Unfulfilled Dreams: Parent-Child Estrangement

            Most parents dreamily anticipate how meaningful life will be when they become grandparents. They have visions of being proud guests at their offsprings’ weddings and holiday celebrations.  Grandparents who love to host, imagine roasting a succulent turkey for their children and grandchildren for Thanksgiving dinner. And for the winter holidays they imagine their cups will runneth over at joyful family get-togethers.

           In our book, Enough of Us: Why we should think twice before making children, we include a chapter on the problems that children inflict on parents. While kids often bring much joy to their parents and grandparents, there are no guaranties; not nearly. And often the inflicted damage is traumatic.

            For many parents, what they are anticipating is really a move to an ideal land, but one that requires a reality check at the border. There are many parents who will never experience the longed-for fulfillment of that lovely family vision because they have an estranged adult child or children. There are web sites devoted to such a syndrome and a list of books related to the topic of estrangement with titles such as When Parents Hurt by J. Coleman and Family Estrangements: how they begin, how to mend them, how to cope with them by B. Lebey.

            Parents in this predicament are generally bewildered, sad and guilt-ridden. They spend time working to “fix it,” and eventually try to accept their child’s emotional distance. (www.estrangedparentsofadultchildren.com).

            Ellis’s mother experienced such trauma in her relationship with him. Their relationship had been an unloving and bitter one for most of his life. At age 31 he decided that their relationship was too toxic for his own well-bewing. For two years he did not speak to her. It was only when he was getting ready to move from New York City – where his mother also lived – to Los Angeles that he called to say good-bye. Those two years were a difficult time for his mom. (Just a footnote – eventually things turned around and his mother moved to Los Angeles to be near him and Cheryl).

           The worst instances of estrangement are when children cut off their parents without explaining why. “Estranged adult children are individuals who all of a sudden do not respond to email messages, do not return phone calls and stop coming over.” When parents attempt to meet face-to-face, their child refuses to relate to them. Most of these parents thought they had a good relationship with their adult child; hence their bewilderment about being so thoroughly rejected. 

Jon Voight happily reunites with daughter Angelina Jolie after she cut him off for seven years. Photo: YourCelebrityStuff.com.


            An article in the April/May issue of AARP The Magazine, examines the problem of children “divorcing” their parents. The article, “The Stranger in Your Family” by Meredith Mara, postulates that apparently there has been a rise in parent-child estrangements, which may be related to a couple of factors.

            According to San Francisco psychologist Joshua Coleman, “The high divorce rate means fewer children see themselves as part of an unbreakable family unit.”  Coleman also blames our culture’s “me-first mentality,” which supports individual fulfillment over tradition or a sense of duty.  

            Mara interviewed Elizabeth Vagnoni, who is estranged from two sons. Vagnoni conducted a survey of estranged parents for her web site, Estranged Stories (www.estrangedstories.com). The survey indicates that almost one out of three parents estranged from their children has considered suicide. Vagnoni points out that when the primal bond between parent and child is broken, “parents feel they’ve failed as a human being.”

            Vagnoni’s survey solicited responses from alienated children as well. Sixty-one percent said they would resume a relationship with their parents only if specific conditions were fulfilled. Sixty percent wanted their parents to apologize, and almost half said they bore “no responsibility” for the estrangement.

            Whether these offspring are wrong or right in their decisions to distance themselves from their parents, the fact remains that children come with no promises. Would-be parents who believe they will be fulfilled at some time when their kids are grown may want to take another look at their own expectations, as well as think twice before making children.

            Kahlil Gibran, author of the classic book The Prophet, expresses it best in this passage from “On Children”:

            And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said,

            Speak to us of Children.

            And he said:

            Your children are not your children.

            They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

            They come through you but not from you,

            And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

             It is important to keep in mind that parents do not own, nor can they control, their adult children – thank goodness. There are no guarantees of happy endings.


Lobsters, Sitcoms and Sustainability

Have you ever heard this argument, “If we don’t keep growing our population, there will be no one to take care of and pay for older generations.”? Presidential candidate and Texas governor Rick Perry calls Social Security a Ponzi scheme. Everyone seems, in their own ways, to be worried about shafting either upcoming or older generations.

Not many, however, seem the least bit concerned about leaving future generations one mess of a planet with all its associated problems, including financial and emotional stress as well as general upheaval.  Ever-increasing population around the world and human-induced climate change present terrible contingencies for the surface of our Earth and for the organisms that dwell on it.

We usually insert this disclaimer here: For those who do not believe that human behavior is a cause of global warming, we respect that opinion. But it is folly to deny that expanding population and increasing numbers of more financially well-off worldwide populations will lead to the
depletion of natural resources, freshwater supplies and biological diversity.

“Anyone who takes these environmental problems seriously has good reason to oppose the efforts of politicians, economists and the media to
promote higher birth rates – as well as those religious leaders, members of extended families, and others who urge pregnancy on women who have not chosen it for themselves,” asserts Worldwatch Institute official Robert Engelman in the institute’s 2010 State of the World edition.

While politicians appropriately worry about reductions in population making it problematic to support aging populations, such risks are more manageable challenges than combating human-induced environmental problems.

