Parenting Anonymous

My name is Kate and I am an Absent Parent. I have a 10 year old son who doesn’t live with me.

Before you read any further, stop and consider what thoughts have already run through your mind as you read the first two sentences. Be honest; how many of them were negative or judgmental? Now add this into the mix: My child doesn’t live with me and that was my own choice. What are you thinking now?

Let’s not get too dramatic, however. The short version of the story is this: My first husband and I separated more than 6 years ago, when Joe was almost 4. Joe’s Dad always has been and continues to be an excellent father – he was the main carer for the majority of Joe’s baby years. When we separated, we shared custody which worked well for all of us. It upset all the mothers at the school gate but I lived with that. Our decision was always “Joe comes first”. After a year my ex husband moved back to London and Joe lived with me full time for the next couple of years, seeing his Dad on alternate weekends and for large chunks of his school holidays. Life moved on, I started plans to move in with my new partner which involved relocating to Glasgow along with Joe, who by this time was 7 years old. Ex husband got wind of this and reacted with blitzkrieg efficiency – he was living locally again before I had time to turn round.

So, we had a problem. We both wanted to have Joe with us full time and Joe loved us both. We talked in circles for weeks, with most of the conversations sadly ending with “We’ll just have to go to court then”. Until one night when I was yet again lying awake and made the decision that I simply wasn’t prepared to put Joe through that trauma. It’s not how we had done things up to now – Joe has no idea what I think of his Dad, and I’m pretty sure the same can be said about his Dad’s opinion of me. We chose to have him, we love him dearly and it’s not his fault we split up. It really is as simple as that. We’re determined he’ll have as normal, healthy and happy childhood as it’s possible for us to provide for him. Part of that meant that one of us had to step down and in this instance it was me. I’m almost certain that it’s been significantly harder for me than it has been for Joe, which is just as it should be – if it was the other way around then we’d have made the wrong decision.

3 years on we do have a healthy, happy, normal 10 year old boy. It’s working well for him. It hasn’t got any easier to be the absent mother, though. Not only because of that persistent daily ache of missing him and feeling as though my finger is off the pulse of his day to day life, but also because of the reaction I get from others (and also the reaction that I still give myself, if I’m honest). As a society we don’t quite know what to make of mothers who don’t live with their kids. Whether it’s openly expressed or not, society still tends to assume that the mother is the parent mainly in charge of caring for the children and that she is better equipped to do so. I am very lucky in that I have a lot of extremely supportive friends, most of whom have been kind enough to NOT tell me what they think unless it’s positive. I’ve also received plenty of barbed comments from women (yes, it’s always women) who don’t know me, or who do know me but don’t understand. One classic came from another mother who, on being introduced to me said “Oh yeah, you’re the one who has a kid who doesn’t live with you aren’t you? I’ve heard about you”. A couple of years on and I’ve still not come up with a reply to that one. A friend of Husband No 2 often asks do I miss Joe. The answer, of course, is always Yes – to which the response has been “But you gave him away”. This apparently means that I don’t have the right to miss him.

I’m not sure what is worse for absent mothers – the reaction we get from others, or the hell we put ourselves through because we feel so damn guilty that we’re not there all the time. I suspect I’m not alone – the Child Support Agency figures show that there are currently 67,000 non-resident mothers paying maintenance, but it is thought that the real number of mothers living apart from children for a range of reasons could be over 250,000 in the UK. It is a growing trend and I have no doubt that the number of non-resident mothers will continue to increase. I don’t believe it will ever become any easier for us mothers who are in that position – I hope that the social stigma will lessen with time but I doubt that the way we feel about ourselves is going to change any time soon.

Even after 3 years I am still reluctant to tell people I don’t know well about my family setup and I think it’s time this changed. I am not ashamed of my decision and I am immensely proud of the child that has emerged from all of this. Until we absent mothers start holding our heads up and accepting that we are NOT bad parents then nothing will change. We’ll continue to believe the story in our heads about how life “should” be and we’ll continue to live with the fear that everybody is judging us. So to everybody who has ever said to me, or thought about me “But you gave him away” or “I could NEVER live without MY child” then I say this: I hope you are never in the situation where what you want for yourself and what you genuinely believe to be the right thing for your child are in direct conflict. What I want for me is my child here with me, all the time. I want to be able to tuck him in every night, to enjoy the little things that I miss every day. That isn’t necessarily what is right for him. The fine juggling act of being a parent has taken me down roads that I had never dreamed of!

