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“Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”  Albert Einstein

For many people, 2016 has been a wearing and emotional year. War, migration, financial hardship, uncertain political outcomes that were too close to call, have created division. The ending of the year is an opportunity for everyone to pause, reflect and avoid conflict in the interests of peace.

As mothers apart from children, we have our own challenges as we grapple with hurt, anger, provocation and strive for goodwill and peace of mind. As Albert Einstein suggests, we can’t force others to keep peace. But we can choose the path of peace ourselves. You might ask, why bother when others seem committed to conflict? Bother because you are worth it – your physical health, emotional wellbeing and your right to happiness are more than enough reasons. Stories on The Forgiveness Project website describe the power of choosing to forgive in order let go of resentment and find inner peace. In choosing this path, you also model dignified and compassionate behaviour for your children, whether or not you have contact with at the moment. How can we achieve peace? Einstein says it can only be achieved by understanding and I do believe that it’s true. Peace is easier to achieve through understanding, than through gritted teeth.

What does understanding and the pursuit of peace mean for us when we live apart from our children at Christmastime?

Avoid magical thinking. If you are estranged and without contact, don’t get taken in by warm, glowing images of family gatherings in adverts and nostalgic Christmas songs. These sensory stimulations can fuel magical thinking that estrangement can just melt away and all can be made better just because it is Christmas. The cause and impact of rifts need to be understood and reconciliation requires both parties to be willing and able. If your children are young, perhaps they are not emotionally or mentally developed enough and maybe your ex partner is not supportive of this. If your children are young or fully grown adults, perhaps their life stage or circumstances mean they are just not ready yet. Whatever your circumstances, both parties being ready means that you don’t plead, beg, insist or demand, that it is not just you doing all the work.

Keep it simple. If you have contact with your children remember that no amount of hype, spending or activities will make up for the past. Expensive gifts won’t buy you the love of your child. Providing nonstop entertainment won’t make you (or your new partner) more easily ‘forgiven’ or accepted. Rebuilding and maintaining relationships after family breakup takes time and understanding. One special day of the year won’t cut it when what you’re dealing with is the incremental work of a lifetime. There is no magic to be made or found on Christmas day, so relax. Breath. Be fully present in the moment with your child. You are enough.

Shake it off. Whatever your circumstances, allow yourself the right to happiness. Build in time for peace and reflection. Turn off the TV and device and be still awhile. Get outdoors, there’s nothing like a walk to lift your mood. Chat to others in the supermarket queue. And when it all gets too much for you, let it go. As Taylor Swift sings in Shake it off – ‘the players gonna play, the haters gonna hate, heartbreakers gonna break, the fakers gonna fake. I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake.

I shake it off, I shake it off’

That’s my mantra this Christmas!

A peaceful 2016 to you.

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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

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

For mothers living apart from their children, the occurrence of Mother’s Day can feel like the unavoidable force of advertising pushing our noses into the painful reality of being estranged from our children.

An obvious place to start to remedy this is to remember that the pink cards, bouquets, chocolates and bubbly are a money making Mother’s Day marketing strategy that occurs after Valentine’s Day and before Easter. We can take comfort from knowing that we are not alone, that many mothers apart feel as we do and that like any day, it only lasts for twenty four hours.

How else can we look after ourselves and channel our energy away from difficult feelings like rejection, hurt or anger? Maybe these tips will help you this week:

You are more than being a mother

Whatever our circumstances, it is essential that we remind ourselves that being a mother is only part of who we are. For many of us (especially in the early days of separation) it feels like a big part but make no mistake, our status as a mother it is part of us not the whole of us.

Re-route your mothering

I am not saying that you should deny you are a mother to yourself or the world. I am suggesting that if you are not able to be with your children twenty four seven or your children do not want your hands on mothering at this point in time, divert your mothering ability elsewhere. Who or what would benefit from the mothering part of you? Is there anyone or anything out there that needs your special care and attention? Remember, to mother is not the same as smother. It is not wise to take responsibility for someone who is capable of taking care of themselves. Re-routing your mothering skills might simply be taking more time to listen to or act lovingly towards someone or something. Diverting your care and attention might take the form of voluntary work, supporting those less fortunate that ourselves, becoming a trustee of voluntary organisation or working in a charity shop. Caring enough to make a meaningful contribution without burning yourself out is what we are talking about.

