|Divorce & Motherguilt
Dr Penny Adams MBBS (UNSW) Hons,FRACGP
Penny Adams graduated from the University of New South Wales in 1982 with first class honours and the University Medal.
She worked at Royal North Shore Hospital for several years before leaving to establish a General Practice on the North Shore of Sydney, where she has practised for twenty years. She subsequently gained her Fellowship in General Practice, being awarded the Kent Hughes Medal for topping the nation in the exams.
Penny's special interest include :-
- women & children's health
- adolescent medicine
- sexual health
- preventative health & screening
With a passion for health promotion, she is a frequent guest speaker for charities and has made regular appearances on shows such as Beauty & the Beast, Mornings with Kerry-Anne and Good Health Television.
Recently, Penny co-authored - with Ita Buttrose - the book MOTHERGUILT.
From this research and her experence in general practice Penny speaks about feelings mothers experience when divorcing.
Q. Penny I have enjoyed reading your book I think it talks about real people with real issues.
What made you decides to write it?
Quite a few years ago, I actually wrote an article for Tempo called “The Mother of All Guilt” – an article that bemoaned the fact that despite the amazing job we do as mothers, we always seemed to feel guilty.
The response was just amazing. I guess the reason I wrote it on personal level, is that as a mother I was always feeling guilty, for one reason or other, and even though I was working part time and my kids were happy and healthy - I just always felt guilty.
For years I’ve seen mothers in my surgery dealing with the same irrational emotions. Eventually I thought:
“Maybe we should look at this and see why we have these irrational emotions and what we can do about it”.
I was then at a Christmas party, chatting to Ita Buttrose - whom I met on Beauty an the Beast - about this phenomenon and we decided to combine our respective talents to examine Motherguilt and hopefully get rid of it.
Q. Penny why do women suffer so much from guilt?
Well I think that the guilt we are talking about - in the context of Motherguilt - is an irrational guilt.
It is not like an everyday guilt which you feel when you do something wrong. On this point, I think it is quite healthy to feel this guilt, because it indicates that you are transgressing a boundary.
Motherguilt on the other hand is irrational and I think the reason why mothers in particular now are suffering from an epidemic of it is because in the last 3 decades life has changed dramatically.
The advent of the pill meant that women could choose not only whether they had children but when they had them. This was at the same time as women liberation.
It meant that mothers could basically return to the workforce.
Mothers love doing that, they love the financial independence, and they love the stimulation. The problem was that they maintained a full time job of mothering - as well as traditional roles in the workforce.
I think that this is one of the major challenges in getting rid of motherguilt - to have equality in the home as well as equality in the workforce.
I have often wondered about what they call the Sisterhood Paradox.
- Women need other women.
- They need women friends.
- They talk and chat to them.
- They tell them things that they wouldn’t even dream of telling their partners.
- They help when there is a crisis when the kids are sick
But by the same token women are so highly critical of other women.
Stay at home mums criticise working mums and say ‘you’re not looking after your children properly’. Working mums criticise stay at home mothers saying ‘what do you do all day, don’t you get bored?’
There is this constant criticism that goes on between women. We are often our own worst enemies. It is not men who are criticising us – it’s women.
When was the last time a women said to you ‘gosh you are doing a great job as a mother’. It is really an interesting paradox.
Q. Penny in your practice do you have many women coming to you with marriage or relationship problems? Do they present with physical signs or symptoms?
Yes very often, the national divorce rate is about 40% so there are a lot of women with relationship issues. I refer them to counsellors - and there are some good counsellors available. If they come back and say “no it’s all over it’s not going to work” then I suggest they seek legal advice. Yes sadly it is very common.
Women find themselves in different scenarios.
1. Where the women finds out when the husband leaves that he has been having an affair. She is just in total shock and you have to go into shock management counselling before you can move on.
2. There is the other scenario. Over a period of 12 to 18 months a women has been giving out signals to her husband - that she is not happy and things aren’t working. Often she has the whole family packed up and ready to go before her husband realises that there was any problem with the marriage.
