Estrangement’s Alternate Endings
Hey, it’s Anna. Before we get started, I want to let you know that this episode contains descriptions of disordered eating and a physical assault, and right at the top, some strong language.
Siobhan: It's impossible to say that your kids don't talk to you without wondering if the person on the other side of that wonders how much of a bitch you are. How truly horrible you must have been to lose custody of your kids. I didn't lose custody. I'm estranged.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot....
....and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
Anna Sale: About how many years would you say it's been since you have been in a room with your three kids?
Siobhan: All three of them?
Anna Sale: Yeah.
Anna Sale: 14 years?
This is a listener we’re calling Siobhan who lives in Canada. In the years leading up to her estrangement from her kids, Siobhan left the marriage with their dad. She described that marriage as emotionally abusive…when she moved out, their three kids were 9, 10, and 14.
I never thought I would–I never thought I'd be here, never, never, never, never.
The divorce was acrimonious… with years of battling over custody arrangements and therapy appointments.
Siobhan: The last time I saw them they were at my house for one of these follow up appointments, and my youngest said, ‘we can't come alone, because sometimes I say the wrong things, and then they tell me what I should have said after we leave.’
Anna Sale: Do you think that their dad was trying to control the situation by telling them what to say?
Siobhan: I, I don't know if he was directly telling them what to say, but he made it very clear that he wasn't happy with me there were all sorts of stories that were fictitious or exaggerated–I had caused this discomfort in their life, I had decided I didn't want to be married to them, I didn't leave him, I left them.
By 2010, Siobhan was no longer in contact with her kids. Today, Siobhan has remarried and over the pandemic she and her husband sold their condo and moved into an RV, which is where I reached her. In the winters, they drive south.
Siobhan: It’s like a tour bus. It’s beautiful.
Anna Sale: Woah, you’re like a country singer or something on the road, that’s awesome.
Siobhan: [LAUGHS] Yea, not quite country singer fancy, more like touring bar band fancy.
Anna Sale: [LAUGHS] Ok alright.
Siobhan: And it has been exciting, I’m surprisingly cozy in this little thing, really nesting.
Anna Sale: Do you keep photos of them around?
Anna Sale: Like, do you have some in the RV that just to decorate it,
Siobhan: I have one on the fridge stuck there with a magnet.
Anna Sale: Are you in it?
Siobhan: No. Mom's always a picture taker.
Siobhan’s kids are adults now, in their 20s and early 30s. The youngest two still live with their dad. And a few years ago, one of them reached out…
Siobhan: She texted me happy birthday, and I would–I always respond–well, first I’d cry, then I respond: ‘Um, so good to hear from you, I hope you're wonderful.’ She doesn't usually reengage, it's just the one comment… but sometime in the last year where I, and I tried to, you know, ‘I'd love to see you talk to you, whatever.’ ‘I don't know if I wanna meet with you.’ ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘Maybe I could just text you more often.’ and she said, ‘How about you text me and I'll respond if I want to?’ And so I've been able to… I don't do it all the time–I do it around, uh, significant events. I found an old photo, I shared it, uh, that prompted some back and forth, so we've had a little bit, I don't even wanna say it's a softening, but there's a bit of engagement.
Anna Sale: Your story, your story gets so much at like, how in some stories of family estrangement, like figuring out reliable narrators and who's not a reliable narrator, and is that even such a thing? Um,or does everyone just have their own experience? Uh, like how do you think about that…like truth?
Siobhan: To some extent, it doesn't matter what the truth is, right? It matters how they feel. Um, my kids have a picture of their childhood. I mean, at this stage, if I was able to reestablish a relationship with them, it wouldn't be as the mom that raised them. They can only get to know me as I am now, and me them.
This is the third episode of our estrangement series, the final episode. In episode one we talked to Brian who was on the fence about leaving a religious community because it meant estranging from a family he loved. Last week we talked to people who very recently reached a breaking point… and chose to cut ties from friends or family in the last few years because of a diverging sense of values… This week we’re talking to people who have been living in estrangement for decades.
For some that’s altered the way they have relationships now…
Listener: I don't know how to deal with conflict, so if things get bad, I ghost.
Listener: As an adult, um, dating, you know, people want to know about your family. I mean, what am I supposed to say? So I just, uh, I tell them that my family moved to Hawaii and bought a pineapple farm and I hardly get to see them, and I just hope to God that they never ask anything else about my family.
