I've divorced my parents (and it's breaking my heart)

Shona had a blissfully happy childhood. So why, at 40, has she cut herself off from her mother and father

When I was ten, I remember my dad telling me there were only two certainties in life: paying taxes and dying. It was late afternoon on a Sunday, we were washing the car together in the driveway and I can recall throwing my soapy sponge into the bucket and thinking: ‘Nope, there must be three certainties — because I’ll always love you.’

Well, 30 years on, it turns out my old man was right. The last time I spoke to him was nearly four years ago. He’s as far removed from me as it’s possible to get, both emotionally and geographically.

He lives in Fiji with his third wife — who’s younger than me — and their 11-year-old adopted son. He has a new life. One that seems to preclude any ongoing or genuine interest in a daughter from a previous marriage and her four children.

Heart-breaking: Shona doesn't know if it's her parents who changed, or she's just grown up and sees them with blinkers off

Heart-breaking: Shona doesn't know if it's her parents who changed, or she's just grown up and sees them with blinkers off

Twelve years ago, my mother moved abroad to Canada, with her third husband. She is either desperately unhappy and so drinks, or is desperately unhappy because she drinks.

I’ve given up trying to work out which, but the last time I saw her was just before Christmas when she flew to the UK to visit us.

After a week of surreptitious binge drinking, she finally passed out in my hallway while waiting for a taxi to take her to a hotel so she could carry on getting plastered without having to hide the vodka bottle.

I think it was when my eight-year-old son had to step over her to go upstairs that something snapped.

After nearly a decade of accommodating her extreme drinking, I decided  not to put myself — or my children — through it a second longer.

So there you have it. That leaves me — an only child — with two living, but no loving, parents. And, frankly, if this is the way it’s going to be, I’d rather pretend I have no parents at all.

Happier times: Shona, aged two, with mother Diane. Diane moved to Canada 12 years ago where she lives with her third husband

Happier times: Shona, aged two, with mother Diane. Diane moved to Canada 12 years ago where she lives with her third husband

Which is why I woke on New Year’s Day this year — the year I turn 40 — looked out at a slate grey morning and decided to sever what little contact that remains between me and the two people who raised me.

In so doing, I have unwittingly become part of a growing social trend: the children divorced from their parents.

It was recently reported that familial breakdowns such as mine are an increasing problem in the UK, while some of the country’s leading psychologists claim there has been a huge rise in children cutting off contact with their parents. While no official statistics exist, research suggests one in every 40 people is estranged from at least one family member.

Psychologist Dr Ludwig Lowenstein hears from up to six parents a day — a third of them women — asking advice because they fear estrangement from their children.

Much has been reported about the devastating effect this has on the parents: the older generation who face their twilight years cut off not only from their own offspring, but usually their grandchildren, too.

But what about those parents and grandparents who just don’t appreciate what they have, the ones who walk away from their own offspring with scarcely a backward glance? Believe me, the effect on the younger generations can be every bit as painful.

In cases like mine, it often takes years of heartbreak and a growing sense of isolation before finally realising that the mother and father you once thought you knew no longer exist. For me, they are nothing but a fading childhood memory — no more real than the Enid Blyton stories I loved, or my faithful one-armed teddy.

Close: Shona, aged five, with her dad on a fishing trip in Fiji

Close: Shona, aged five, with her dad on a fishing trip in Fiji

Whether they’ve changed, or I’ve just grown up and am seeing them with blinkers off, who knows? The result is the same. As an adult, I don’t like either of them much and I’m convinced the feeling’s mutual.

Nobody is more surprised by this than me. We were once as far from this Jerry Springer-style scenario of a family at war as it’s possible to get.

I grew up in a lovely West Sussex village and attended a nearby convent — first as a day girl and then later, when my father’s work meant a lot of overseas travel, as a boarder.

My parents were a beautiful couple and hosted dazzling dinner parties. They were charming, generous and brimming with that glow of middle-class privilege. We had a wonderful life: summer holidays in Cornwall, skiing in St. Moritz. As I have no brothers or sisters, it was just me, Mum and Dad. And somehow this made our relationship feel closer.

None of the experiences I had with them had to be diluted or shared with anyone else. It was the three of us — unconditionally and for ever. Isn’t that the way all children should feel?

Then, when I was 18, my parents hit a rocky patch in their marriage and divorced. My mother suspected an affair; the arguments escalated and everything started to disintegrate.

She moved out, the family home was sold and, not long afterwards, they each moved in with respective new partners. All of a sudden, I was a weekend visitor sleeping on futons in their living rooms. I didn’t comprehend it at the time, but family life as I’d known it was over. 

Fiji, aged 14: 'It was the three of us - unconditionally and for ever. Isn't that the way all children should feel?'

Fiji, aged 14: 'It was the three of us - unconditionally and for ever. Isn't that the way all children should feel?'

Somehow, through my 20s, living and working in London, I failed to notice this seismic shift. Or I noticed, but it washed over me. Either way, my anchor had been cut loose from the seabed and I was now adrift.

I still saw my parents regularly and tried to embrace this new start in their lives as best I could. After all, divorce was commonplace and I’d already left home, so it should hardly have impacted on me in the same way that it would have with younger children.

But deep down it did. I felt I was the only one left who cared about our past. They were both charging ahead without a backwards glance.

