Can Peace help with Stage I Parental Alienation?
By Kimberly Nichols
It was a glorious Southern California day in the beachside Balboa Park in San Diego as I sat in a flowering position on a yoga mat with 1,000 other people in the grass to hear renowned Buddhist Thich Nat Han deliver a talk on peace. After his discussion, he invited members of the audience to the stage to discuss difficult issues in their lives. One man walked up with trepidation and proceeded to tell us, with pain in his voice, about his current struggles with his ex-wife.
“I only see my son once every two weeks,” he described. “He spends the first full day of our visits locked in his room away from me and finally comes out to engage with me on the second day, at which time he proceeds to interact with me the same way my ex-wife does. It is clear that in his mom’s home, he is constantly fed grief and anger towards me. My wife’s projections onto him about her disappointments in our own relationship are so strong that my son has begun to view me in the same way that she does. By the end of our visit, when he finally warms up to me enough to crack a smile, it’s time for him to go home. What do I do to ease this situation without feeding in to the drama my wife is creating?”
With a big smile on his face, the wise Zen master answered, “Nothing.”
I knew this story all too well because for sixteen years I had been sharing custody of my daughter with a man who, although was a great father, was a notorious control freak; prone to enforce his opinions and influence on anyone malleable enough to easily absorb his iron reign. This included our daughter.
Oftentimes I would find myself frustrated when after staying at his house for a week she would come home spouting snippets of language that I knew had come from him that she couldn’t possibly really understand or believe. She would speak blindly of politics or sexuality or contemporary issues with her father’s tone and I was left feeling helpless and angry, afraid she would be molded in his image instead of adopting my more compassionate and empathic ways. But because I came from a tumultuous home myself, and not wanting her to experience the same, I would bite my tongue rather than counteracting her father’s influence with my own seesaw rage. It wouldn’t help for her to be a ping-pong between two sides when she was merely listening to the more demonstrative of the two of us.
“Nothing?” the father onstage asked clearly baffled.
“Nothing,” Thich Nat Han reiterated. “You merely hold space for your son with loving kindness and live by example knowing that you can fully trust in simply being peace.”
This profound statement stuck with me as I watched my daughter’s teen years unfold into a period of self-individuation. It stuck with me as I watched her father grow less comfortable with the fact that she was becoming an adult. I did what Han said and lived by example, lending my words of wisdom to her only when asked but never enforcing my judgments or way onto her otherwise. I learned to silently have faith in the quiet and safe place I was laying out for her to decide and unfold within like a beautiful lotus flower. I knew that one day, when she was of the age to make up her own mind, she would call upon the things she learned from the both of us and take the bits which worked best for who she would eventually become. For my part, I wanted to provide her a pot of richness to choose from representing the fruits of an ego-less, unconditional acceptance and the unencumbered presence of pure love. A subtle servitude to blind faith was essential in sustaining all of the above.
No, it wasn’t easy and many times I came close to the bone, ready to yell at the top of my lungs or let my will take over where my heart gave grace. I wasn’t perfect and I’m sure I slipped up along the road. But on Mother’s Day when my daughter had turned the ripe, mature age of 21 she actually thanked me for being this way throughout her life and told me that it was something she had learned to appreciate about my mothering ways. She said it was hard enough counteracting her father’s bias while still being a loving daughter to him and she was thankful she didn’t have to so the same with me. She said it had also taught her how to achieve a certain sense of understanding with detachment in her own life instead of what could’ve amounted to confusion and pain.
I could not have asked for a better reward for believing in peace.
Kimberly Nichols is a Venice Beach-based artist and writer.