The choice: When a child decides to move parents

As Molly Campbell is made a ward of court in Pakistan, Elisa Bray - who chose to live with her father at the age of 11 - describes what it's like to go to court and apply for custody with the 'other' parent
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I can still remember that feeling of separation. My mother could not look me in the eye, the day, aged nearly 12, I went to court and said I want to leave my mother to live with my father.

And all these memories were brought back, 13 years later, because of a news story: Molly Campbell, the 12-year-old girl from Scotland who left her mother to live with her father in Pakistan. While my situation involved neither cultural nor religious differences, and my move was within two miles of my mother's home compared to thousands in Molly's case, it was the question asked by both newspaper columnists and callers on radio talk shows that brought home the parallel between our stories: "Can a 12-year-old child make such a decision?" Or, put another way, "How can a 12 year-old child know what is in their best interest?" Hearing this question, and the common response that "a 12-year-old is just a child" and, "children don't know a lot" took me back to 1993. Just a child? Too young to make a decision? It forced me to reflect on my own actions.

Molly defiantly reiterates that the decision to move to Pakistan was her own: "I told them in my letters I was going with my dad and my family, that I was safe and it was all my own choice." Molly's parents were, like mine, estranged. Molly's situation differs from my own because the proper procedure was not followed for her to live with her father. Unlike Molly's, my case was dealt with legally, with both parents involved and present before a UK court and the assistance of a Cafcass (welfare) officer. But the question over whether a young girl is emotionally or mentally equipped to make such a choice remains the same.

My mother was given custody of me when my parents divorced. I was then two. While Molly's home life with her mother in Scotland has been described as unhappy, and, more condemningly by her elder brother, as a "living hell", mine was anything but. I have wonderful memories of time with my mother: of her devotedly blow-drying my hair as I perched on a stool in the kitchen in front of Neighbours; the surprise birthday parties she put on for me; our mutual love and affection.

We lived in a flat in Fulham, west London, which my mother chose because it was near the doctor's. Two doors away was a dodgy working men's pub which has since metamorphosed into a swanky bar. Back then there was a stabbing outside the pub and I remember the drunk old leery men hanging around. My mother had to deal with a burglary the night we moved in. But we would deal with the intimidation using our own catchphrase "eyes and ears" as we inconspicuously entered our cosy home.

My father remarried 18 months later, and I spent much of my weekends with him and my stepmother. Two years later, my half-sister was born. Aged five and a half, I was delighted. I still have the letter my father wrote to me announcing the arrival of my new baby sister in big capital letters and the picture he enclosed of her, hours old, in her hospital crib. A sister! Having a playmate would certainly make a change from my only-child days. My little sister became my best friend. On weekends and holidays we were inseparable and I revelled in her childish unconditional adoration of me. I was her role model and she became my ally, precociously standing up for me in any kind of family dispute.

One night, when I was 10, I was sick. While my mother soothed me as I vomited into a bucket, the phone rang. It was a call that would change the course of her life - and mine. On the end of the line was the man who she calls her first true love and soul mate, but from whom she had to part when she was 19 and he 25. He'd heard that she had since married, had a child, separated and was now single - like him. Every time I retched my mother would come running. She would then excitedly resume the phone call with the man she had not seen for more than 20 years. After two hours of interrupted conversation, that night he drove from north London to our Fulham flat and they have been together ever since. (They married when I was 14, and I gained two lovely step-sisters.)

So why did I decide to move in with my father? I suppose it all began when a plan was made to move into my mother's partner's house on the other side of London. Like Molly, who one writer suggested escaped to live with her father as an act of "rebellion against her mother making a new life and a baby with another man", I wasn't sure I liked the idea of moving into a new home with a new man and sharing my mother .

I was suddenly acutely aware of a feeling of resistance that was, for me, a turning point. At a time when I was starting to become more conscious of myself, I stepped outside myself and looked back to see a creature who was compliant; willing to adapt to any situation. Instead of being accommodating - as I'd been through all my parents' holiday and weekend arrangements - something kicked in and I craved the security of a stable family instead of having my time divided up for me.

When does being a pawn in your parents' divorce end? I decided it would end for me at the age of nearly 12. After 10 years of being a child of divorced parents, I felt it was time to take control of my own life. The idea of a secure family unit became my wish. I was resolute - rather than moving with my mother, I would live in the home my father had made. I would have my own room in a house I knew well and above all, a full-time sister. But I had to be sure I was doing the right thing as I knew how devastating my actions would be. What Molly said about wanting to be with her sister, and the need to be in a family, I understand so well. "I asked my sister if I could go with her ... I knew that my mum would miss me, but I miss my family ... I wanted to live with my family. I thought I could live with my dad and still see my mum." And there was my family: father, stepmother, and sister in a house. It was all there for me. My father supported me. He believed I would excel at school and I even planned a career in law to follow in his footsteps. I could ask for a reverse of custody roles and he would make an application to the court under the Children Act 1989 to determine the terms.

The application for my father to have "custody" of me during the week and on intermittent weekends was sent off shortly after I began secondary school. On 14 January 1993, I was taken to a room in Somerset House (where the family court was then held) to put my decision and my reasons behind it to a welfare officer. The wait with my stepmother outside the courtroom for my parents to emerge from the hearing was uncomfortable. And the decision of the court to grant my father custody came as a shock to my mother and stepfather.

The welfare officer had told me not to feel guilty about my decision, and that my parents should not make me feel bad. But I felt dread. I knew the damage my choice had done to my mother, and was only too aware of the effect it would have on our relationship. Life was weird after the court hearing. Three out of four weekends were spent at my mother's new home and, although we tried to resume our close relationship, an awkward distance had taken hold.

I felt the pain my decision had caused and it affected me very deeply. It had been the two of us in Fulham, a team - "eyes and ears" - but I had to remind myself all along that I had chosen the situation that would be best for me and give me the best possible start in life. The one thing my mother always told me and I always held close was: "You are always welcome back here." I knew when she said that, she was saying: "Please come back soon." That it was one of the worst times in my mother's life remains an unspoken understanding between us, a feeling I'm sure I will only fully be able to imagine when I myself am a mother.

Looking back I see this was a difficult transition period and do not regret the decision I made when I was eleven and a half. From then on, my life went from strength to strength. As I grew up, my mother's and my relationship was improved and the angst of the split eased as my own teenage angst built.

When I was 15, the two of us holidayed together in Italy and a year later I realised I missed my mother and needed her more in my life. By that time I knew and loved my stepfather as a family member and it seemed a natural time to move back to their home. By reversing the situation I couldn't help but repeat the upset of my decision aged almost 12, but this time it scarred my relationship with my sister. Now aged 10, she felt betrayed by my departure.

I have come to realise that very few things in life are irreversible and I am thankful that my family relationships are strong enough to allow me to write this piece with everyone's respect and agreement. I am fortunate enough to have two wonderful families whom I see regularly. And I challenge any girl or woman to show me a better mother-daughter relationship.

As the recent proposals by the Department for Constitutional Affairs to give children the chance to be legally represented in their parents' divorce cases reflect, children who, like Molly and myself, are embroiled in divorce proceedings, should have the right to a voice. Thirteen years after I made my choice, I still believe I did the right thing and I am glad my voice was heard.

I regret the hurt I caused my family members, in particular to my mother back in 1993, but I know that she has come to understand and respect the choice I made. As Molly said recently, desperately pleading with her mother to recognise her decision. "If she loves me, she will respect that I am happy here. I am happy that my dad has custody of me now."

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