I was chatting to my new hairdresser (Mandy, 23). She asked me what I do for a living – “I try to help separating and divorcing families talk through some of the upset and conflict and help sort out arrangements for the future”.
“Crikey” she said (or words to that effect) “that must be hard” and later added “my parents divorced when I was 10 and I had to look after my baby sister; I spent my schooldays changing nappies – my mother just seemed to fall to pieces”. What a sad way to remember a childhood.
Yes, my role as a mediator might be difficult on occasions but nowhere near as challenging as the journey parents and children can face as they experience the many changes and uncertainties which family breakdowns bring and struggle to make sense of new situations.
There’s a kind of contradiction for the adults – you can stop being in a marriage or partnership but you can never stop being a parent. I’d say that almost no adult who decides to leave a relationship intends to leave their children too but somehow in the emotional fallout it can seem that way. Hazel, the daughter of one of my clients, now 15, said to me “he thought he was leaving her (my mother), but he left me and my brother too”.
It may not be possible entirely to separate from or be free of your ex if you have children, but there is great scope for jointly working out what kind of separated parents you want your children to have. How we “make sense” of the changes and manage the relationships, will make a significant difference not only to our adult futures but also, and crucially, to our children’s. Very few parents would even dream of ignoring the situation if their child was upset or in danger, or ill, let alone do them any harm, and yet in divorce and separation, many children express the view that their feelings, their views and their need for explanations, reassurance and a continuing and easy relationship with both of their parents were largely ignored.
Our Code says family mediators have a special duty to try and help couples end their relationship or marriage in a way that minimises their distress, and the distress of any children involved, and in a way that promotes as good a relationship between parents and children as possible.
Every parent I meet says “I want what’s best for my children” (have you noticed how quickly “our” children become “my” children?) but unfortunately both parents don’t see eye to eye on exactly what’s best! Where there’s still lots of emotion and conflict around between the couple, it can be hard to step immediately into seeing the best of the other parent or indeed into bringing it out in yourself – whilst recognizing this, I try and help parents to focus on their children and on the future. Family mediators also see children and young people if everyone agrees – not so that the children can make all the (parental) decisions but so that their views and feelings can be picked up as their parents agree arrangements for the future, decide how they will support their children and generally open up communication in the family. We offer a safe space away from the minefield of misconception and miscommunication.
Mandy finished doing my hair and concluded “my parents handled it as best they could but I wish we’d known about family mediation; children need help to make sense of the situation too – and over time. My sister is still struggling to come to terms with the situation”.
Ruth Smallacombe, FMCA