Even if you don’t have a graduation or a birthday coming up, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are both looming on the horizon.
In this month’s article, I’ll talk about dealing with the pain of special events and holidays without your child.
What to Do?
Many parents of soon-to-be college graduates are anxiously wondering what to do about attending their child’s upcoming graduation. Their child has asked for distance, but graduation is a big deal; is a parent really supposed to stay away and miss out?
In addition, how will you survive a holiday like Mother’s or Father’s Day, or your birthday or anniversary, if you anticipate (and experience) silence from your child?
What if it’s your child’s birthday, but they’ve demanded that you not contact them?
Let’s discuss each of those in turn.
Graduations & Recitals
With an event like this, logically you have the following options.
1. Stay home, or go somewhere wonderful to try to distract yourself.
This seems like a reasonable option if you sense that being spotted at the event will do truly catastrophic damage to your relationship.
Distracting yourself somehow, while not a perfect solution, is kinder to you than sitting there gazing at the clock, visualizing your child walking across the stage.
2. Send someone in your place, with a video camera.
You might think, ‘If I can’t be there, watching the video will only make me sad.’ That’s true today, but you might feel very differently about it in the future, when your relationship is on firmer ground. Then you might easily regret not having a recording of what could become a happier event in retrospect.
Someone who knows your child can record the occasion in a customized way. But failing that, many colleges offer graduation videos for purchase, so check out that option as well.
3. Go, but don’t let your child see you.
If your child doesn’t know you’re there, the only downside is the sadness you’ll probably feel as you watch your child from a distance, unable to share the moment with him or her.
If you choose this option, tell no one. Don’t risk this information getting back to your child before your relationship is on firmer footing. One day, you’ll tell him yourself.
By then it might mean something to him that you selflessly hid yourself among the crowd, just so you could be there to watch him receive his diploma.
4. Attend anyway, and let the chips fall where they may.
If you’ve been accused of stalking, or are worried about a restraining order, real or threatened, this is NOT the best option for you.
But if your child’s ire seems superficial, short-lived, or as if they’re testing you; or if you’ve ever been accused of neglect, or failing to prioritize your child; or if this happens to be an off-again phase of an on-again-off-again estrangement: Showing up might not be the worst thing you could do.
Before you decide which option is best, imagine a future in which you and your child have reconciled, and you’re talking about their graduation day. What do you want to be able to say about your decision to attend or not attend?
Your Special Day
Surviving Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, your birthday or anniversary is a crucible that just about everyone reading this has endured.
Make time and space to feel all the feelings that come up in anticipation of the day. Carve out specific times to speak gently to yourself before, during, and after your special day. Painful feelings are unavoidable, and should be dealt with compassionately.
Put words to what’s going on. E.g., “My birthday is coming up and I’m dreading it. I’m afraid to hope that ___ will reach out to me. But if s/he doesn’t, it will hurt so much!”
Realize that your special day is a 24-hour period that will come and go; you will survive, no matter what. It’s the emotions surrounding the day that are tough to endure, not the day itself.
That’s why it’s important to acknowledge your feelings, starting as early as you need to, and as often as required. You might plan to read (or re-read) my book Constructive Wallowing on that special day.
Ritualize your sadness, despair, and any other feelings by putting words to them and giving them the time and focused attention they need to resolve. You may find if you do enough of this, that the actual day is not unpleasant.
Structure your day — or the entire week — so that it supports you. You might want to line up pleasant experiences to constructively distract yourself, between bouts of processing your feelings.
You can’t choose whether or when your child contacts you. But you can choose how you manage the days when you’re especially vulnerable to the sting of silence.
Your Child’s Birthday
When your child asked for no contact, hopefully you responded with an understanding acknowledgment of the request, and you told them you would respect their wishes, though you would still be thinking of them often, and lovingly. Then you stepped back and stopped contacting them.
Now it’s their birthday. If you’re like most parents, this is the excuse you’ve been longing for to break that silence. Let’s be honest: It would feel good to you to reach out on your child’s birthday.
But contact with an estranging adult child shouldn’t come from a place of emotional need in the parent. Not if you want it to be effective.
If their birthday falls during a period when they’ve asked for no contact … and it most likely will… why shouldn’t your child experience the reality of what no-contact means? It means no contact, period. No cards, no gifts, no greetings, even on special days. These are reserved for people who are actively engaged in a relationship.
Don’t act from your own need for contact. Let your child feel what it’s like when Mom or Dad is truly out of the picture, as they requested.
This is not about punishment or retaliation. It’s a matter of boundaries. Even on their birthday, sadly, they might not want to hear from you. In any case, they made their decision when they asked you for space.
If you feel you didn’t fully express to them at the start of your silence that you’ll be thinking of them, and that it will be hard for you to keep from reaching out, especially on special occasions, then when you eventually break your silence and resume contact, you can let them know in retrospect how hard it was for you NOT to send them your love on their special days.
It’s never too late to express regrets if you have them. And once your relationship is in a better place, you can discuss what it was like for both of you “back then when we weren’t speaking.”
If your child never specifically asked for no-contact, and you’ve been sending regular notes or voicemails, stick to your schedule.
Let’s say you typically write or call at the beginning of each quarter. If their birthday falls within the quarter, offer them good wishes as part of your scheduled greeting. But stick to your schedule; that means no extra contact, even on their birthday.
Did you miss your opportunity at the beginning of the month? That’s okay; mention it in your next scheduled contact: “I was thinking about you a lot on your birthday; hope it was a good one.”
Remember that sticking to a schedule comes across as calm, predictable and trustworthy. From a parent, these may be more valuable than a birthday gift.
* * *
This article was featured in our monthly newsletter. If you’re a Reconnection Club member, feel free to leave a comment in our General Discussion forum.
Not a member? You can still receive our monthly newsletter. Click here to join the mailing list.
Members have access to helpful courses, workshops, downloads and expert interviews along with our friendly, private discussion forums. Learn more about the Reconnection Club.