One in 20 absent parents pursued by the CSA is female, and the figure is rising. Hester Lacey meets women who've broken the ultimate taboo and left their children
WHEN DIANE Penkethman separated from her husband after seven years of marriage and left her two children with him, her own mother was stunned and horrified. "She was outraged," recalls Diane. "She said, 'If you leave those children I'll disown you'." When a man leaves his partner holding the baby, barely an eyebrow is raised; a woman who leaves her children is another matter. But Diane's is by no means an exceptional case; the number of absent mothers targeted by the Child Support Agency has trebled in the past three years. One in 20 absent parents is a woman and 37,300 have been approached by the CSA to pay child maintenance, Diane among them.

Mothers who leave their children are an emotive subject; they are condemned as "irresponsible" and "selfish" by the likes of the Conservative Family Campaign. But ask Diane Penkethman what kind of a mother could leave her children, and she replies, "I'd say a very loving and caring mother." Diane, 33, a factory worker from Wigan, met her former husband at the age of 16 and was married with a son at 18. "We were happy to start off," she says. "But we married too young, and you don't want the same in your twenties as you do in your thirties." Divorce, she says, was "the hardest decision of my life". "We tried everything to make it work," she says. "Then I left and took the children with me. But they were so upset it was cruel. We only managed three weeks, then we moved back. I realised then it would never work, but it was some time before I got up the courage to leave on my own. I felt terrible as a mum, but I knew in my mind that I'd made the right decision. If I'd stayed it would have been hell for all of us." Her ex-husband, she says, is "a very good dad". "The children kept their own home around them, and it was one of the best decisions I've ever made from the point of view of minimising the upset to them."

Now Diane lives 10 minutes away from her former home, and sees her 14- year-old son and 10-year-old daughter three times a week; her daughter stays with her one night each week. She is angered by the suggestion that absent mothers are feckless, selfish and irresponsible. "The world has changed a great deal," she says. "Twenty years ago they'd whisper 'divorce' as though it was a dirty word - now everyone knows someone who's divorced. My children have the love and affection of both their parents. We have maintained a stable, secure home where they live, they are happy with their dad, my ex-husband is happy, we are all happy."

And yet the image of the mother who leaves her children, even if she doesn't go very far, still carries an enormous stigma, because the image of the "good" mother, nurturing, caring and always available for her children, is so powerful. Like Diane Penkethman's mother, Jane Brooks's mother was also upset at her decision to leave her two children with their father. But where Diane's mother is reconciled to the situation, Jane's mother still won't speak to her. "She blames me for depriving her of her grandchildren," says Jane sadly. Jane is not her real name; she prefers to be interviewed anonymously because most of her work colleagues are not even aware that she has children. "I don't want to have to explain myself to anyone else," she says. "There is a terrific stigma attached to being an absent mother through choice."

When Jane and her ex-husband divorced two years ago, she was offered a job 60 miles from the former family home. "It was a chance to make a new start for myself, and although it was very hard, I grabbed it. I knew that I wouldn't be able to cope with a new job, a move and two fairly stroppy children all at the same time. I also knew that my husband had the money to give them a better quality of life than I could, that they could stay at their old school with their old friends, that my ex's parents who they are very close to would be on hand to help."

The boys, she said, were upset and hurt at first. "But I think I was having some kind of minor breakdown at the time, I wasn't coping too well, and they could see I wasn't myself, so they didn't complain too much. Then by the time I had sorted myself out, we were into a routine. We speak on the phone three or four times a week, I see them pretty much every other weekend; they come up by train. Of course it's not an ideal situation. But we are still very close and I love them dearly."

She was shocked, she says, by the reaction to her family situation. "There is a real double standard. If I was a man who saw my children twice a month nobody would heap blame on me. I decided to keep quiet about it at work as far as possible. Now a few of them that I know well are aware, but even then there were a few raised eyebrows. You are seen as a callous bitch, lowest of the low."

Dr Julia Berryman, senior lecturer in psychology at Leicester University, believes this censorious attitude stems from the fact that motherhood is still seen as synonymous with womanhood. "Parenthood is seen as a central, key role in women's lives in a way that it isn't for men," she says. "Women who don't become mothers are seen as psychologically inadequate, wanting in some way - as going against nature. But there is plenty of evidence that motherhood doesn't come naturally to all women; plenty find it difficult and it is a skill that many women have to learn."

The old idea that mothering comes "naturally", she says, is inaccurate and has a negative effect. "It makes women feel inadequate - and they also feel this way if they don't immediately bond with their babies. Although some women do bond instantly, there is no evidence to support this old idea put about in the Eighties that all do; for some it can take a while. A lot of traditional ideas about motherhood are both mistaken and unhelpful."

Because smaller families and fewer siblings are now the norm, she adds, many women today have little experience of children when they start their own families, and the reality can come as a shock - as it did for Maria Lucas, who walked out two months after the birth of her first baby. She walked back again two days later, but, six years on, she vividly remembers the feelings of fear and anguish that overwhelmed her. "It wasn't that I didn't love the baby - I did love her, but in a strange way I couldn't stand the constant screaming, the chaos, the feeling of my life being taken over and utterly submerged. I just wanted to switch her off for a few hours, but of course you can't do that. It is overwhelming and constant. My husband and mother looked after her and I came back almost straightaway, but for just a few hours, the urge to escape was overwhelming."

The writer Aminatta Forna is the author of Mother of All Myths, a study of motherhood to be published in July by HarperCollins. Motherhood, she says, although it is held up as natural, is in fact one of the most heavily policed relationships that exists. "Women are constantly being told if, when and how they should do it." There is, she believes, a modern moral panic surrounding the disintegration of the traditional family model. "No relationships in the family apart from that between mother and child remain intact, and the idea that this is under threat, that women can turn their backs on it, is what has the traditional revivalists up in arms. They thought it was an unassailable relationship. There is an intensely sentimental view of motherhood, even though most women's experience both of being mothered and being a mother isn't like that. Every time anyone deviates from this sentimental view, we try to explain it away. But eventually there are so many individual deviations that you have to question whether the received image itself is correct."

And should we be surprised, if, as the roles between the sexes continue to blur, while New Dads are cooing over their babies, their female partners are starting to get itchy feet? "Women today have a wider range of options and don't necessarily see motherhood as automatic or as a first priority," says Leicester University's Dr Julia Berryman. Nevertheless, there is still an impenetrable taboo surrounding women who leave their children: perhaps one of the strongest still in existence. Forna recalls interviewing one mother who preferred to tell people her children were dead rather than admitting that she had left them.