Bye bye baby


Last updated at 12:52 26 May 2006

Can it ever be right for a mother to walk out on her family, leaving her children behind? More women than ever are doing it, but the pain it causes - on all sides - can be almost unbearable. Sally Williams talks to three mothers who took the ultimate step...

Caitlin Roberts had made up her mind and started to make preparations to leave. She packed her bags in secret and began working late. She would pick the children up from school, give them their dinner, then go back to the office once Tom, her husband, came home. That way, they could all adjust to life without her, without knowing what was about to hit them. That's the difference between mothers and fathers, she reasons. Mothers plan, think ahead.

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Caitlin, now 50, is a high-flying accountant; Tom, a GP. When they went on holiday it was she, not Tom, who remembered the wasp spray, cricket kit and snacks Tom just got in the car. Now she was about to walk out on 18 years of marriage and her two children, aged nine and 10. But habits run deep, and she couldn't stop worrying about future lunchboxes and PE kits. So, for three months, without Tom realising, she had been priming him to take over.

"Looking back, I realise it's ridiculous that I thought that everything would just carry on," remembers Caitlin who, five years down the line, is still absorbing the fallout from her leaving.

She lives in a new house with her new husband, but is still easily moved to tears. It is not just that she broke up her family (though that is bad enough) or that she is separated from her children (and, God, how she misses them); it is that she crossed a line and did something mothers are not supposed to do.

There are whispers behind her back: "How selfish." "It's just not natural." "How could she do such a thing?"

Fathers can leave their families without it making the news because men have always walked away. But now, according to government figures, increasing numbers of women are resorting to the same tactics.

Women today are lured by the possibility of alternative lives, says RosEdwards, professor of social policy at SouthBankUniversity. "There are so many other possibilities open to them careers, relationships, different ways of living family life."

"Women now have higher expectations of personal fulfilment," agrees Christine Northam, a senior counsellor at Relate, the relationship counselling service. "They are more empowered, and have taken on some of the behaviour that men typically use."

Of course, mothers leaving their children is nothing new. Historically, the sort of women who left home came mainly from the aristocracy and moneyed upper-middle class. The most zestful incarnation is "the Bolter", immortalised by Nancy Mitfordin her stories of the upper classes in pre-war London and Paris: The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.

Mitford invests her characters with irreverent charm, so when we are told the Bolter indulged in "ghastly scandal after ghastly scandal, elopements, horse-whipping, puts herself up as prize in a lottery I don't know what all" she sounds less like public enemy number one and more like a bohemian glamour girl who is above all that dull marriage business.


But back in the real world, high-profile bolters suffer widespread disapproval. Princess Diana was only six when her mother left, in 1969, to marry another man. She would later recollect that she and her young brother, Charles, cried themselves to sleep together.

The actor John Thaw's mother ran off with another man, leaving him in charge of his younger brother, while his lorry-driving father was away. Thaw was seven. His abrasive approach to life, concludes his widow, Sheila Hancock, stemmed from this early experience. He vowed, she says, that he would never be hurt by a woman again.

As a child, the artist Sam Taylor-Wood remembers feeling bemused the day her mother handed her a note that said, "Give this to your step-dad because I'm leaving you all."

"Then, one day, I saw her and she was living three doors away," Taylor-Wood says. "I saw the blind in a kitchen window go up, and there she was. Then she pulled it down again. I still can't believe she was there. It was extraordinary."

A happy family unit, she concludes now, is all that matters. "I never had it and it was everything I yearned for."

'Hard to understand'

Such tales of denied maternal love are painful, outrageous and hard to understand. It's the child we feel sorry for; not the mother. "The judgement is instant," says Marion Jayawardene, head of Match (Mothers Apart from Their Children), a support group for mothers. "It is always assumed that if you're apart from your child, it must be your fault and you must be a bad mother."

But the anguish and regret never go away, and are visible in the messages from mothers to their children on the group's website message board. "I'm sorry. Please speak to me. I love you." "I wish that things could have been different. I love you. I'm here."

So, why do mothers leave? "I convinced myself this would be the best for everybody," explains Caitlin, who says she left her children "for love". In July 2000, when she was 45, she fell for a friend's husband, David. They had known each other vaguely for years, but really got talking at the local children's swimming club, where their respective daughters spent Saturday mornings.

It wasn't that Caitlin was restless, she says, or looking for a way out. Her marriage, though lacking its initial spark, was amicable enough. Like an old car, it got them around. "You get to the stage of thinking, if I don't have passionate feelings any more it's because I'm 45. I'm older now and I have kids growing up and that's the way things happen. Then, of course, you meet someone and something clicks." Their feelings for each other were so powerful that she knew she would have to leave her husband.

