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There is no magic wand or right way to help us through the tough times. But without could haves, shoulds or musts, each of us can tune into what we need on days that are harder than others. As Mother’s Day approaches, I offer all mothers apart, whether or not you have contact with your child, three ideas to support you to take care of yourself.

Looking

In her book, ‘On Looking’, Alexandra Horowitz sets out to see the spectacle of the ordinary. I usually suggest getting out in nature for lifting low mood, but the concept of looking is wider than this. Looking is about reawakening the power and beauty of observation. The idea is that wherever you are, you observe your surroundings – the buildings you walk past, the cracks in the pavement, the flowers or weeds that grow according to their own cycles. There is no goal, we simply observe. Looking is a frame of mind. A real bonus to this, is that when we pay attention to our environment we disrupt repetitive thoughts, negative narratives and painful memories – a good strategy for taking care of a heavy heart on Mother’s Day. Looking at your surroundings takes you out of your head. It helps us to see more of how life is unfolding around us instead of being preoccupied. We notice the world instead of missing both the everyday wonder of things and the children we love.

Cherishing

We need to cherish ourselves. No matter what someone else might have said about you or however hurt you feel by the behaviour of others, you are worthy of self acceptance and self care. It is possible to accept ourselves for who we are and allow ourselves to be as human as the next person with faults, strengths, weaknesses and virtues. We are the best thing we have got going for us, we are the greatest thing that will ever happen in our lives! How wonderful that we can decide how to live no matter what other people think, even if our worth is ignored and even if we are rejected. As Eleanor Roosefelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Nurture yourself on Mother’s Day and on every other day – you don’t deserve a second class life. You have the right to make yourself happy.

Comforting

Take comfort from knowing that you are not the only one living apart from her child on Mothering Sunday. If it helps to be with those in a similar position, reach out to other mothers apart by joining the charity, MATCH. As a MATCH member you will be able to phone the new helpline and speak to other mothers apart. If it feels too much to share your circumstances, you might gain comfort from reading Rosie Jackson’s new memoir, ‘The Glass Mother’, her compassionate personal story of living apart from her son and ultimate reconciliation. Do whatever it takes to get through or better still, enjoy Mother’s Day. For some, this will mean hunkering down, having a duvet day and avoiding the hype on social media. Others will allow themselves be comforted and cherished by someone who loves and cares about them. For others still, being involved in a completely different activity, one that doesn’t involve flowers, chocolates and Sunday lunch will be just what they need. Djembe playing, canicross, aerial hoop exercise, fly fishing….do whatever it is that makes you feel good. You are allowed to have fun and enjoy yourself!

However you spend your day, remember it will only last for twenty four hours. The sun will set and a new day, presenting new opportunities will dawn.

Take very good care of yourself.

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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

Mothers living apart from their children know a lot about heartache. To a greater or lesser degree depending on our circumstances, we know how it feels to be grieving or regretting, or angry, guilty, lonely, broken and tired to the bone of painful, repetitive thoughts.

For sure, many of us have a lot to heartbroken about. But it’s helpful to remember that life can be heartbreaking for everyone. We can find balance and take inspiration from others who haven’t, as far as we know, experienced how it feels to live apart from a child.

Sitting in the morning sunshine with a cup of coffee, I was expecting to pick up a few gardening tips from Alys Fowler as I read her weekly column in The Guardian Weekend. Titled,‘Heart and soil’, 29 June 2013, I was drawn into a very personal and poignant description of Alys’s own heartache and most hearteningly, her method for living with it. Sharing that her husband has cystic fibrosis, a long-term illness for which he is frequently in hospital, she described how time in her garden restores something in her. Alys says, “If you are feeling blue, have hit a wall you’re unable to climb, or it all just feels unfair, can I suggest you go pull some weeds?” She points out that there is evidence that a bacteria in the soil called Mycobacterium vaccae boosts the immune system and our serotonin levels. “Gardening is about the now, but is also a statement about the future. The best of gardening is never instant; it comes in the form of a packet of seed and has jeopardy, hazard and heartbreak built in, but wonderful rewards, too”, says Alys.

I think Alys’s description of gardening is an inspiring metaphor for our lives. Life isn’t instant, it’s an ever changing process. Like a packet of seeds, there is risk, danger and heartbreak. And yes, there are wonderful rewards too. Despite rejection, misunderstandings, alienation and antagonism, if we look for it and allow ourselves, we will also experience joy, serendipity, pleasure and contentment.

How can we as mothers apart from our children receive lightness of heart?

