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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

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As the school holiday period approaches, I invite you to spring clean your self care strategy. Whether or not you have contact with your children, making a conscious decision to take good care of yourself could, together with some sunny weather (fingers crossed!), relax and restore you over the summer months.

What do you gain by not looking after yourself? You might instantly say, “Nothing!” but I urge you to look a little deeper.  Do you believe that keeping super busy or more often than not putting other people first, the ‘nice’ thing that ‘good’ mothers do? Do you ignore your needs because you feel you are not worthy of extending tender loving care to yourself? Perhaps you feel guilty about pleasing yourself. Maybe you think you don’t deserve to be happy living apart from your child. Or perhaps you have gone so short of anyone ever showing you sufficient love and attention that you just don’t know how to give this to yourself. To be aware of how you sabotage your attempts at good self care will give you the choice to treat yourself with the respect you deserve, instead of ending up feeling exhausted, over responsible and resentful.

Paying attention to all aspects of ourselves will give us an overview of what we need.

Physical comfort

Exercise and good nourishment is essential to our wellbeing but are you balking at speaking to your doctor or alternative medicine practitioner about any physical symptoms you might have? Do you need to adjust any medication, or have a medical test? Are you menopausal? Menopause usually happens between the ages of 45 and 55 but can occur during your 30s and 40s, up to ten years before menstruation ceases. Physical symptoms can be far more than hot flushes and include headaches, back and joint pain and urinary problems. Memory problems, insomnia, lack of libido, irritability, panic responses and low mood including loss of purpose are common. Menopause is a profound transition, even the marrow in our bones changes. Are peri-menopausal symptoms compounding how you feel as a mother apart? Don’t suffer in silence, have a test and get the help you need.

Emotional intelligence

Taking care of our emotional health allows us to take responsibility for our decisions – it keeps us safe and helps us to achieve our goals. Know that you are worthy of wants, needs and desires. Setting and maintaining boundaries prevents us from being blown by every wind. Avoid emotional vampires – kick any inappropriate hangers on off the teat! If you don’t have contact with your child and you have done all you can to remedy this, it’s time to take off the hair shirt and live your life, one day at a time. Understanding and accepting that we cannot change anyone else – neither their behaviour or feelings towards us – helps us move from frustration and rejection to release and peace of mind as we focus on living our own lives.

It’s elemental

Being mindful of our mental health gives us the capacity to handle the ups and downs of life more resourcefully. It allows us to maintain relationships and communicate clearly. Our thoughts help us reality check our feelings as well as contain our actions and behaviour – vital for good self care. Have an honest look at any bad habits, compulsive behaviour and addictions. Find the support you need, you are more than worthy of this. Keep your mind active. Learn something new and interesting this summer. Development and discovery keeps us vital, young at heart and is an antidote to repetitive negative thinking.

The bigger picture

What is your word or phrase for your safe place? Choose something that has meaning for you, and say it whenever you need help in coming home to yourself. Whatever your spiritual beliefs, you can take comfort from knowing you are never alone. For some of us this is about being connected to a power greater than ourselves. For others, just knowing that without our will, the breath breathes itself, offering the ease and safety we need. Whether you belong to a spiritual or religious group, a 12 step group, meditate, practice yoga or watch nature unfold with your full attention, gain perspective – take care of your spiritual self.

Now, pop the kettle on and write down the answers to these three questions: 

  • Honestly….how well am I taking care of myself? Consider your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. What choices, decisions, changes need to be made?
  • How might I sabotage the changes I need to make? For example, believing that you aren’t worth it, that you don’t have the time, the money etc.
  • Who can I ask to help me find solutions or a workable alternative? Who can I ask to encourage me to make these changes and hold fast to them?

Until next time, take good care of yourself.

Warmly,

Sarah Hart

The first month of 2009 is almost over.  Did you make any new year’s resolutions? If so, have you stuck to them?  Sometimes, if you are ready, it is possible to start a new year by resolving not to do this or to start doing that, but research carried out by psychologist, Professor Richard Wiseman showed that only one in ten of us will succeed.

 

This isn’t a reason to feel gloomy or give up – I believe it just takes a different approach.  A gentle one – that isn’t dictated to us by an unforgiving, critical internal voice many mothers apart from their children struggle with. 

