Browsing Facebook I saw a photo of 4 siblings. The children were smiling, but the smile didn't quite meet the eyes of the eldest child. I didn't recognise the children, (the author was a friend of a friend), but the photo intrigued me.
The author who had posted the photo said he hadn't seen his children for 6 months and this photo had been sent to him by a friend. He said his ex-wife, (believe me that's a much friendlier description than he used), hadn't let him see them. He said he was missing so many milestones and felt like giving up on life! There was a lot of support for him. However, one woman defended his ex-wife and said he had "torn her world apart", by leaving her for another woman. He said she had been an awful wife and he left 'her' and not the children. He said she had no right to stop him seeing his children.
The children were caught in the crossfire. The split was clearly very bitter and they must be suffering. I wondered if the elder children had access to Facebook and had seen their Father's post. Had their mum confided in them? Did they feel that their childhood had ended in a flash and was the eldest forced to grow up and become the man of the house? How must it feel to live with your father all your life and then not see him for 6 months? Did they feel like their world had crumbled around them? Did they feel abandoned? Did mum reinforce that belief as she was grieving for the relationship and her lost future? Did dad feel a mixture of anger, guilt and loss? Did the children want to see him? Were they worried they would hurt their mother if they did? Did they have someone they could talk to about their feelings?
Life is usually not black and white; with one good parent and one bad parent. Decent people can make bad decisions. However, children really need their parents to put their needs first when they are separating - and that's not easy when a parent may feel like their world is falling apart. Initially, children may feel they don't want to see a parent who has left, especially if it is due to an affair - this arouses highly complex emotions for all sorts of reasons, not just the anger of the left-behind parent, though it can be that.
The leaver wants to move forward and may want to return to a sense of normality and introduce the children to their new partner. It's often hard for the person who has been left to agree to that - and very often the children may also be adamant they don't want to see the other parent and especially meet their new partner, as they may have feelings of rejection and abandonment. They are quite likely to be grieving for the loss of the family they had - and in that state feel unable to move on and cope with new relationships, it may just too soon for that.
Parents have to find a way to discuss these and other parentings issues and protect their children from acrimony and avoidable hurt and loss. Mediation creates a safe and neutral place for these conversations to take place. Furthermore, the mediator is highly trained and experienced in facilitating their much needed conversations and can help with formulating new boundaries and ways of communicating and planning that work. This helps parents to focus on their children's future and what's best for them.
Children of an appropriate age and understanding (roughly over age 10, sometimes younger with older siblings) can also speak confidentially to a mediator in a child inclusive mediation - something many children really appreciate. They don't make decisions; but their feelings are taken into account and can be respected. This is empowering for children. Studies show adults whose parents split up when they were children often look back and say that they felt unheard when their parents separated, that no one asked them how they felt or what they wanted and it made them feel they were not important and didn't matter.
To return to the Facebook photograph and my so-typical story of a separating family in terrible pain - the father's frustration and grief was palpable and the mother's friend described a woman who was also in a great deal of pain. The photograph of their oldest child's face spoke of his suffering and tension - and it is very unlikely the others were unaffected by the situation, however bright their smiles.
Parents will sadly continue to separate - but the ways and means they do this can make things infinitely worse - or easier. I hope they find their way to mediation; it could save them and their children from a great deal of further heart-ache.