This article first appeared in the Sunday edition of Malta Today
It never fails to astound me how parents in the throes of separation or divorce lose all sense of rationality and decency once the gloves are off, and the time comes to fight over assets and most of all, child custody.
What I especially cannot wrap my head around is why women are so often the ones who will resort to the worst kind of emotional manipulation and blackmail to alienate the children from their father. A sense of fairness obliges me to say that, granted, there are some men who try to do the same vis-a-vis the mother, but since women are often the primary carers, they are the ones who tend to have more “control” over their children’s lives. Even when there is joint custody, where co-parenting is expected and decisions on the child’s education, health and extracurricular activities need to be made jointly, there will be times when the mother becomes resentful that she cannot just decide things on her own. It seems that because she has divorced her husband, she also wants to divorce the kids from their Dad too and tries everything she can to cut him out of the picture so that she can be in full, ultimate control. (This is also the reason why so many single mothers put down “unknown father” on the birth certificate especially if the pregnancy was the result of a fling or short-term relationship – who wants a man dictating what you can do with your child when he is no longer in your life?)
But within a marriage or a long-term relationship which goes sour, that is the “price” you pay when you decide to have children with someone – like it or not, they will be in your life until the kids are 18, except in cases where the Dad just ups and leaves the country.
Of course we know very well that there are also many instances of what are known as “deadbeat Dads” who want little or nothing to do with their offspring because it’s just too much trouble and they just don’t want to know. They promise to show up when it is their turn to take the kids, but break their word (and their kids’ hearts) time and again because they fail to to keep to their stipulated visits. They offer no financial support, let alone emotional support, and the divorced woman ends up raising the kids singlehandedly with a father who is basically forever absent. The woman might as well have used a sperm bank for all the good that having a biological father lurking in the background does. Much like children suffer when they fail to bond with cold, uncaring mothers, so too do children with absent fathers end up scarred because a part of them always feels there is a piece missing.
But then there are also Catch 22 situations: I have heard of too many cases where the Dad does want to be involved but is met with such resistance at every turn by the mother who alienates the children against him, that he basically gives up. Faced by constant attempts to block his visits, he finds it is just easier to give up and move on with his life, paving the way for the mother to point out triumphantly to the kids, “you see what I’ve always told you? He just doesn’t care about you!” (Condemning those kids to probably a lifetime of therapy in the process).
As I was researching this topic, to my surprise, I learned that there is actually such a thing as “Divorce-Related Malicious Mother Syndrome” in a paper which has been researched and published in Australia by Ira Daniel Turket Ph.D, in the Journal of Family Violence (1995). The criteria have been defined as follows:
A mother who unjustifiably punishes her divorcing or divorced husband by:
• Attempting to alienate their mutual child(ren) from the father
• Involving others in malicious actions against the father
• Engaging in excessive litigation
The mother specifically attempts to deny her child(ren):
• Regular uninterrupted visitation with the father
• Uninhibited telephone access to the father
• paternal participation in the child(ren)’s school life and extra-curricular activities
Tile pattern is pervasive and includes malicious acts towards the husband including:
• Lying to the children
• Lying to others
• Violations of law
The disorder is not specifically due to another mental disorder although a separate mental disorder may co-exist.
As much as I stick up for women when they are treated badly by emotional and psychological (or physically) abusive husbands, I believe that there are also too many women out there who are just giving a bad name to our whole gender because of their inability to recognize that their irrational behaviour is not only unjustified, but is causing irredeemable harm to the ones they purportedly claim to love…their own kids.
I’ve never been able to understand how poisoning children against their father can in any way translate into being “in the best interest of the child”. It is hard enough to be well-adjusted and emotionally secure in today’s world without growing up with a skewed picture of male/female relationships as a result of a constant drip, drip, drip of toxic tongue lashings in which the man is portrayed as a monster while the woman is the saint. Saints are very few and far between, and most of them are long dead anyway. Let’s face it, most of us on this earth are flawed human beings: we scream, shout, lose our temper and can be in a foul mood with demanding children as a result of the stresses of coping with life in general. So I tend to shift uncomfortably when mothers glorify themselves by painting these gushing portraits as self-sacrificing martyrs on the one hand, while their actual behaviour towards the father of their children points in a completely different direction. Once you rule out any proven psychological/physical/sexual abuse or drug or alcohol addiction, most fathers do the best they can in their parenting role – sometimes they get it right, sometimes they get it wrong. You know, just like mothers.
I don’t think either the mother or the father has a monopoly on what being a “great parent” looks like. It’s a tough job, probably the toughest in the world, because you are shaping the future of a human being through your own demeanor which always speaks louder than words. Kids watch everything, they observe everything, and they soak up every little action or word like a sponge. They can spot hypocrisy or lack of consistency immediately and they can suss out deceit by a parent in the blink of an eye. And as warring parents, the malicious mothers and the deadbeat Dads of this world, continue sparring in their never-ending battle of who should get custody, the kids are growing up, the damage has been done, and another generation is doomed to enter into relationships which have been warped because they have never seen what a healthy, respectful marriage looks like.