Allow yourself to be mothered

Who roots for you? Who bursts with pride at your achievements? Who cares about you, your choices, your work? In her truly inspirational book, Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes says that we all have access to ‘the little wild mothers’. These are people who, when we take one look we think, “I am her progeny, I am her child, she is my mother, my grandmother.”’ We know instinctively that these women (and men) are ‘like the fairy godmother…mentor…the  mother you never had, or did not have long enough’. Be open to receive nurture from little wild mothers around you. We are all worthy of love and support, so make sure you find your supporters.

What floats your boat?

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 fulfil me? What have I always wanted to do but never got around to? Think back to when you were a girl – what were you good at, what were your hobbies? What interested you before you met the father of your children? Maybe the answer comes easily but maybe you’ll have to soul search. It is much better to quest for a while to find meaning in your life than to take the first shiny, pretty thing that is to hand.

Involve yourself as a woman in your own right

This year, Mothers Day in the UK falls two days after International Women’s Day, on 8 March 2013. In the lead up to International Women’s day there are a vast array of activities and gatherings for women. Take a look at www.internationalwomensday.com There are currently 1022 Women’s Day events across the world and 340 in the UK alone and the number of events keeps rising! What takes your fancy? Music festivals, markets, empowerment workshops, singing, belly dancing, business support, poetry readings and more. If you are struggling to find what lights your fire, you might just find a spark by involving yourself as a woman first and foremost.

From one woman to another, take good care of 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.

I regularly listen to mothers living apart from children who blame themselves. Self-blame highlights all the things we think we have done wrong, making circumstances our fault. Sometimes self-blame is linked to what we believe about who we are as people. We think there is something inherently wrong with us, that we don’t deserve anything other than to be treated badly.

Here is a typical scenario…I know a mother who lives apart from her children who won’t mind me telling you how she had for years, felt solely responsible for causing her children damage and pain. If she was telling you her story a while ago you would have heard her say that it was her fault for marrying the father of her children, she should have stood up to him sooner, she shouldn’t have been so emotional in court or as angry towards the Cafcass officer. Most of all she would tell you how she is responsible, she is to blame for causing her children distress even though her husband badmouths her, does not encourage the children to have contact with her and is not interested in co-parenting their children.

I also hear from women who do the opposite. They blame others – another person or group of people, making outcomes their fault. They tend to view the world through the lens of other people being totally responsible for causing them distress – their ex, their solicitor, their children or their parents for rejecting them.

Here is an example…Not long ago I had a conversation with woman who blamed her father for the many ways in which he had let her down over the years – he had divorced her mother and left her to live in another country when she was a teenager. When she tried to speak about her fears and worries, his problems were always bigger than hers. He had told her he would move back their ‘home’ country when he retired but he changed his mind and didn’t apologise for it. It was clear how hurt and aggrieved this woman was. She held her father responsible, blamed him, for how she felt even though she is 53 years old and he had died five years earlier.

What do these two examples have in common? Very painful circumstances edge us towards a tendency to either blame ourselves or project it on to others. It’s what we do in order to make sense of and try to deal with a host of difficult feelings. Whether we turn it inwards or push it outwards, both of these ways of blaming and fault finding have a common outcome – they keep us stuck in painful feelings and stuck in time. Self-blame generates remorse, regret, a lowering of self worth and eroding of confidence. Blaming others fuels anger, a desire for revenge, and a sense of powerlessness as we stew on the injustice of our circumstances. We don’t deserve any of this negativity!

