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(Britain) Mum doesn't live with us any more

In the six-day court hearing that followed, Margaret found to her dismay that “when it comes to custody battles, possession is nine tenths of the law.

We make the best of a life we didn't choose.
The Times (Britain)
3 June 2008

Mum doesn't live with us any more

More than 150,000 UK mothers live apart from their children, as courts increasingly give custody to fathers, Catherine Bruton reports on the rise of 'mothers apart'

Margaret Clarke went out to work one day and returned to find that her children had gone. "My husband ended our eight-year marriage by walking out with my two young sons, then aged 4 and 2. I came home to an empty house. It was a nightmare."

Margaret applied to the county court, which ruled that the children should be returned to their mother - but her estranged husband refused to do so.

In the six-day court hearing that followed, Margaret found to her dismay that "when it comes to custody battles, possession is nine tenths of the law. If you've got the kids from the outset you are in a much better position to maintain the status quo. My ex-husband was able to establish a 'new normal' with the children, thus initiating the elimination of me as their mother from their lives."

When the judgment finally came, Margaret, a 42-year-old business manager from South London who had been working full-time as the family's main breadwinner, felt that she was penalised for being a working woman. The court granted residence to the children's father, confining Margaret's contact to once a week and alternate weekends.

Margaret's story is not uncommon. The number of UK mothers who have little or no contact with their children is rising each year. The latest quarterly Child Support Agency figures (September 2007) show that women are registered as the "non-resident parent" in 66,900 maintenance cases. These figures do not include mothers who have been denied "parental status" and so have no access at all to their children. Penny Cross of Match (Mothers Apart from Their Children) estimates that there are more than 150,000 mothers living apart from their children in the UK, and the numbers are rising every year.

A new book seeks to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions about such mothers. A Mother Apart: How to let go of guilt and find happiness living apart from your child (Crown House Publishing, £12.99) is written by Sarah Hart, a counsellor and "mother apart" who argues that we live in a world of gender double standards, where non-resident mothers are unfairly stigmatised. "People assume that they have either abandoned their children or been deemed unfit mothers by the courts. They are perceived as bad mums, odd, possibly even heartless, selfish or cruel," she says. "In reality, the circumstances surrounding a mother choosing to living apart from a child are often complex and emotionally charged. Decisions are often made very quickly in times of high stress, few resources and seemingly few choices."

Cultural expectations of male and female parenting roles have changed in recent years, but the stereotype of the mother who would fight to the death rather than live without her children continues to hold sway over the public imagination. "Many 'mothers apart' feel that they have no socially recognised right to grieve the loss of their children," explains Hart. "They may keep quiet about the existence of children with whom they have no contact, struggling in silence with feelings of worthlessness, guilt, high anxiety and depression."

Each year between 150,000 and 200,000 (married and unmarried) parental couples in England and Wales separate. Most parents agree arrangements for residence and contact without the involvement of the courts. As in Marie's case (see left), financial constraints are the most common reason for mums to relinquish custody, but illness, depression and personal ambition may also be factors.

For an increasing number of women, though, the decision is taken out of their hands by the courts. About 30,000 residence orders are made each year in English and Welsh courts. According to Miranda Fisher, a family law solicitor with Charles Russell: "If there has, in the past, been a presumption in favour of the mother as primary carer, now that more mothers are working full time and fathers taking on more childcare responsibilities, there is a growing trend in the family courts towards making shared residence orders. There are also more cases where fathers obtain sole residence orders, although they are still very much in the minority."

Fisher says that courts are reluctant to cause children upheaval by disrupting existing residence arrangements. "For example, if a mother moves out of the family home - perhaps planning to organise alternative accommodation for herself and the children - it might take between six and 12 months to get to a court hearing that will make a final determination about residence. By that time the father may have made arrangements for the children that work well, and the court must then decide what the effect on the children would be of changing these arrangements. What the mother may have intended to be only a temporary arrangement could result in her permanently losing residence."

