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Parenting After Separation: The Bit Nobody Told Me About

Parenting After Separation

by Sarah Hughes

When I made the decision to leave my marriage it no longer felt like a decision at all. I had simply reached the point where I was so sad that I could not take another day. And the thing is, when you’re that sad, feeling that bleak; you can think of nothing but how you don’t think straight do you. The minutiae goes out of the window when the bigger picture is taking over. 

Don’t get me wrong, I thought of my three kids constantly. The guilt I had then and continue to have today about what I was about to do to their little lives was all consuming. But somehow at that time I did not consider the details.  I missed out one thing from my deliberations that actually became the most painful element to our separation. And that is the time I must spend away from my children. 

People warned me that my ex-husband would have any new girlfriend in a hot second: I couldn’t have cared less. 

They warned me I’d be skint: I couldn’t have cared less. 

They warned me it would be acrimonious and end up costing a fortune: I couldn’t have cared less.

Nobody warned me that not seeing my kids, sometimes for up to seven nights if they’re on a holiday, would feel like the most unnatural thing in the world. 

I think pre the split I had a very healthy relationship with all three of my boys, in the sense that like every other mother out there (don’t you try to deny it) they absolutely drove me to distraction and I regularly fantasised about weekends away with my friends where I could just escape the utter chaos. 

I don’t know a mother (well, a married or cohabiting mother anyway) who doesn’t feel that way and just so we’re clear; that is completely normal. Mothering is exhausting and the mental load can be overwhelming. I remember looking enviously at divorced friends who got every other weekend ‘off’. How much time they must have for yoga, for having lunch with friends, for just tidying the house in peace!

I soon took off my rose-coloured glasses.

Being away from your kids is hard. Losing control is hard. Have they eaten enough? Have they slept enough? Have they got enough sun cream on that they won’t come back with third degree burns?

I’m lucky (in my opinion) that I have majority custody so only have to do without the boys 8 nights per month. Sure, it doesn’t sound a lot. And you’d think with full time work and trying to maintain a new relationship myself, I’d be glad of the respite those 8 nights. But handing over my kids to their dad; who I must stress is a good dad and I have zero worries about how he treats them, is the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced.

Turns out I’m not the only one who feels like this. Research shows that maternal separation anxiety is prevalent not only in mothers returning to work after a maternity leave, but post divorce or separation. 

Although knowing I’m not the only one experiencing this carries some comfort, I’m not naive enough to think that my sadness about being separated from them might not have a negative effect on my kids own ability to develop healthy independence. 

A study by professors Barber and Harmon in 2002 states that ‘threatening feelings regarding separateness that are characteristic of maternal separation anxiety may lead to more protective behaviors in the mother and as such, impede the separation-individuation process in children.’

Like everything post divorce; this is a learning curve. At the ripe old age of 42 I’m having to still learn things about myself and try to equip not just myself but my kids for this new landscape we’re travelling. 

It’s worth noting that I’m writing this article while I lie by the pool in Gran Canaria. I’m on a girly trip, while my kids are away with their dad. So the very fact that I’m not currently in jail for absconding with them rather than taking a deep breath and dropping them off at the airport, tells you I’m kind of handling this. The fact that I’m actually having a great time on this holiday (cocktails, relaxation, sunshine and laughs-a-plenty) tells you that I’ve started to get a handle on how to do this.

So, if you’re new to this game (as I am, relatively), here are the things I want you to keep in mind:

1 - If you’re anxious and worried at the thought of being apart from your kids, remember that is completely normal and healthy. You’re not losing the plot. In fact it’s a biological predisposition.  “Maternal separation anxiety is a normal and healthy developmental process that wires mums to care and protect their children” says Carla Anderson, a clinical perinatal psychologist.

2 - Try to make goodbyes a positive experience. Having experienced a six year old who repeatedly cries at handover time, I’ve had to work hard on how I can muster up enthusiasm (even if it’s fake!) about how brilliant his time away is going to be and all the fun he’s going to have. Hype it up mama, that’s all I can say.

3 - Plan something fun for when you get them back. It doesn’t have to be expensive - it can be a trip to the beach, cooking their favourite meal, visiting a grandparent. For the aforementioned six year old the fun thing is usually the promise of letting him camp out in my bedroom the first night he comes home. Snacks in bed = crummy bedcovers, but a happy kid! 

4 - Try to enjoy your me time. Ok, I’ll level with you. This one is way easier said than done. All that free time I craved back when I was married often felt like torture in the early days after my split. But honestly; it does get easier. You find your rhythm and you really do start your use that precious time just for yourself and meeting your own needs. And if and when a new partner or new social circle emerges, you’ll be glad of the space to enjoy that.

5 - As with all anxieties; there are tools you can utilise to help manage maternal separation anxiety. Writing down those worried thoughts, practising meditation, getting therapy (either the professional kind of the kind you get from your best friend), exercising or being in nature; these are all little coping strategies. Try to find the ones that work best to soothe your soul, calm your mind and help you rationally see that your babies will be home to you very soon.

Final thought to leave you with on this topic is this: there ain’t no better hug than the one you get from your kid when they haven’t seen you for a few days.  Even, unbelievably, from the teenage ones! 


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