No one talks about family estrangement and I think it is important we do. This is my story of how it felt when my daughter stopped speaking to me for what seemed an eternity. And how I strove for reconciliation.
At first it was the grandchild I missed most. We had something ancestral. When we were together it was like we had known each other forever – for centuries. And when I looked into his eyes I saw my daughter. But suddenly we were limited to tense, brief, beachside rendezvous together with his dad. Like a divorce, I imagine. The pain was physical.
I soon learnt I was not alone. It is just people feel ashamed to speak out. There is stigma. It is ‘the silent epidemic’.
“At first it was the grandchild I missed most. We had something ancestral. When we were together it was like we had known each other forever – for centuries.”
Estrangement among families is widespread and cross cultural. Research Newcastle academic and author Kylie Agllias conducted for her book Family Estrangement puts the figure as high as one in 12. Writing for Psychology Today, Agllias cites a United States study which found seven per cent of adult children reported being detached from their mother and 27 per cent detached from their father. Among German adults 40 years and over, five per cent had severed contact with a parent. Her Australian research found one in 25 adults affected. Statistics compiled by the Australian government Institute of Family Studies show more than one in four children see the parent less than once a year or never after they leave home.
In my case, advice from friends and family on how to mend the relationship was not working, although their emotional support was invaluable. I was saying and doing all the wrong things. So I searched and found professional advice – online.
...more than one in four children see the parent less than once a year or never after they leave home.
The writings of US-based psychotherapist Tina Gilbertson struck a chord. I joined international phone hookups, which I gave the acronym PEACH Anonymous (Parents of Estranged Adult Children). We shared stories of anguish and alienation.
I learnt one of the keys to reconciliation was validation. The estranged adult child may be hurting more than you are. I learnt to acknowledge my daughter’s feelings.
Validation was a foreign word to me. When I grew up my mother, bless her soul, taught feelings had to be kept to oneself. Crying was unacceptable, even as a child. I recall during a tantrum being locked outside the house and told “Crying will get you nowhere. It will just give you a headache.”
I sobbed until I got a headache. So I thought she was right. The British stiff upper lip and all that.
The second big cultural influence on my life is Indonesian. My daughter was born in Indonesian. And no the ’n’ is not a typo. I’m not talking geography. I gave birth in the Indonesian language and my daughter was born into the Indonesian culture. Her first language was Indonesian.
In Indonesia, both men and women carry their babies and young close to their hearts in ‘slendang’ - a fashion now taking off here. Babies are never left to cry, like my Mum’s Dr Spock generation. However the culture of masking your emotions as you grow is even greater there, than here.
The estranged adult child may be hurting more than you are. I learnt to acknowledge my daughter’s feelings.
Crying, at any age, is now shown to be healthy at times, according to recent studies. We rid the body of the stress hormones and toxins. It can lower blood pressure and guard against heart attacks. In Japan it is such a tradition that some cities have crying clubs (rui-katsu).
But validation is not just for crying. It is about listening to someone when they are anxious, instead of telling them ‘don’t be silly’ or ‘it’s nothing’. Or, worse still, offering advice.
Reading parent manuals as a grandmum, was humbling. But I am now back with my daughter and family again, although I recognise the nexus has shifted a generation. I met their baby girl for the first time when she was already four months old. When our eyes met it was if we had met before. She smiled knowingly. And yes, I am back playing, laughing and having deep philosophical discussions with my three-year-old grandson who I have known for 3,000 years. Or so it seems.
The ground-breaking new six-part documentary series, 'Look Me In The Eye', will debut on SBS on Wednesday 6 September at 8.30pm. Each episode, airing weekly on Wednesdays at 8.30pm, will be available to view on SBS On Demand after broadcast.