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.