS will always be one of the most painful experiences of my life, I’m healing.
Having my beautiful, brilliant daughter, with her heart wide open and her mind searching for her truth, doesn’t hurt one tiny bit.
For other alienated parents, this is what I know:
When you doubt yourself, breathe deep and remember that you don’t deserve this; what they say isn’t true. Oh, I know. I know that you weren’t perfect; that you made mistakes; that you were weak and broken and you failed in ways large and small. Still, you don’t deserve this.
Don’t give up.
Don’t let them (your kids, their other parent, and any other people involved in your children’s alienation) define you. You define you. There is no solution to PAS, no sure way to save our kids or our relationships with them, but I know that living our own lives with integrity is the start.
Never live down to their expectations. Live up to your own.
You are living in the vast darkness and hope is a tiny, flickering flame, almost invisible. Oh, I know, and my heart is broken because you are in the darkness and I remember the darkness and it is so large. So endless. So damn heavy. My grief was like being chained to a line of cinderblocks that I dragged behind me.
Find love. Find as much love as you can, because you deserve love. You deserve people and kindness and togetherness and a whole, fulfilling life, in spite of the terrible hole that won’t be filled by anyone but your children. Still, surround yourself with people who care about you and who see you as you are—gifts, flaws, and all. Those people who assume that only a terrible parent could ever be alienated from his or her children should be tossed overboard immediately.
Don’t give up.
Nourish your spirit, whatever that means for you. Read good books (or trashy ones), go to church, spend time with friends, write a blog, write a journal, pray, go dancing, learn to knit, grow a garden, or take up painting, but find something that feeds your soul.
PAS creates a world in which the ground under our feet shifts and rolls without notice; we need nurturing and support and a strong spirit to survive.
Your kids do need you. No matter how loudly they say they don’t, they do. No matter what they say you did, they need you. They may not hear your words of love (though you should never stop speaking them) but they see you. That bedroom you dust and vacuum every week for your son is not wasted space; it’s an invitation. That bicycle in the garage, with its oiled chain and inflated tires, is a love note that your daughter notices every time she sees it. The phone calls they ignore, the texts they don’t answer, the gifts they return, all speak their own language.
As long as our children are alive, there is hope.
Don’t give up.