In 1999, I married, keen to put down my own roots and regain a sense of security I hadn’t felt for years. By now, my mother had emigrated with her new husband to Canada, a move that made her deeply unhappy. In fact, it was the catalyst causing her to question — years too late — whether she should have left my father at all.

End's begginning: It was on a skiing holiday when Shona was 17 that her mother Diane realised the marriage was over

End's begginning: It was on a skiing holiday when Shona was 17 that her mother Diane realised the marriage was over

He, on the other hand, was in Fiji, enjoying life to the full — not to mention the many attentions of young Fijian women desperate to hook a Western man.

They both flew back to the UK for my wedding and what I remember most about them being there is how self-absorbed they’d become.

My father spent the entire evening trying to escape the drunken ruminations of my mother so he could woo my maid of honour into bed.

My mother was simply miserable and didn’t seem to care that it showed. I wondered, afterwards, if they’d always had this selfish streak and perhaps I’d just never noticed?

As I threw myself into my own family life, embracing the highs and lows of raising small children, my parents seemed to become more myopic than ever and increasingly distant from me. It was as if, with our family unit disbanded, they had forgotten how to be good parents.

When, in 2005, my father decided to remarry — to a 25-year-old Fijian girl — he invited me to the wedding, but only if I came alone. When I explained it was a little difficult to travel half way around the world leaving several small children behind, his justification was staggering. ‘What you don’t understand,’ he explained, ‘is that it does not look very good for me to have my grandchildren at my wedding.’

Needless to say, I didn’t attend and the fault line between us grew even wider. Since then, he has shown scarcely any interest in his grandchildren and flatly refuses to discuss anything about our past life with me, dismissing it all as ‘history’.

I can understand how his new wife might feel threatened by the fact he had a family before her, but if you’re going to marry somebody who is nearly 60, what do you expect?

The thing that hurts me most is how effortless it has been for him to move on. By replacing my mother with a much younger model, and adopting a Fijian boy from the fishing village (the son he never had), he has self-styled a whole new family and moved me to the periphery of his affections. He is playing the role of a father all over again, except this time I’m not part of the production.

A few years ago, I tried to tell him how much his behaviour was hurting me. I explained it wasn’t the fact he had remarried that was the problem; more the way he had shunted me down his list of priorities.

His response was to send me a letter saying he had no idea why I felt this way and if I carried on in this manner he was going to put me in the ‘too difficult’ box and move on.

Since then, we have emailed sporadically, but there is no wind left in the sails. At Christmas, I sent him an email with a photograph of the children sledging and received nothing back. Painful as it is, I have decided to leave it at that. And I doubt I’ll ever hear from him again.

With my mother, I made a conscious decision in January to break off contact and I’ve told her this is what I’m doing. Due to  alcohol, she’s incapable of being a good mother or grandmother and the things she has said to me when she’s been drinking are hurtful and manipulative.

On this basis, I need to draw a line and protect myself from the self-destructive path she has chosen.

So with both my parents there’s been no final straw or death knell. More a painful realisation over time that they care more about themselves than they do about me. I’ve spent hours wondering if maybe I’m the problem. Perhaps my expectations are too high?

Shona in her 20s: Her father didn't want her children to ruin his second wedding in Fiji

Shona in her 20s: Her father didn't want her children to ruin his second wedding in Fiji

With no siblings to compare notes with it’s easy to assume I’m the common denominator. After all, as Oscar Wilde once succinctly put it: ‘To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.’

But the reality is I feel let down by them both. I look at other people with reliable, helpful parents who contribute something to their lives and I feel I’m lacking in love and support. Sure, they live abroad, which is logistically difficult. But the real problem is they’ve become strangers — two people who no longer have my best interests at heart.

In a way, I’ve been grieving for something that ceased to exist years ago. I’m lucky enough to have a loving husband and four children, but I still, sometimes, feel incredibly alone in the world.

There’s no point of reference for where I’ve reached, nobody to share the past with. I wish I had somebody who remembers the Shona before marriage and children — the work in progress bit.

I envy those who have close links with their family, who know, for sure, where their values and beliefs come from. I feel I’ve had to start all over again from the ground up.

Despite the fact children divorcing themselves from their parents is a growing trend, I don’t know anyone else in my position.

Sometimes it seems I am surrounded by other people’s supportive parents — picking up children from school, attending class assemblies and getting together for lovely family Sunday lunches.

It makes me feel ridiculously jealous because I crave this stability and family support while knowing it’s not something I’m ever going to have myself.

I never imagined I would reach this point of no return. But it must be where I am, otherwise I could never bring myself to write this article. And if I genuinely feel there’s no going back, then what’s the point of prolonging the agony any further? Far easier to cut off, move on and concentrate on my own family. That way, at least one day, I might stop caring.

As for my children, they understand their grandmother cannot see them because she drinks and they hardly know my father anyway so they don’t miss him.

Besides, they do see my husband’s parents, so they have some idea of what grandparents are.

In the meantime, I tell my children I love them daily. I tell them there are guarantees in life and one of them is that for as long as I’m around they can always rely on me. No matter what happens in the future, my role as their mother will be unconditional and permanent.  

I know the time will come when I’ll be that embarrassingly proud grandma clapping furiously in the front row at school Nativity plays.

Will I cast my mind back and feel regret at what my own parents have missed? Probably. But it’s too late. And for that, they’ve got nobody to blame but themselves.