But then came the crunch: "David said, 'If I have to leave my children, you will have to leave yours, too." It was painful, she admits. "But you rationalise it. You think, the kids are old enough to deal with this." The day she left, she wrote a note for her husband and dropped the children with their granny.

"I told them I was going away for a while and that Daddy would look after them. I told them it would be fine." Except it wasn't. "We didn't get half an hour out of town before our mobiles started ringing. From that point, any idea that life would settle down went out of the window."

Caitlin thought she would live elsewhere with her new partner, but planned to return to the family home after school each day, and at weekends, to be with the children. "I genuinely thought, give it a couple of weeks and it will calm down. "As time goes on, I think, 'How could I have done that?'"

She was happy for her husband to be the main carer, as long as she retained visiting rights. But she was unprepared for the reality of the arrangement, especially after her mother-in-law took over the childcare. "I was blocked out," she says. Her daughter started to visit her at weekends, but the separation was obviously affecting her. "She developed a blinking disorder and had to go and see a psychiatrist."

Caitlin's relationship with her son, however, has been up and down. At first, he would visit, but after almost a year, he refused to speak to her for a month. "That was really hard. He'd just lock himself in his room at home."

Friends turned their backs

Friends, too, turned their backs, saying they would never, ever understand how she could leave her children. "David and I went through some really bad times both of us in tears. If we didn't get on, it was always because of the children."

But five years on, Caitlin now says she sees her children most weekends and during the week. Over the past six months, her son's behaviour has dramatically improved. "He used to ignore my husband's two children, but now he talks to them. Yesterday, we all went to the cinema."

Life is better, but the hardest thing is knowing they are not being brought up they way she would like she thinks they eat too much junk food and watch too much television. Her daughter, now 15, drinks and smokes. "I know it's common among teenage girls, but it's difficult to accept, especially when you don't live with them."

Does she ever regret walking out on her family? "I should have explained more to my husband before I left," she says. "But at the time, I didn't see any other option. Love makes you selfish. But had my mother been alive, I would never have left. I would have found it difficult to justify it to her. She would have thought it a terrible thing for a woman to do."

Her mother represented tradition, duty; Caitlin, a woman of the 21st century, is on the side of love and happiness.

About 70 per cent of mother/child separations reported to Match, according to Marion Jayawardene, are due to divorce and relationship breakdown. "For the most part, mothers do not choose to leave their children," she says. "If they have unfortunately become separated from their child, it's usually due to the most desperate circumstances."

Mothers can leave their children for all sorts of justifiable reasons, from ill health to domestic violence. But many underestimate the fallout from their departure. "It can be extremely hard to reclaim the mothering role from a distance, particularly if it's made difficult by a partner who is determined to disrupt or prevent contact," Jayawardene says.

'Massive mistake'

Most of Match's work, she adds, is in supporting mothers with contact problems. "Leaving my children was a massive mistake," admits Liz Hall, 54, a university administrator, who left her daughter, six, and son, four, more than 20 years ago after falling in love with another man.

Her husband was given custody and when he remarried he moved house, so she sometimes didn't see her children for weeks at a time. She missed the hair-brushing, shoe-hunting, teeth-cleaning, the everyday things. "I wasn't with Oliver on his first day at school. I never saw them on Christmas Day, ever."

Although clever, Liz left school at 16. She didn't see the point in lessons and knew that domesticity lay ahead. She was married at 19 and a mother at 25. But change was in the air in the 1970s, thanks to books such as The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer, which painted a devastatingly bleak portrait of marriage.

"Mother is the dead heart of the family," wrote Greer; women, she said, should not be afraid to walk out of their marriages if necessary, leaving their children behind. Of course, Liz's decision to leave her family was not due to Germaine Greer, but in adult education classes she discovered a new freedom away from her controlling, abusive husband.

When she turned 30, and by now on course for university, she met someone else. The affair became serious and Liz knew she had to end her marriage. So she took the children and went to live with her father.

But the pull of the family unit was still strong and the pressure to be a good wife remained. "I felt guilty," she remembers. "My husband always emotionally blackmailed me into getting what he wanted. He didn't want me to leave. He didn't want me to take the children. "I said, 'OK, then I'll leave without the children.' I thought, I was taking myself away, so why should I take the children, too?"

In that moment, Liz's life changed for ever. "When I think about how I must have looked, I see my head bowed. It was gut-wrenching. Those two beings are mine. I produced them."