Life is long and a hard line that was drawn years ago can change shape over time… boundaries become porous and then the water can come crashing through..
Like for Juliet Barrett. She told us she chose to leave home, and the care of her single mother, when she was a teenager – she’s in her thirties now.
Juliet Barrett: There was always a constant feeling of unsafety, and it got to the point where I said I can take better care of myself if you give me the space to do it.
Juliet’s relationship with her mother was difficult, on and off for a decade, and they’d been completely estranged for six years…
Then her mother sent a letter sharing her stage 4 cancer diagnosis… Juliet wrote to us soon after receiving it. “I am currently navigating the complexity of deciding if I will visit my mom.” She said how her mother wrote the letter felt different, like for the first time, she was really considering what Juliet needed.
Juliet Barrett: The opening line was, um, I know that this is already breaking your boundary by sending you this letter, and also, um, I want you to know for like medical reasons what's happening to me because you are my biological child and you deserve to know what, what you could potentially be down the road for you.
Anna Sale: I see. And, and an alternative would've been like if the card came in the mail and said, ‘I have this diagnosis. I'm really scared. I need you right now.’ If that had been the language, it would've been like, no.
Juliet Barrett: Yep.
When we called Juliet she had just been to visit her mother in the hospital.
Juliet Barrett: I had a lot of anxiety before going in to see her, like, you know, that moment before, uh, ringing the doorbell, and, um, that was actually the hardest part was like crossing the threshold. Once I crossed the threshold, it really was just about going with the flow.
Anna Sale: Mm-hmm. Have you said that you forgive her?
Juliet Barrett: Yeah – that was what I came to do and, and, um, you know, it's not like I walk in the door and say, ‘I forgive you! Surprise!’ [LAUGHS] Uh, so much I've learned from navigating grief with a parent is that people have such a cinematic expectation of what that looks like, and the moments are often so small and, just really light a lot of times–you know, it's like a simple sentence and, and you sit with it and then you move on and, and it does, it shifts things and it pivots things, but you don't like sit in it.
Anna Sale: I have a question that, that I hope doesn't sound crass. Um, do you think your mother's diagnosis of a terminal illness made getting back in contact feel more possible for you because there was some kind of finite time limit?
Juliet Barrett: Yeah, so, having, uh, as much as cancer can be so open-ended and ambiguous and, um, uh, unpredictable. Um, it gave me some parameters. It gave me, uh, a way to choose, um, It gave me a new way to choose what I wanted my relationship to be with my mom. Um, I will say the only expectation I did have was that I was gonna go see her and then I would never see her again. [LAUGHS]
Anna Sale: What's your plan for how much you see her? How are you thinking about that?
Juliet Barrett: I don't have a plan. I don't have a plan at all. Um, I'm really, I'm really just trusting that, um, it's already in motion. And if she gets another day, or she gets another year or she gets another six years, that like we will grow into what that, what that looks like together, and I’m grateful for that because I have been living in the estrangement narrative for so long. It's really nice to be changing.
A month after we spoke, Juliet’s mom died. We called Juliet back.
Juliet Barrett: I was the first, uh, child to arrive at her bedside. Um, and there was definitely a really big shift in her body language when I arrived that seemed really relieved, and, uh, as if there was like a permission to really start letting go.
Juliet said her mother had been excited to hear about this podcast, to document their new togetherness…and Juliet said once they resumed communication…they didn’t stop.
Juliet Barrett: I would text something about myself and then, you know, she would text back later when she had energy to respond or she would say, ‘hey, I saw this and I wanna respond, but I'm, I'm too tired, but just know that I'm here and I'm not ignoring you.’ I would get a lot of that and then she would respond… And yea we covered everything from what she had drawn in her journal that day to um, you know, how I was, how I was feeling in my grief at the time, to her bowel movements like, it ran the gamut. [LAUGHS]
And they were also texting about a romantic relationship of Juliet’s that had just ended. Her partner had broken up with her unexpectedly…
Juliet Barrett: It was sudden, it was a surprise and it was a very, um, firm–I don't wanna see you again, I'm not sure I can ever talk to you again–boundary in a similar way that I imagine it was for my mom, and we were talking about that a lot, about, um, just, you know, relationships and growth and, and healing and grief.