I’d love to know what you think – positive or negative.


  • Lisa

    I for one admire your decision to put your son first. It take an incredibly strong, brave and selfless woman to do this. I am the first to say “I could never…” but please don’t think that I am judging you or your situation.
    Your son is living proof of how this arrangement works. Joe is a fantastic well adjusted boy who gets the best of both worlds.
    I never knew this side of you. I’m sorry for your pain.
    Lisa. xxx

  • Jane Hatton

    I am full of admiration. It’s easy for parents to say, and believe, that we would do anything for our children. But that assumes they live with us. What if the best thing for our child tears us apart? That is the real test.

    I am eternally grateful that I never had to make the choice to do the right thing for my children, if it meant them living somewhere else. Theoretically I’d like to think I’m a good enough parent to make the same painful but absolutely right choice you made Kate. In practice, I have a nasty feeling I might have been too selfish. Which would have meant my children paying the price for my happiness, which can never be right.

    And I confess that I have judged too easily. Not in this case, because I knew the background and agonising that went on, and what the motives were. But when I hear of mothers who walked out on their young children, my first instinctive gut reaction is “how could she do that?”. I have since met you, and other mothers – and there is nearly always a back story which isn’t about selfishness at all, but about incredible sacrifice.

  • Morag Gaherty

    Kate, first of all, let me remind you that the difficult decision to let your son live with his father is proof enough of the fact that you are a GOOD mother, not a bad one. It is so rare to see adults handling a split without consciously or subconsciously damaging their children. So well done to both of you.

    I am in a sort of similar situation to you, but rather different. I love my children (2 boys, now 9 and 11), but I am very much not a maternal mother. I follow the principles that my own mother instilled in me: the role of a mother is to train her children for independence. Not to smother and baby them. No wonder we end up with so many emotionally stunted (and selfish) young people!

    The maternal role in our house was taken by my husband, who was the person they woke in the night if they had a problem, or the person they would talk to if they were upset. We were all fine with that arrangement because it suited us.

    And then my husband died, very suddenly (8 days!) of unsuspected cancer when the boys were 4 and 6. I have to say, I cried when we knew it was aggressive and terminal – not for him, really, or even for me, but at the enormity of being left to look after the boys. And my husband, lovely man that he was, kindly said “You think you can’t do it, but you can. The boys are as they are because of you, not because of me.” That was tremendously reassuring.

    Anyway, the upshot is, two years after my husband died, I sent the boys to boarding school. (And you think people judge YOU!) There were good reasons for it, mostly to do with their current schooling not really meeting their needs, as both are very bright. But also, I did find it a strain, because I’m not one of those hands-on mums who wants to be baking cookies every ten minutes.

    The upshot was: it was the best choice for them. And when people say “Oh, I could never send my child away to school”, that’s just their own selfishness talking. Children aren’t our property that we put in a little box at night. They are people in their own right, and we have to do what is right for them, not what is right for us. I could be crying in the corner every night because of missing my boys, as far as anyone knows, but I will continue to send them to boarding school because they love it and it really works for them. My own feelings are irrelevant.

    PS I don’t cry in the corner every night. I quite like having a life of my own, and I won’t let anyone else make me feel guilty about that!

  • bood

    It’s a great piece, Kate.

    Well-written, honest and moving.

  • Bossy

    Completely agree with the above. Great, heartfelt piece.

    Thanks for sharing it.

  • Cathy Dobson

    You are one of the best Mums I know… and partly BECAUSE you didn’t put Joe through a custody battle but always put his interests first and not just your own. Of course you miss him… but that’s because you were selfless and did what was best for him, even though it was going to hurt.

  • John

    Good for you. I’m a father like your husband, and I finished up with both the boys. Our society loads totally unreasonable assumptions, guilt trips etc, onto mothers. The kids should come first every time.

  • Sarah Arrow

    Mums that put their children through an emotional custody battle do just as much damage to their children as those that stay in a violent relationship.

    Putting the child first is at the centre of being a mum, and I can only imagine what you go through.

    Having shared cared with my ex husband was enough for the majority of my family to turn against me, even though our daughter is with me 90% of the time, and my shadow. She has a strong relationship with both of us and that is worth all the pain and the judging and the snidey comments.

