The making of a new motherhood: the task of sharing care

The formative period for building character for eternity is in the nursery. The mother is queen of that realm and sways a scepter more potent than that of kings or priests. ~Author Unknown

Becoming a part-time mother after family separation can be extraordinarily difficult and can bring with it a bleak loss of hope about yourself and your role in your children’s lives. There are many different ways that mothers in our society arrive in the role of part-time mother and what has happened to bring you to this place will affect how you adapt to the role. No matter how you arrived though, your mothering still matters, to your children and to you. Even though you may currently be feeling disorientated, lost, angry or alone, you are still the mother that you have always been, you just need time to find yourself again.

Finding a way to positive co-parenting can be extremely difficult if you feel that you have been pushed into the situation or that you have no choice. How you arrived at the current place you find yourself in is important because thinking that process through can help you to start the psychological journey of change.

Some mothers arrive in the role of co-parent after their children’s father decided that he wanted to be regularly involved with his children. This can be an extremely difficult situation to resolve as children cannot be divided into two or be in two places at the same time. Many more fathers these days are actively seeking to play a bigger part in their children’s lives after separation than ever before. Some mothers can feel that this is an intrusion on their proper role or a determined effort by dads to hurt them by taking away their children. In some cases, dads do get entangled in trying to maintain relationships with their children’s mother through continued relationships with their children. In most cases however, dads are feeling just as terrified as mums at the prospect of losing their everyday relationships with their children.

Becoming a co-parent therefore can be the result of your children’s other parent wanting to be just as involved with their children. Recognising that your ex, your children’s other parent is likely to be feeling all of the same feelings that you are, helps you to understand why he is so determined to stay firmly involved in your children’s lives.

To become comfortable with your role as part-time mother it is important that you give yourself time to rethink your role and work out what it now looks and feels like to you. Don’t worry if that feels like an odd thing to do, most of us don’t spend much time thinking about mothering, we simply get on and do it! But when that role changes, it is important to spend some time getting clear in your mind what has changed and why it feels the way it does. Bringing those thoughts to the surface means that the reasons for your discomfort and disorientation become clearer to you. When things are clearer you can deal with them and they stop controlling you from the inside.

It is surprising how many mothers feel that motherhood is something that is an inherent part of them, something that has always been with them, lying dormant, waiting for the arrival of children in order to be activated. We are not however, born with the skills to mother other people, just as we are not born with the skills to ride a bike or read and write.

Mothering is an activity that has to be learned, and the way that we learn it is by being mothered ourselves.

Through out time, the role of mother has shifted and changed along with the dominant ideas of the time. These ideas are mostly shaped by the economics of the day, which, at times, requires mothers to be involved in the world outside of the home and at other times require mothers to return to its confines.

What we believe about mothering therefore, is very much shaped by things that are beyond our control. If we were being mothered in the victorian era, our experience would be that of being seen and not heard and our mother would have been the guardian of our morals as well as our wellbeing. If we were being mothered in the second world war, our experience would be that of being a part of our mother’s wider responsibility, as many mothers also worked in the factories as part of the war effort. In the latter years of the last century, our experience of being mothered would once again be that we were part of our mother’s wider world as more and more mothers also worked outside of the home.

In fact, in only one small period of time in recent history has mothering been seen as the sole focus of a woman’s life, the thing that really makes her a woman. In post war times, when women returned to the home in their thousands, the role of mother became exalted as couples were encouraged to rebuild society through the production of children. This era lasted a mere decade or so, before economics, women’s liberation and the birth control pill changed everything all over again. And yet it is this era, this small moment in time when mothering was put upon a pedestal again, that can really get under our skin when we feel that this role is being taken away.

He said that if I didn’t share the care of our children with him he would take me to court and get a residence order and be their full time parent himself. I was angry, resentful and terrified that I would lose my children completely. I was also really angry with him for wanting to be with the girls, after all I had done most of the hard work when they were little because he was out at work the whole time. I couldn’t see that I was doing the same thing to him by saying that they were going to live with me and spend every other weekend at his flat, all I could think about was how will they cope without me, I am their mother!

