Mom and Dad stopped speaking to the kids

We four daughters have stayed close, but our parents have drifted away.

By Cary Tennis
April 27, 2006 2:00PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

My parents have stopped talking to their children and we don't know what to do. I'm the oldest of four daughters, aged 27 to 33. Two are married, and one has a 1-year-old girl. The four of us are very close.

I think our parents are unable to figure out how to treat their children as we have grown up and created families of our own. They never call us, expecting that we should call them. My father is withdrawn and distant, a recovering alcoholic who never established an emotional bond with his children. My mother answers the phone, but rarely asks anything about us and prefers to talk about herself the whole time.


My parents were baby sitting my niece recently, and for some reason that day my mom decided to cut the baby's hair. She honestly did a terrible job -- the bangs are jagged and the hair is uneven. It's the baby's second haircut, and my sister was shocked and angry with my mom for doing this without asking her first.

When one of us kids has an argument with my mom, she stops talking to all of us. She and my dad won't answer their phone when we call or respond to e-mail. When my mom finally picks up the phone -- usually one to two weeks later -- she sounds depressed and talks about how her children hate her. This is happening more frequently, perhaps every other month.

It's very difficult to deal with. I don't think we should tolerate it, and my mom should know there are consequences for acting like that. I want to confront her and tell her she can't expect to have a relationship with her kids if she keeps this up. I want all four of us to do it, because it won't be effective otherwise. But my sisters won't go along, saying that scolding her will make it worse and she may ignore us for months or longer. This is true, I admit. So we wait, and eventually everything goes back to normal with nothing said about the incident. Any advice on how to handle this?


Getting the Silent Treatment

Dear Silent Treatment,

There are clues here but much is silent. Alcoholism is a kind of silence; depression is a kind of silence. So you're getting the silent treatment; that's probably the treatment your mother knows best.


Since silence reigns, let me guess at what has not been said. It's possible that when you children were at home, your mother knew what her job was. Your father may have been drinking and unavailable, but your mother could find satisfaction taking care of the kids, cooking and sewing and teaching you how to behave. Absorption in motherhood may have been partly a way of avoiding your father's drinking. But it was of great value regardless. It was a worthy life. Until eight or 10 years ago, she presumably had at least one daughter living at home.

But one day finally all the daughters were gone. It was strangely quiet in the house. The husband had stopped drinking. Maybe she walked around the empty house wondering what to do with herself. Maybe she began to experience depression. Maybe she looked at her husband and could barely see him in the dark.


You know how astronomers prove the existence of invisible bodies? The alcoholic father's presence, too, is found in the flight paths of the people around him, how they wobble when they cross his orbit. He sits in his chair, withdrawn in the dark, sucking in everything around him. You can't see him there but sensitive instruments detect a blurry kind of sadness, a longing you can't put your finger on, something vaguely twisted, lonely and dark. Alcoholism in a family can be like that -- an absence that sits in a chair in the dark and warps the space around it.

That's not to blame this situation on alcoholism, or blame your mother's behavior on your father. The point is that your mother didn't just become the way she is in a vacuum. Things happened and she responded.

You don't say if she works or not; perhaps she worked all along, or perhaps after the last child left she got a job. Maybe she worked or did not work but things changed for your mother when the girls left the house and the husband stopped drinking and withdrew into himself. She had a purpose and then she didn't. She had a husband and then she didn't. She had daughters and a house full of people. Then she didn't.


If she never took stock, if she never saw that her happiness was rooted in taking care of others, then it's possible she's been drifting all this time, waiting for something to happen, calling out whenever she sees something familiar. Maybe every now and then she glimpses something that looks like happiness -- she sees a dress and wants to sew it, sees a breakfast and wants to cook it, sees misbehavior and wants to fix it. But when she gets closer she sees: This is not my daughter's hair! This is not my kitchen!

This frightens her and angers her. Her expression of anger is silence.

Chastising her won't help. If she has no purpose, then she needs a purpose. She needs something to take care of. If not her kids, then her grandkids. If not her grandkids, then animals, or plants, or somebody else's kids. She needs something to take care of.


That might explain why one day she saw the baby and suddenly had to get some scissors.

Of course she gave a terrible haircut. She's way out of practice.

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