Engelman, in his essay, “Environmentally Sustainable Childbearing” evaluates the influences of modern culture on human reproduction. How is it that women in Afghanistan and Uganda average more than six kids each, while those in South Korea and Bosnia and Herzegovina average one? Is it the influence of culture or simply chance pregnancies from unprotected sex? Since China is the only country that discourages parenting large families, and since there is a general worldwide belief that parents have a basic human right to determine the number of children, what is influencing these choices?

Parts of the answer must lie with culture and economics. Worldwide fertility is currently at 2.5 children per woman, which is a bit higher than the 2.3 births per woman that would maintain current population. It’s interesting that those countries that offer potential parents a variety of  contraception along with an abortion option have fertility rates low enough to stop or reverse population growth (not including increases due to immigration in any particular country).

According to Engelman, the higher a woman’s educational level, the lower the number of children she produces. A survey published in the November, 2008 Pediatrics, indicates that the higher the exposure to sexual content on television, the greater the chance of teen pregnancy. (This should make MTV very proud – Jersey Shore anyone?)

“Combating such cultural influences thus can play an important role in lowering fertility and contributing to slower population growth. Moreover, there is evidence that media such as television and radio may contribute to lower fertility just as easily as to higher.” A study in St.
Lucia showed that when a radio soap opera advocated family planning, those who listened to the show were more likely to have smaller families. In other words, cultural influences have a meaningful impact on family size.

On the other hand, there is some evidence that economic incentives can influence fertility up or down. In the few years before 2010, American fertility was on the rise while families with kids were getting breaks like tax rebates and credits as well as increased education benefits.

Engelman uses the example of a study done in the Mexican fishing village of Quintana Roo. As lobster harvests declined, contraceptive use became universal in the village. The reason? The people of the village decided to preserve their fishing resource for future generations.

And how’s this for a kicker: villagers ascribed their own reproductive approaches to the influence of U.S. soap operas that depicted small families. Satellite TV, surprisingly, “may play a constructive role by spreading an idea – a small family norm – that contributes to environmental sustainability more powerfully than the messages about (how) wealth and consumption might undermine it.”

Our point is this: If we have leadership in America that is willing to step up and introduce economic incentives to reduce fertility and urge the glorification of sustainability, the United States will help the world make significant first steps to turn around our headlong rush to overpopulation and consequent unsustainability.

Good-bye Minna


Early last week Cheryl’s mother died. We both loved her. And she loved us. Until the age of 90 she was relatively self-sufficient. But then things started to go bad. First it was arthritis in the knee, followed eventually by a deteriorating hip, the correction of which would have been too risky a surgery for a person of her age.

Minna and Sid

            Digestive problems sent her to the emergency room on a semi-regular basis. Then dementia began its subtle attack. Minna spent the final year of her life in an assisted living facility (A.L.F.). Fortunately, she and her late husband Sid had squirreled away enough savings to ensure that Min could afford a high-quality board-and-care facility in which to spend her final year.

Which brings us to a point, we suspect, few would-be parents think about. Minna was once someone’s baby. She died a long, deteriorating death. When you bring a life into the world, you likewise bring in a death as well. Recent statistics prove that 100 percent of Americans who live . . . will die. Depending on your religious and/or “spiritual” beliefs, you may or may not feel that death is just a transition to another plane of existence. But even if that’s so, what’s to guarantee that you will be any happier there than you were here?

Min (as family and friends usually called her) lived into her 98th year. She could no longer remember which of her family contemporaries and friends had passed away (all of them had). Near the end she had no knowledge of who Ellis was, even though she had dearly loved her son-in-law. Virtually every child faces the possibility of an eventual outcome like Min’s.

In our soon-to-be released book, Enough of Us, in which we discuss the difficulties of having children, we only briefly discuss the hazards and pitfalls of old age. In her final year, Min never again saw her home of the previous 56 years. The four or five other residents of the A.L.F. also suffered from dementia, so her connections to her new “friends” were tenuous at best. It’s likely that neither Minna nor the other residents of the A.L.F had parents who envisioned that one day their children would live out their last days in decrepitude.

An obvious retort to our gloomy outlook might be, “If they live fulfilling lives, isn’t it worth risking that your children will live through a trying final chapter?” Which brings us to another point. What are the odds that the child you bring into the world will live a fulfilling, happy, successful, or worthwhile life? Do most Americans? And we are more fortunate than most of the residents of other countries.

Some will say that a lot of folks, instead of dying via deterioration, die in their sleep or – like Ellis’s father – suffer a sudden fatal heart attack and are gone in a flash. We guess that you could gamble that your progeny will go that way, if that’s what you’re hoping for. But we think that most intended parents just figure they’re off the hook concerning their own children’s demise because they’re gambling that they won’t be around to see the death of their kids.

Many people live less-than-fulfilling lives, only to end their years as frail, dependent, helpless and ill individuals, if, indeed, individuality is even an option. We will miss Min for the rest of our lives. But we do not regret that we will not be putting the children we never had through the misery of seeing us go, nor through the misery of their own protracted demises.