And for many mothers who fail to gain residence, the story doesn't end there. "The real difficulty for the absent parent often lies not in obtaining an order for contact with children, but in making contact work in the long term," says Fisher. "This is most apparent where the court is faced with a hostile parent with residence of the children who refuses to accept that any contact is in their interests."

In the past, courts could hand out fines or prison sentences only to obstructive parents - measures usually not considered to be in the best interests of the child. "When the Children and Adoption Act (CAA) 2006 comes into force, parents who breach contact orders, or conditions attached to contact, will risk having to do community service alongside those convicted of criminal offences," explains Fisher. "However, the success of the new powers will depend largely on the extent to which judges are prepared to use these measures."

But if the children themselves refuse to comply, there is little that the courts can do. "I have a piece of paper confirming that I have shared residence of my children, but it's worthless," says Margaret. "My eldest son was convinced by his father that I was evil and dangerous, and two years after the split he started refusing to stay with me."

Afraid that her relationship with her youngest son was also at risk Margaret applied to the courts. "The judge refused to believe that my children were being brainwashed against me. Now I have two children who are my life but will not acknowledge me. My ex believes he has 'won' and that our children, aged just 11 and 8, are old enough to have decided that they don't want me as a mother."

Separated parents of both genders who are prohibited from seeing their children suffer deeply as a result. "All I have left is to pray that one day, when they are old enough, they will somehow find their way back to me," says Margaret. "I will always be waiting for them."

Barbara Stillman, 54, has left the door open to her estranged daughter for more than a decade. "I've had no contact with my eldest daughter, now 24, since she was 14 but I have never let go of her in my heart," she says.

When Barbara's husband walked out of the marriage, her two girls opted to go with him while their brothers stayed with Barbara. "You can't force contact with your children but you never stop being a mum," she says. "I always went along to parents' evenings. On one occasion my eldest daughter started screaming at me 'You're not my mother. You have no right to be here!'"

Last week Barbara's daughter sent her a text message - the first contact in years. "I'm overjoyed!" says Barbara. "It may seem like only a small thing but for me it's the best gift I could hope for."

Barbara believes that while you should never give up hope, mothers apart cannot dwell in the past. "It may seem impossibly hard but you have to find a life of your own, try to move on. If you spend your time mourning the childhoods you can't recapture and running over all the painful memories, you will end up emotionally crippled," she says.

Sarah Hart, a counsellor, agrees: "If there is to be a chance for a meaningful adult relationship, it's important for mothers apart to work through those feelings of pain, guilt, shame or anger."

I'm still their mum

Two years ago Marie Cartwright, 39, from York, walked out of an abusive marriage, leaving behind her two girls: Elizabeth, 6, and Charlotte, 2. "I desperately wanted to take the girls with me but all I could afford was a single room in a shared house," she says. "The only other option was a homeless shelter. If the girls stayed in the family home with their father they would be surrounded by friends, grandparents, uncles, aunts and all that was familiar. It was a heartbreaking decision for any mother to have to make but in the end I did what I thought was best for them.

"Sometimes I torture myself wondering if I did the right thing. My greatest fear is that the girls will grow up believing I left because I didn't love them enough." Some members of Marie's family refuse to forgive her. Her own mother hasn't spoken to her since the split.

Marie maintains regular contact with her daughters. "Of course I'd love to see the girls more than I do, but there's no point in beating myself up all the time for not being there for them 24/7. I just have to try to be the best mum I can in the time I have with them. I stopped being a wife but I never stopped being a mum."
Sarah Hart, counsellor and author: www.sarahhart.co.uk

National Family Mediation (NFM): www.nfm.org.uk

Families Need Fathers (FNF) www.fnf.org.uk
Have your say said
So why is THIS news - while men are expected to 'get on with it'?

Oh - and yes. I SO sympathise with women who have gone through this, because I'm a father who has. No one should suffer the loss of their children.

But that's the way courts work, kids!

Mark, London,


No parent should seek to use their children as weapons against the other parent. As a mother I have lost my two daughters, despite support of the family court. Wherever possible children should have a loving relationship with both parents regardless of residence. We must find a way to address this.