Accept that life is a mixture of up and down. Can we hold an intention of turning towards all of our experiences with compassion, without forcing anything, especially when we are hurting or feel ugly about things or other people. We can lighten our load and our hearts by treating ourselves with kindness and non judgement. Not as something to strive for or achieve but as something to offer ourselves, to allow the possibility of that being there in the mix, even when we are broken hearted.

Cherish yourself. If you’ve been giving yourself a hard time lately, stop. There is no need. If we’ve done things we would rather not have, that’s alright, we were doing the best we could at the time. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with us. We are ok. It’s wonderful to be who we are. Our feelings are appropriate. We are right where we’re supposed to be.

We don’t have to be controlled by what other people say, we don’t have to try to control them. We don’t have to be manipulated, guilted, coerced or forced into anything. We can learn to say, ‘I love you, but I love me too. This is what I need to take care of me.’

Set down the burden. Sometimes for the sake of your wellbeing and that of others, it is best to let go. Maybe just for a while to regain your strength, sometimes as time passes you might come to know it will be for a longer while, maybe even forever. When it comes to family relationships there are no guarantees, no ‘this is how things should be’. There are only people, sometimes cruel or misguided and often just doing all they know how to do right now. If holding on is causing you pain, give yourself a break. You don’t have to suffer for love.

If you have a heavy heart, why don’t you try a little gardening therapy? You don’t need a garden, even getting your hands into the soil as you sew a pot for your windowsill will do. I’ll let Alys guide us – she says, “When you’ve got enough soil on your skin to lift your heart a little, sow some seeds. If you are feeling truly broken, sow something for around the corner: a late sowing of basil, dill or nasturtium to eat in a month or two; flat leaved parsley to take you into autumn; honesty, foxgloves, viper’s bugloss and stocks so that wonderful crescendo happens again next year”.

I’m off to get some soil under my fingernails.

Until next time,
Sarah

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

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

Living your own life can feel like a difficult prospect for mothers apart from children. I suspect it reminds many of us of well meaning  family and friends advising us to ‘move on’, ‘forget the past’ or ‘get over’ the fact that we don’t live or have contact with our children. We know that people who care about us just want us to be happy, but ‘getting over’ isn’t easy. For those of us who chose to live apart from children, ‘moving on’ can be more difficult than we imagined. Feeling guilty, having divided loyalties and experiencing delayed grief is common.

Living our own lives, having dreams and aspirations may not seem possible after all that we have been through. Perhaps we have been so focused on what our child is or isn’t feeling or what our ex partner or parents say about us that we have forgotten how to live and enjoy life. Maybe we have experienced so much emotional distress we think that we don’t have a life, don’t deserve a life and that all we are capable of, is feeling pain. This isn’t true. We are more than our problems, thoughts and feelings. Just because life has been this painful so far, it doesn’t mean it has to keep on hurting. If life is a bowl of cherries it doesn’t mean we have to settle with the pits! (thanks to Erma Bombeck).

So how do we live our own lives to the full?

Self care is the starting point. In part this is about nurturing ourselves – eating healthily, taking exercise, having warm baths and so on. But self care is also an attitude towards our lives in which we are responsible for ourselves. An empowering attitude that says: I am mistress of my own ship. I am responsible for my choices in life. I am responsible for identifying and meeting my needs. I am responsible for solving or finding help to solve my own problems and for learning to live with those I cannot solve. I am responsible for how much I enjoy life. I am important. I count for something and even if the most important person to me in the world rejects me I am still real, loving and lovable.

We are living our own lives when we…

  • Endeavour to work out what we can change and what we cannot change, then stop trying to change the things we can’t. If we don’t have control of a problem or if we have done what we can to try to solve it, we learn to live with or in spite of, our problem or circumstances.
  • Try to live happily, focusing courageously on what is good in our lives today – and feel gratitude for these things. In time, we can come to experience that appreciating the little things, making the most of what we do have, makes what we have increase in value.
  • Practice letting go with love. Letting go doesn’t mean we don’t care. It means that we learn to love, sometimes from afar, without driving ourselves crazy. This involves living in the present moment. We allow life to happen without forcing or trying to control it and we let go of regrets and fears about the future.

The biggest risk of not living our life is that life passes us by. As a counsellor, I have worked with mothers who have lived apart from children for so many years they can no longer say they ‘live apart’, as their children are now adults with children of their own. As we work together, they grieve over having lived apart but also over the loss of not setting themselves free to live their lives and make themselves happy. As I tell them they have suffered enough, given enough, they have ‘done their time’, I encourage each one of these wonderful women to live well and to the full, one day at a time. And this is my dearest wish for you too.

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

 

 

 

 

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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