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‘The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any’.  Alice Walker

I love this quote from Alice Walker who understands the pain of being a mother apart – the last time I heard she was still estranged from her daughter.

What does it mean to have power in any given situation? Perhaps we feel this when we agree a parenting plan with our ex, or reach an acceptable financial settlement or achieve the status of resident parent. These often hard won examples quite rightly help us to feel empowered, validated and vindicated. But how do we feel when things don’t work out the way we would like them, when life doesn’t feel fair or right? How easy it can be to feel disempowered, unequal and less than.

Different ways of feeling powerless

There are two different ways to feel powerless. The first is caused by someone or something external such as, our ex having residency of our children, our child decides he or she wants to live with their father, we are obliged to pay maintenance to our ex even though contact with our children is being obstructed.

The second way we can feel lacking in power lives internally within ourselves. Some of us have an accumulated sense of helplessness from abuse or neglect during childhood. Others build up a sense of helplessness in the more recent past – having endured an abusive marriage is an example, the way we have felt undermined, bullied, undefended. Sometimes years later, we can still feel vulnerable, judged, criticised or guilt ridden. Even though we no longer have anyone in our lives putting us down we find that we are very good at convincing ourselves that we are powerless.

In my work with mothers apart from children I often see both external and internal powerlessness. Women who have lost so much – children, homes livelihoods – self belief, self worth and the ability to self care.

How can we empower ourselves?

Be wise about control

Stop railing against the things you can’t control. You can’t re-write a Cafcass report, or force the legal process. You can’t make a rejecting older or adult child value being with you or insist someone else changes their opinion of you. But you can change yourself – your point of view, your attitude, your actions, how you treat yourself – and feel a lot better for letting go of trying to control people or things. And sometimes when we change, others change too.

Take responsibility for your thoughts.

It’s your choice to adopt criticism from others as your perception of who you are. Allowing judgements and criticism from others to rule your thoughts will impact negatively on your behaviour. Don’t give others this power over you. Remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s wise words – “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission”.

 

Watch your language!

Watch negative self talk. I hear mothers apart from children say the most cruel and undermining things about themselves – “I was/am so stupid, gullible, weak willed, it’s all my fault, I can’t forgive myself” – the list is long and the self punishment powerful. Pay attention to any self-defeating thoughts you have. Talk to yourself like you would to your best friend, not to someone you don’t like. You deserve to be spoken to with compassion and loving kindness, give that to yourself.

Review your point of view

Observe your mindset if you slip into thinking ‘I will never get over this, things will never change, it’s not fair, not natural, not right, not possible’. Stop! Really? Can you be sure? Bring yourself back to the present when your view on the world becomes dark, small and limited. Who is to say this thing that feels insurmountable isn’t the very thing that needs to happen. We do not possess insight into future, neither can we control it.

Choose potency

What a wonderful word! The Oxford dictionary defines potency as ‘The power of something to affect the mind or body’. Close your eyes and breathe in a sense of potency into your belly. Bolster yourself with these thoughts: Some things take a while, maybe months, maybe years. I will bide my time. I will shape up a good life for myself. I will be happy. To help you along your way you might enjoy the poem Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou . Go on, read it out loud for all of us!

Warmly,

Sarah Hart

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Although we know it happens every year, seeing Mother’s Day cards and gifts for sale in the shops can kick start what is called a frequency illusion, also known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. This phenomenon happens when you notice something and then start seeing it everywhere. When we have strong feelings about something, the frequency illusion is bound to be heightened. For example, mothers living apart from their children might notice the date on which Mother’s Day falls, which can then lead to observing local florists and restaurants advertising the event with painful regularity.

Frequency illusion is a passive experience, in other words, our brain seeks out information that resonates with us, making us believe that there is an actual increase in the frequency of these occurrences. This being so, perhaps a more conscious, rational approach to Mothers Day will be helpful.

Are other people doing something?