Q. Penny in your book you say:
“The thought of starting over again is frightening, as is having to accept the need to rethink the future because a woman’s dreams and hopes have been destroyed. Ann Holland (Relationships Australia) says it usually takes two to three years for a couple whose relationship has broken up to put their lives back together again. ‘It sometimes takes five years for individuals and families to get over the emotional pain and trauma and many people can have serious health and emotional problems during this time.”’ ( p. 259 )
In your experience do patients suffer from these problems and to what extend?
All patients suffer when there is a marriage breakdown – the range of problems can include physical issues like high blood pressure, weight gain or loss, alcoholism, sleep disturbance, and , of course, emotional problems like anxiety and depression. Those women who have the fastest “recovery” are ones who seek counselling early, let go of their anger and bitterness (or guilt) and who have good legal and financial support.
Q. Penny from your research for the book, could you tell us about the feelings women experienced when going through the two scenarios you mentioned before?
I think women basically go through the whole gambit of emotions.
For some women, there is a sense of relief and freedom initially but when the reality hits, I think they are often frightened and lonely. They can also feel angry and rejected.
The whole ego issue comes in to their sadness and a sense of failure. I think there is such a range of emotions. There are also different stages through which women progress in the whole divorce issue.
My biggest piece of advice to women who go though a divorce is - particularly if it is initiated by their husbands - is get a good lawyer and make sure you are dealt with fairly.
· Get angry
· through some darts
· tear up some pictures
· write his name down and put it in the freezer
· work out at the gym
Try to let your anger come out - away from the children.
Then when you can - let the anger go. I see lots of women who remain bitter. This doesn’t hurt their husbands but it really hurts them and it can filter down to their kids.
It eats away at them and means that they can’t move on and enjoy their rest of their lives. So once you have got through that angry stage then you have to let it go.
As Ann Holland says above - this can take a few years. How long is dependent on the individual, their circumstances and their support.
It really is important to enjoy the rest of your life - plus or minus a new partner.
Q. Children seem to be the ones who pay the ultimate price.
“But while most adults five or six years after they separate say they are happy being divorced, their children often are not and in their heart of hearts hope a miracle will happen and their parents will get back together again.” (p256)
It was interesting, when Ita referred to her daughter who at 35 still wished that her parents were together.
On a personal level, my oldest daughter Diana - from my first marriage - gets on very well with her stepfather. She calls him Poppy but I know secretly she still wishes that her own father and I were still married.
Her father and I are great mates and I am very good friends with her stepmother. We actually have mixed family functions and go away on holiday together sometimes. Didy loves this and sees it as being her whole family.
I often think kids many years after a marriage break-up still wish that their parents would get back together even if they like the new partners.
I think it can become very difficult for children after a family break-up. They have 2 families with which to spend Christmas, and whilst they often do well materially - 2 sets of presents etc - they don’t necessarily have that quintessential sense of family celebrations like that of a normal non-divorced family.
When they get older and have a boyfriend or girlfriend – maybe from a divorced family as well - there are so many families they have to visit on Christmas day. It can become quite complicated.
Q. There can be a lot of sadness as well for parents at special times.
Yes, I remember when Diana was in year 12 they have a father daughter dinner. For her this was a very special and significant occasion. She asked her father to take her and came home one night and said to her stepfather “Poppy, would you like to come to my Father Daughter dinner” and he said “Oh Darling I’d love to but aren’t you going with Mike?” she said “I’m taking both of you”
She turned up at this function with both of her fathers - one on each arm - and walked in very proudly. This was such an emotional moment for Ian - as a stepfather - to be invited and such a sincere gesture both - on Diana’s and Michael’s part - to include him.
I thought it was it really lovely. Some of the teachers commented and noticed this as a sign of real maturity on Didy’s part.
Q. “Although they might have initiated the break-up, it comes as something of a surprise to women how much they do grieve after their marriage or relationship ends. .‘Even when our marriage was at its worst I was still able to talk to my husband about everyday worries or problems with the kids,’. Rosemary says. ‘There was another person to share the load. But all of a sudden the buck now stopped with me. I was scared.’” (p.258)
It’s really hard trying to be strong for everyone.
