My brother and I took turns to rage and cry: Kitty Dimbleby's heartache over her parent's marriage breakdown

Jonathan Dimbleby and Bel Mooney had what was widely regarded as one of the most solid relationships in broadcasting until, five years ago, he suddenly walked out of the family home after falling head-over-heels for opera singer Susan Chilcott, who died of breast cancer shortly afterwards. The split was as shocking to their friends as it was traumatic for the Dimbleby family. There have been tears, anger, heartbreak and sorrow.

Kitty Dimbleby Mail on Sunday

Kitty Dimbleby was hit hard when her parents Jonathan Dimbleby and Bel Mooney split up in 2003

But in a moving account that mirrors the experience of many modern British families, their daughter Kitty reveals that now, after a period of readjustment and rebuilding, two marriages and a baby, her family is bigger, stronger, happier – and more complex – than ever....

It may seem strange now, but my parents never sat my brother Daniel and me down and said: ‘We are splitting up.’

It just wasn’t like that.

Perhaps because Dan and I were both in our 20s, had left home and were living in London we just knew – rather than having to be told.

There was no serious family discussion at the dinner table, no terrible scene as my father packed his bags, no tears, no tantrums.

Well, at least not to begin with.

I don’t really think any of us, including Dad, felt that it would be a permanent thing.

It was just a blip for our family, for a marriage that had lasted 35 years.

It was only when we got to the first Christmas – at the end of 2003 – that it became real; Dad’s absence was oppressive and heartbreaking.

We spent it in the family home in Bath with my mother’s parents.

Every year for as long as I can remember Dad and I would row over the best way to pull the crackers: Dad liked everyone to link hands and pull at once, but I liked to pull with the person next to me – inevitably the table would erupt in chaos with half of us following my way and the other siding with Dad.

When it came to the end of the meal we all looked at one another unsure of what to do – before Mum brightly insisted we pull them ‘Kitty’s way’.

It was a tiny thing, but I missed Dad so much it hurt – I realised we had become one of those broken families I had always pitied.

We didn’t know it at the time but our family was about to begin five years of emotional turmoil.

Kitty Dimbleby, Jonathan Dimbleby, Bel Mooney

Family album: The three on a holiday to France in 2000

Both my parents are well known journalists – my father is Jonathan Dimbleby, presenter of Radio 4’s Any Questions, and my mother, Bel Mooney, is an author and columnist on the Daily Mail – so it was perhaps inevitable that some of our personal tragedy would be played out in the public arena.

Luckily, Dan and I have mostly been left in the background as our family’s split became public property.

Friends and observers alike seemed to assume that because we are both adults, with our own homes, careers and lives, we were not badly affected.

But that was a wrong assumption, and one that needs to be corrected.

You see, when men leave their wives, they also leave their families – no matter what their motives may be.

The family home is broken up and for the children, even those in their 20s and 30s, it is distressing and unsettling in equal measure.

Jonathan Dimbleby & Bel Mooney wedding pic

Married for 35 years: Jonathan and Bel's wedding day in 1968

I was always so proud of my family – who wouldn’t have been?

Dad has had the most amazing of careers and yet been a fantastic father, showing as much interest in my friends, homework and love disasters as he did in any politician, Royal or dignitary.

Mum was Supermum, always there to support us; dressing up as a teddy bear for my fifth birthday, helping us make papier-mache, reading to us nightly yet, at the same time, continuing a career as a novelist, broadcaster and journalist.

Best of all, Mum and Dad still adored one another, they were best friends, a team.

We were, perhaps, an unusually close family which made the shock of Mum and Dad parting all the more horrific.

So where did it all go wrong?

Well, only they can truly know that and I don’t think it is my place to speculate or apportion blame.

All I know for certain is that, in the summer of 2003, my Dad left the family home and both my parents were crushed.

At first, my main concern was keeping Mum afloat, then Dad.

Luckily (in many ways), I had just been made redundant from my first job at a London newspaper and was writing as a freelance journalist.

This meant that I was able to spend my days driving the two hours down the M4 to the family farm to play mother to both my parents who were living in the house in shifts.

I would surprise my mum, showing up with the ingredients to make her supper when I knew she was feeling low.

And later, when Mum went away for work, I moved back home to try to hold my father’s hand while he struggled with a terrible grief.

I was 23 at the time and both parents felt they could turn to me.

Although I wanted to help, it was more of a burden than I think I, or either of them, realised.

Inevitably, my life began to revolve around my parents; my family and I couldn’t help but obsess about their relationship.

My brother, six years older than me, was also taking it very hard.

He and I became very close – even choosing to move into flats within five minutes of each other.

We spent endless hours together taking turns to rage, cry and question everything.

We were bitter but humorous with it – cynical about marriage and love, we would make friends laugh by sardonically recounting our family’s pain.

At a wedding we sniggered in the corner; inventing the game ‘inappropriate songs for the first dance at a wedding’.

The clear winner? D-I-V-O-R-C-E.

That first Christmas I became ill – an existing medical condition flared up due to stress – and I ended up in hospital.