So who is doing what on Mother’s Day? I’ve just searched the internet with the following ‘Mothers Day 2015’ and found there are over 35,100,000 results. If we’re not consciously aware of our own wellbeing, we could be blindsided by a bad case of FOMO at this time of year. In case you’ve not heard of FOMO before, new technology, particularly social media has coined this phrase. ‘FOMO’ stands for ‘Fear Of Missing Out’. If you let them, happy family photos and messages on social media could leave you feeling hurt – you don’t even have to physically walk past Mother’s Day cards, flowers, chocolates, pink bubbly in the supermarket to feel excluded or envious. We can’t control whether or not our children will acknowledge us on Mother’s Day but we can take care of ourselves. Could the day be an opportunity for you to relax, create, take some exercise, book a trip, find a class, read a book? Whatever it is, do what feels right for you, never mind what others are doing or what they think.

Are you doing something?

Whether you’ve planned something pleasurable or spend the day doing something you’ve been meaning to crack on with, just do it – no matter how you feel. Instead of taking your lead from blue feelings and then giving up, practice watching your emotions come and go without trying to change them or push them away. This is what Buddhists call non-attachment. It doesn’t mean being like a stone. Watching rather than buying into our feelings becomes possible when we understanding them as passing and temporary. Upset comes upon us and it leaves and it can help if we don’t judge ourselves. In other words, we don’t regard our feelings or ourselves as either negative or positive. Try allowing feelings to rise, soften and fall away, rather than feeding and fuelling the drama of what we tell ourselves about our circumstances. So, even if you’re feeling unmotivated or resistance towards Mothering Sunday, allow the feeling and at the same time, start doing whatever it is you have decided to do on the day. Even though it’s not the aim, you might surprise yourself and find that you have a good time.

What thing are you not going to do?

Hot on the heels of doing something just for you on Mother’s Day, how about reconsidering what you currently do routinely? Maybe there are things in your life that you no longer have the time or energy for, such as a club or a class and you just don’t want to let others down by moving on. Perhaps it’s a belief or a behaviour that has had its day and you fear you’d risk losing part of your identity if you gave up on it. This might be the expectation of meaningful contact with your child at this point in time. It might also be the notion of taking off the hair shirt that we can inadvertently pull on when we live apart from children – ‘I should have done more or less, earlier or later, held my tongue or have spoken my mind or fill in the blank……’ –  leg traps all! If this resonates with you, there is no need to do this to yourself. It serves no one, least of all you. Make it top of your ‘no longer going to do’ list.

Whether you have contact or not with your children, whether they appreciate your love at this time or not, do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself this Mother’s Day. Do the thing you think you cannot do, especially if this thing is treating yourself with gentleness and compassion.

Despite the knowledge that from a religious perspective Christmas is the time of good cheer and celebration, this time of year can highlight the flaws in our lives. A lack of money when people are buying presents, illness or depression when others are partying or being alone in what feels like a world full of happy families. How can we best support ourselves over the festive weeks?

I hope the following scenarios help to shine a guiding light on finding peace of mind.

All that glitters

A mother apart had made good progress after feeling that her world had ended when her teenage son decided to live with his father. She was beginning to shine once again, discovering fulfilment as an independent woman as well as making time to be with her son, although he did not always want this. A few weeks before Christmas he asked her to go late night shopping with him. Swept up in a seasonal fantasy – an image of the two of them enjoying gingerbread cappuccinos and watching carol singers in the square – she cancelled what she had planned for the evening. Instead of her daydream, the reality was one hour with moody lad who demanded to be taken home once she had bought him the latest computer game. She drove home feeling cheated and manipulated.

It is wise to reality check the gold shimmering before us. Is it ‘realism solid’ or ‘fantasy plate’? The teenage years are a time of self focus, when thinking about a parent’s needs is unlikely. Remembering that this disappointing shopping trip is just as likely to happen when parents aren’t separated, can normalise and remove the sting. By ignoring the glitter – the longing for what we don’t have at this moment – and offering quality time that does not compromise us moving forward with our lives, we are best placed to enjoy a mutually rewarding relationship with our children if and when they are ready.