Liz found solace in another book: The Awakening by Kate Chopin, the story of how the New Orleans aristocrat Edna Pontellier leaves her husband and children, which stirred up a storm when it was published in the late 19th century. "I have a very clear vision of me walking from my new flat and physically holding my hand over my mouth to stop myself screaming at the pain of leaving my children," Liz says.

"But running through my mind were thoughts about this woman, Edna, who was saying, 'I'm not going to be his chattel, I'm not going to be someone's belonging. I'm not going to do what somebody else wants me to do, or expects me to do.'"

Liz's new life brought gains as well as losses: she got a degree from Sheffield University, where she now works. "I'm very proud of the woman I've become spirited, educated, articulate and I wouldn't have become that woman if I was still married to my ex-husband."

She says she now has a great relationship with her children, but it has been a long time coming. "Oliver and I had a tough time for years he was either very clingy or off-hand." But from his late teens, he began to forgive her. He is now 27 and stays with Liz during holidays.

Her daughter Gabrielle, now 29, who has Down's syndrome, moved in with her when she was 18. "So I have one of my children back and a fabulous relationship with my son. I don't feel abnormal any more."

Legally, the world has moved on since the early 1900s, when Freda Weekley, who left her husband to be with the writer DH Lawrence, was forced to give up her three children. They were not 'hers' to fight for, the courts said. They 'belonged' to her ex-husband. But still, Jayawardene says, "courts tend to be biased in favour of the status quo. If a mother is not a resident parent, then it can be difficult to argue in favour of disrupting your child's life."

Many mothers are caught out by this, she says, and can spend years regretting the abrupt manner in which they left the family home.

'I saw no way out'

But what, says Charlotte Hughes, 47, if your home is what's closing you in? Mothers, she says, are supposed to be infinitely selfless, but in the end she gave so much that she lost herself. "I could see no way out. I felt like a non-entity."

Charlotte was married to James, a business consultant, and they have five children, aged nine to 19. She was originally drawn to James's intensity, which mirrored her own hot-headed personality. But in the last few years of their relationship it wasn't so much hot as explosive; the passion had turned to shouting and door-slamming.

The children really took it out of her, she says. There were ectopic pregnancies. Her son Bertie had problems at school: he ran away, was expelled, and had run-ins with police, social workers, headmasters. And after James's six-month affair with his secretary, things weren't the same. Charlotte's job as a veterinary nurse fizzled out after child number two, although she had started working part-time after Molly (number four) was born. It helped with money and self-esteem, but added to her stress.

"We had some family counselling and it made me realise that if we continued in this way I was going to have a breakdown and we were going to end up with incredibly disturbed children." So, in 2001, Charlotte decided to leave before she and the whole house of cards collapsed. But first, to help her children she moved into a self-contained flat at the top of the house.

"I removed myself from the family, but the children would wander up and say things like, 'Why don't you love Daddy any more?' I always made it clear that it was nothing to do with them, that I still loved them, that I wanted to make myself better to help them be strong, too."

A year later, Charlotte moved into a flat around the corner from the family home, financed by her new full-time job. "It was the best thing I'd ever done. I felt so much better, more self-confident. I felt like Charlotte again. I'm still the children's mother, but not just the children's mother."

She sees the children most weekends, and Bertie recently moved in with her. Would she still say she was a good mother? "Very much so. When you're in the middle of something, you're floating and grabbing at things, but when you stand back, you see the reasons why things are happening."

The couple are now in the middle of a divorce James has met someone else. "We still get on OK," she says. But her youngest two, she admits, have suffered. "Molly is very chatty and appears confident, but is not good at making or sustaining relationships. Ben says he wants to be fostered or live with a friend."

Times are changing, says Ros Edwards of South Bank University. "The stigma of a woman walking out on her family is becoming less severe," she says, "and men now are much more involved with their children. In some families, it might be more natural for the father to be the main carer."

Judith Wenban-Smith, a forensic psychologist with a special interest in families, agrees. "Mothers who walk out on their children can now support themselves and maintain social profiles they are neither beggars nor pariahs and that's a good thing."

But that doesn't mean children don't get hurt. "Children suffer more from the absence of mothers than the absence of fathers, undoubtedly," she says. "Almost invariably, the mother has been the main carer in infancy and it's to mothers that children have the strongest and most secure attachment."

Mothers who leave home can give all the explanations in the world, she says, but to a child, it boils down to one thing. "They will come to the conclusion that Mummy didn't love them enough, and that can be devastating."

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