My ex-husband didn’t protect our children from a bad parent; he denied them the comfort and security of strong bonds with both parents.
I lived underwater for five years (though it could have been 4, or maybe 6) when my two eldest children were with their dad, and not just with their dad but refusing almost all contact with me. The first of those years were hopelessly blurred by my youngest son’s burgeoning mental illness; the last years were muddled by grief, punctuated with occasional episodes of ugly, helpless rage.
I felt, almost always, as if I would die of their absence, that I would never learn to breathe in the vacuum that was the space they’d once occupied in my life. I thrashed and struggled against it, but a vacuum offers no resistance so I fell and fell, alone, tumbling in misery and barely resisting the chasm of bitterness.
People told me (repeatedly, unceasingly) that they would be back, that my children would recognize what their dad had done and come back to me, and when they did all would be as if they had never been stolen.
Those people were wrong, of course, though I don’t blame them for trying to give me hope. They wanted to ease my grief with expectations that my family could be put back together as if it had never been torn. I knew better, but I couldn’t tell those people that lest they redouble their efforts.
My friends’ endless entreaties to think positive and keep the hope alive served to keep me isolated with my pain. When life goes really, really wrong—when it diverges dramatically from even the most equivocal of expectations—the disorientation is powerful. Gravity works sideways and the sky turns yellow. Eating made me hungry and sleeping made me tired. Worse, sometimes I was OK, even a little happy, and then I would arrive back in myself with a spine-crumbling thump because what kind of mother, what horrid, heartless person would dare feel any happiness when her children had rejected her so violently? My truncated motherhood felt impossible, unnatural. Wrong.
My expectation was that I would raise my children from childhood, through adolescence, and all the way until they were grown. I expected that I would always love them and they would always love me, and if (when) we hit bumps in the road, that we would come out on the other side, perhaps battered, but bound to each other.
Instead, we ran into one of those bumps and it was infinitely more sinister than the bumps I had imagined: when my two eldest children were six and 8 years old, their younger brother was born. He roared into the world with cacophony and chaos in his wake, with problems that wouldn’t be fully diagnosed until he was 7, and my inability to cope in any reasonable way with their brother meant my other children were stranded on the cusp of adolescence without a mother. I was there, making the dental appointments and going to the parent/teacher conferences and supervising homework, but I wasn’t present with them the way I had been. As we rounded the corner into the third year of my youngest son’s life, I lost my emotional footing and I came apart. I was living the biggest crisis I had ever experienced up to that point and I crumbled.
At this part of the story, kind and well-meaning friends tell me that I did the best I could under very challenging circumstances. Yes, I did. I tried hard and did the best I could. That’s not the same as being innocent.
Soon after my youngest son was born, my older children’s father got married, and a few years after that, his wife left him, and as I was coming apart under the weight of anxiety over my sick child, he was coming apart from the pain of rejection. His response to that pain included taking our children away from me, putting into action his desire of many years to have our children all to himself.
Amy J. L. Baker, Ph.D, author of eight books and noted researcher in the fields of parent child relationships and emotional abuse of children, defines parental alienation as a dynamic in which children are manipulated by one parent to reject the other parent. The comparison that rings most true in our situation is to a cult, where the alienating parent is the cult leader and the children are unwitting acolytes, anxious for the approval of the alienator.
I didn’t know any of that in the beginning. I only knew that the accusations my children hurled at me grew ever further from reality, so that all my real failings as a human and a mother grew in magnitude until I could scarcely recognize myself in the narrative.
During those years, I went every August to the children’s schools, divorce decree and custody agreement in hand, to prove to the school that I was their mother and to add my contact information to their files, information their dad habitually left off when he registered them. Because of that, and because my kids’ dad let our daughter stay home from school at least one day each week, I found myself facing action from the school district who said they would send me to truancy court and fine me for educational neglect. One more absence and you’ll be in front of the judge, they said to me in February 2012.
When I got that notice I drove to my ex-husband’s apartment, and this day of all days I remember with stark clarity: walking up the crumbling concrete stairs, the blue sky and sharp, clear air that means winter on the high desert southwest, the deep breath I took as I knocked on the door. I would leave in a police car or an ambulance; I would go away in a body bag or I would walk out with my daughter. I entertained no other options. I would end the hateful stalemate and this day would be the last day, the end of hope or the end of the impasse.
He said I could take her with me, on condition that I not put her on medicine. Among the many narratives he used to drive his alienation was that I wanted to “drug” all my children, but I bristled at the notion of his permission for anything.
My daughter and I came home and we were a stark contrast, me buoyant with relief and joy at having her home, she as angry as ever at me, and doubly so because she was now forced to live with people with whom she didn’t want relationships and who she didn’t know.
Except slowly, the reality-mom began to loom larger in her life than the alienator-created-mom, and two months after she came home she said to me one night, “You know, you don’t actually yell much. I don’t think you’ve yelled since I came home. For a long time, it seemed like nobody did anything except yell at your house. I don’t know if that’s what I really remember or just what we always said, though.”
For all the pain I suffered, my children are damaged in infinitely worse ways. To gaslight a child until he or she views reality in ways that please an adult creates massive and unspeakable wounds, a distrust of self and others that may never be healed.
We were not made stronger by alienation. My ex-husband didn’t protect our children from a bad parent; he denied them the comfort and security of strong bonds with both parents. To all parents I say, in the absence of abuse the only right thing to do is to actively support the children’s relationships with their other parent.
To alienated parents I say, as long as our children are alive there is hope.