Anna Sale: That's a lot all at once, Juliet. I’m sorry to hear about that breakup.
Juliet Barrett: Yeah. Yeah. It's been, um, it's been a complete, um, unraveling
Anna Sale: Uhhuh, Do you think of the end of that relationship and reconnecting with your mother – do you think of them as being related at all?
Juliet Barrett: Yeah, I do. Um, the pain she had felt when I had, you know, when I set my boundaries and said, ‘I don't wanna talk to you again. I don't wanna see you again, and, and it's not that I don't care about you or that I don't love you,’ It was very similar to the pain I had in my breakup
Anna Sale: When your mom was talking about her own experience with that, with you, um, did you learn some things that you didn't know?
Juliet Barrett: Um, she didn't name it explicitly. I think there was an understanding between us that we didn't need to name it cuz we, we had already named it when we, you know, when we came together and it was kind of a–not water under the bridge–but that um, we both had compassion for ourselves in our experience and we both had compassion for the other person, and that be estrangement was never, not without love, it just was a time of impossible togetherness.
Anna Sale: And I'm just struck that like you, you, you were with her with this intention to give care and to be with her in her illness, and then you have this abrupt breakup and find yourself also needing care.
Juliet Barrett: Yea, and I think that was maybe one of the like really beautiful gifts of like a very tumultuous three months was getting to, um, getting to say like, I need my mom, you know?
Anna Sale: What did that feel like after so many years of learning how to live and take care of yourself without that?
Juliet Barrett: Uh, really good, really good and so sad. you know, it's like, It was really hard not to live in the, like, wow that it could have been like this the whole time, you know?
Anna Sale: Have you, have there been moments when you've had to remind yourself about why you needed the time you took away from her?
Juliet Barrett: Um, No. If anything, when we reunited, I was just so much more affirmed in exactly why that time was necessary, and I would not have been able to get to a place where I could caretake for my mom in her final days had I not had that space alone to be able to process my needs outside of the conditions of that relationship.
When we talked to Juliet she was in her apartment, which was filled with plants. She said she has around 50, including one that her mom sent her.
Juliet Barrett: It's a bromeliad, which is ironic because that's a tropical plant, and so, um, it's actually a pretty hard plant to keep alive. So I like to think that she gave me a challenge. [LAUGHS]
Anna Sale: [LAUGHS] I'm proud of your growth, here's a new challenge.
Juliet Barrett: Yeah, it's a new challenge, try to keep this one alive, why don't ya?
Coming up… another mother daughter story, but where the meetup is not intentional
Kristen Gupta: But when you’re related to someone, they’re bound to show up at something, so I guess it’s good we got it over with but it was an awful experience.
Hi this is Zoe, the lead producer on the estrangement series. I want to THANK you for sharing all of your stories with us. It’s been moving and humbling to sift through them
And last week Anna gave you a new prompt, to send us resources, phrases, books, movies that have given you STRENGTH during your estrangement experience. We’re still getting those emails…and a lot of you told us that finding community has been extremely helpful in feeling less alone. Some of you told us about the subreddit, “Estranged Adult Child,” or other online community groups on facebook, we'll link to some of those and other resources you told us about in our weekly newsletter.
For a listener named Catherine, finding that community came when she moved to a new city, and entered her name in a storytelling event. She was randomly selected to talk in front of hundreds of people…
Catherine: At the end of it at least a dozen people came up to me and said, ‘thank you for telling that story, I too have been estranged from my family,’ or ‘I wish I could take a step towards an estrangement. I wish I could take care of myself in this way.’ And so, while I don't necessarily recommend getting up in front of an audience of 200 strangers and telling your story, um, sharing your story, talking with people…for me, it was such a balm. It was a release of pressure.
You can send us your resources or tips about navigating through estrangement by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by going to deathsexmoney.org/newsletter.
This is Death Sex and Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Juliet Barrett chose to see her mother after years of estrangement. Reconciliation is something a lot of people, especially parents, hope for, and it can happen.
But, for many others who’ve experienced abuse or toxic relationships, the end of the estrangement story is NOT reconciliation… and being forced together can be distressing,
Kristen Gupta: I just, I, I remember feeling so shocked to see somebody who looks like me.
A few years ago Kristen Gupta ran into her mother at her uncle’s funeral.