March to your own drum

A mother who was estranged from her two daughters, regularly sent them cheques inside of Christmas cards. Each year she waited with baited breath. If the cheques were banked quickly, she wondered whether it was a sign of change, perhaps a growing acceptance…or did the girls simply want the money? Every passing day without seeing a bank withdrawal filled her with anxiety and pain. Had they thrown the cheques away to demonstrate their rejection of her? As the years passed she sent larger sums of money which she couldn’t afford, hoping to see a quick deposit, perhaps even a note of thanks or phone call. She felt controlled even though sending cheques was routine created by herself.

When we become aware of the ways in which we give away our power, we are able to begin new, healthy rhythms to our lives. We take responsibility for our decisions, unswayed by guilt. For example, “I chose to send this amount and no more to show I care. Whether or not they choose to receive my gift is their choice”. We strive to find a good balance between taking care of own needs and offering to meet the needs of our estranged children, if and when they are open to accept this. We march with confidence to our own drum.

A time of giving or giving up?

A mother apart struggled to hold on to her seasonal traditions after her divorce. Quite understandably, she longed for her usual family Christmas, familiar decorations, food, music and games. One year her ex partner insisted the children spend the day with him. Another year her children told her they wanted to be with their dad. As Christmas was so important to her, she suffered weeks of anxiety while it was decided with whom the children will be. On years when they were with their father, she felt a lingering rejection and resentment.

The concept of giving takes on new meaning when routines of the past fall away. When we decide to let go of the past, we allow for new traditions to take shape, new possibilities that could be just as good or better. Giving up our desire to have things be a certain way can be done with a little goodwill on our part. If this feels impossible, then decide to let go for your own health and wellbeing. Emotional giving need not be giving up, if we make it our choice. To choose is to empower ourselves.

Lonely this Christmas

Lonely or alone? A mother who is regularly apart from her children laughed when she told me how her lively, loud, extended family pre-separation Christmases used to be. She thought she’d never adjust but now she loves being on her own, viewing Christmas as a day for being incredibly self-indulgent in an unselfish way. She feels she doesn’t have to make anyone else happy. With only herself to consider, she eats what and when she wants, reads for hours, goes for a walk. One year, she focused on de-cluttering and getting organised for the year ahead. She said Christmas alone is always a day well spent.

There’s not much I can add to this fabulous example of excellent self-care and making yourself happy! The 25th December is not a non-negotiable being together day. If you are going to be alone when you don’t want to be, make sure you choose how to spend your day. Even consciously choosing to do very little is healthier than feeling that very little happens for you.

Where ever you are, whatever you will be doing, I wish you comfort and peace this Christmas.

Warmly,

Sarah Hart

Counsellor, Dip IRC, MA, MBACP (Accred), UKRCP

Mother’s Day tips for non-custodial mothers…

Being such a money making occasion, Mother’s Day is difficult to avoid – but you can make things easier by preparing yourself emotionally.

Please make a commitment to take outrageously good care of yourself today.

In particular…

Remember, you are and always will be your child’s mother 365 days a year, no matter what has happen in the past, or what might happen in the future. Having given birth to a child is a huge achievement. Sit quietly for a while and honour your status as a mother.

That said, it is essential to remind yourself that being a mother is only part of who you are. For many of us (especially in the early days of separation) it feels like a really big part but make no mistake, our status as a mother it is part of us not the whole of us. Many mothers are so used to being involved with their children’s lives they lose touch with their own. Living apart from our children is like experiencing premature empty nest syndrome. Children leave home eventually which means that at some point in your life you would need to address being without them. For us, this life stage arrived earlier than expected. Like all mothers who reach this transition, ask yourself: What would fulfill me? What have I always wanted to do but never got around to? Don’t let guilt get in the way. Take off the hair shirt – it’s your life, so make sure you live it.