If you recognise within yourself a tendency to self-blame or blame others you might like to consider the following:

  • With an honest heart, ask yourself whether you have a genuine need to take responsibility for your behaviour or circumstance which you might be avoiding because it feels too painful or hard to acknowledge. This might include a truthful look at how for example, you deal with your anger, how perhaps drinking is having a negative impact on your life and other people, how you monitor and manage depression and the like. Taking responsibility for yourself includes finding a professional to help you work through and take control of your behaviour.
  • When we blame ourselves, we often believe we are responsible for causing negative feelings and reactions in others, sometimes those who have manipulated or abused us and most particularly our children. Recognise that self-blame is a trap.  Blaming yourself serves no one. It does not make amends to anybody, it won’t take away anyone else’s pain, least of all yours. It won’t rid you of any guilt you might feel. Acknowledging and taking an honest look at our feelings is the key. A true sense of freedom and inner peace comes when we are able to differentiate between the things we are really responsible for and the heavy, unnecessary burden of other people’s responsibilities.
  • Blaming others is a form of protection. When we blame others we are trying to devalue or discredit them, and in the process we hope to find ourselves and our own actions superior to theirs. Consider healthier ways to boost your self-worth and confidence, ways that aren’t linked to or controlled by anyone else. When we choose not to focus our energy on blaming others (even though they have caused us hurt and harm), we avoid the unhappy high jacking of ourselves that comes when dwelling on them, giving the person we blame centre stage in our life. They don’t deserve the star role and you don’t deserve the torment.
  • Praise is the opposite of blame. Try turning self-blame on its head by appreciating and congratulating yourself for being the harmonious and wonderful person that you are. Likewise, try turning the blaming of others on its head by finding some redeeming trait or behaviour in this person, even if it is only that like all of us they are human and therefore flawed. Do it for you, not for them. Why should you? Because you will be shrinking the image of them in your mind, reducing their negative powerful hold on you.

Until next time, take care.

Warmly

Sarah

As the Mother’s Day hype is building, noting the history of Mother’s Day is a good place to start to get this Sunday’s tradition into perspective.

The honouring of motherhood was originally connected to goddesses and symbols rather than actual mothers, for example the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Greek Rhea.

In Britain, historians think that the tradition of Mothering Sunday is linked to the one day in the year when church goers, working away as domestic servants or apprentices returned to their ‘mother’ or ‘home’ church.

In the United States, from 1870 onwards, two women social activists tried to establish Mother’s Day for very different reasons to the giving of cards, flowers and the like. Julia Ward Howe wanted it to be a women’s day of protest against war and Ann Jarvis to campaign for healthier living conditions. It was Ann’s daughter Anna who had Mother’s Day officially recognised but quickly became vehemently opposed to its commercialisation, and spent her inheritance and the rest of her life trying to put an end to it. What would these women make of Mother’s Day now!

Understanding the origins of Mother’s Day and the money spinner it has become is only half of what can help us gain perspective on what has become an emotionally loaded day for many people. As mothers apart from children, we can maintain perspective by understanding ourselves and being aware of what we need.

Here are some thoughts on how mothers apart from their children can manage Mother’s Day:

Treat yourself with compassion

Compassion for yourself is not self pity or wallowing. It is the first step towards acknowledging your feelings and experience without allowing guilt, shame and self criticism to keep you stuck in pain or avoiding your feelings through addictions or unhealthy behaviour. Whatever your circumstances, whether or not you have contact with your children – treat yourself gently and lovingly on Mother’s Day and every day thereafter.

Stop judging yourself

In my work with mothers apart from their children, I hear how women fear the judgement of others: “How could she? She must be a bad mother. What a disgrace!” Although others may have opinions, I nearly always find that what a mother fears she will hear is what she is already telling herself. We are our own worst critics. No one is perfect, we all make mistakes. What matters is your intention right now. Step one: Give your inner critic the day off on Mother’s Day. Say to yourself, “Just for today, I am not going to buy into this negative voice.” Step two, to be taken after Mother’s Day: We can’t change the past or others but we can change how we feel about ourselves by having an honest, compassionate look at our circumstances and reality checking them. Find a trusted friend to talk through and reality check your inner judgements or find professional support to do so if necessary.

