As you can imagine, mothers who have become separated from their children through family courts processes are usually profoundly distressed. Often survivors of trauma, abuse and violence, they sometimes just exist rather than have any quality of life. Estrangements might last for for a short time, or for very many years – some mothers never see their children again. Mothers apart may exist in sad, angry, depressed, anxious and stressed states and never find a way out of the darkness. Commonly, coercive and controlling partners engineer mother-child separations that result from private children’s proceedings. The child can be lost to the mother’s abuser if his strategy to punish her for leaving, for example, is to turn her child against her. This is a double blow as a mother not only has to live apart from her child but also cannot protect the child from her abuser, especially as she has no proof of abuse, as is so often the case with coercive control. Such mothers are, naturally, grieving – and the grief is complex as there are so many losses. It can be disenfranchised when the child is not dead but estranged and the mother does not benefit from all the normal societal responses, eg., sympathy, a ceremony, etc.
Mothers apart carry their sorrow and rage for years and can find it hard to regulate their emotions. They may suffer terrible guilt and shame and drive themselves to painful psychological states by self-punishing/self-harming behaviours. Mothers who have their children wrested from them by manipulative and powerful ex-partners are often wrongfully accused by professionals and services as unsafe parents in the process. This can manifest in deep shame, self-hate and a profound sense of failure. There will be no end of people to reinforce these messages through one of society’s favourite past-times: mother-blaming.
Mothers blame themselves anyway – they don’t need others’ judgement. Post-violent and controlling relationships they also suffer survivor’s guilt. How could they escape their abusers without their children? How can they lead any kind of life knowing their precious children are still living with abuse and danger? Mothers who know nothing of being separated from a child exclaim that they would never leave their children, that they couldn’t live without their children – that they would die for their children. But mothers apart thought those things too once upon a time. They also believed that their children would never reject them, would never stop loving them, would never want to be looked after anyone else but mummy. Other mothers just don’t understand and are usually more critical, judgemental and blaming than anyone else. How could she? They say. Their disgust adds to the burden already carried by mothers without their children.
Most mothers apart try and find help and support via their GPs or from the psych professionals for their unbearable emotional and psychological symptoms. In most Western cultures, the medical model reigns, so grieving and traumatised mothers recovering from abuse and trauma are often diagnosed with range of mental health problems: clinical depression, general anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. They can be prescribed very powerful psychiatric and anti-psychotic drugs, as is routine with perceived mentally illness – often assumed to be a chemical imbalance in the brain needing medication.
The most common diagnosis is depression, which is identified using the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM), now in its 5th edition. Written by a panel of psychiatrists, this is the bible used by GPs to identify and diagnose mental health problems. For a diagnosis of depression, the patient needs to display 5 out of 9 symptoms provided as a checklist in the DSM. For example, depressed mood, decreased interest in pleasure, or feelings of worthlessness. Because almost everyone who is grieving matches the criteria for clinical depression, the DSM used to contains what was known as the ‘grief exception’ or ‘bereavement exclusion’. So, a mother recently suffering loss, will not be considered as having a mental health problem for the duration of a period allowed for grief. However, this period diminished over the years from a year to only 2 weeks before scrapping it all together. Now, the grief symptoms experienced by a mother apart are more likely to be recognised as any number of disorders as described above and she could receive a diagnosis for treatment with medication.
The problem with this for mothers apart is that they are often involved in protracted court cases of many years with manipulative exes over the children. A diagnosis of a mental health problem or personality disorder could affect a woman’s chances of getting her children back or having regular contact – or even seeing them at all. This will be especially true in cases of coercive control when an abuser will be seizing every opportunity to malign the mother. As a therapist, I have lost count of the number of perfectly sane mothers who are ordered by the courts to be assessed by a psychiatrist or a psychologist in order to have contact with their children. These psychs are paid thousands of pounds to listen to the mother tell her story and, very often, when she strays into details of sexual and domestic violence that’s when she’ll be pronounced either a liar or delusional if she has no evidence. And, let’s face it, it would be very difficult to gather evidence of either child sex abuse or coercive control, for the woman who is no longer with her abuser, especially if he has care of her children. She will often have only her story and her memories, which can be refuted. Either conclusion – liar or delusional – can mean no contact. So, for the mother seeking to prove that SDVA took place ,and that she is not a liar or mentally ill, a word of warning… It can be a very risky business for mothers apart to go anywhere near those that assess and diagnose for the family courts in this regard.