Part time mother?

I’ll say it as it is: my children only live with me at weekends and during school holidays.

In real life interactions, this is the point at which I see something pass across people’s faces, especially if they are a woman, particularly if they are a mother. There’s a flicker of surprise, even a glimmer of shock. This is where I brace myself for the inevitable question: “But don’t you miss them?”

Sometimes, if I’m feeling strong, I will tell the truth: “Not all the time; not as much as you might think.” Now the shock will often coalesce into horror and bewilderment. Because what sort of a woman doesn’t miss her own children?

I didn’t say, of course, that I don’t miss them. But that’s what people hear. So I have a little spiel prepared which I trot out when I am called on to explain why my kids don’t live with me full time. This comes up when, say, friends ask me which of the local schools the children go to, or colleagues assume that I have to rush home to spend time with my kids. I say it quickly, slipping in answers before there are painful questions. I explain that my ex-husband and I have had joint custody since we divorced almost 10 years ago. When we lived close by, we had a 50/50 residency arrangement, but even so, it wasn’t long before the school voiced the opinion that it might be beneficial if the children lived consistently with one parent during the working week.

Here’s what I don’t say: when we split up, it was less than a year after my worst ever bipolar episode. I had been unwell since the birth of my daughter in 1999, but things peaked in 2001 when an unrecognised dysphoric high led to me take an overdose. During that period, I was literally  incapable of caring for my own children. So in the back of mind there was always the possibility that in future I might once again struggle to be a consistent and functional parent. I was never willing to get into a custody battle over my children anyway. I didn’t think that was good for them, and it would’ve been incredibly unfair on my ex-husband, who so often had to do all of the parenting because I could do none. I don’t usually tell people that I was the one who really wanted to have children, that I convinced myself  that if I had babies to look after I wouldn’t be able to be mentally unwell, because I would “have” to pull myself together for their sake. I don’t disclose how ashamed I continue to be that I was so dreadfully wrong about that.

So I say brightly that their dad was always very hands on, and I knew when we separated it was never going to be a case of him or me. I was going to have to share. I had the opportunity to live and work in London, but the children were settled and happy in their school 50 miles away, and had extended family support from grandparents, aunt and cousins living close by. I didn’t want to take them away from these foundations.

I don’t say: Moving was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. Leaving the area gave me a chance for a new beginning, with a new job, and a new partner. It was an opportunity to start again, to see whether being stable on medication would allow me to live a normal life under different circumstances. But I lay awake in bed at night agonising over my choices, worrying that I would damage my children for ever by reducing our contact, yet equally worried I would damage them anyway if I fell sick again when they were in my care. I told myself over and over that a happy and consistent mum would be beneficial for them, but I still felt that I was a terrible mother, a dreadful person.

I describe how things work. How we’ve been doing this now for over six years and have a very predictable routine that the children like. Until recently I went back to our hometown every Friday and brought them to London on the train. Now they are teenagers, they come into London by themselves, and I meet them at the station so we can take the tube home together. I still bring a little picnic for us to share as they tell me about their week. We have a structured pattern of weekend activities they enjoy, and they have London friends they look forward to seeing on Saturdays and Sundays. They call both my flat and their dad’s house “home.” My son is considering applying to sixth forms in my London borough.

I didn’t say, of course, that I don’t miss them. The truth is that sometimes I see a child a similar age to my daughter and I feel a sharp pang of longing, or I run across something my son would get a kick out of, and my heart aches. But if I let myself miss them all the time, I could not cope. I have to compartmentalise, a kind of extension of the way I would try not to worry about them at nursery while I was at the office. Now they are older, I feel their absence less keenly anyway; emails, texts and Facebook all keep us much more connected. The hardest times are when they’ve been with me 24/7 for weeks, over the Christmas or Easter holidays, or away on a blended family holiday with my partner’s children (two girls, now young adults away at university). When it’s time to give my children back I find it incredibly painful, but try never to let it show. I cheerfully kiss them goodbye as I drop them off at their dad’s house, and I wait until I am back in the car before I cry. I may not have my children physically with me every day, but there is no such thing as being a “part time mother”.

