WHICH should come first: children or self-fulfilment? As I had suspected, the arguments raged over Jane's dilemma. She was a gloomy single parent living with her parents in a remote Cornish village - but had been offered a good job in South Africa, where she and her two young children would have a new start. Should she accept, even though it meant the children would rarely see their grandparents or adored father, Philip?

Those who had experienced a similar situation were not in favour. 'My parents separated when I was a year old, and with my mother I emigrated to South Africa where my grandparents had a business,' wrote one anonymous writer. 'The business went bankrupt and we all returned. Losing my father had an ineradicable effect.'

She also pointed out, along with many other readers, that Jane should remember that the children may end up in a cultural limbo. 'South Africa is a violent place; Jane might well be forced by some upheaval to return. The children's formative years would have been turned upside-down.'

South Africa was certainly a fly in the ointment. Anywhere else, and some readers might have felt more receptive to the possibilities. Anyway, it might not actually be possible for Jane to take the children. Beth Prince, a solicitor, rightly pointed out that Philip might, under the Children Act, be able to apply for an order preventing Jane from taking them abroad.

But what depressed me about the answers was how little thought some readers had given to the children. And when there was thought, the conclusions were pretty brutal. E Seymour, a grandmother, aged 80, from Durham, wrote: 'It would be better that the two families should live at a distance and that Philip should cut off contact with the past. Let the children renew ties if they wish when they reach a reasonable maturity. Jane's children are young enough to accept new circumstances without pain.' Grateful as I am to Mrs Seymour for writing, that last sentence cast a shadow over my heart.

As for Liz Hodgkinson, of London W11, her letter put me into a state of frenzy. 'Yes, of course Jane should go, without a second thought. It is questionable how much children of three or four can 'adore' anybody . . . Grandparents are marginal, and their wishes should not be taken into account . . . We have to learn to cut the ties that bind and restrict.'

But would Jane feel no unhappiness herself at leaving her family and support? Would she not, as a good mother, feel guilt and sadness at depriving her children of their father? No one pointed out, either, that since their mother would be working full-time, the children would see even less of her than they do now.

Many readers, such as Ann Ackerman, of Kidderminster, suggested taking the job and sending the children home in the holidays. But what child wants to be torn from its friends and sent to a stranger like a package, with none of its precious 'things' around it?

I was starting to despair when the postal equivalent of the Seventh Cavalry arrived, from Anne Innes, of Malmesbury, Wiltshire. As a retired teacher, she has seen what divorce and separation can do to children. 'In these circumstances they do not need a 'challenging new start',' she writes. 'They need whatever can be salvaged of the old certainties. The phrase reminded me grimly of the haunting photographs we have seen in the press recently of children shipped off to Australia after the war, their laughing faces hiding an infinity of bewilderment and loss.'

Comments