 

Here are some suggestions for making the most of 2009:

 

Start by reflecting on what works well in your life.  Make time for a break with a cuppa, pen and a note pad.  Write your lists of positives, including things that you’ve worked hard to achieve, things that are resolving themselves over the passage of time and where you think you just got lucky.  Sometimes our gifts are so well wrapped we have difficulty seeing them as such.  As you reflect and unwrap yourself, you can unwrap each gift.  Appreciate yourself. You’ve allowed these successes, however big or small to happen in your life. Acknowledgement creates potentiality.

 

Choose change and do it slowly.  It’s never too late to re-examine our choices.  Re-examination is wise.  We always have choices, knowing this is empowering.   Ask yourself:  What will make me feel better? What is in my best interests?  If you’re feeling low or knocked back by life, start incrementally, to build your confidence.  Even going to bed a half an hour earlier to read more or sleep longer, or getting up earlier to avoid rushed mornings, eat a proper breakfast, do yoga or Tai Chi – can make a big difference.  Little changes build confidence for bigger challenges. 

 

If you’d like to end a damaging habit that is physical – like smoking or compulsive eating, or emotional – like reacting angrily, judgementally or sinking into a depression ; ask yourself what this action or feeling is doing or you, what the payoff to this behaviour is?  For example, working too hard can protect us from feeling loss and loneliness.  Smoking or eating might be a way of drawing in and holding on to anger.  An angry outbursts or self criticism could be masking our need to grieve.  Self awareness – knowing the payoff – is the first step to choosing a different way. 

 

Do something completely different – belly dancing, buy a drum set, walk Hadrian’s Wall, ice skating, learn Italian, become a platinum blond, read poetry in public, do a high ropes course, patchwork quilt making or anything else under the sun. Notice any resistance you feel.  Who says you can’t?  Even something as simple as buying a lipstick in a colour you’ve never worn before can enliven you.  Something different invigorates, gets us thinking, makes us laugh!  

 

Interestingly, Dr Wiseman’s research showed that women were more likely to keep their resolutions when they told friends and family about them and gained support.  Although sharing our hopes, fears, longing and problems can seem like a risk – especially if you’re feeling pain, guilt and low self worth – reaching out, connecting with others and asking for help when you need it is a strength not a weakness.  

 

Spring is in the wings, the Snowdrops are out so why not go on a walk to look for some.  Snowdrops are said to symbolise hope and consolation – a soothing gift of nature, just for you.

 

My daughter, her husband and my little grand daughter have now gone back to their home in South Africa, after spending a wonderful holiday with us.  It rained for most of the time when they were here but it didn’t matter too much.  I’m sure that many mothers apart will know that it’s the little things – the incidental, funny, silly, spontaneous moments that you gather up into your internal memory chest to savour over, months and years later, when you’re in the bath or on a walk..rather than perfect days out.

 

Shortly after they left, I gave a talk at the MATCH (mothers who live apart from their children) AGM.  It was a wonderful experience for me.  The best thing about being in a group of mothers apart is that you can relax and be very real, without fear of judgement.  One of the things I spoke about was the common challenge most mothers apart face, the automatic response of thinking we are to blame.  For example, if your child isn’t doing well at school – you tell yourself it’s because you’re not a full time mum, if your child is fearful or anxious – it’s because you left the family home, if your adult child appears grumpy or angry – it must be because of the damage she received, growing up apart from you.  The list of our overarching responsibility for most things negative our children appear to struggle with or suffer, is endless. 

 

Telling ourselves it’s our fault keeps us feeling guilty, bad and sad.  It doesn’t serve anybody if we are burdened with negative feelings about ourselves.  Feeling over responsible or guilty won’t turn back the clock or make amends when they are due.  The way forward for everyone’s sake is to reality check the situation from a position of neutrality, not high emotion. Calm yourself – take time out. Assume nothing.  Ask what you could do to help your child at school, try to find out the cause of your child’s anxiety or fear, ask why she or he is appears to be grumpy.  Even if you aren’t able to help directly, separating your feelings from those of your child will help you and them.  Each of us has to find our way in the world – however hard our upbringing. No one can live our life for us and learn the lessons of life for us – and that’s true for your child too.

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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