For a long time I was the only woman I knew who was the “weekend parent” to her children. For me, one of the benefits of social media is that it has put me in touch with a number of other mothers who have serious mental health problems – and who don’t have their children with them all the time. This has been tremendously comforting. I have always believed my decision to be the weekend parent was not the act of a monster who doesn’t love her children, but a very rational, practical decision that was in the children’s best interests. But sometime other people’s judgmental reactions have sometimes made it very hard to keep the faith.

I do appreciate than during the years I was in remission, it seemed like there was nothing at all wrong with me. Obviously this will have made my family set-up harder for people to understand. But there have been long periods in this current episode when I would have been completely unable to manage the business of the school week. I cannot ensure children are up, dressed, breakfasted and out the door with packed lunch and clean school uniform while taking antipsychotics that make me sleep until 11am. Even now I am moving towards recovery, I continue to struggle enough just getting us all to our weekend activities. And with the children away for 70% of the time, I have managed to avoid them being present for the vast majority of the really bad days I’ve had over the past two years. When I have been in crisis, talking wildly of ending my own life, lost in the panic and terror of dysphoric mania or unable to move from my bed in deep depression, my babies were somewhere else. And I make no apology for that.


About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards 2013. Winner of the World in Mentalists Mood Disorder blog 2012. Regular guest blogger for the International Bipolar Foundation Expert by Experience working with Mind training department. Working on The Incoming Tide, a bipolar memoir. Find me on Twitter @BipolarBlogger or at my Facebook page
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32 Responses to Part time mother?

  1. Nikki says:

    As always a truly honest post. I admire not only your strength in being able to post this, but also in the decisions you made, and continue to make.
    From the conversations I have had with you previously, there has never been any doubt that you love and miss your children, and they are well rounded, perfectly developed youngsters. And for that you should be very proud.

  2. Kleineblumen says:

    I love your blog Charlotte. What you describe is one of many reasons I now no longer want children of my own. I’ve had people not understand that decision; one that must be easier to make than deciding that I wasn’t the best parent for children I’d borne and raised, and so I can sympathise with the reactions you must get.

    From Twitter and here though I think it’s very clear that your children love you dearly and you have done a very good job with them. You should be proud to be their mother, part time or not.

    • Hi Becky, lovely to see you here. Thank you so much for your kind words about my parenting. Obviously once you have children you love them to pieces, so it’s hard to imagine a life without them. But despite that there have been times when I feel strongly that looked at objectively it would have been better had I not become a mother. The kids disagree, obviously 😛

  3. Thank you for your perspective Charlotte. This was a very enlightening article for me. When I was in psychosis, I wanted children. My friends thought it would make me focus on something else and like you said, I would be unable to be unwell. Thankfully I wasn’t menstruating at the time (in my mind, not because of my disordered eating but because I thought God didn’t want me to have a baby with my husband). I thank my lucky stars I did not have children. Even in recovery, where people judge me from afar as “normal”–telling me to try for children now–I know I couldn’t do it. Your story gave me the permission to be okay with that. And I thank you. xo Trish

    • Thank you, Trish! Sometimes people suggest to me that I get a pet, citing their own pets as giving them something to live for, a reason to get up, etc. I know that could never work for me, because I had such dreadful times when my kids were small, and if I couldn’t focus on my own children, no way would I be motivated by a dog! I hate to think about some of the times when my babies were small, when I sometimes felt incapable of loving them, even resented them because now I felt trapped and unable to kill myself. I cringe when I think of the unrecognised bipolar high when I refused to care for them and barely spoke to them because I was doing tremendously “important” stuff which I didn’t want interrupted. That they have turned out as well as they have is tremdously fortunate. And I was one who desperately wanted children… x

  4. mrsshortie says:

    An interesting read, I’ve always wondered how a woman could leave her children, but since being ill with PND I realise that a break is something I can only dream of. I have not been so ill I could not look after my children, but know that if they were not around I would have had the time to recover by sleeping and resting much more.

