Why these women decided to 'divorce' their mothers

The advice is to try to save the bond with your mother through therapy, if possible.
The advice is to try to save the bond with your mother through therapy, if possible. Photo: Stocksy (posed by model)

Annabelle* is the first to describe herself as loud, obnoxious and independent. While she "butted heads" with her mother as she was growing up, it was nothing outside the realm of typical pre-teen rebellion.

Then, at 14, Annabelle found her mother's behaviour was becoming increasingly odd. A friend of the family seemed to linger around the house without his wife. Months later Annabelle found a romantic card from him in the top drawer of her mother's bedside table. It became obvious that her mother was having an affair.

Two years later her parents divorced. Annabelle had to stay with her mother. It would not have been her choice but for financial reasons it made sense. And lifestyle-wise it had its benefits. She was now a teenager with free rein, no curfew, a life of her own and no rent to pay.

But her relationship with her mother continued to deteriorate. "I just thought, 'I fundamentally disagree with you and your choices and you're not the person I thought you were.' "

Years later, aged 33, Annabelle made a decision which is unthinkable to many: she cut her mother out of her life. While she receives a raised eyebrow when she mentions it to acquaintances for the first time, her predicament is not entirely unusual.

A 2015 study found that 11 per cent of women are estranged from at least one of their children. There are articles and websites devoted to the dilemma, and celebrities such as Drew Barrymore and Modern Family star Ariel Winter have spotlighted the issue. In 2014 Barrymore, who has since been in contact with her mother, said, "I've never just been angry with her. I've felt guilt, empathy and utter sensitivity. But we can't really be in each other's lives at this point."

No matter how many explanations women such as Barrymore offer for the damaged relationship, they expect the same reaction from those around them: "But she's your mother."

"There is an expectation," says psychologist Amanda Gordon, "that one should be kind to one's mother – especially as the mother gets older – and an expectation that women should tolerate their mothers.

"There is also a myth that mothers will always be good to their daughters and it is a myth that is very difficult to contend with if you have had a mother who hasn't been good to you."

Advertisement

These daughters often feel needled on Mother's Day, a time when family photos are posted on social media accompanied by saccharine quotes such as, "Your mother is your first friend, your best friend, your forever friend."

Women like Annabelle feel excluded from the typical "happy family" picture and even "scientific" studies can aggravate emotional wounds. One study found that hearing your mother's voice on the phone can have the same effect as a hug; another, that a mother's love can have an impact on brain development.

"The relationship you have with your mother is unique and cannot be replaced," says psychotherapist Karen Phillip. Her advice is to try to save the bond with your mother through therapy, if possible. A mediator can help both parties communicate clearly.

"Sometimes the words that we use can damage the other person," says Phillip. "They can have a different meaning to the person who delivers them than they do to the person who receives them."

That's not to say all relationships are salvageable. Gordon says conflict is often irreparable in the context of a childhood trauma.

Phillip has a broader range of unmendable rifts: these include situations in which a mother has failed to protect her daughter, made ongoing criticism about a daughter's choice of partner, exhibited narcissistic behaviour, placed unreasonable pressure on a daughter and made sexual advances towards a daughter's partner.

At her mother's request, Samantha* was moved to foster care when she was 10. Their relationship has never really recovered.

Samantha moved to Australia from the UK in her 20s. Bearing in mind her mother was a disturbed person who was physically and mentally ill, she attempted to repair the conflict. But even short bursts of contact during visits to their respective countries were tough.

"When she came to my wedding, she told guests that she was only there to kill herself," Samantha recalls.

During an earlier visit before the wedding, Samantha, 42, came home to a "shell-shocked" husband. Her mother – who had been diagnosed with cancer and had undergone a breast reconstruction following a double mastectomy – had asked her future son-in-law to touch her implants.

"I had to think of it as an almost domestic violence relationship," Samantha says. "Why was I letting her hit me emotionally?"

Four years ago, she stopped speaking to her mother without offering her an explanation. "As far as I know, she has never called."

Danu Morrigan, 54, "divorced" her parents by phone. "For years I had wanted to stop seeing my mother. Every encounter with her and my father ended up with me emotionally bruised and upset," she says.

On her website, Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, Morrigan describes her mother as a narcissist and her father as an enabler.

Her mother had no interest in celebrating events in her daughter's life, such as marriage, and was absent for parts of Morrigan's wedding because "she was unable to bear an event that didn't focus on her".

The final event that led her to sever contact was during a meal with her parents. Morrigan had invited a friend to the dinner, who, along with Morrigan, was barely acknowledged by her mother.

"The meal hadn't even been bad – by normal standards – but even so, my friend was horrified."

Her father called to make contact a few weeks after the tense evening and Morrigan told him that she wanted to discontinue the relationship.

He handed the phone to her mother, who was crying, but Morrigan remained firm. Nine months later on her birthday, they sent her a card and wrote in it, asking her not to bear a grudge.

"I wrote to her saying I wasn't bearing a grudge but that I felt the relationship was toxic and dysfunctional, and perhaps even abusive, and I wanted no part of it any more," says Morrigan. "I said I wouldn't respond to any further communication and I wished them well going forward." She received a few texts from her parents and then contact diminished.

The experience led her to write three books, including You're Not Crazy – It's Your Mother. She also has a website for daughters who have had similar experiences, which at the time of interview had 2500 visits a day. Her experience is "mild" compared to some of the women she hears from.

Many daughters remain in touch with their mothers just to negotiate access to grandchildren. Phillip's advice is to tell children about the situation in an age-appropriate manner. "You may need to say something like, 'Grandma has behaved in a way that has left me feeling sad and disappointed,' " she says.

She adds that children, when they are old enough, may want to pursue a relationship with their grandmother, and are entitled to do so. This is something that Annabelle may consider when her daughters are older.

Meanwhile, the erosion of her relationship with her mother occurred gradually and was felt acutely at lifetime milestones: indifference at her wedding; no enthusiasm during her pregnancy; and a lack of interest in Annabelle's daughter. To make things worse, her mother was a doting grandmother to her sister's children.

Annabelle tried to repair the relationship a few years ago. "I had a go at her and said, 'You just don't care. You don't ask questions about her, you don't get involved.' She was a bit upset but she still didn't change her behaviour."

Three years ago Annabelle decided to stop contacting her mother, when she had forgotten her eldest

daughter's birthday. "I don't expect presents, I don't expect money. I don't expect anything but some love and attention towards my girl."

She has visited her hometown without letting her mother know that she was in the area but still hears from her when she calls her sister, as the two women live together.

While Annabelle is disappointed with the relationship, she says it's no longer at the "forefront" of her mind.

"Sometimes you walk past a mother and daughter pair on the street and they look close. I'm not jealous because I've accepted that I've got what I've got. But in another life, a close connection would have been nice."

* Names have been changed

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale May 12.