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When fathers go awol and mothers go up-the-wall

When fathers go awol and mothers go up-the-wall

Children need the security of consistent contact with both parents; their original friendship groups and extended family systems. As a psychologist and relationship/divorce therapist, I am aware of the long-term impact of the effects of childhood separation. What I see in my consulting room isn’t good.

Current official UK statistics anticipate 75% of our children will live in more than one form of family grouping within their childhood. So many children will start with their original biological family, then move into alternative situations such as single parent set ups and/or a step family arrangements and possibly back to single family set ups, as the complexity of their parents lives unfold.

This human tragedy is a ticking time bomb and the ‘victims’ of family breakdown are not the single mothers or fathers struggling to bring up our future generation, but the children, powerless to stop the disintegration of the family system they were born into.

The first couple of years of a family break up marks a significant transition period for all concerned, and represents the time when 30, 40, and 50 year old adults of both genders, find it challenging to fulfil their parenting roles while still feeling hurt and angry with their ex-partner. Some people are emotionally mature and separate in ways that minimise the pain and emotional damage to themselves – most of us aren’t! Though some fathers stop seeing their children without conflict arising, statistics show, conflict between separating parents, makes children more likely to lose their fathers within the first two years. Many mothers witnessing their children’s pain are devastated. However, while much is made of mothers being left to pick up the pieces once a family breaks down, little public debate is aired around those mothers whose anger and disappointment towards their ex-partner is so extreme, they do not promote an environment to enlist their ex-partner to fulfil an active role in their children’s lives.

Even less discussion focuses on how many fathers feel, having to rebuild a life when a meaningful level of contact with their children is compromised. The stories I hear in my consulting room include fathers emotionally steeling themselves to go back to what was their family home; collecting children in unwelcoming surroundings, to take them for tea or overnight, or, if they’re lucky, they’ll have 48 hours before steeling themselves again, as they drop their children back to their mothers. This constant walking in and out leaves fathers feeling powerless and marginalised in their children’s wellbeing. Some despair, others are enraged. They believe they have one of two options, either to stand and fight for their children’s rights to have a meaningful relationship with them, (which risks reinforcing a mother’s view that her ex-partner is unreasonable), or to flee and cut themselves off totally, thereby burying their pain (ostrich like) by not looking back emotionally or financially. In my experience, much of this dualistic thinking lies behind why fathers become unavailable to their children.

There‘s little Government money to ensure all divorcing parents are given up to 24 weeks psychological support in the first 18 months of a separation to help readjust to their parental roles – together and apart. It would be more in depth than mediation and with an educative element from the point of separation and could cost £3000 per family. Not everyone needs this service, but shouldn’t every child have the right to know they no longer have to carry the burden of their parent’s emotional distress? Painless Divorce offers this support, but how much better it would be if this was financially subsidised.

In my old lecturing days I’d suggested a pilot study to test the cost effectiveness of providing families with coaching and psychological support during the early stages of separation v the current cost of Cafcass reports, court days, days off work and other current hidden costs of divorce.

If we want to reduce the number of fathers who lose emotional and financial contact with their children we have to support the transition for both parents!   If we dare to take these steps to help parents, we could reach an outcome where more divorcing couples feel emotionally supported to sit around a table and collaborate with each other to build a better future for them and their children.

Adriana Summers