    I think you are a very caring and brave woman to make the decsion to step aside and allow their father to give them the security that they need, but whilst still having the oportunity to spend a lot of time with you.

    People will always judge as they do not know the full story and sometimes it is easier to let them judge than to have to explain everything to them, and often people will not mean to be unkind, but it will just be a knee jerk reaction to a situation they are not used to.

    I hope you continue to spend quality time with your children and continue to get through this bad episode and come out fighting the other side.


    • Thanks, Kate. Things are a LOT different now they are in their teens, because they are able to understand when I am not well. I’m not saying it’s not sacry for them, but now they can have a good understanding of bipolar and the meds I take, and they know that I will come through the extremes and be “Mum” again. Little chaildren can’t do any of that, and I will always feel guilty for what my babies went through when they were 0-5, no matter how much people remind me that it wasn’t my fault I didn’t get useful help with my problems x

  5. g2-041e9951367144ace3cd2fb2821e8b3b says:

    I was a mother who did not selfishly have custody of my boys when they were younger, and who suffered from judgement from others. “How could you NOT want your kids?” “Most parents fight over who gets the kids; you fight over who has to take them.” These kind of comments were never helpful and just further ate away at my mental psyche where I felt like a bad mom for not keeping them. The fact was, I was not able to take care of them properly, even with the incredible amount of child support was would have been given and it was not fair to my boys or my ex-husband. (Now, his asshole stunts that kept me from my boys once I was capable of caring for the boys, is a whole other story.) I am so glad to know I’m not alone, even now that my boys are grown. The pains of not having them are still ever present. Thank you!

    • Hi! Thank goodness for the internet, huh? I felt alone with this issue for mant years, and of course it was when my children were smallest that people were most judgemental. I get much less negativity now they are older and able to speak for themselves, but it’s still something I worry about. So nice to “meet” you too 🙂

  6. Sally says:

    An incredibly honest and brave post about a truly selfless decision.

  7. Mich says:

    *hugs* Appreciate you sharing this – it took a lot of courage to write, and even more so to do. x

  8. Pingback: Tips on Co-parenting for Divorced Parent : Transition Process | Real Divorce Talk

  9. occasionalwallflower says:

    You are incredibly brave and slefless. My mother was unwell when i was growing up. Debilitating depression often ensured that she was unable to care for her 4 kids. While i loved her, it was really hard to have such an inconsistent mother. And also the hardest thing in the world was to see her depressed.

    Sometimes being the weekend parent is in the best interests of the kids, no matter how much you care for them. But when you are well, your relationship will be so much more meaningful and not tainted by what they have seen. I dont speak to my mum very much anymore. After everything i have seen, it is way too hard. But there is no doubt in my mind that your children will enjoy speaking to you and seeing you well into their adult years.

    • What I want to avoid above all is contact being to fulfil MY emotional needs, not theirs. I had some experience of this when I was a young adult and my parents separated. I want them to come here because they want to come here – when there comes a time when they are too busy with friends, etc, I will have to suck it up. It’ll come anyway, as I know well from observing Mr Blogger’s girls who are at uni. We have to be fitted in when they have a window! It just may come a little sooner for me.

