I Haven’t Spoken to My Family in Years. Here’s What Everyone Gets Wrong About Living with Estrangement

On a recent episode of the Armchair Expert, journalist and author, Prachi Gupta was visiting the podcast to promote her book They Called Us Exceptional: And Other Lies That Raised Us, which in part touches on the topic of estrangement. Towards the end of the conversation, she said something that lit a bulb in my mind and made me reflect on my own family affairs.

“The way we talk about [estrangement], we focus so much on reconciliation that we frame it as a bump in the road,” she began. “[We think], ‘well families will just reunite and come together and [everyone] lives happily ever after again.’”

“But that’s not the reality for most people who live with estrangement,” she continued. “Sometimes it can be a really affirming or positive choice. Sometimes that happy ending is choosing yourself.”

The episode was just another Thursday listen as I prepared my lunch that day, but it struck me deeply. While I hadn’t even made it to Halloween yet, I was already feeling that old friend, holiday gloom, creeping in thanks to my own experience with estrangement.

So, how did I get here? Well, I was born and raised in southern Africa. My grandmother had eight kids, and except for my mother, who only had me and my sister, all my aunts and uncles had at least four kids each. This meant that growing up, birthdays, holidays, funerals, and even random weekends when my uncles felt like barbecuing, were extravagant affairs. It never mattered whose house we were gathering at — my uncle’s sprawling farmhouse or my aunt’s three-bedroom apartment in the city — on those days, it always felt like the space was too small to house the entire family.

The women would cook up a storm, while the men oversaw the entertainment and refreshments. My older sister and teenage cousins were tasked with keeping my younger cousins and I in check, which of course never worked, leading to many squabbles and (minor) injuries. The holidays felt especially grand because in-laws, long-lost neighbors and cousins of cousins were all invited too.

It was a time in my life that, even then, I could feel was special. Those memories are strong foundations of who I am today and it’s almost as though I could feel them mold me as they were happening.

After immigrating to the U.S. at age 11, I immediately felt the shift. It was just my mom and I on the East Coast at the time, and there was a deep longing to be back home with my family. In just a few months, I went from being one of four children living under my uncle’s roof to being a latchkey kid in a different country. And in this new home, the months leading up to the holidays were especially brutal. While back in Africa the holidays generally started mid-December, here, all the festivities begin with Halloween in October, giving me months to second-guess our decision to migrate.

And though I had a community of other Africans around me, my biggest desire was to have my family around. I wanted to be around people I didn’t have to explain or introduce myself to. I wanted my holidays, as I knew them, back.

It never happened.

After we moved, distance, money issues, built-up resentments and your standard family dramas caused irreparable rifts within my family. So much so that as the years went by, the desire to go back, even for a visit, dwindled. Mere phone calls between my mother and her siblings could shift the energy in our entire family and engaging became tense and awkward.

Even more disappointing was that as my relatives found opportunities to leave our home country, our issues only grew deeper. Some people moved to other parts of Africa, others to the U.K., and others went as far as Australia. However, some of my family members came to the States and lived on the East Coast as well. Yet that still was no incentive to mend fences. As we ran into each other at various events, our rifts not only became more palpable to us, but they became evident to the people in our community as well.

A particularly disastrous Thanksgiving four years ago sealed the deal and drew the definitive line in the sand. We had all agreed to go to a cousin’s place in Maryland and while there was a general air of “let’s fake it till we make it,” things were strained. Between the last-minute no-shows, shady comments being lobbied back and forth and people purposefully ignoring each other, as an even keeled, nonconfrontational person, I’m pretty sure my blood pressure was doing astronomical numbers. (To this day—even in writing this—when I think about that Thanksgiving, my palms get clammy.)

All that is to say: There is nothing more important to me than my family. Even now. I hold such fond memories of my cousins and our childhood. But what that quote from Gupta made me reflect on was that perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that those days are over for good, and that may not be such a bad thing. Estrangement isn’t just an obstacle on the path to reconciliation—it can be permanent. It can also be painful, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the best path forward. In fact, there can even be some upsides. For example, while I’ll never not long for that side of my family, on the flip side, being estranged from them has also brought me closer to my immediate family.

The following year after that fateful Thanksgiving, the holidays were quiet in our house but undeniably peaceful — in the purest sense of the word. And then when my sister and my nephews came to the U.S. two years later, I tasked myself with creating the ultimate holiday experience for them. I cooked all our meals, curated all our playlists, coordinated our outfits and gave them a selection of movies we would stream as a family. And the best part of it was I did it all with no chips on my shoulder. No one criticizing my choices and no tension in the air. (There was some heavy pushback when I tried to get the group to watch Harry Potter, but that’s as drama filled as events got.)

So, as I navigate my third holiday season with just my tiny family, I’ve decided to accept the estrangement for what it is, and lean into the idea of creating a different happily ever after. No more traveling somewhere I really don’t want to be just to feign pleasantries with people who may not even want me and my family in their homes to begin with. No more secret competitions of who our grandmother cared more about and no more doing dishes to get away from heated arguments.

Instead, I am creating new traditions this holiday season. Like skipping the turkey and convincing my family that a roast chicken using a recipe I grabbed from TikTok is a much better option. And fully leaning into my auntie era and buying my nephews all the toys that make them (and me) happy. But mostly, traditions now mean that my immediate family and I choose each other, and we find our happy ending in that, as Gupta suggested.

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