Stories from the front line: surviving alienation – D’s Story.

By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it.  
Franz Kafka 

Today a wonderful thing happened. I had taken my two boys 10 and 12 to a local pitch and putt with two of the eldest boy’s friends. We had a picnic and later they played tag around the play area. The eldest boys are on that cusp. A place where in a year or so such childlike games will hold little allure. For now I sat on the grass in the spring sunshine and watched them laughing at their play. Their innocence and their joy. They looked and acted no differently from the other children there. Parents and other adults dotted around the benches and the edge of the play area.

One of the friends has divorced parents. His dad has moved close to me and he asked about visiting when he was with his dad every other weekend. 

I felt good in the warm Easter sun.

I was supposed to have them Saturday daytime but mum had something planned (it transpires they were watching the Grand National and having a buffet) so we had agreed that I would have them today.

I dropped them off later after tea. The youngest to mums first and then the older boy with his friends at the local hang out- a row of shops.

As I stopped the car he leant across the seat and hugged me. “Love you dad”.

In full view of his peers.

It was an embrace that I will never forget. 

Thanks dad”.

The same boy had over two years earlier waved me off when I had told them that dad was leaving. I had read up on what to say. Mum had refused a rehearsal. He stood crying at he door.” Bye dad”.

That image is seared on my heart and brain.

Now though I have other images. Balm to a wound that will never leave me but can I suppose be soothed by new memories now.

Let me be clear from the start. This has been and is a painful journey. Not just for me but for our children and their mother. I and indeed all involved can harbour many wounds and scars but be clear on one thing-no one who has walked this road is free from the pain that family breakdown brings. Separation is not like that.

 Even for those who want it (and I didn’t) it has its moments of darkness. Family life is a complex thing and even for the former there is no doubt little joy to be had in seeing our children suffer. The balance of personal need and children’s needs is a fine balance and a brittle entity. 

As a man when you leave two things happe

A whirlwind erupts riven by insecurity and fear. Secondly you realise that of all the things you left with one certainty comes with your baggage. You are powerless.

Most of all you are catapulted into a world where you have no right to have contact with your children. By that of course I mean that without legal recourse your contact with your children will be controlled by one person and one person only. The other parent. 

As I charted the course of contact allowed but consistently undermined (as I was later to type in my C100 form) it felt like I was being poked with a sharp stick. I have though faced more the vipers grin than the rhinos charge. Contact was allowed as it were, however it was constantly changed, made difficult and there was not enough of it. Not for our children. 

I could write a very thick book about it. A “Ulysses” of the separated dad.

As I stumbled along the lost highway I realise that my journey is a lower division scenario. A Shrewsbury Town to the Real Madrid’s who are out there. The dad s confined to the contact centres. The mums who refuse contact because their six year old does not want to go.

Contact became a game. The landline later installed ringing and no answer minutes before the ring now text. The children awkward, with mum chattering in the background.. After a year or so I decided to give up on it. The original landline had been taken out and for months all phone contact was via mum’s phone. 

I had consumed as much as I could in my shell shocked state about children and divorce. My yearning for the ideal of co-parenting and the reality of what was unfolding sent me into panic. I had stumbled across something called parental alienation on my internet travels and as I worked through the tick boxes it dawned on me that that I could give at least ten or more good examples of each of its indicators. Hmmm. 

A few months ago my then 11 year old told me mum had watched a documentary about a dad in a contact centre losing his children to PA. Mum had said to him “aren’t you lucky that I let you see dad?”……. 

I digress.

To say that there were dark moments of course implies that those depths are past.

I had come close to suicide twice. I did not see them for the first two Christmas days. This was pre court.

My work suffered badly and a combination of Christmas and work led me to write notes and make plans. I had even picked the day. A Sunday.

On the possible final contact I had taken them to a toy shop and burned up plastic. I had kissed them as they left the car. I could smell them. As I drove off strangely I just felt numb. There would be some release soon. It would be over. It was selfish and it was built upon two things. I felt an urge to be free from the pain. I suspect most dads have flirted with it. The suicide statistics for this country suggest that men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women. For some reason it gets little public attention. There is no “one billion rising” like button for those who have taken a certain path of release from solitude and pain.