Alicia, mother to three girls aged 7, 9 and 12.

Alicia’s experience is becoming more familiar to mothers as more and more dads are expecting to play a full part in their children’s lives after separation. For mothers who have done much of the caring for children up to the separation, resentment and anger towards the children’s dad is a common feeling.

Feeling that your rightful role is being taken from you, in this case seemingly by force, is a difficult experience and one that requires you to remain calm and focused. It is important to keep in mind that at the point of separation, when both you and your ex are experiencing high levels of distress and anxiety, that feelings can blow out of control.

If your role in your children’s life has, until now, been that of major carer, organiser, taxi driver, cook, cleaner and more, having that taken away may feel like it will leave a large hole in your life on a practical as well as emotional level. Dealing with this situation well is essential however if you are going to give your children the best possible experience of shared care life. Children adapt well to living in two homes when their parents are co-operating and relaxed about arrangements. When parents are completely at odds with each other and are resentful about the arrangements, children can become uncomfortable with arrangements and unhappy in one or both homes.

Feeling that your role in children’s lives has been usurped or taken from you is one that you must confront fully in order to experience and process the feelings that comes with it. Mothers who cannot do this emotional work often carry the burden of unresolved anger and resentment which can create all manner of problems for children and parents alike. For children, knowing that mum is unhappy about arrangements either obviously or silently, is a difficult burden to bear because it can create guilt and a sense of responsibility that is not rightfully theirs. Children need both of their parents to be able to cope with arrangements well and to be able to communicate effectively as far as possible.

These feelings are most strong during the transition points from living together with your children’s other parent to living apart. That period of time in which everything feels as if it is in chaos. During that period of time you may have made a decision in your own mind that your children will live with you and that you will be the main parent. Your friends may have separated and arranged their lives in this way, books that you read might suggest that this is the way to deal with parenting after separation. Many people will assume that you will be the main carer, that your children will live with you for the most part and see their father for a couple of days each week.

Coping with the shock of being told by your children’s other parent that this is not how he expects arrangements to be made can sometimes feel like an unfair extra burden being placed upon your shoulders just when you feel most vulnerable. If you have made the decision to end the relationship, you may feel that your children’s father is using your children to manipulate your feelings. If you have not made the decision to end the relationship, it may feel incredibly painful and as if your children are being taken away from you just when you are most hurt. Whatever the circumstances, if you are unhappy about sharing care of your children in a way that feels as if your rightful role is being taken from you, you need to help to work through the feelings so that you can separate out your own from those of your children and your children’s other parent. By disentangling all of the individual feelings, it is possible to come to a clear understanding of each and then it is possible to make decisions about what care arrangements are in the best interests of your children.

This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book about Collaborative Parenting after Family Separation  by Karen and Nick Woodall – release date – Autumn 2013




  1. This is great. Most books on this subject just say the same old thing, i.e., do what is in the interests of the children. This sounds different in that it seeks to get to the heart of the problem, which is the fear of an already unhealthy co-dependent relationship between mom and child being unsettled by dad wanting more time.

    The question really is how to address that narcissism and self-importance, and how to deal with the highly irrational fear that results from the thought of losing complete control, and the equally highly irrational (not to say wicked) allegations that are fabricated so as not to lose control.


  2. I thought for a ghastly moment that someone had usurped Karen and was being an apologist for child abuse. The moment passed. Karen’s piece is as insightful as it is depressing for me. Gabby’s last paragraph hits a prominent nail on the head, whilst it’s enlightening to catch a glimpse into the other sides psyche, it’s terribly sad that the FJS has no means nor any intention of trying to address the traumas being experienced by mother, father or indeed, the children.


  3. Karen
    your book sounds great in addressing the hurt and fear in both parents.-leading to all the subsequent battles.I look forward to the publication .It would be great if it were to become compulsory reading for all divorcing/separating parents


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