Dilemmas: Finally, it's a matter of what would make your child happier

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Whether parents should stay together for the sake of the children is a question that not only has no universal answer, but seems to have different answers at different stages in children's lives. If asked, children often say they would prefer their parents to stay together, but change their tunes when they're adults. As always, parents are usually in the wrong, whatever they do.

Tim, stuck in a humdrum, loveless marriage for 15 years, was wrestling with the problem. An adored child had been conceived on a rare night of sex. Last year he met a woman he truly loved, but when he suggested to his wife that they should part - a suggestion he thought she'd welcome with open arms as she, too, was unhappy in the marriage - she reacted with fury, tears and threats that he'd never see their five-year- old son again. What, he asked, should he do?

Very few people thought that Tim sounded wildly sympathetic. Claire Wilson of Teddington, Middlesex, wrote: 'My blood boils when a man says, 'I can't understand her reaction' when he wants to leave the marital home. Presumably Tim and his wife had decided to stay together for the sake of the child, but when it suits him, he changes the rules.'

And Elizabeth Henry of Blackburn, Lancashire felt great sympathy for Tim's wife. 'Tim doesn't seem to feel his son's conception was the outcome of a voluntary act shared by two people. 'Just as we were thinking of separating,' he says, 'my wife got pregnant . . .' as one might say 'she fell downstairs' or 'she was stung by a wasp'. If Tim and his wife both 'adore' their son, perhaps they should both keep him in the forefront of their minds and reconsider.'

Most people recommended that Tim should get out - and yet few would actually applaud him if he did so. 'Go ahead, leave her,' wrote Helen Ross of Poole, Dorset. 'The fact that you still live with your wife is, as Julia Roberts said in Pretty Woman, 'just geography'. The flak over your parental rights will eventually die down and your son can join the millions of other children who spend their lives being ferried between parents. You sound as if you have been insensitive to any needs but your own for a long time, and when your wife has calmed down and adjusted to her new situation I hope she will find someone more attuned to her feelings than you have been.'

Anna, of Croydon, south London, wrote from personal experience. 'Leave, for the sake of your son, your own happiness and that of the woman you love. You cannot protect your son from the tension that exists between you and your wife. Don't let him grow into adulthood to feel guilt that you gave up your chance of happiness out of love and a sense of duty to him. The unhappiness of you and your wife will only blight his life as well as your own.'

She and her brother were brought up by parents who only stayed together out of duty. 'They tried hard to be good parents, but we grew up in an atmosphere of, at best, frigid politeness. They believed that they were protecting us from the tension in their relationship, but my brother and I were constantly aware of the underlying resentment and hostility which existed between them, which has had a profound effect on our own lives.'

And Petra of Clapham, south London, wrote bitterly: 'My mother left home when I was 14. I was fantastically relieved to be rid of the tension and delighted to be rid of a woman, who, although delightful in many ways, was a lousy mother. I know this sounds harsh, but I feel that any parent who can actually contemplate leaving a child, or bear to be out of his or her child's company when it's growing up, is not a good parent. Therefore yes, Tim should leave. Do your own thing, Tim. Be part of the 'me' generation. And in future, don't have any more kids. You're just not cut out for it.'

Assuming he does go, however, he must consider the legal implications. 'If Tim voluntarily leaves the matrimonial home to live with some other woman, he cannot expect too much sympathy from a court,' wrote Don Lafferty of Horsham, West Sussex. 'They may grant him visiting rights, but if his wife fails to allow him access, the court will not necessarily enforce their decision.'

Perhaps Tim should chew over the salutary experience of Gary Feilder of Staines, Middlesex. He left home four years ago and has lost contact with his two older sons. But he keeps a good relationship with the youngest. 'It is far better for Tim to leave his wife and set up home with his new partner which has a good chance of providing a suitable loving environment for his son to develop, even if only at weekends,' he wrote. Interestingly, he keeps his feelings about his two older sons, and how they feel about him, to himself.

I've no doubt Tim would be better off without his wife; but he has to ask himself whether his son would be better off without him. In the end, taking into account all the anxiety the boy experiences living within a fairly bleak marriage, would the child be happier alone with mum? If the answer is not immediately clear, unless the marriage is quite intolerable - and it doesn't sound as if it is - surely the chap deserves just a few more years with his mum and dad? As he will surely say one day, he didn't ask to be born. His father might do as right as he possibly can by him when he is small.

Should a son be told the truth about how he was born?

Dear Virginia,

My cousin married an infertile man, so they decided to go for artificial insemination. They now have a nine-year-old son. Although this was supposed to be a secret, the facts are now known within the family. But my cousin insists on telling her son how like his father he is, and maintaining her husband is the natural father. I'm certain the boy will eventually find out the truth from someone else and feel I must warn my cousin about the damaging effects this will have on him. On the other hand, I feel it's none of my business and I don't want to admit that I know what is supposed to be a closely guarded secret. What should I do?

Yours sincerely, Adam.

All readers' comments are welcome, and everyone whose suggestion is quoted in the column will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Send your comments and suggestions to me at the Features Department, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB; fax 071-956-1739, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own that you would like to share with readers, let me know.