Yes and from a personal observation and what I see it also in my practice, the death of a partner can sometimes be easier. When a women’s husband dies everyone races around with casseroles. People come and mow her lawn and everyone is there to help but when a women and her husband divorce there is an absolute stigma attached. There are no casseroles; there is no one to mow your lawn. Quite frankly a lot of women are not nearly as well off financially. With a death the women may get all of the assets where as, with a divorce you have got to go through this awful financial settlement. It seems so unfair because I think that divorce is almost much harder than death.
A young widow who was left with twin babies, when her husband died suddenly, said
“at least I had the comfort of knowing he didn’t want to leave me”.
Not only do you get all the money, all the sympathy, your lawn mowed and the casseroles but you don’t have that awful ego vacuum feeling when you have been left for another women along with all that pent up anger and angst if it is an uncomfortable or difficult marriage break-up.
Q. “Very few women expect to be alone in their middle age. Such a fate is never a part of their girlhood dreams. Annita Keating probable spoke for many middle –aged women when she talked to The Bulletin magazine’s Jennifer Byrne in 2004 about the breakdown of her twenty-five-year marriage with former Prime Minister Paul Keating. She said ‘I never, ever thought that I would be on my own one day…. Because he and the children were my life.’ Annita told Jennifer that she would prefer not to live alone and was ready to consider a relationship but, as many other 55-year -old mothers know, once a women is over fifty a good man is hard to find…..because all too frequently ‘available’ men prefer younger females to women of their own age.” (p.260)
Penny any views on the repartnering side of things through the women you have had dealings with?
I think that this is probable one of the most interesting phenomena I’ve noticed and again this is not evidence based but an observation and personal opinion, namely that when men become available an awful lot tend to want to associate with much younger women.
I tend to say to women that
- if they divorced in their forties and intend to repartner that it is more likely that they will repartner with a man who is fifty.
- if they are fifty they are more likely to repartner with a man who is sixty
They should not be fazed by repartnering with someone who is quite a bit older.
I don’t think it is particularly fair that forty year old men are often looking for women in their late twenties early thirties. I don’t think you should be put off by the fact that a new partner might be considerable older.
Q. “There is no guarantee that if a mother does find a new partner. Not necessarily a long-term one but just someone with whom she would like to enjoy a fulfilled sex life, her children will automatically approve. ‘ I finally found a man who appealed to me and we went to bed together. My teenage son was supposed to be out for a few hours but came home early, discovered us and was so angry at the very thought of me having sex with someone other than his father that I gave up the relationship. His hostility made life too difficult for me to do otherwise and I didn’t want to upset him further because he was still trying to come to grips with my leaving his father.’” (p.261)
Is this another example of when we are doomed by our Motherguilt?
Oh yes, of course! But it’s not just Motherguilt – it’s our kids “ageist” attitudes to sex – they can’t bear the thought of their own parents “doing it” (despite the fact that they wouldn’t be there in the first place if we hadn’t). But the heinous thought of a parent actually seeking intimacy with anyone else is just too much to contemplate. And, teenagers in particular, despite the fact that THEY are trying to break all the rules, are so “holier than thou” and judgemental when it comes to their parents.
Q. Penny it is very interesting that when one is divorced the – 2’s company and 3 is a crowd phenomenon appears.
Yes I don’t know if it’s that women are threatened by a single woman but I have noticed this as well and been told the same by a lot of divorced women.
When there are functions, often a single man will be invited but much less so a single female. Again maybe it is this Sisterhood Paradox and women are threatened by single women.
Q. Penny do you have any advice to offer women considering or living through separation?
Firstly, I would advise them to try everything they possibly can to keep their marriage together (of course, if there is physical abuse, that’s a different issue). Try to focus on all the positives – the reasons why you fell in love with that person in the first place – and getting professional help from relationship counsellors is invaluable.
If the relationship does break down:
1. STILL get some counselling – someone who is independent, and experienced in these issues can really help you manage your grief, anger, self esteem and also give advice on how to help your children cope too.
2. No matter how angry or resentful you feel, do no NOT criticise your partner in front of the children – it is just so painful for them
3. Get sound legal and financial advice
4. Eventually (the sooner the better) let go of the anger and bitterness
5. And you CAN move on after a relationship breakdown – there are many other wonderful people out there in the world – don’t give up on relationships because this one didn’t work out.
6. Exercise is not only great for your figure and you health, but it’s a great way to offload angst.