  10. I think as a society we aren’t comfortable with the idea of maternal ‘abandonment’ although absent fathers is better dealt with, acceptable even, but I think the line you say where you say that emotionally you are not a part time mother is key. The worry would be when a parent can completely disengage and care little more about the welfare of their offspring. Male or female. In your circumstances, maybe it has been a ‘good’ arrangement because it has given you the time and strength to deal with your own health issues. I grew up with the idea that women never left their children but I now know woman who have, for reasons and in circumstances that do I question but I would never turn their back on them, their families or their children. It’s never my place to judge. 🙂

  11. Sarah says:

    Thank you so much for this. Your story could be my story. I can relate to the stigma attached to this. After suffering with undiagnosed post natal depression for two years I left my husband and two young children in what I recognise now as the only thing I could have done to to avoid a complete mental breakdown. At the time I didn’t know what I was doing, only that I needed to do it. I saw them every day, I got treatment, found a new partner and somewhere to live. I now have shared care with their father. He is a very hands on Dad and is great with them. It is hard for me to admit that this arrangement works well for me. I didn’t cope well with them, and now I am a better Mum. I faced the worst reaction from my own mother who still doesn’t understand why I’m not battling in court to have custody of them and doesn’t hide her own judgement of me very well. I can relate so directly to this blog that it makes my insides hurt.

    Thank you so much.

    • ((((hugs))) It’s hard. There are so many messages that the mum is the “real parent” and the dad is secondary, it makes it really difficult for those of us who want and love our kids but cannot parent them full time x

  12. Thank you for sharing your story so honestly, It was well written and very revealing. I have been in therapy for a mood disorder, depression and anxiety for almost 6 years. I have two girls and at times have thought they would be better off without me. I wrote about this recently in this post
    I can’t say I have gotten to the point you have but I can definitely understand how our minds can trick us into thinking things we never thought we would. Keep the faith and congrats on getting this far! xx

  13. Ellen says:

    Amazing post – your level of honesty is breathtaking (in a good way). There is no right or wrong way to approach these situations, but it sounds like you have protected your children from the worst bits of your illness until they were old enough to begin to understand it. You have shown nothing but love and consideration for them – and your ex-husband – by taking the route you have. I really admire that.

  14. mumsmental says:

    Like doesn’t seem the right word. I respect and am thankful for your honesty.

  15. I would like to say – Thank you – WITH A HUGE SIGH of RELIEF. Finally someone who knows what it is like. Here is a little about me: I am a single mother of 3, I am Bipolar. My oldest is 11. He is Autistic & Epileptic & has Developmental Delays that age him about Pre-K or K. The father of my youngest (yes, two different fathers 3 children) continues to make my life even more difficult – since I left him & his addictions for GOOD in 2009. He has scored a new GF, I mean “Fiance” let me be. – geez.

    I have little to no support of any kind. Friend, Family or Financially. I say this about support as – I never have the option to pass the buck – EVER. Regardless of how crappy I feel. But, for this I am also grateful as I think it keeps me anchored. They keep me in check from doing anything “stupid”. However, I worry for the babies. To what extent are they there for me yet it should be reverse. I think they deserve so much better, but how?

    I over heard my daughter (9yrs) singing (quite beautifully) to herself in her room last night before bed. “She is so angry and it is because of me.” Having been raised by a narcissistic mother I feel the pain of an essentially “absent mother”

    I have no real agenda in writing this – other than to remove a few cinder blocks from my chest. And, hopefully for all who will read will lift these gorgeous and intelligent little ones for strength and healing. And for all of us to be “OK” and prevail despite the odds.

    This is the first time I have “spoken” about this outside of a counseling session. The fear and judgment and mean spirited comments can start the downward spiral quicker than lightning. I live the best I can – I suffer in silence as much as I can, as if I am afraid to let it out – as if it is contagious. I do see a therapist once a week, but a friend or two would be nice too!

    Sal am & Blessings to all.


