What It's Like To Not Have Parents By Choice

by Amber Leventry
Originally Published: 

I don’t have relationships with any of my family members—not with my grandparents, sibling, my mother or my father. Even though I don’t have parents by choice, because of the boundaries I needed to set for myself, it’s still hard to live without them at times.

I haven’t talked to my father in over 15 years. Our last communication was in the form of a letter. In every labored, handwritten word he wrote, some corrected with White Out, he talked about his renewed relationship with “the Lord” and how blessed he was to have found Christ again. This was not new. He had lost and found Jesus many times. He rambled about one of my childhood pets that was still alive, and then he surprised me: He admitted he was a shitty father. He didn’t specifically use the word shitty, though that would have been accurate. Instead he pointedly said that he had lost interest in being a father when I was very young. His lack of interest was as obvious as the beatings he handed out, but it was validating to see his ownership of it. There wasn’t much more to say after that. I never wrote back and neither did he.

In the years since that last letter, I have cut ties with the rest of my family members too. My mother was the last connection to my childhood and painful past, and she had remained in my life until a few months ago. My relationship with her was complicated, and she seemed to be the only one benefiting from it. She had access to me, my kids, and the joy that came with being a mother and grandmother. But for me, being around her provoked painful memories of her complicity in the sexual and physical abuse I suffered as a child. When she was around, I was angry and resentful. My skinned crawled at her weak apologies and failure to truly understand the impact my past had on my present and the role she played in it.

In the nearly 20 years since leaving home for college, I tried to fix or at least make peace with my feelings for my mother. I tried to let her take care of me the way she wanted to. I tried to explain to her why I was frustrated with her. I tried to forgive and let go of old wounds. But the problem was that the wounds were not just old; they were wounds constantly being torn open every time I talked to her or saw her. When I got sober, I felt the full effects of the toxicity our relationship had on me. I knew it was time to cut her out of my life too.

While I feel the benefits of ending painful and unhealthy relationships, it was hard to do, and boundaries feel impossible to maintain at times. Choosing what was right for me came with emotions so painful I wondered if it was worth it. To validate saying goodbye to each family member, I forced myself to relive my past. I had to remind myself why I needed to be free of them and our relationship. Still, the guilt settled in. I knew my decisions would hurt people. I knew I would cause sadness and anger by setting very firm boundaries and limits on who I wanted in my life. I was very aware (and still am) that not allowing my mother to be a part of my life and my kids’ lives would crush her.

I hate hurting people. I hate that doing what’s best for me is not best for someone else. I hate that my kids (ages 7 and 5) don’t have grandparents, my parents, in their life the way their friends do. My kids have never met my father, but they know he exists. I have never badmouthed either of my parents to my children. They know my father didn’t really want to be a dad. In the months since I asked my mother not to contact me, my kids haven’t asked much about her either. She lives out of state, and not seeing her for months at a time is normal.

I have allowed her to mail cards or letters to them, so my kids are getting some interaction with her. I have offered to help them send something back to her, but kids are pretty self-absorbed, and their worlds keep spinning. They haven’t noticed a change, and their focus is not on drawing a picture for Grandma, so I don’t push it. As they get older and more independent, they may choose to have a relationship with her. But for now, they aren’t swapping stories about Grandma with their buddies.

The holidays have always been hard for me, and as they approach this year, I can feel stress building in my body. It is attacking the decisions I made and chipping away at my self-worth. This year will be the first without any connections to my family, and the guilt is creeping in. The sadness for what I don’t have is palpable. And I am mourning what could have been.

As I finally start the process of closing those old wounds, I know I am becoming a better version of myself. This feels like a very selfish endeavor at times. But I owe it to myself and the people who love me to let go of the toxicity that comes with these relationships. It’s hard not having parents in my life, but it was harder when I did.

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