As Mum and Dad bickered next to my bed – I was numbed by morphine so don’t remember what about – I decided enough was enough and plotted to book a plane ticket to Australia where my best friend was living.

My six-week trip became five months as I chose an adventure in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia over facing reality and home.

The following summer, I was forced by a lack of funds and my beloved grandmother’s 80th birthday to return and face my family.

I was not really sure what to expect. I secretly hoped that my parents might be heading towards reconciliation, but this was not so.

Mum had moved out of the farmhouse she and my father had renovated together, which held too many memories, and was living a mile or so down the road.

Dad was still dividing his time between London and the farm but had met someone new, a younger woman who was starting to make him feel happy again.

My brother was busy with a career that was on the up, so I returned to a very different situation from the one I had left.

Things were strained between me and my father – I found it very hard to accept he was dating someone so much younger than himself.

Mum was lonely in her new house and my work in London was frequently disrupted as I dashed to be by her side (though in truth those journeys were more to comfort me than her).

My friends, sympathetic in the initial fallout, felt that a year on I should be ‘over it’. They were probably right.

But I pined for the past like a lover mourning an ended relationship.

By New Year 2005, it felt as if everyone else was indeed ‘over it’.

Dad’s new relationship was going well and Mum was taking the first tentative steps into building a relationship with an old family friend.

I never expected to play the dating game alongside my parents.

I could not help but feel inadequate while Mum and Dad went on romantic mini-breaks with new partners and I sat at home alone.

In desperation, I joined a dating website and went on a string of funny and disastrous dates.

I’d always been as happy out of relationships as I was in one, but I now wanted a boyfriend.

I felt that my family had all branched out and that I needed to create my own little unit.

I was still angry at my father and had not met his new partner.

But then a friend’s father was killed in an accident. I was reminded quite how precious my dad was to me.

A month later, I arranged to have a coffee with Jessica Ray, the woman who was making him happy again.

She and I were both terrified – my father was late and I hid in the foyer of the hotel where we were to meet, unable to build up the courage to approach her.

The stress of anticipation was terrible, although the meeting itself was fine.

I said to Dad afterwards, ‘This better be it, I can’t go through that again’ – and, thankfully, it was.

From then, I think, things started to get better.

I met and fell in love with my boyfriend.

Buoyed by his support, I was able to be more tolerant of Mum and Dad’s new lives.

Dad and I started to see more of one another and I revelled in our new, adult relationship.

We were still father and daughter but I knew he had a new-found respect for me.

Mum and I had never drifted apart but as she became happier, our relationship was easier.

I already knew her partner, but I got used to them as a couple and grew closer to him.

And slowly but surely I started to be friends with Dad’s girlfriend.

Of course, there were still bumps in the road – I was deeply sad when Dad sold the family home at the end of 2005 and moved to Devon.

But I was able to understand why – and sympathise.

I was shocked at the start of 2007 when Dad told me he was going to have another child.

Always the baby of the family, I wondered what my role would now be.

And, not surprisingly, attending the second weddings of both my parents last year was difficult.

I still worry about silly things – that matter to me – such as who will sit on the top table at my (as yet imaginary) wedding?

How will my boyfriend’s happily married parents take to my somewhat more complicated gang?

I fret about which parent to spend spare weekends or important holidays with and hate that, due to their work and geography, Dad, now 63, has met my boyfriend only a handful of times.

Well meaning friends have said: ‘At least they were married when you were little,’ as if that somehow lessened the pain.

But it doesn’t.

The loss and distress felt by the children of divorcing parents does not get easier with age.

Even if you’re an adult, supposedly grown-up and mature, a divorce still has plenty of destructive potential.

Divorce between couples in their 50s and 60s has been on the increase for the past ten years.

And for all those couples who choose to go their separate ways after decades of being together, there is a corresponding number of grown-up children who have the carpet of security they have known their entire lives pulled from under them.

I am one of them.

But now I have found my feet again, I can look at the positives and even feel lucky: Mum and Dad never turned on one another even in the worst of times, remaining dignified and generous throughout.

They have managed to remain loving friends, more and more so as time has healed.

And yes, cliche though it is, time has healed us.

My family, which was so broken only five years ago, is now bigger and stronger than ever.

Things have changed dramatically, of course, but somehow after all the grief and anger we have managed to forge forward – each separate alliance joining together to create one big, complicated family.

My brother and I are both in love – no longer cynical – and Mum, who is now 61, and Dad are happy again.

Yes, it is a hassle at Christmas to jump in the car and drive an extra two hours to see both parents.

But the child in me loves the extra presents, the second set of crackers (pulled my way at Mum’s, Dad’s way at his house), the bonus celebration.

My brother has just moved in with the girlfriend he adores – she and my stepmother have bonded over their love of all things baby.

My boyfriend and my stepfather, Robin Allison-Smith, are firm friends, talking for hours about their shared passion for travel photography.

But the best thing to have come out of all this is my little sister Daisy, now 11 months old: she is a delight and I adore her.

On the days when I do feel a pang for the family meals of my childhood, Mum and Dad sitting together at the same table, I only have to think of her little toothy smile and the regret is gone.

After all, she would not exist if my parents had not parted, and I could never wish that.

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