Perhaps we can try and fix it for our sons?

A simple phone call I received the next day put it to rest.

We sat in mediation for nearly eighteen months. The mediator was a family law solicitor. Chair of local Women’s Aid. It cost me a grand. It was like pushing a ball up a hill. I believe it’s being offered as the flavour of the month for separating couples. It ignores the power imbalance of course, how can you possibly negotiate when one party is invested with all the power?

Agreed overnight weekend contact was scuppered by mum.

the children don’t want to come” she said

I realised then that court beckoned. I had avoided it. At this point I had one overnight a week and a weekend afternoon..

The court held few surprises for me. In fact waiting had a certain advantage. I was more emotionally level and I had gleaned advice from forums and the friends I had made along the way. Other men and women who had their own burden, their own pain became my confidantes.

It was and is a chess game. The idea of standing in a room full of strangers to justify time with my children seemed bizarre at times of course. I had “bigged” mum up to the nice but dim CAFFCASS officer and she had recommended the ubiquitous “wishes and feelings” report for the eldest boy.

The death knell for many a father.

Her conclusions were welcomed by mum. The report noted that mum had even shown our son the CAFCASS website and it concluded that “often non residential parents have difficulty in adjusting to children’s changing needs and a need for flexibility”. At this stage I had the children one overnight a week. It was 18 months since we had separated. My relationship which hinged on time rather than the quality of that time was slipping away.

I was asked about a reference to mum undermining contact. I produced a contact schedule hand written by mum which had been handed to me six weeks after we split by my then ten year old. It was full of social work speak. “wishes and feelings” “best interests etc. it allowed for one overnight a month for the eldest boy and daytime contact mid week and Saturday. The children had been asked how often they wanted to see their father. During the court process my 12 year old told me that he hated me. He told me that he was going to tell the court that I had put a fathers rights leaflet in his school bag. It was surreal..

 The judge dismissed the CAFCASS report and said “we don’t want A getting involved do we? “. He had seen it before no doubt. He knew what was going on and sent us out to negotiate a weekend over night contact which began as a monthly

Schedule and now translates into a single overnight at weekends on a fortnightly basis 

At the end of it the judge looked at her and said what we now have is “a shared care regime. 

Its meaningless jargon of course but in some way it made me feel good.

Vindicated I suppose. I now have three overnights a fortnight, an afternoon at the alternate weekend and sports training mid week.

I had them for a few hours on Christmas Day for the first time last year.

It’s a rotten system though. Archaic and cumbersome. My greatest disdain is for the legal profession. I have heard more than one dad say that they were advised to “put it on plastic” as they fought to parent their children. Come the revolucion they will be driving mini buses for inner city community charities. On the minimum wage of course. 

To find yourself in conflict is a weary place to be. Negative energy I think you would call it for all concerned.

One thing I have learnt is that the process of releasing yourself from it is liberating. You cannot control what the other parent does but you can control what you do. For you and your children. The art of disengagement is not easy especially when it is not reciprocated. It’s a process and in many ways a power shift.

I sought help where I could get it. I contacted the Centre for Separated Families and had the good fortune to speak to Karen about hand overs. At the time mum could not “bear to see my face” and the children would appear out of the house shell shocked as we all were I suppose. I learnt from such advice a pathway through the minefield that is transition.

For a long time my then eight year old would refuse to come. He would stand on the doorstep crying as if he was terrified of me. The adults within (including extended family) would stay out of sight. I would sometimes pull over on the way home and howl like a wounded animal. There is no other way I could describe it. It was like something almost Neanderthal. Outside through the glass I could see the world turning as it always had. My world was falling apart.

Slowly though the strategies I had learnt began to give me a semblance of control back. I became more confident. I attended a workshop delivered by the CSF and I realised that there are things you can do. Having time is important but what you do with that time is equally so. You are not a helpless observer. Understanding what you are facing, the process, the psychological mindset of the other parent and indeed your own are crucial. I learnt that generational parenting patterns are important on both sides. Knowledge is a key.