LJ, Tonbridge,


Statistics held by the CSA are not a reliable indicator to events within the courts. The Children's Act of 1989 was to change the concepts of sole custody and replace them with shared residence . The journalist should ask why the Department of Health changed the implementation for sake of the child

barry gaynor, peterborough,


UK Family Court Judges recognise that our children lose out from being excluded from loving parent's lives. There are NO winners with our present judicial system

Penny Cooper, Oxford, UK


UK Family Courts continue to fail our children and their parents. It's time to recognise that children and both parents lose out from being excluded from each others' lives and acknowledge the heartache this involves for all parties.

Penny Cooper, Secretary
MOTHERS APART FROM THEIR CHILDREN

Penny Cooper, Oxford, UK


This is exactly what fathers have been experiencing and suffering for years.

Claire, Bromley,


This is why the norm should be shared custody with joint parental responsibility, as is the case in many other countries.

Children should not be separated from either parent in this way unless the parent is dangerous. Bitter former partners should not be allowed to force the issue.

Anna, London,


I know from experience that CSA find nigh on impossible to obtain maintenance from women who are non-resident parents. However you never hear of the media refer to them as "dead-beat mums"?

Mike, Middlesbrough,


This doesn't make any sense. The person who should get custody of the children is the parent most capable of looking after them. This is regardless of sex and is often the "stay at home" parent.

Breakups never end with perfect circumstances.

Matthew, Enfield, England


This seems like a very one sided article… It would be interesting to see how many times the mother won sole custody just because she's a she? Its about time Fathers were given exactly the same rights as Mothers, rather than just have to pay for the privilege of barely seeing their children.

Jamie, Maidstone, England


I read the headline and first paragraph and was pleased; nay exultant.

Fatherhood has been denied to so many by the family court, even when the mother has admitted serious impropriety.

Thereafter the 'mother' creates impossible conditions of access for the Dad.

The pendulum is swinging.

Michael, Aylesbury,


A justifiable article, my own contribution at the end skimming the surface of the pain of estrangement. The courage of mothers apart comes through in the book, and MATCH has allowed us to grieve and grow. Someone once said to me: "We make the best of a life we didn't choose."

Barbara Lee, Twickenham , England


And? A leveling of the playing field seems long overdue. This has been happening to fathers since the inception of 'family' courts. Maybe highlighting the problem will driver home the inequity of the current situation … but I doubt it.

Andrew, London,


Well, cry me a bloody river. Your article states nothing about the HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF MEN who are in the same position. These women are a SMALL MINORITY of the cases. The VAST MAJORITY of the time, men are left out in the cold. I guess it's only news when it applies to women, huh?

Spanky, Johnston, United States


How sweet. Now the tide has turned.

Stephen, Newcastle, England.


My two children aged 6 & 3 both live with their father during the week and myself on weekends. The children are extremely well cared for & well mannered. I find it abhorrent that women are stigmatised for allowing the children to live their father who is just as much a parent as the mother.

Emma, Powys,


My mother post divorce handed me and my sister to my father without warning when I was nine. I grew up believing that she didn't love me. 33 years on, I now have a loving relationship with someone who I now realise had suffered prolonged mental illness. Children can forgive and love again.

Jacqueline, Southampton,


Fathers have been suffering from this process for far longer. That is no reason for suggesting that 'its about time' or that the 'balance is being redressed'. The child matters most. These situations occur when the divorce is acrimonious; surely we should be trying to address that issue first.

David L, Brussels,


It's no fun having to choose which parent you don't want to be with. In the end you get to 30 and think … do I need either of them? If you have to choose it will be the parent that doesn't make you choose and puts your feelings above there own. Otherwise you say goodbye to them both for sanity.

Susan, Billericay,


The only marriage break-up in my extended family resulted in the father getting custody, and quite rightly, in my view. But surely the point here is that men living apart from their children get sympathy, while women get suspicion.