Be mindful rather than distracting yourself

You might feel you want to block out Mother’s Day. This is very understandable but you can’t stop the world around you and it takes a huge amount of energy to batten down the hatches to keep yourself watertight. You can’t stop your thoughts and feelings. By choosing to make your well being your priority for Mother’s Day, by tuning into what you need to take care of yourself hour by hour – good food, a walk, a fragrant bath, or whatever lifts your spirits – it is possible to find peace of mind.

Finally, a repeat from a previous post because many of you said it made you smile:

Change happens

Change is inevitable – accept from vending machines! You never know what is around the corner – a cliché I know but in my counselling practice, working with mothers apart from their children, I know how true this is. Change can happen when you least expect it, sometimes quickly or sometimes years after separation. Keep your heart and door open. Above all, live your life and make yourself happy, you deserve it.

Take excellent care of yourself.

Warmly,

Sarah

 

 

 

 

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.

And so, while others miserably pledge themselves

to the pursuit of ambition and brief power,

I will be stretched out in the shade, singing.

Fray Luis de Leon (c.1527-1591)

You might prefer the sofa to Fray Luis de Leon’s shade at this time of year but wherever you are, I hope these suggestions help you through the end of 2011.

Name the elephant in the room

Christmas can be hard on our partners and loved ones. They watch us gingerly, monitoring our mood, trying to keep things jolly. Ignoring the elephant in the room – by this I mean the reality that we feeling upset at not being with our children or that contact with our children is difficult – often makes life more stressful. Speak to your partner and family before Christmas day. Explain that it is natural that you would find this time of year difficult and that they don’t have to ‘fix’ you. Say that you working on a strategy to look after yourself over the Christmas period. Think about whether he/she/they can help you and ask clearly for what you need. “I need your support”, leaves most partners scratching their heads. Be specific, for example, “Can you please take care of being the host in the afternoon, I know I am going to feel sad for a while when Lilly goes to Paul after lunch.”

Avoid black and white thinking and behaviour

Don’t fall into the trap of being either miserable or cheerful all day. Denying your feelings can be just as disabling as not taking steps to lift your mood. Keep it real. Allow yourself time to acknowledge how you feel about being without your children for all or part of Christmas, but make sure you do whatever it takes to be at peace and even enjoy the day.

Make time to reflect

A ritual or conscious act to acknowledge how you feel, can be very comforting. Light a candle for each of your children and/or a beautifully scented one to represent you as their mother. You might like to have a symbolic ornament or a natural object clearly visible throughout the day, as your way of holding your child close to you even though they can’t be with you. Be wary of listening repeatedly to music which has memories for you. This can be very emotive and keep you stuck in painful feelings. Going for a walk can help process your thoughts and give you a natural high by increasing serotonin levels. Mediation, yoga even some stretches can have the same effect.

If you don’t have contact with your children

Ask someone you trust to reality check your decision regarding whether or not to make contact over Christmas. Check your motives: is anger, fear or resentment holding you back? Do you need to risk and send love with an open heart but without expecting a reply? Check your instincts: Are you satisfied that your children know you love them, are there for them and that it is right for you to back off at this point and give things a break? The answer will be different for each of us and may change from year to year.

If you do have contact with your children

Make your time together special but avoid competing, trying to buy love through presents or working too hard to create a perfect Christmas. As the myth of the most wonderful time of the year and happy families looms large, difficult ex-partners are likely to become more so. It is hard for children with divorced parents – feeling confused with divided loyalties is likely to be heightened for them at this time of year. Resist the urge to bad mouth your ex even if he has messed you around with holiday arrangements and so on. Be a role model grace and dignity for your children, and focus on your day instead.

Keep it simple

Keep your mood and spirits as high as possible by keeping the stakes low. A good Christmas doesn’t have to be a complicated one with an exhausting planning and cooking schedule expensive decorations. You don’t have to prove yourself. You are a good mother without having to provide three different types of dessert.

Change happens

Change is inevitable (accept from vending machines!). You never know what is around the corner – a cliché I know but in my counselling practice, working with mothers apart from their children, I know how true this is. Change can happen when you least expect it, sometimes quickly or sometimes years after separation. Keep your heart and door open. Above all, live your life and make yourself happy, you deserve it.

