DILEMMAS : If Charles and Di can talk things over, so can you

This week's problem: Hilary's husband used to work abroad and his young son worshipped him. But now the couple have been through an acrimonious divorce, he's remarried, settled in England and on access days their young son screams and cries, begging to ...
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It's heartbreaking when a small child clings to you, begging not to go away. But it's also immensely flattering, let's be honest, to be so needed. And if the person who wants to take him off you is a man who's done you wrong, it'd be a dishonest woman who denied she got a flicker of vengeful pleasure out of the whole agonising situation. The child expresses all her own primitive feelings of fury and loathing while she can remain dry-eyed, innocent and apparently saintly in the background.

So three very strong emotions are tugging Hilary in the direction of denying access. But there's another emotional pull at work - or there should be. A maternal pull which demands her son's interests must be paramount over all of hers. In the long-term, it's far better for him to have a relationship with his dad. For the next few access days, perhaps her own mother or father could act as temporary go-between, to make the transition less painful.

Meanwhile, what bizarre fears do these visits now hold for the child? Perhaps, since his dad used to be away for long periods, he fears that a visit to his dad means he might not return to his mother for months. Giving the child a watch and showing where the hands will be when he returns would help. Similarly, giving the child something of his mother's that he knows she will need later could reassure him that she knows he will return. It could be her toothbrush, or just something of hers that he can hold and touch so that he feels he has a bit of her with him through the day.

Ultimately, of course, it's unlikely that simply insisting her son goes, despite the tears, will do any harm once he learns that he always returns and always has a reasonably good time. But if she would, like most mums, risk the jaws of a tiger to save her own son from harm, surely she can endure some kind of communication with her ex to ensure their son's well- being? Perhaps her son feels disloyal by going off with his dad. Perhaps, at the moment, he finds it difficult seeing his dad with his new wife. These are things the couple must discuss between them.

If, as was reported this weekend, the most emotionally unhinged people in the world, a pair at perpetual loggerheads, Prince Charles and Diana, can actually meet for drinks to discuss their son's future with his new housemaster at Eton, then Hilary and her ex would be a truly sorry pair if they couldn't act grown-up just for an hour or so to sort this problem out together.

The rejected father

I used to have an excellent relationship with my little son despite the fact that his mother and I have always lived apart. When he was about four he started staying overnight at my house, which he came to call his "holiday home". Then a new "dad" moved in. Then he started saying he didn't love me. And then he started to scream blue murder when I came to collect him. I later learnt from court welfare officers that he had also had nightmares and had made dens at home to avoid going with me. By this time our contact had stopped.

The court welfare officers recommended that I did not have contact with my son, believing his mother's claims that I had been emotionally abusing him. We have not had contact for nearly two years.

Of course, I was shocked at the carry on my boy would make, and even more so on hearing about the nightmares and dens. But, obviously, little children in this situation have torn loyalties trying to love the two closest figures in their lives. I would be interested in seeing how many other people report similar behaviour at "handing over" time.

Perhaps help could be offered to the child in overcoming torn loyalties. At the very least, the "lost" parent hasthe hope that things would improve as the child gets old enough to reason things out.

Anon, Wales

The pragmatic partner

His father was important in Hilary's son's life; his father then left. He may well think that his mother will also leave him. To prevent this he therefore overattaches himself to his mother. This situation is made worsewhen he sees how much his mother resents his father - exemplified by the fact that she will not speak to him. As a result, her son thinks he has to prove to his mother that he is on her side. This manifests itself by his saying to her that he does not want to see his father.

The truth is that his father is still important to Hilary's son, and always will be. What he needs is his mother's encouragement to see his father by her saying, "It's OK. Your dad and I may not live together any more but he is still an important person in your life even if he is not in mine."

I would also say that trying to deprive their son of his right to see his father may well result in a long and acrimonious court battle. The only people who will gain anything by this will be the lawyers; the one who will suffer most will be their son.

I have two exes: one has taken the short-term view and the children are in trouble. The other has taken the harder, long-term view and the children are doing remarkably well.

Nick Lowe


N E X T W E E K ' S D I L E M M A

Dear Virginia,

Colin and I have had two wonderful, intimate years together. Two months ago I had to move house, and thought this would be an obvious opportunity for him to move in with me. But Colin has suddenly got cold feet. He says he loves me, probably wants me to have his children, but that he is frightened of commitment and marriage.

I am 33 and long for security and stability - and children. Our relationship is just so wonderful, so right. I can't understand how Colin can't feel it too. We have tried splitting up but it's impossible. Neither of us can bear to be apart from the other. We work together and, because of training commitments, will have to continue for two years, which makes things even more difficult. What can I do?

Yours sincerely, Celia

Everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Send your comments to me at the features department, The Independent, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own, let me know.