The aims of this short article are varied. In essence I hope it will:
• Offer some guidance on how to keep your head up during what will be (or is) undoubtedly a difficult situation for you.
• Provide a note of caution that family break-up combined with the legal process is a dangerous concoction, which may well spill over into other areas of your life.
• Offer a glimpse of sunlight at the end of the tunnel.
My own journey through the Family Law Courts
I found myself talking with a family solicitor for the first time in May 2004 with tears spilling down my face. My marriage was ending, I was in a state of abject grief, confused, and if I am honest more than a little panic stricken. I was very scared about the process ahead of me. My solicitor was reassuring and kind, but I didn’t understand what she was saying to me – not on this occasion. The backdrop to this first appointment was further complicated because my two daughters were so upset at their parents break-up and I didn’t really know whether I was, what’s the expression…coming or going.
I found myself in a Family Court a few days after this first appointment. The environment was strange and so very formal – I remember reading instructions on the seat in front of me informing me on how I should address the Judge if spoken to –“Your Honour” if you are in front of a Circuit Judge, but only “Sir” for District Judges. Definitely not Dave! The solicitors were dressed in black (they seem to have an unwritten uniform). While not necessarily unfriendly, the whole scenario seemed to have little to do with modern Britain. I was reminded of scenes from those old black and white films shot in headmasters’ studies in minor public schools. Oh, and during the 30 minutes proceedings I felt that I was largely ignored.
I was nervous throughout the court hearing – and when we walked out I had little understanding of what had been agreed. My solicitor was with me though, and once outside she was able to explain to me that “everything was OK”.
Everything wasn’t OK. What was happening in that Court room was just one part of an unravelling life. Or should I say lives?
Things get worse
Months after separation and well into the court process I found that I had lost two stone in weight, I was having “little chats” with my boss at work on a regular basis. Every evening at home I was on the ‘phone updating people as to what was happening. I was getting increasingly exhausted. My GP was telling me to sign off sick – I explained that I couldn’t because I would lose my job. The house was a mess, and my children were still crying in the night (they knew in their heart that things were not right without Mum around) and I started to feel that I couldn’t go on…Every time I picked up court papers from the “other side”, I read and re-read that I was supposed to have done really terrible things – and the frustration is you can’t really reply at that precise moment. You just have to bottle it all up. And when you do get to Court, you will hear judges and solicitors say things like “we put your children first”, and you want to scream at the top of your voice that you (and perhaps only you) put your children before everything else…The situation and the sense of utter frustration can became unbearable.
And then worse still
Sometime later, while at work, I started to feel dizzy. Very dizzy. My heart started pounding and when I got up from my seat I could barely stand, and I became convinced that I was having a heart attack. Suddenly I became desperately frightened…I really did think that I was going to die that day. I later learned that this was the first of many Panic Attacks. When I eventually got to my bed that night I was crying again – my tears and fears had worn me down to breaking point.
And I think this is important.
Family break-up will impinge upon every area of your life – make no mistake. This process of negative life change will be punctuated by Court hearings. They are important moments – but they are just that. Moments. And the build-up and your sense of frustration and anger and willingness for the truth to spill out will need to be diluted and channelled through formal documents and through words carefully chosen by your solicitor. If you are anything like me you will sit there praying that “His Honour” will break into proceedings and put his arm around you and take you to one side and just say something like “tell me what’s this really about son – tell me the truth – you’ll be alright”. But they don’t do that sort of thing, and I so wish they did!
And out of this bitter experience it seems almost illogical to try and offer survival tips – but I did survive (and not all people do). And for what it’s worth have a read just to see if it helps.
1. Instruct your solicitor well – easier said than done. But do this please. Ask yourself what will be the best outcome for your children. Be honest with yourself. And when you have the answer. Ask again. And again. “Putting children first” is the hardest thing to get right. And when you come up with the final answer – ensure your solicitor understands your wishes and why you have come up with the views you have. I found this the hardest of things – and of course positions and situations change so further and ongoing reflection will be required. And forget “winning” or “losing”. This really is about getting the best for your children out of a horrible situation.
2. “Don’t get caught up in the madness”. Don’t repay lies with more lies. Rise above it. I know about the anger you may be feeling – but sometimes (and Family Court is an example) we have to be undramatic and truthful. That’s all. Family Court is a legal machine so just stick to the truth and be polite. All men I know have a bit of Horrid Henry and Perfect Peter in them. It’s the way we are made. So when your ex is describing you as someone akin to Joseph Mengele’s long lost son, be assured that the judge will be wondering why it is she spent so long with you if you were that bad! Rise above it and just be honest. And remember, Judges have heard it all before a thousand times – and the truth does have a habit of coming out in the end.
3. Get a really tight circle of friends together – I suggest (tentatively) that finding a few mums who have been through the process can prove a really good sounding board. Much of this process needs time for quiet, educated and reflective advice. And while letting off steam over a beer with your mates is necessary, much wisdom can be gained by having someone who will listen to you and really get to understand where you are at. Mums are good at listening.
4. Talk to your children – Now how hard is this? The best advice I can offer on this point is twofold. Firstly, never underestimate your children’s ability to understand things. Secondly, always tell them the truth, but tell them the truth kindly.
5. And finally, don’t be afraid to seek help – Sometimes the pressure of it all can get to us – and knowing where that help is available and how to access it can be so important. Talk to your solicitor, or friends, or contact us at email@example.com or visit your local citizens advice bureau…you need not suffer alone.
I have titled this piece “surviving” and on reflection, I think that is the word to use. For those dads who are just about to start the process, please take care of yourself to the best of your ability. You will need strength in the years ahead.
And above all remember – there is a generational thing going on here and your children will want to learn one day that you thought through the issues and worked hard and tried everything you could to put their interests first. And that is all anyone can ask of you.
And to finish the story…
Well, having been made redundant, and with bags of care from my GP, and four years on, the girls and I are getting back on our feet. In 2008 I launched www.onlydads.org as a way of helping other Dads avoid some of the mistakes that I made along the way and to know that there are people out there who really can empathise with their position.
The girls now live with me. They are fiesty individuals who run me ragged, but there is love in the house. Oh…sorry that should read there is love in a still rather messy house!