Buy yourself some flowers today. Plan a special treat or, better still, ask your partner or a friend to go with you for a springtime walk, tea and cake, a delicious meal or whatever you love doing best. Whatever you, know that you worthy of love and kindness so please give this to yourself.

Warmly,
Sarah

Christmas is seen traditionally as a time for happiness, celebration and in particular, a time for giving. Over these past few weeks, my work with my counselling clients who live apart from their children has often included exploring their feelings and decisions around giving presents to their children.
 
Circumstances vary. There are those who are anxious that they over compensate for hurt caused to their children by their divorce or separation. Some question whether they spend too much on their children as they compete with an extravagant ex-partner for their child’s approval or affection.  Hurt and angry after years of giving presents without acknowledgement or thanks, still others wonder whether they should send a card only or whether this could be misconstrued as unloving or selfish. Some fear gifts being returned or cheques remaining uncashed, and say with sadness that they are never sure whether their child even knows that they send presents.
 
If you usually give gifts at this time or any other, I hope that you achieve peace of mind with your decisions. I encourage my clients to examine and reality check their feelings so that they consciously choose whether or not to send gifts, as opposed to reactionary giving –  giving to try to avoid rejection or not giving because of feeling hurt or angry. I remind them that we have no control over how our children receive or feel about our gifts but what is important always, is our intention. Is what we send enough to show our love without attempting to buy the love of our children? Is deciding not to send a gift or card out of respect for our child’s request for no contact or to punish our child, an attempt to make our child really feel what they are missing out on?
 
Whether or not you are troubled by giving presents to others at this frenetic time of year, I would urge you to pause and consider ways of giving to yourself. Even without the pain of separation, Christmas is loaded with time restrictions and stressful must and should dos.
 
Here are my top five gift suggestions for you:
 
The gift of giving yourself permission to enjoy yourself
Many mothers apart feel unworthy of or guilty about letting their hair down and planning fun as well as nurturing activities over the holiday period. It is so important to you and those around you to give yourself permission to enjoy yourself. Why? When we are having fun we relieve ourselves of stress, regain a balanced view on life and relate to the people and world around us as safe, life enhancing and full of potential. Live a little, luxuriate, revel, kick up your heels – do what makes you happy.

The gift of a new tradition
Our mind is playing a trick on us if we tell ourselves that what we have done for years is the only way of doing things. If you feel in pain or overwhelmed by memories of how Christmas used to be with your children, create a new tradition for your holiday time. None of your previous customs are cast in stone. Feel as free as you truly are to redesign the old routines. Rejoice in the liberating opportunity of making new plans. Cut loose and shape things to just how you (and those who will be with you) like them.

The gift of receiving openheartedly
You are worthy of receiving gifts, attention, love, compliments – even if you are rejected by your children. You do not have to suffer. Take pleasure in receiving unreservedly, gifts, love and kindness from others. Accept openheartedly, without longing for the giver or gift to be someone or something else. Don’t lose sight of the good intention of the giver – to receive graciously, even a simple compliment, can be a rewarding experience for you both.

The gift of being in the present moment
Living in the past or the future separates us from reality of the moment. Of course it is natural to feel a sense of loss and sadness about not being with the children you love at Christmas but being stuck in feelings of disappointment and hurt for long periods of time does not serve you, your children or the people around you who care about you. At significant moments of the holiday period, stop, hold your child in loving thought and then honour yourself for being your child’s mother. Many people find a symbolic ritual like lighting a candle can help them be with their feelings in the moment, before letting go and moving on with their day.

The gift of serenity 
We can work our way though waves of grief but indignation and grudges keep us stuck. He or she might deserve your resentment and bitterness – but you don’t. Decide to side step the vengeful or galling behaviour of others we have to have to communicate with. No one has the right to steal your serenity. Choosing not to play the game or answer back takes you along the road of inner peace – surely the biggest gift you can give yourself.
 