The landscape can change and will continue to change. You must always remember that. Your children are not frozen in time. New partners will appear. Most will be divorced and have children too. For a long time the children would not take stuff to mums. Anything they cooked would by all accounts grow mould or end up in the dogs dish.. Last week the cookies they made were “delicious” when brought home. 

Remember ladies that for most men PA is not an aphrodisiac.

On the night before their first overnight stay I put up a framed picture of them in their bed room. They sit next to their mum.

My lifeboat? I have found my solace in rum, in singing (a choir), in the faith that I cannot shake off for all its contradictions, in other faiths (I am a Catholic boy flirting now with Buddhism)

In the revolucion. (I often join Che and Fidel in the mountains and such grand delusions are fine), I love walking. I spread myself with friends. At times it’s a defence.

You still carry what was once a heavy bolder. It is now a small stone in your pocket. At times even you forget it is there. You reach for it at times and feel its jagged edge knowing that it will always be there. That small stone in your pocket that no one else can see.

I am less materialistic. I like my lease car but I love too the sunset over the rooftops of the houses I can see from my window. There are times when I relapse and look for the duvet but there are more times when I feel like its good to be alive,

My prayers hold those adults who have walked the same path. Who have lifted me when I fell and who will always do so when I stumble as surely I will Most of all my whispers hold the children .I talk here of my hurt but it is the hurt to the children that we must try and comprehend. 

I will finish here with a true story. A story that is not unique in its occurrence nor in its outcome. All journeys have an ending. I am not complacent and who knows where this journey will end? I hope that mine ends with many things but most of all with forgiveness. And that I too will be forgiven. Our children love their mother just as she loves them. We can be prisoners of our own childhood and our parents can be too. This dance we embrace needs more than one. There is no Panto villain in my story.

I have a good friend from my home city who lost his children. Court orders broken and hostility never ending led him to give up. I understand that place.

He immigrated to Australia and then moved to England.

A few tentative contacts on facebook. A meeting that his son withdrew from at the last minute. 

Then a few months ago a reconnection. A meeting. His daughter first and then his now early twenties son. Its on facebook.

Their picture?

A father and his 20 year old son look at the camera. They have guitars in front of them. Their arms are around each other. They look like they do not have a care in the world. Like all the world could fall and they could sit there. Like CAFCASS, Gingerbread, Trinder and all the judges and politicians’ and the circus that we and our children are offered could fall away.

What struck me most were their faces and their eyes. They are relaxed. They are happy and their eyes are full of love. It’s a special love. I know it too. I had it as a child and adult.

It reminds me of my old man embracing me in the kitchen. I could smell the tobacco on him and feel on his neck the pock mark scars from shrapnel that laced his then nineteen year old frame in a ditch in Normandy.

” One day you will be too old to hug your auld fella” he whispered

I can feel it now. Like the entire world could fall. Me and the old man there.

In each others arms.. Those few seconds. Like the earth could split in two and we would not care. Like the oceans could rise and sweep us all away and we would not care. 

That warm Easter sun today brought it back.  

 

This is the first in a series of stories from mothers and fathers who have survived children’s withdrawal and rejection of them after separation.  Not all of these stories are about alienation in its severe form, but most of them would be, without intervention.  Arresting alienation in its tracks is the key way of avoiding it.  How to do that is about understanding your own unique story.  By reading other people’s stories of how they did it, I hope we can build case histories that allow us to understand more about the alienation reaction, how to avoid it and how to treat it.  D’s story is typical and yet not typical.  He survived serious transition difficulties experienced by his children and it changed not only who he is but how he parents and what he expects from being a separated parent.  That is a task for everyone experiencing family separation.  How to achieve it is different in each family and yet all who face this phenomenon have similar roads to travel.  Building support strategies that work is what we do at the Family Separation Clinic.  Thank you to D for sharing his story.