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Planning Retirement Online

Relationships 76    

                             August 2008

Maggi Stamp, LaterLife's Relationship Counsellor

Every month Maggi Stamp, a qualified and experienced relationship counsellor for Relate and in private practice, writes about some of the emotional challenges we meet in later life.

For reasons of confidentiality Maggi never writes about a particular person's problems unless you have sent one in to be answered, but all her examples are based on problems raised by clients, family and friends over the years.  

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.



My son has distanced himself from me.

Dear Maggi,

When my son was small my husband had an accident leaving him brain damaged. I have brought up our son virtually as a single parent.  I also cared for my mother who lived nearby.

I always had an awful relationship with her as she was spiteful and aggressively argumentative with me.  I realise in retrospect that I did not protect my son enough from all the terrible rows.

My son and I always had a really close and loving relationship but it was tested to it’s limits by mother,  who often tried to get him to take her side against me. When he was 21 I bought him a house of his own and one day he dropped by but walked in on a really serious row, mother had totally ‘lost it’ and I too was letting my feelings out in sheer frustration.  My son turned around and walked straight out again.  I didn’t see or hear from him for 7 years.

My mother’s health deteriorated, she had been a lifelong heavy smoker and became totally reliant on me.  I tried hard to give her all the care, respect and warmth I could muster. After she died my son contacted me and we reopened our normal loving, mother-son relationship as though nothing had happened.  He promised to stay in regular contact from then on. Sadly he lost his job and is now at home caring for his children and keeping house. I have given him and his girlfriend help in practical and financial ways when they have needed it. They know I’m always happy to help.

For some reason, since we returned from holiday he has once again cut off contact. Before, when we’ve been away, he has sent regular texts, but we had nothing this time and no word since our return.

I feel used and discarded, just as I used to the last time he walked out of my life. It is heartbreaking.


Maggi replies:


You’ve spent your married life as family carer and it must feel as though all that dedication has not been appreciated by at least two of the recipients.

You don’t say much about your husband but I am assuming that you care for him too and that, sadly, he cannot contribute fully to family life.

Caring for ageing parents is often seen as a natural sequence in family life but given the awful relationship you had with your mother, it is likely you did it more from a sense of duty than from the pleasure of knowing that you were enhancing her final years. In the best of worlds, caring for a parent can be a gentle, loving process for all concerned, but that is never guaranteed and probably isn’t continual.  There will be stress and pain along the way but we all hope that there will be a balance and some joy to lighten the load. For you, the caring was offered with an open heart and your mother benefited from some of the attention you would love to have lavished on your then absent son.

That brings me to caring for him.  Given your responsibilities, I imagine you had much of your happiness from the close relationship with him. Your son was the only other one in the family who you could rely upon to be loving back to you, with the uncomplicated energy of a growing boy. If he was the only child (I’m making that assumption as you do not mention any other children), he will have basked in the focus of your attention.

The downside for him will have been his awareness that his mum needed help and that his dad was, in some way, disabled.  That, in a way, could have disabled his own emotional track.  A boy needs to do ‘man things’ with his male role model, be it watching or playing football, tinkering with a car, grumbling about local council policy or doing a bit of DIY.  From that, he unwittingly picks up a blueprint of adulthood that he can use until he re-designs it to fit his own personality more satisfactorily.  He is likely to have taken on responsibilities earlier than one would normally impose on a child. Often, a child in that position will take on a role of supporter or carer themselves, without being asked.

Sometimes when this early adulthood happens, a young person can feel overwhelmed. They are too emotionally immature to deal with what they are trying to do and, to cope, they shut down their feelings.  I wonder if your son ever felt that?  Someone who has learned to deal with stress this way early in life can fall back on that method of coping later on if things get tough.  It might be that this is what your son is doing now, especially if he is worrying about being unemployed.  He will have learned that one must do one’s utmost to support the family: he saw you doing that, brilliantly and generously, for years.

And here is the rather delicate bit of what I am thinking about.  Caring for our children is different to caring for our ageing parents. Parents need more help as they edge their way towards the end of their lives and if that is something we are involved in, we are there to the end.  But children need us only until they can do it for themselves. We care for them not to the end at all, but temporarily.  When they are adult, we should stand back and be there for them only if they feel that is needed. 

You say you have done lots of little things for him and his girlfriend in their house and have let him know that you will always help financially. He knows how fortunate he is, I’m sure, given the way you have supported him.  Yet, he also knows that it’s up to him to make a go of things in his own family. 

It is hard for you to stand back because he has been so key to your happiness and satisfaction in what has been a rather tough deal for you. He has even been there, via text, while you went on holiday! It sounds like you really need to find time to rediscover your own sources of enjoyment that won’t be dependent on the presence of your son. The pain of not seeing him for seven years is still raw and perhaps talking to a counsellor about that would help put it into the past and support you in finding ways of dealing with your son’s silence, with the strength you have so amply demonstrated in your selfless past.

Perhaps your son finds it necessary to distance himself from time to time. He knows how much you love him and it is unlikely that he will be deliberately rejecting you.  More likely, he is trying to be himself and finding it tough. He will be the stronger for doing it his own way, even though standing back is hard for you. Just let him know your door is always open and he will find you again.


You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.

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