Kristen Gupta: We walked into the church and we were, you know, greeting my cousins, grabbing snacks and tea and, as you do at a memorial service, sharing memories. And then she immediately jumped into a conversation, um, about how she always knew I would go into the profession I went into based off the things I was interested in as a child. I didn't know what to say. I didn't, you know, it was very much either it felt like I could not respond or either turn on the fire hose and just unleash everything.
The last time Kristen had seen her mother was when she was a teenager
Kristen Gupta: I came home from school and she started screaming at me that I hadn't recycled newspapers for her–she had stacks of newspapers all over our apartment–and she got very violent. Um, she hit me, she took out a a knife and she said that, you know, I was the cause of all of her problems, I was a horrible person, she couldn't deal with me anymore, and that I just had to get out. So she forced me out of the apartment by knife point, and she said if I ever came back that she would kill me.
Anna Sale: Was really sorry that happened to you. Where did you go that evening?
Kristen Gupta: I, uh, for, I think for a couple hours I just walked around. I didn't know what to do, where to go. I had been working some side jobs–like I worked as a janitor for a couple of businesses that were near where we lived. They were initially her jobs, I took over for them when she stopped leaving the house. We often worked like 10, 10:00 PM to like 5:00 AM, so I had the keys to these businesses, and at night, after everything had closed and people had gone home for the day, I snuck in and I spent the night under the desk. And then I think the next day I approached a friend and asked if I could stay with them, and eventually the parents called my dad and got other people involved.
Anna Sale: Did anyone in your life know how unstable your mother was prior to that?
Kristen Gupta: I don't think so. I know my dad, uh, and my stepmother, I think they had a sense more than other people that, um, that something deeply troubling was happening, but they felt really powerless, and they didn't have necessarily any evidence. They could only make assumptions, and my mother very much trained me from an early age to kind of present a story to the world that didn't necessarily reflect reality.
Kristen kept up her good grades but she says the seams were starting to rip
Kristen Gupta: As soon as I turned 16, I got my driver's license and I would drive myself to school. So every day after school, I remember driving the like five minutes from my school to McDonald's and just like buying food for like four people and just like inhaling it, like I had never eaten food before, and then I would drive the hour home and I would like hide the food bags, like under the rest of our garbage, so my dad and my stepmom didn't see it.
Kristen says her eating disorder lasted into college… she wasn’t making friends and her grades started to slip
Kristen Gupta: I almost started turning into my mom in the sense that I stopped going to classes. I would kind of hold myself up in where I was living at the time I lived alone so that definitely aided that process.
Then a guidance counselor saw Kristen’s attendance records and came to check on her.
Kristen Gupta: She realized something was wrong and in a lot of ways saved my life. I don't, I wasn't, I don't wanna say I was suicidal or anything, but I, I so desperately needed help and she was the only person who realized that and said, ‘hey, like, let's, let's figure this out. Let's talk and let's get you into therapy.’ And, uh, she had me withdraw from school so I could really focus on healing and that that was such a godsend.
Anna Sale: How do you think being estranged from your mom, how did it affect the way you built relationships into your late teens? And as an early adult.
Kristen Gupta: It's, it's in so many ways. It makes me like very closed off to people because I think in some ways I feel really betrayed by everything that happened, and so it is not easy for me to just like, yeah, have a casual friendship because I'm like, I don't know everything I need to know about you to feel comfortable… but I do wish that I was softer some ways.
Anna Sale: Softer. Um, when you picture that like–softer–and, and when you think, ‘oh, I had that hard edge there.’ Can you give me an example of that?
Kristen Gupta: This came up a lot. So I, I moved across the country to start a graduate school program. I made friends with somebody who was in my same cohort and they were outgoing and the kind of person who just lights up a room and makes friends with everybody. And I remember sitting there and looking at them and just thinking like, why can't I be like that? Why can't I just roll up to somebody and, you know, be effervescent and open about who I am? And instead I just remember distinctly feeling like I was being weighed down by armor.
Despite that armor…Kristen has made strong relationships in her life, close friends, and a partner who is also estranged from his parents. She said their meeting felt like fate.
Kristen Gupta: He always says that he saw a red light on his way to this like party and he thought about going, like going home and just, you know, calling it a night and he just got this like urge, um, to turn around and go to this, um, party that we met at.
Her partner was there the day of the uncle's funeral when Kristen ran into her mom, and he stepped in.
