We all know divorce is hell for children. But what no one says is that the trauma gets WORSE as you grow up – and your warring parents grow old and lonely
00:08 GMT, 27 April 2012
Strain: As divorced parents age the burden of looking out for the divorcees falls on their children. For Hannah Ganley, left, that burden fell on her shoulders when she was just 13 and she became the main carer for her mother Kerry, right
When she answered the unexpected knock on 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 chocolate eggs for his adored grandchildren.
Behind Tammy a furious scream rang out from the stairs. ‘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 just a cup of tea, even though he’s 72 and had driven half an hour to see us.’
Twenty years after her in-laws’ messy and bitter divorce, Tammy, 35 — a print company manager who lives in Chesterfield, Derbyshire — and her husband Paul, 32, who works in hotel management, 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, Alexander, eight, and Savannah, 15.
So bad is the animosity that many family events have been spoiled 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.
This phenomenon is sadly increasing — with the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics showing that divorce rates are rising fastest among the over-60s.
Charlotte Friedman, founder of the Divorce Support Group 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 family-law solicitor who works for the charity Care for the Family, 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.’
Trauma: Little thought has been given to the fact that problems caused by broken marriages can actually deepen with time. This picture of a married couple arguing is posed by models
Charlotte couldn’t agree more. She has had contact with thousands of families, as a family-law barrister then a deputy district judge and now a therapist and mediator.
‘We have people in our support groups in their 60s 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 and Paul’s experience, as their children ‘walk on eggshells’ around both grandparents.
‘The children have to be aware of what they can and can’t say,’ says Tammy, who worries that her young son is witnessing too much conflict between the adults he loves.
‘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.’
The loneliness of divorced elderly people has been highlighted in studies by several influential think-tanks.
The Centre for Social Justice reports that divorce and separation are increasing causes of isolation among older people.
Upsetting: Children are known to suffer badly when their parents go through a divorce. But little has been said about the difficulties a divorce poses for children as they grow older
The Institute for Public Policy Research has revealed the destructive effects of divorce on those now reaching old age — with almost one in five divorced or separated people suffering mental health problems.
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 rare blood disorder.
Hannah is now 31 with a young family of her own — Gracie-Jane, six, Billy-Joe, four, and newborn Junior, but her responsibility for her own mother grows by the year.
Her mum, now 52, lives next door in Borehamwood, Herts, 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 mum Whillemena, who is 82, widowed, has Alzheimer’s disease and lives in a home.
While Hannah’s life as a young carer was difficult, she finds coping with the conflicting demands of caring for her young children, her mother and grandmother much more stressful.
‘Things are only getting harder as Mum 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 is an estate agent and is remarried and lives in Devon. 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.
‘I have a brother but he works full-time, and can’t look after her.
‘I even had to leave hospital after just one day when Junior was born because I had to get home to care for Mum. There is literally no one else who can help.
‘I love her dearly, but it’s a lot of pressure. I would love to return to work when the children are older — I used to work as a legal secretary — but there’s no way I could manage that and cope with them and look after my mum and my grandmother.’
Lisa Graham, from Woking, Surrey, also carries the main burden of care for her mother, who lives in Eastbourne. ‘My parents divorced ten years ago, when I was 44,’ Lisa says.
Worrying: 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
‘My mother found out my father was having an affair. He was in his mid-60s and still working — he had his own business. He always says he would never have left Mum, but 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.
‘I remember two separate phone calls, one from Mum and one from Dad, on a Friday night.
‘I had been going to see them that weekend, looking forward to a meal out together and instead I found myself supporting Mum, who was devastated. It has been like that ever since.’
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 50 miles 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’d 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: ‘Finding live-in help for Mum was a big problem because she didn’t take to some of the people we tried.
‘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 following her divorce, others are not so fortunate, forcing grown-up children to help meet bills.
Emily Holzhausen from Carers UK says: ‘For divorced people, there is no pooling of resources to meet the demands of old age — no economies of scale.’
Sarah Timpson, 49, who is a divorcee herself, lives with her children Josh, 16, and Chloe, 19, plus her divorced mother Beryl, 74 — who, she says, was left much worse off financially after her split.
Sarah, from Redhill, Surrey, who works part-time as a head-hunter, says: ‘The ripples of divorce spread very wide in a family.’
Her mother is in the early stages of dementia — and Sarah believes the strain of looking after her for the past five years contributed to the break-up of her own marriage. ‘My husband found living with her intolerable because she is so demanding, but she has no one else.
‘I am an only child and I couldn’t bear to see her parked in a home for people with dementia. She’s such a proud woman and still capable of holding a conversation.’
Sarah’s parents divorced when she was 15 and she and her mother had to move from their big house with a garden to a small flat. Sarah was taken out of private education.
Her father is now dead, and although her mother’s flat has been sold, Sarah has set the proceeds aside to pay for the residential care her mother will probably need in time.
Then there will be nothing left.
The former marital home is worth close on 1 million now. Sarah says: ‘I am by no means comfortably off and I worry about money a lot.
‘I love Mum to bits but, if I am honest, I dread what lies ahead with her becoming increasingly reliant on me.
‘In many ways, my parents’ divorce took away all of our futures.’
Relate 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”
‘They could be asking is there anything in the marriage they could rekindle and cling on to make it better for them both. If they did they might not divorce.
‘Life after divorce is more complicated than we ever imagine.’
Some names have been changed.