This is the fifth and final post in my five-part series on Stages of Estrangement. For best results, read these posts in order from start to finish.
Like the other stages, Maintenance is one that parents may visit multiple times. But it’s also typically the last stage before estrangement from an adult child ends, and one that’s almost impossible to skip.
This stage is characterized by living day to day with what feels like “the new normal.”
Stages of Estrangement: Transformation
This new normal may be post-reconciliation or it may be a life without the estranged child in it. Either way, it can be a time of both grieving the loss of the old relationship and learning a new way of living, with or without the child.
Change is Hard
For those who’ve done the personal work that’s usually necessary to reconcile with a distancing adult child, the big reward of this stage is renewed contact. The catch is, the relationship rarely feels the same.
Relating to the child takes more effort than it once did. Words and actions must be weighed, and decisions made with careful consideration rather than instinct. There’s often a felt sense of “walking on eggshells.”
Pass along your plan. Mobilize the other caregivers in your child's life - your spouse, grandparents, daycare worker, babysitter - to help reinforce the values and the behavior you want to instill. This includes everything from saying thank you and being kind to not whining.
There may also be lingering hurt over the child’s rejecting behaviors. It can be difficult for some parents in this stage to trust a newly reconciled child not to withdraw or attack again.
For parents who have let go of any hope of reconnection, Maintenance means seeking both pleasure and meaning from sources other than adult child(ren).
Still, there is effort in living without one’s children regardless of whose choice it is. Even parents who make peace with the loss of those relationships still think about their children, and experience bouts of grief.
The Central Task
Some mourning of the old, familiar relationships is common to both the reconciled and the moved-on parent. “Maintain” is a verb. It takes effort. Living with loss is something one practices daily. This is true even if you like your life the way it is.
Thus, the central task of the Maintenance stage is to actively and deliberately meet your own emotional needs. To give up all hope and desire, whether s/he’s in your life now or not, for your child to fill any void you may feel inside.
Respect parenting differences. Support your spouse's basic approach to raising kids - unless it's way out of line. Criticizing or arguing with your partner will do more harm to your marriage and your child's sense of security than if you accept standards that are different from your own.
The task, more specifically, is to be the best, most loving, most generous parent you can be to yourself , for the rest of your life.
Parents who decide to live without a connection to their child(ren) may remain in the Maintenance stage indefinitely, enjoying a decent quality of life despite the estrangement.
Those who reconcile can use this stage to build a new, healthy relationship with their formerly estranged child, while continuing any personal healing work they began in earlier stages.
Recovery from the trauma of disconnection takes time, patience, and self-compassion. But reconciled parents stand at least a fighting chance of one day waking up to find themselves no longer in any stage of estrangement from their children.