Kristen Gupta: He was just like, Uh, I don't think this is a good time for us to be having this conversation. she, of course, acted very shocked and hurt, but he really played interference because I just at the point didn’t know what to say..
Anna Sale: What do you remember about that interaction?
Partner: I don't know, like, I just felt like I wouldn't want any interaction. Not at all. Like I would just go away from the room.
This is Kristen’s partner, we reached them later on zoom. They’re expecting a baby together. He’s estranged from his dad, and doesn't want to use his real name, but he said because of that, that day at the funeral, he knew what to do.
Partner: I just wanted to be with Kristen, uh, as much as possible. Not have her alone, not have her caught by surprise, not have her have to deal with an awkward situation when something is going on.
Anna Sale: Um, how do you think having a fundamental understanding, um, of what it's like to not have a relationship with one of your parents and to have grown up in a family where one of the relationships with your parents did not serve you? Um, what, what has that meant that you have that understanding in your marriage?
Partner: So I did not grow up with anybody who was in a very similar situation as I was. I don't think I've really shared my true emotions with anybody before. And uh, like when we met and we had spent some time together, um, like she, she always got me whenever like I was having a low time, or even like, in my eyes, when like I would go through some emotions that would be a little bit, uh, you know, not so normal. Um, so it was just good to have somebody by your side who actually gets you, um, like in and out. I just try to be the same person for her.
Anna Sale: Yeah. Yeah. I'm just thinking about the details of both of the relationships in your family of origin: Um, you know, Kristen, you, you don't have a relationship with your mother and you're about to become a mother. Your husband doesn't have a relationship with his father, and you're about to become a father. Like, wow. How are you thinking about your, um, the modeling and like the kinds of, the kinds of parents you wanna be to this child?
Partner: Go ahead, Kristen first.
Kristen Gupta: Yeah, I think this is something I've really, I've really been thinking about a lot in, in the past few weeks. I'm just entering the second trimester, so. It's still a little bit, a little more, it's a little more real for me than it is for him at this point. Um, we did get to see them on an ultrasound yesterday though, and that was very wild and very weird.
Anna: Oh, just yesterday. How exciting. Cool. [LAUGHS]
Kristen: Yeah. I've really, you know, I'm really trying to think about what resonates with our values as a family, and, you know, particularly also as a queer person, it's really important for me to always to kind of question the things that we're just given, um, in the cultural milieu in the water, that we all are forced to drink as we grow up. I still have a lot of processing to do, but I imagine, I imagine the ways we are going to parent are just going to be so different.
Anna: Yeah. Do you have anything to add to that about becoming a dad?
Partner: Yeah. For me it's just, it's something I was never ready for until now. Right. Uh, something I was avoiding…I was like, not really sure…Um, and then, uh, we talked about it and then, yeah. And it's happening.
Uh, I don't know. I just don't want our kids to ever feel like they don’t have an avenue to talk about anything that’s going on in their life with either of us. We really want to be parents that are always available, no matter the situation is, you know I just want to be there for them let me put it that way.
That was Kristin and her husband. Their baby is due in February.
Death Sex and Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Zoe Azulay and Afi Yellow Duke. The rest of the team is Liliana Maria Percy Ruiz, Lindsay Foster-Thomas, Traci Hunte, and Andrew Dunn…who composed original music for this series.
Julia Furlan and Lilly Clark also worked on this series with us…and it started with a pitch from our former intern Gabriela Santana. Ariana Martinez made the series art.
Thank you to our WNYC colleagues who helped us launch this series into the world: Mike Barry, Tara Sonin, Michelle Xu, Theodora Kuslan, Andrea [an-DRE-uh] [on-DRAY-a]Latimer, Robin Bilinkoff, Jaqueline Cincotta, Dalia Daghner, Jennifer Houlihan Roussel, Kim Nowacki, Miriam Barnard and David Gebel.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on Twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Thanks to Andrea Marke [Mark] in Napa, California for being a member of Death, Sex & Money and supporting us with a monthly donation. Join Andrea and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
And Juliet told us after her mom died…she didn’t have to go through it alone…
Juliet: I'm queer and, um, you know, estrangement is not something new to queer people. Um, and I have a really great, really great community, um, who just enveloped me. The week after she passed, like eight of them] got an Airbnb and all trekked in food was taken care of. It was, you know, we had fires. It was like summer camp, but sad.
I’m Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.