Guest Blogger Rebekah Cowell on Breaking Up with One’s Parents

blog breaking up with parents pic

When you’re seeing a guy or gal who your closest friends suspect isn’t good for you, there will be one tough-love friend who will pull you aside and say, “It’s a toxic relationship, and you need to move on.”

It’s a little different when we’re talking about toxic parents and family.

For six years I’ve been trying to sort out the meaning of that one word family, and how it relates to me and my decisions to estrange myself from those who are my flesh and blood: the mother who carried me in her womb, the father who rocked me in his arms as a baby.

Recently, I ran across an article in the New York Times by Richard A. Friedman, M.D., When Parents Are Too Toxic to Tolerate.

One sentence stopped my breath. He writes: “The assumption that parents are predisposed to love their children unconditionally and protect them from harm is not universally true.”

This is the hardest concept for many of us to grasp.

When I make new acquaintances and the topic of family finally arises, and I tell them I’m estranged from my parents, the response never varies. First shock, then pity. Usually I must assert, “No, I’m happy. I’m healthier without them.”

Running into the same person later, I might hear, “Have you talked to your parents?”

As a society, we need to believe in certain moral imperatives to survive the darker sides of human nature. For example, most of us want to embrace the idea that a parent and a child should maintain a close relationship for the rest of their lives. At the very least we want to hope that this new parent will love their child no matter what and nurture it with love and compassion.

Friedman writes about a patient who he advised to forgo a parental relationship when this patient came to him severely depressed over being disowned by his religious parents for coming out as a gay man.

“Though terribly hurt and angry, this young man still hoped he could get his parents to accept his sexuality and asked me to meet with the three of them.

The session did not go well. The parents insisted that his “lifestyle” was a grave sin, incompatible with their deeply held religious beliefs. When I tried to explain that the scientific consensus was that he had no more choice about his sexual orientation than the color of his eyes, they were unmoved. They simply could not accept him as he was.”

My greatest sin was going to a liberal arts school, and not marrying in the faith.

When I blew out my wrist in college, ending my dreams of becoming a concert pianist, my mother said, “God took away your music because you weren’t serving him.” My injury was supposed to draw me closer to them, and this God of theirs.

But it didn’t.

I finally cut them off, after struggling with anorexia and trying to take my own life, events that illuminated my revelation that I was actually a better, healthier and happier person without their negativity and hostility in my life.

Less than a year later, I became pregnant, as they call it, “out of wedlock.”

They did not know of my pregnancy until my daughter was one week old – they have never met her.

Giving birth healed pieces of my soul. If anything, becoming a mother has made me ever more unflinching in my resolve that there is no excuse for ever abusing a child.

When I hold my daughter close, and I see the love, security and stability she has, I want to weep for what I lost to two people who were not stable enough to be parents.

My daughter is three, and traveling along this path alone without a family hasn’t been easy. Fortunately, my partner is an invaluable parent, and he believes as do I that our daughter’s happiness and security are our most imperative priority.

So many friends assured me that having my daughter would change things. They believed I would reconcile with my parents and that we would create a new relationship—that my status as a mother would give us a new and healthy way to connect.

I never saw it that way, because that is exactly where my parents let me down: in parenting itself.

How would I sit down with my mother and talk about raising my daughter? What advice would I even begin to accept from the woman who had physically and verbally abused me? What parenting skills would I learn from her?

If I took her parenting advice, I would tell my daughter about an angry God, and I’d fill her mind with stories of demons and the devil. A family member gave me a Cabbage Patch doll for Christmas when I was five, and it was taken away because it was considered “heathen.” My parents did not allow me to attend school past kindergarten, I was forced to wear long dresses that covered me up every day, and I had to attend church several times a week. They told me that any career other than being a wife and mother was a sin.

My parents forced me to learn Bible verses and squelched my beautiful creative soul with a steady diet of “no”s and spankings. Would I make my own daughter kneel on her little knees and ask God to forgive her for her sins, at the age of 4 and then have her baptized before she understands what “sins” were?

No, I would not.

Though I believe that the instinct for mothering and parenting a child with love is strong at birth, I think it can be overridden by environment (and in my family’s case, religious dogmatism). A toxic relationship, whether with a father, mother, or lover, makes us weaker, not stronger. For one’s health alone, letting those relationships go may be the very best chance any of us have for blossoming into the beautiful souls we were created to be.

I’d like to say I’ve sorted out what the word family means to me, but to be honest, the word still conjures more questions than answers. In the last few months, my daughter has picked up what a family is from her books and stories; recently, she grabbed my hand and her father’s hand as we sat together and looked up at us, brown eyes filled with love, and said, “We’re a family.” And perhaps that is my answer.

Family is a concept defined by what you create, and as corny as it sounds, where your heart belongs. My heart did not belong to the people who conceived me, but it has found its home.

Cowell author pic
Rebekah L. Cowell is a freelance writer for local newspapers and national publications based in Pittsboro, North Carolina. Prior to motherhood and taking the writing path, she was contemplating law school (what else do you do with a Philosophy degree?) and/or living aboard a sailboat.

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on Wednesday, November 4th, 2009 at 1:26 pm and is filed under mama sadhana.
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7 thoughts on “Guest Blogger Rebekah Cowell on Breaking Up with One’s Parents”

  1. what a beautiful, heartfelt and tragic essay. Having grown up in a pretty dysfunctional family, I understand that sense of guilt and wanting to normalize the pain. It’s been a long journey to begin to create healthy boundaries and let go of outdated and unreal expectations. Thank you for sharing your journey. You are a brave, honest person.

  2. Dear Rebekah,

    What a courageous and beautiful essay! I’m sure it will touch and help many people whose journey has been like your own.

    Since your parents aren’t able to say it, please let me tell you how proud I am of you for creating a sane, loving, and meaningful life out of the dark material of your childhood. I honor your decision to protect yourself and your daughter from your parents’ influence.

    Love and blessings to you, Rebekah. Thank you.

  3. What we need is more strong people like Rebekah to stand up and speak honestly. There is much positive encouragement to be garnered from speaking the so called “unspeakable”. Yes, I have many times been countered with the same retorts as mentioned above such as, from one of my sisters, “Well, She’s the only mother you’ve got”. I can count the number of “mothers” on more than one hand with whom I have been fortunate enough to cross paths. They have been more of a mother to me than the one that simply birthed me as that was enough in to be a mother in her eyes. Moreover, sharing my biological familial experiences with Rebekah is one of the best things that I have ever done. Her supportive comments were, at first, unbelievable; a shock to my system as I have never been received well by others upon finding that I decided it healthier not to continue to be negatively influenced by my biological family. Now, I treasure what she has to share as she always meets me with the positive support in many directions that has so long been missing in my life. Rebekah, along with others in my community and as far as France, have become my family. I don’t think I would have survived this long without them. And what a healthy little girl that Rebekah spends her days and nights with; pass on the the torch of love little one!

  4. I admit, I have not been on this webpage in a long time… however it had been another joy to see It is such an essential topic and ignored by so many, even professionals. I thank you to assist making people more aware of feasible issueGreat stuff as typical…

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