What is Parental Alienation (PA)?

PA occurs when one parent, usually the resident parent, undermines the child’s relationship with the other parent, resulting in the child’s rejection of that parent (target parent), based not on the child’s own experiences with the rejected parent, but rather as a reflection of the alienating parent’s attitudes.

How does PA affect a child?

The alienating parent’s needs are experienced by the child as more important and urgent than their own. They have to be loyal and devoted, and show they love the alienating parent best of all. Contact with target parent seen as a betrayal. Love becomes conditional, and the child feels they need to reassure the parent. In my experience, children tend to either align themselves with the parent they perceive as being more powerful (materially, emotionally and physically) to try to keep themselves safe, loved and validated, or, sensing the emotional vulnerability of the alienating parent, they take on an inappropriate caretaking role, sometimes feeling they need to step into the shoes once filled by the target parent. Either way, the child can swing from feeling intensely powerless in a painful situation to being powerful in ways that are not appropriate for them as a child.

How PA can affect you and how you can help yourself

PA is very harmful to children and heartbreaking for target parents. The following thoughts are offered as a broader strategy for managing PA.

Children affected by PA often adopt black and white thinking – one parent is seen as all good and the other, all bad. As target parents, we can get stuck in black and white thinking too. Our ex partner is all bad, family members are either all good or all bad, and as a target parent – a victim of PA – we are all good. As mothers apart from children, black and white thinking keeps us stuck. It doesn’t allow for the flexible, resilient attitude needed for us to champion our child’s right to a relationship with both parents. As painful as this might sound, I encourage you to consider the shades of grey in your personal circumstances. Here are some areas to reflect upon:

  • Put yourself in your child’s shoes and take an honest reappraisal of the situation. What would they say has happened to your relationship with them? It doesn’t matter if this isn’t the truth of the situation from your perspective. There is no one truth, we all have a different view and experience of the world. Look for any grains of truth that could guide you to adjust how you communicate with your child now or in the future.
  • Put yourself in your ex partner’s shoes and repeat the above. Even if your behaviour has been exemplary, having an honest look at the world from his viewpoint might guide you towards a different approach and/or help you to understand and support your child. Remember, this is not about letting him off the hook! Your reflections are about finding peace of mind and trying to build a relationship with your child.
  • What has changed over the time you have been separated? As mothers apart, we have a tendency to see our child as the age they were when we last saw them. Their behaviour, beliefs, values will change. How have you changed? For example, are you managing your emotions better now than in the early days after your divorce? Are you happier and stronger? Do you need to communicate your new perspective to your child or your ex?
  • How might life be if you weren’t separated from your child? Many families who are not affected by divorce and break up experience long lasting misunderstandings, rifts and estrangements. Most family units are far from perfect and many children either never truly separate from their mother (or father) or pull away completely, in order to separate. A mother’s job – whether you are a mother apart or not – is to let go so your children can come back to you.

Life changes everything and everyone. Failure to acknowledge this results in black and white thinking. If as a target parent you examine any part you had to play, honestly, without beating yourself up for any mistakes, the shades of grey you find can ease your pain and release you from anger.

Tips for communicating with your child if PA is taking place

  • Don’t react. It could be your child is being manipulated and is looking for evidence to reject you. Hold the adult place and don’t confuse your child with your ex partner even though they might sound like your ex partner.
  • Show empathy and understanding. For example, say “I read somewhere that sometimes children think they can’t love mum and dad once they are divorced, but you don’t have to choose”.
  • Agree to disagree. Don’t tell your child that she/he is wrong or doesn’t feel that way. Say you will agree to disagree and move the conversation on.
  • Being in the moment. Resist the desire to ask questions about your child’s life with your ex partner or continually ask how she/he is feeling. Focus on your time with your child. Be in the present. Have fun.
  • Talk about memories. Remind child of past happy times, show photos. Reminisce and repeat and build upon good times together.
  • Just love your child, even though you feel rejected and your child’s behaviour might be difficult for you to manage. Let them know you will always love them no matter what.

I wish you comfort and joy – you deserve nothing less.

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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