  • Kara

    This is a very honest and brave account of a sensitive part of your life, I know that there are people who will judge your decision, but as many have said, they have never been in a position that put their wants in direct conflict with that of their child…..I am full of admiration for you….because before I met and knew you, I would have been a “how could she do that…” if some one had told me of your situation.

    I *know* that you are an excellent parent, as I have witnessed it many, many, times…..and the result is Joe! Who is an amazing boy, loved dearly, well-balanced taking all the changes in his life with ease ,funny, kind,daft,gentle everything a 10year old should be.

    This is because of the woman you are, the mother you are and your selfless decision 6years ago. You have sacrificed your own happiness for that of your son.

    You are an amazing mother and great role model.

  • NikkiPilkington

    I am one of those people who say “I could never give my child up” – however the people saying that (including me!) are thinking of themselves, not their children.

    I like to think that if it came to it and either of my children (although Leigh is now 18!) wanted to be with their Fathers then I would have the strength that you have had to see my ex partner as a great Dad and to do the best for my child.

    I have nothing but admiration for you – and Joe will (and does) feel the same.

  • Leanne

    So proud of you – it’s not easy being selfless, especially if you know you’re gonna get judged for it as well.

  • Anonymous

    John thank you for commenting. I’d be really interested to hear more about your experience as the full time parent – certainly my ex husband found it very hard in the early years because of the constant comments (yet again from women – come on girls, what is this all about??) such as “Oh are you giving your wife a break?” and “Good to see a man making the effort for a change”.

  • Nick

    Having known you for most of the time through this, I can only try to express how your courage and self sacrifice has been rewarded with a boy who appears to be a happy, lovely, normal 10 year old.

    Seeing how Joe has developed and grown into the person he is today, I know that this is, in large part, down to the hard decisions you made in not putting him through a custody battle and always showing how much you love him.

    I know how hard it has been for you at times and still is, but your determination to do what ever is necessary to put Joe first is part of what makes you the person you are and the woman I love.

  • Anonymous

    Ha, why am I not surprised that your family setup doesn’t fit into a neat little box?! It’s amazing how there is such an expectation that we will have our kids and then trundle along the “right” tracks until they leave home. I didn’t give it a great deal of thought until Jon and I separated and then became determined that we would handle the divorce with Joe at the top of the list at all times. Now, more than 6 years on I am much more aware of how many families are doing it “their way” and far less judgemental (I hope) than I used to be!

  • Dave

    As ever, I’m in awe of your honesty, eloquence and above all bravery.

    As everyone else has said above, the proof of how right your decision was and is lies in the incredibly charming Joe. I’d like to think we know him well now, and he’s like any other boy of his age, which believe me, is a compliment!

    He is clever, funny, well balanced, adaptable, not at all precious, and above all loving to those around him.

    You know that I admire you for many reasons – your ability to act so selflessly for Joe’s benefit is only one of them.

    You are an amazing family. We’re very proud to be able to call you all our friends. x

  • mtd

    You’ve said it all: “Our decision was always “Joe comes first”” and held up your end of the bargain beautifully, Kate. It’s far too often I’ve seen the fall out of “our child comes first” followed up by, “but you need to take him on my weekend because I have vacation scheduled and I’m not going to cancel” which means the child actually comes way after the parents’ respective wants and convenience. That’s not parenting; that’s basically playing ping-pong with a child’s emotional development and peace of mind.

    You made a sacrifice for the well-being of Joe and he’s a better person for the stability in his life you’ve allowed to him. You’re a loving mom who doesn’t get to see her son as often as she wants, and that’s the full truth.

  • Jackie

    Your story reminds me of Solomon’s test, where two women were battling over one child. He said, “Right, we’ll cut the baby in half then.” At which point, the true mother said, “No, let *her* keep him.”

  • JD

    There was a lot of instinct involved when I made the decision to be an absent father. I knew they would be okay with their mother and I knew that I could keep up enough involvement. Sometimes there is no right decision, just one that you make right over time and one day you can look back and know that you did the best thing you could for all concerned.

    I know people who have turned their back completely, though it broke their heart, because it was the least painful way forward for their kids.

    I have no interest in the opinion of anyone who puts themselves forward as the all-knowing judge in this situation.

  • Sarah Arrow

    I said the same Jackie, he was a wise one that Soloman ;) , Kate is an amazing woman and a fab mum for actually doing what is best for her child rather than herself.

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