Mothers apart – living away from your children

If you are a mother living apart from your child, you will probably be familiar with questions of how and why you left your children, and how you cope. Even today, when amicable separations occur, mothers who don’t live with their children are regarded as at best an oddity – and at worst, unnatural and selfish. Sarah Hart explains the main challenges of being a mother apart living apart from their children, and gives advice on how to deal with this often devastating experience.

Whatever the reason for separation, living apart from a child can be devastatingly painful. More women live apart from children than most people realise. The Child Support Agency figures show that there are currently 67,000 non-resident mothers paying maintenance, but it is thought that the real number of mothers living apart from children for a range of reasons could be over 250,000 in the UK.

How do mothers come to live apart from their children?

There is a growing trend of family courts granting shared residency in the UK (what used to be joint custody), after which a mother becomes a part-time mum. Sometimes, women who have residency (custody) find that it doesn’t work in practise, and children decide they want to live with dad. Sometimes, mothers lose residency due to a personal crisis, an illness or because she works full time and her child’s father is regarded as the primary carer by the courts.

What are the main challenges facing mothers living apart from their children?

The circumstances surrounding a mother living apart from a child are often complex and emotionally charged. In my experience as a ‘mother apart’ for 20 years, a counsellor, and author of self-help book A Mother Apart: How to let go of guilt and find happiness living apart from your child - mothers apart experience a double whammy.

They face the judgement of the outside world, usually the actual responses from the people they come into contact with and what they read and hear in some of the media, and they are also judged by their ‘inner’ world – the negative things they tell themselves. Negative inner judgement erodes self-esteem and destroys confidence.

In particular, mothers apart from their children face the challenge of

• The loss of everyday motherhood
• Stress, if they are battling with an ex-partner and trying to help children torn between two worlds.
• Guilt, tormenting themselves by taking on too much responsibility.
• Shame if they’ve lost residency – some mothers apart keep their status as a mother a secret to avoid probing questions and possible criticism.
• Social stigma – it’s still more socially acceptable for men to live apart from their children.

Although it might feel very difficult, it is possible to find inner peace and happiness living apart from a child. Many women I know say that just knowing that they’re not the only one comes as a relief.

Here are some tips to help mothers living apart from their children.

Please know that you have the right to feel good about yourself Whether you’re a part-time mum or haven’t had contact with your child for years, it’s possible to let go of any unnecessary guilt or shame you might feel. Please don’t punish yourself and find help if you need it.

Don’t compete for your child’s love As non-resident mothers, whether or we have regular contact with our children or not, we imagine that their father, his new partner or someone else is going to ‘own’ them more than we do, and use up our quota of allocated love. You can learn to reduce the struggle and urgency inside you by centring on your potential for loving in a broader sense. There is no competition - you are and always will be your child’s mother.

Let go of trying to be Supermother Supermother – the perfect, always loving, always available mother who raises perfect children - is the arch-enemy of all women and is a particularly nasty bit of work where mothers apart are concerned. Make a conscious effort to banish her. Try writing down the positives to be gained from being ‘good enough’, rather than perfect. For example: ‘I’ll do that scuba diving course I always wanted to do, which will set a great example for my child on living a life to the full.’

You can change how you feel about your ex! Some mothers apart are susceptible to remaining psychologically bonded to their ex by outdated patterns of relating, guilt and fear. Your quality of life after your divorce or separation is your choice. Whatever your circumstances, explore your part in the relationship and its downfall, dissolve your energetic connection with your ex and take stock of your emotions in order to truly separate and move on.

Don’t make your new partner your therapist Allowing your partner to slip into the role of your counsellor will put a strain on your relationship. As much as you love each other, the reality is that he or she isn’t a mother apart and will never understand exactly how you feel. If you are experiencing a lot of pain, confusion, anxiety or other strong feelings, please find additional support from someone outside your relationship.

Be your child’s mother, not her friend Let’s take discipline as an example. As mothers apart, we can hang our inability or decision not to discipline our children on a whole host of reasons - guilt, wanting to keep things ‘nice’, fear of rejection or an attack from our child: ‘What right do you have to …’or ‘Dad’s a much better parent than you, at least he understands …’. Separation means that your child needs consistency and containment now more than ever before. Know that without a doubt, loving your child also means saying ‘No’.

Remember, another person’s judgement of you is not ‘the truth’ Remind yourself of this every time you think someone is critical of your situation or you feel bad after reading yet another article about ‘unfit’ or ‘abandoning’ mothers.

Never give up hope, especially if you don’t have contact with your child You never know what’s around the corner - stories abound of children’s natural curiosity to find out about the parent they’ve been separated from. Live as well and as fully as you can, respecting your child’s right to learn about life in her own time and pace. If it’s appropriate, send letters, text messages or try to phone. Wait patiently and lovingly, and take extremely good care of yourself. If you live apart from your child, please find the support you need. Create an understanding support team around you – your friends, family and, should you need one, a counsellor.

Find out more

Sarah Hart’s book, A Mother Apart: How to let go of guilt and find happiness living apart from your child is published by Crown House. She now has a good relationship with her 24 year old daughter, who grew up with her father in South Africa.  You can also visit Sarah's own website.

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