    • Hi Casandra, thank you so much for visiting by blog and leaving this comment. I am definitely indebted to the internet for connecting me with other people struggling with bipolar and parenting. I think you must be a stronger person than I, because there are times I simply *could not* care for my kids. It didn’t matter whether I had anyone to take over or not, I was simply too ill to taken care of myself, never mind my kids. I did have relatves around, had I not they would most likely have ended up in care. And that it why I feel that they suffered, and find it hard to stop feeling guilty about that.
      I feel honoured that you have shared your story on my blog, and I think I saw you on Twitter? That’s my big support network, I can always find someone who understands, or will certainly try to understand and support me. I hope you’ll find it supportive too.
      Very best wishes, Charlotte

  16. butterflywgs says:

    Very brave and moving post, *hugs*. You do, and did, the best you could. My flatmate has MH issues, and has a 16yo and 19yo who live with their dad. I know you are a fine mum. I wish my mother had had the insight to realise she wasn’t able to care for me and my sisters, and made sure we were elsewhere, when she was taking to her bed for days and threatening suicide.

    • Even though we’re not together all the time, I still feel really involved in their lives. My son is coming up 16 now and hopes (grades permitting) to get into a sixth form in my local area. I think he’s old enough, and my symptoms are starting to abate, so hopefully it will work out.

  17. tanya says:

    It was refreshing to hear your experiences, I’m not alone!!
    I have a similar story. I am not bipolar, but I had post natal depression. There came a point where I felt the children were in danger in my presence, I really feel for Felicia Boots who wasn’t able to walk away but I can understand that moment she went through. I thankfully walked away and called for help. I had to leave and left the children with their father.
    We got 50/50 shared custody and it was very hard (he was not very supportive at all and used my PND against me and let his new wife take over as mother) but through mediation the 50/50 worked.
    The children’s father remarried and is now divorced for a second time, so the children were spending one day a week and every third weekend with me, one day a week and every third weekend with their step mother and two days a week and the following weekend with their father. (Confused yet??)
    The children were being moved around too much !!! and now the children are 12 and 14 with exams approaching and I made the decision that they spend Mon-Fri at their dad’s and every other weekend with me.
    I’ve not met any other women who are in my position (a mother who’s children live with their father). I live 20 mins by bus from the children. I am not happy in the city where I am living, but fear moving because of the bigger distance from the children. I haven’t ‘met’ anyone since I left (10 years ago) as…I think who would want a woman who left her kids? None of my friends understand, so there is now one to ‘talk it out with’. I did try counselling shortly after I left the kids but that was no help. Now I keep it all in and don’t say anything to anyone. (until now)
    Now that the kids are with their father more, I am starting to think that I should ‘start my life’ but I don’t know what other women do who are in my situation.
    I came across your blog (its wasn’t easy finding blogs/advice on women who leave their kids etc that aren’t judgmental) and tears of relief reading your blog, that there are other women who are in the same/similar situation, and describe exactly how I also feel, think, have been though. Thank you 🙂 purplepersuasion, Sarah, Casandra, mrsshortie, and all the other women.
    Do you have any advice on where I can find further support?

    • Hi Tanya,

      No, I don’t know of anywhere else that you could for support…maybe we should, in all seriousness, create a support group for “weekend mums”…
      I can’t remember if I said in the article, but mine live 2.5 hours away. This makes it very difficult for me to attend parents’ evenings etc, and adds to the guilt.
      Things are only just getting easier for me, now that both of them are teenagers they can travel about more by themselves and we communicate in the week more now by Facebook, text, etc. Interestingly my son is planning/hoping (grades permitting) to live with me pretty much full time, including weekends, to go to 6th form down here. I hope it works out. My daughter is a different kettle of fish, she is completely into her friends, they mean everything to her, so I can imagine her going the other way at some point and not wanting to be here every weekend.

      But you are most certainly not alone. Don’t know if you are on Twitter, but there are a few of us there – do look for me if you are @BipolarBlogger

      Charlotte x

  18. I admire you so much for this. For making that decision, for putting your children first, and for being honest about both the decision and your reasons behind it. You’re an inspiration.

    • Aww, thanks for coming over and leaving me a comment. I have to hold on to the hope that I did the right thing, but even these days (they are now 13 and 15) I feel guilty xx

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