To end this year, my wish for you is taken from a meditation of Lovingkindness:
 
May you be well, may you be healthy, may you be happy, may you be at ease, may you be at peace.
 
Until 2013, take very good care of yourself.

Learning to co-parent your child during and after divorce and separation can be difficult. It calls on us to be very adult at a time of high stress, hurt and conflict – often when we are most vulnerable and feeling childlike ourselves. As challenging as this can be, it is possible to share the parenting your child with your ex and their new partner in ways that are nurturing of your child.

In my book, A Mother Apart, I write about non-competitive co-parenting and suggest ways for mothers who are no longer full time parents, to relax into open hearted mothering, to practice letting go and holding on to their child in equal measure.

When I counsel my clients, both mothers and fathers, I approach issues they might have with co-parenting in two distinct parts. Firstly, we explore the feelings and experience of my client, the parent. Then, with greater awareness of where her/his feelings and experience end and where the separate identity of their child begins, we focus on the needs of their child.

In my experience, if you don’t explore and validate the often very strong feelings of fear of loss, being replaced, competition, jealousy, over protectiveness, possession – all very normal, natural feelings – and if you move too quickly on the needs of the child, a parent isn’t helped to identify and accept these strong feelings, and will then find it very hard to choose to act with grace and dignity, and very importantly, in the best interests of their child.

Now, let’s be clear – experiencing strong feelings of jealousy, competition, fear of being replaced is normal and for some of us, these feelings are very intense. However, there is a clear difference between feeling and choosing to act in any particular way. This is why I believe it is important for parents to examine and understand their feelings and make a conscious choice to co-parent their child. An example internal conversation of a separated parent could be something like this: “Hmm, I notice I am feeling fearful about letting Gemma go to Mike’s this weekend, I feel jealous and imagine that she is having a nicer time with him than with me.  Ok…this is how I am feeling. Feelings are not necessarily reality. I am not going to act on these feelings. I am going to wave Gemma off with a smile and do something nurturing for myself.”

Here are some thoughts and tips to help parents co-parent:

  • Just as with 24/7 hands on parenting, you are in it for the long haul when you co-parent. Mindful parenting means that we pay attention to our child’s immediate needs and in so doing we shape the relationship we will have with our child as an adult. When it comes to your ex, remember that having a child together means that you are also in it for the long haul – you will have to deal with each other at graduations, weddings, and share your grandchildren with him or her.
  • Every action you take role models a behaviour for your child. Think and check in with yourself before you act.
  • The reality is that you have even less control of parenting when you split up with your partner and how you parent needs to change. The less contact time you have the more mindful you need to be.
  • Go out of your way to communicate with your ex. Be as generous as possible, keeping the needs of your child clearly in focus.
  • Different parenting styles and approaches will become more apparent when you co-parent. Tell yourself that different is not wrong or bad, it is just not how you would do things.
  • Your child has a right to a relationship with your ex and his/her new partner, new and step siblings which is completely separate from you and your life.
  • Don’t badmouth your ex in front of your child. Children identify with both parents and experience badmouthing of a parent as a personal attack.
  • Show empathy and understanding regarding your child being separated from one of their parents – assure them that it is really fine with you that they love and want to be with dad/mum after your divorce
  • Don’t pump your child for information on the other parent, their new partner and family. Not knowing about and controlling the impact of your child’s family beyond you is the reality after divorce.
  • Tell yourself there is no competition – you will always be child’s mother or father – there is enough love to go around.
  • Focus on your own life! You deserve to be happy, find love with a new partner and experience the joy of other children.

Sarah’s new self-help book: A Mother Apart

Support for women

Sarah specialises in counselling and training women. She helps non-resident mothers find inner peace by dealing with guilt, distress and other difficult feelings which can be experienced when living apart from their child. Her self-help book, 'A Mother Apart', published by Crown House, is available now. She also supports business women grow in confidence whilst growing their businesses. To find out more, please visit Sarah Hart's website

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