JP, Liverpool,


Marriage is not just a piece of paper, and children are not an accessory, or a fix to relationship problems.

Perhaps if people took marriage and having a child more seriously, circumstances such as those described above wouldn't happen quite so often.

Eleanor, Winchester, England


Unfortunately very few people seem to think about the effect that the split has on the children and instead are focusing on their own emotional needs. The children become the battleground and are the ones that end up "damaged" as a result. Access should be equally shared unless there is good reason

Mark, Fleet, UK


These stories sound so familiar to those of many more thousands of fathers have been suffering for years in a legal system that favours mothers more than fathers, and in general in society that encourages single mother homes, this is real poetic justice.

Herbert from reading, Reading, UK


The problem is the existing processes can't cope with parents (a) who decide that their children should lose their absent parent and (b) who decide that they have no ongoing responsibility for their children. Why can't Britain deal with either? All children and parents will lose until this is cured.

Gareth Davies, Burnham on Crouch, UK


Why is this even a story? The number of fathers in the exact same position is many times that of mothers but there doesn't seem to be many bleeding heart articles about them.

Mark, Sydney,


In helping parents in behind the closed doors of the family court children can be given to any parent, on any pretext and perjury when raised is blessed. However, how many of the children mentioned living apart from their biological parent are in foster care, adopted or living with gay couples?

Shaun O'Connell, Portsmouth, UK


I am a father in similar circumstances to Margaret with the mother abducting and abusing the children. Even the highest Court in the UK have stated that the mother is 'hostile', 'decietful', 'acting against the best intetests of her own children', YET CAFCASS AND JUDICIARY SUPPORT HER TO THE HILT.

Raj, Holbury, United Kingdom


Mothers and fathers suffer equally. In most cases, one parent will suffer and it will be unfair on them. A lot of fathers are penalised for being working men, just as much as the reference to working women in paragraph four.

brooke, Sydney, Australia


In most of the cases we have dealt with it is usually the "wrong" parent that gets the residence. Fathers and or mothers who are drug addicts, physical and or emotional abusers and in some cases illegal immigrants are often given sole residence. We provided a dossier of 10 cases which were investigated in depth to DFES, President of the Family Courts and the Prime Minister and where we got response it was sad reflection of what people in power think of our children

Kartar Badsha, Southport, UK


I am a single father of 2 daughters. Their mother rarely sees them, gives no financial support and didn't even send them a birthday card, or buy then an Xmas present. There will be cases where the mother is ill-done by but not often and probably less than for men, as courts bias toward women.

James, Watford,


A tragic and thought-provoking article. The points made are valuable and should be acted upon by the courts and, if necessary, changes in the law. Any changes should be made regardless of the gender of the parent. Then, there might be less discrimination against male parents, in divorce courts.

Marc, Paris, France


When couples split up, it's almost always the man who loses custody of his children and has their minds poisoned against him. Now that the courts are beginning to see that fathers make very good parents, the pendulum is swinging the other way. The usual female cry of 'abuse' is worn out now.

Mark Hardligon, London,


Cathering Bruton is absolutely right about possession being 9/10 the law. I had my son 5 days a week until his mum decided to remove me from his life after 18months. She lied in court about this possession and I've had to fight for 2 &1/2 years to now split time equally. The child is well though.

S.O., Manchester, UK


I would like to know the sources for the number of 150,000 mothers as I don't think there is reality in that. The treatment and suffering described is what happens structurally to fathers in the family court system. Of course it also will happen to mothers but in a relatively small number.

Peter Tromp (Father Knowledge Centre Europe), Utrecht, Netherlands


The fact that Mothers can so easily become cast aside as a mother is outrageous. Unless a parent is physically or mentally unable to take care of their offspring they should never be set apart from their children. Finances shouldn't come into it.

Jillian, Glasgow,


I guess this proves that there are no "winners" when marriages break up acrimoniously.

Having been fortunate to have come from a stable family, with my wife the same I must think myself lucky. So many kids I know (from coaching kids rugby) are from broken families, tragic.

Andrew, edinburgh.
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