Warring parents make life miserable

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st woman pensioner

Reuters

As divorced parents age, there is none of the mutual care there would have been if marriages had survived, and children have to look after their parents who can grow old and lonely. Picture: Christian Hartmann / Reuters

When she answered the knock at her front door a few weeks ago, Tammy Butler knew immediately that her cosy Easter weekend with her family was about to be ruined.

On the doorstep stood Tom, her elderly father-in-law, clutching a bag full of Easter eggs for his beloved grandchildren.

A furious scream rang out from the stairs behind Tammy.

“How can you let that man into your house?” demanded her mother-in-law, Mary. “Have you no loyalty?”

“I was so embarrassed,” recalls Tammy. “What could I do? I quietly apologised and said Tom would have to leave.

“I couldn’t even invite him in for a cup of tea, even though he’s 72 and had driven to see us.”

Twenty years after her in-laws’ bitter divorce, Tammy, 35, and her husband, Paul, 32, are still struggling with the fallout.

If anything the challenges have become worse as Paul’s parents have grown older. The continuing bad feeling between Tom and his ex-wife, Mary, 78, impacts on the whole family, including their grandchildren

So bad is the animosity that many family events have been spoilt by it.

Like the growing numbers of other adult children in the same situation, Tammy and Paul have found that the passing of time does not heal the emotional wounds.

In fact it makes the issue of divided loyalties ever more acute, not least because of the increasing loneliness and frailty of their parents.

Much has been written about the trauma that people of any age feel when their parents decide to split. But little thought has been given to the fact that problems caused by broken marriages can actually deepen with time.

And if you throw much-loved grandchildren into the equation, then all-out war can ensue.

The phenomenon is sadly increasing. Charlotte Friedman, a divorce support counsellor, explains: “Where previous generations would say ‘make your bed and lie in it’, people now feel entitled to have their needs met, and that’s why they are walking away from long marriages.”

Katharine Hill, a lawyer, says: “The practical implications of parents divorcing are more obvious when you’re younger – who you’ll live with, where you’ll go to school, where you’ll spend your holidays and so on.

“But for adults it can be just as hard emotionally. Any divorce causes a ripple effect of anger, hurt and guilt. Those emotions don’t die – they are buried alive and resurface again and again over time. The pain of divorce lasts a lifetime.”

Charlotte couldn’t agree more. “We have people in our groups in their sixties going through divorce, and they would love to see more of their grandchildren,” she says. “They feel aggrieved and find it difficult if their grandchildren are with their ex rather than them.

“And when you divorce, all that you have taken for granted about what will happen in later life is taken away. The adult child can feel incredibly guilty too – about which parent to take on holiday, for example.”

And it takes its toll on grandchildren as well, she says, as they quickly learn that certain subjects are taboo and they must not talk to grandad about what they have done with granny, for example.

That is certainly Tammy’s and Paul’s experience, as their children “walk on eggshells” around both grandparents.

“And because I had to send Tom away after his kind visit with the Easter eggs, he rang me to say he is now seriously depressed due to the fact we chose to spend Easter with my mother-in-law and not him – and so it goes on,” she says.

“It is a constant juggling act, and affects so much of our family life. I have to think before every holiday, every birthday, every family event – how will I cope with the two of them? How do I invite one and not the other?

“Since the divorce they have both lived alone, and the truth is that they are both sad and lonely.”

As divorced parents age, there is none of the mutual care there would have been if marriages had survived, and the burden of looking out for the divorcees falls instead on their children.

For Hannah Ganley, that burden fell on her shoulders when she was just 13. When her parents divorced, she became the main carer for her mother, Kerry, who has thalassemia, a blood disorder.

Hannah is now 31 with a young family of her own, but her responsibility for her mother grows by the year.

Her mother, now 52, lives next door, and has to have a blood transfusion every six weeks. She then gradually weakens as the effect of the transfusion wears off.

Hannah does everything for her – including all her cooking, washing and cleaning – and takes her to visit her mom, Whillemena, who is 82, widowed, has Alzheimer’s disease and lives in a home.

She finds coping with the conflicting demands of caring for her young children, her mother and grandmother stressful.

“Things are only getting harder as my mother gets older,” she says. “If she was still married then Dad and I could have shared the load, but, as it is, I am almost solely responsible for her.

“I don’t really see my dad any more. He has remarried and moved away. Maybe twice a year we speak on the phone, but because I spend so much time looking after my mother, it’s a bit of a sore subject.”

Lisa Graham also carries the main burden of care for her mother.

“My parents divorced 10 years ago, when I was 44,” Lisa says.

“My mother found out my father was having an affair. He was in his mid-sixties and still working – he had his own business. The affair had been going on for years and she felt she couldn’t forgive – that their whole life had been built on a lie.”

Just five years after the divorce, Lisa’s mother – who lives alone – became ill with multiple sclerosis.

Her deterioration has been rapid. Now 75, she uses a walking frame inside and a wheelchair outside. Lisa, who works full-time, has taken on the main caring role, arranging support for her mother from a distance and travelling 80km to see her several times a week.

Lisa’s father, by contrast, is in good health and has set up home with his long-time lover, enjoying expensive holidays and meals out.

“He has even said to me that he doesn’t know how he would have coped if he’d stayed with Mum, because his life would be so restricted. I can’t help but feel he’s shrugged off what should be his responsibility,” she says.

“I try not to be angry, but it’s all fallen on me and it’s really hard. My sister does help, but not so much because she has a young family.”

Lisa adds: “We have to do lots of things my father would have done, like organising all her finances, paying the bills, and so on.

“My mum is very bitter and lonely and who can blame her for that? I feel so sorry for her and I worry all the time.”

Although Lisa’s mother was left financially comfortable after her divorce, others are not so fortunate, forcing grown-up children to help meet bills.

Counsellor Christine Northam says a crystal ball would be very useful for couples as they contemplate divorce.

“I think if people were to stop and consider more carefully the implications of divorce over a lifetime, they might ask themselves: ‘Can we get this relationship back on track?’

“Life after divorce is more complicated than we ever imagine.” – Daily Mail


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