I'm haunted by my little Ruby screaming at me not to go. . .
Being a part-time father can make you feel suicidal, says Louis de Bernières. Tim Lott sympathises with his plight
My heart goes out to Louis de Bernières, the author of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, along with the thousands of other fathers who have faced the pain of being separated from their children. No wonder he ended up feeling suicidal.
The author, whose partner Cathy Gill, a theatre director, moved out of the family home with their two children in February last year, has described the "emotional desolation" that followed the departure of Robin (5) and Sophie (2).
"It was really dreadful. The worst thing, practically, was finding the house so quiet because it was always so full of laughter and rampaging and stampeding," said de Bernières. "The emotional desolation is hard to describe. There were many times when I felt suicidal."
Parting from my wife, Serana, and children Ruby and Cissy in 1999, left me with too many agonising memories to count. The lonely weekends in the parks alone with other sad single dads. The lies I told my children in order to reassure them -- "Isn't it wonderful -- you're going to have two homes instead of just one".
The memory that sticks in my mind is of Ruby, then seven years old, running after my car screaming for me to come back after my designated weekend was over.
That image -- of her running down the street after me, as I stared at her diminishing image in my rear-view mirror -- still replays in my head. The fact that I could not see my children for five days felt deeply unnatural.
It's important to emphasise that family breakdown is a nightmare for everyone. Mothers suffer and so do grandparents, and even close friends.
Most crucially the children suffer. Not only are they deprived of having two parents living in the same house, quite often they will lose a parent altogether.
Something like one-third of fathers lose all contact with their children after divorce. This is usually put down to the indifference of the father but often, I suspect, it's about the barriers that can be put in the way of contact. They may be erected by the courts or the mother, or both.
A mother may relocate to somewhere geographically remote or form a new relationship in which the biological father is seen as an impediment to the harmony of the "new family". Put another way, this amounts, as Bob Geldolf once put it, to "a form of child abuse".
Nothing like this happened between Serana and myself. We parented by agreement on more or less equal terms. But that was because the mother elected that it be so. If it had been up to the courts, or a more vengeful spouse, I would have been lucky to see my children every other weekend.
I agree with de Bernières that there remains a historical tendency for society to see fathers as the disposable parent. De Bernières called it "a sentimental Victorian idea" which took mothers to be automatically "sacred". It's an attitude that still permeates the courts, as well as popular opinion.
This is a noxious idea. Both parents are sacred. The idea that the presence of the father is unimportant for a child's development is plainly untrue -- the gang wars and petty crime that scar our city streets are so often perpetrated by children and teenagers who have no paternal role model.
Less obvious is the loss to the father when their children stop being part of his daily life. This element is often dismissed as self-pity.
The argument, if it could be summed up in a statement goes like this: "Why are you whining when you have given up on your marriage and left your children in a broken home?" By this definition, fathers, in grieving for their loss, are giving into "female" feelings -- and this is punished by being condemned as "self-pity". But to find yourself suddenly living alone, and often impoverished, the sense of loneliness and grief can be disabling.
I also recognise the feelings of "fantastically deep, bitter anger" to which de Bernières refers.
For me, these partly displaced feelings of loss, partly feelings that the other party wasn't "playing fair" -- sometimes to the extent of jeopardising good relationships with the children. But practically every divorce is blighted by these feelings of rawness. I remember saying to my lawyer when the whole procedure started that I'd hoped that we could resolve it all "amicably". I remember now the sad, sceptical smile that passed across her face when she told me that such an outcome was "unusual".
This is partly because of the system. My lawyer explained to me bluntly that a divorce was about bargaining chips. The father uses the money and the mother uses the children. It's all a game of poker. This adversarial system of handling family breakdown might work in corporate or criminal law but it is hopelessly inadequate for dealing with something as sensitive as divorce.
If de Bernières is to be believed, things are much the same now. Fathers tend to be seen by the court as optional extras -- as long as they can come up with a cheque every week, their parental roles are secondary. Families, it seems, don't need fathers.
De Bernières argues that equal parenting should be the norm. Much as I like the principle, I am not sure that this is a solution either -- switching homes constantly might work for the adults but it's not great for the children.
The stark fact is that fairness, when it comes to divorce, is impossible, although things could be improved. The assumption that the mother will always be the best primary carer is ridiculous -- though I confess to be at something of a loss to work out how you assess which parent would be the best. Certainly, whoever the absentee parent is, they should have quick and effective redress if access to their children is unfairly denied.
But fairness is impossible. Good intentions -- or the lack of them -- is all there is between the parents. More than any other time in an adult's life, divorce demands that the parents of children behave like adults, and it is a test that too many of us, both fathers and mothers, fail.
I feel great sympathy for de Bernières. But I would say three things: Don't become bitter. Never speak ill of their mother to your children, no matter how much you are hurt. And, in the long run, the children will probably be OK -- if they are lucky, they will have a father who is passionate about remaining a father, whatever obstacles are put in his path.