The divorce rate is rising and the role of grandparents has become crucial to the well-being of their grandchildren.
We’re banned from seeing our grandchildren – and the pain is tearing us apart
Like most grandparents, Barbara Fisher and her husband Mike revelled in the opportunity to experience childhood again through the eyes of their two grandchildren, and to be able to nurture and watch them grow without the responsibility of being full-time parents.
Indeed, there would be few who could argue that Barbara, a retired PA, and Mike, a former deputy headmaster, were not doting and adoring grandparents.
Living just two miles from their son Simon and his children, Sam, five, and Evie, three, they happily stepped in to look after the children twice a week while their daughter-in-law, Louise, went to work.
Not only did they take over practical tasks, such as ferrying their grandchildren to and from playgroup, but they also baked fairy cakes with them and helped teach their grandchildren how to plant vegetables in the garden. It was a set-up that benefitted everyone.
Yet today, Barbara and Mike have not set eyes on their grandchildren for more than a year-and-a-half.
Following their son’s acrimonious divorce from Louise, 35, an accounts clerk, in March 2008, the family splintered.
And Barbara and Mike say it’s them, the grandparents, who are paying the ultimate price for the breakdown of their son’s marriage.
‘I cry when I look back at photos of them in our kitchen with chocolate on their faces after helping me to bake buns, and in the garden helping Mike water the vegetables with their little plastic watering cans,’ says Barbara, who lives in Droitwitch Spa, Worcestershire.
‘Mike and I adored looking after Sam and Evie. We didn’t see looking after them while their mother worked as a chore. Far from it – we loved every moment of being with the children.
‘Parents are so busy these days, because most families need two incomes – but grandparents like us have the luxury of time to do these simple but important activities with our grandkids.
‘We knew Simon and Louise had been having difficulties in their marriage and arguing a lot, but we thought they’d work it out.
‘We were careful not to take sides, and in fact we’d always got on really well with our daughter-in-law – and she seemed very appreciative of our help with the children.
‘When Simon told us they had decided to separate, it still came as a shock. No parent wants to believe that their child’s marriage will end in divorce. But it never even entered our heads that we wouldn’t be allowed to see our grandchildren.’
But just weeks after the divorce, Louise told the couple they could no longer see Sam and Evie.
‘I rang her on a Sunday afternoon, as I always did, to arrange picking up Sam and Evie the following day before she went to work,’ recalls Barbara.
‘But she told me very coldly that she didn’t need us to look after them any more, that she’d arranged for a friend to do it instead.
‘I was incredibly upset. When I questioned why, and told her that we loved having the kids and still wanted to continue with that arrangement, all she said was: “Sorry, but I don’t feel it’s appropriate any more. They’re my children and I don’t want them to be with you while Simon and I are fighting one another for custody and access rights.” ‘
So desperate were the couple to see Sam and Evie that they repeatedly tried pleading with Louise on the phone. ‘But she wouldn’t hear any of it and eventually stopped taking our calls,’ says Barbara.
When they reached a dead end, Mike even turned up on her doorstep in an attempt to reason with her.
‘Louise wouldn’t even let Mike into the house. She simply stated that they were her children and that it was up to her who they saw. We were devastated. We still are.
‘In many ways, we feel like we’re grieving. The pain is physical because we miss Sam and Evie so much. We already feel we have missed out on so much of their little lives now.
‘Worse, we have no idea when, or if, we’ll be allowed to see them again – and that’s just too painful a thought to bear.’
There are 14 million grandparents in the UK, and according to figures from the Grandparents’ Association a staggering million of these have lost contact with their grandchildren.
”At the moment, as the law stands, grandparents have no voice,’ says David Shields, spokesperson for the Grandparents’ Association.
‘They have no more rights than a stranger. They don’t even have a right to stay in touch with their grandchildren.
‘Our helpline receives up to 50 calls a day from grandparents who are often desperate and distraught. We do all we can, but the bottom line is that legally there is nothing there to help them. It’s a deeply unfair situation, and the effect on many grandparents is extremely traumatising.’
And as journalist and author Andrea Kon knows only too well, grandchildren do not escape emotionally unscathed either. Her own mother died when she was three years old, and as a result of a family row she lost touch with her grandmother.
To this day, Andrea is haunted by an incident which occurred when she was seven years old, in which a stranger approached her outside her school gates, saying she was her grandmother.
Not recognising her, Andrea was terrified, screamed and ran away, convinced she was being chased.
She says: ‘Years later, I learned the truth – that my grandmother, unable to bear the thought of not watching me grow up, had been at the school gates every single day to catch a glimpse of me in the playground.
‘And one day, it had all got too much. She couldn’t help but approach me, her dead daughter’s daughter. What must it have done to her that I ran away from her, screeching with fear? We never did meet again.
‘Only now that I have grandchildren of my own do I realise how much she must have suffered and how much I lost out, never really knowing about my roots and never being able to ask the questions my
grandchildren ask me now, such as: “What was my mummy like when she was a little girl?”
‘It is an absolute tragedy that this situation is being played out in thousands of homes across Britain today.’
Yet on Monday, grandparents such as the Fishers were presented with a glimmer of hope when Shadow Tory Minister David Willetts announced that if the Conservatives win the next election, the law will be changed to ensure that grandparents do not lose contact with their grandchildren after a family separation, divorce or bereavement.
To Barbara Fisher, this news is long overdue.
She says: ‘We’ve sought legal advice in the past, but have been told by a solicitor with whom we are friends that grandparents don’t get a look-in in divorce cases. Even our son is powerless to help us, and he’s furious about the situation.
‘Louise is still denying him access, too. I have no idea how this is allowed to happen legally, but the family courts just don’t seem to operate in the best interests of the children. They just seem to bow down to the mother.
‘Those children are our flesh and blood, and our life is empty without them. Whatever went wrong between Louise and our son isn’t our fault – or the children’s. Yet we’re all being punished.’
These are sentiments shared by retired hoteliers Marion and John Mitchell, who live in a penthouse apartment overlooking the sea front in Llandudno, North Wales.
The couple, who have three children, are estranged from one of their five granddaughters – six-year-old Emma.
‘Although we see our other grandchildren, nothing is more heartbreaking than not seeing Emma,’ says Marion. ‘We just can’t forget all our memories with her. John used to take her for walks along the seafront and everyone said what a beautiful little girl she was. John was always so proud.
‘He taught her how to build rocky stone castles on the pebbly beach and how to skim stones. In the bedroom she used when she stayed, her favourite soft toys, dolls and games are still there waiting for her. We can’t bear to put them away. We just hope that one day she will be visiting us regularly again.’
Until Emma was 18 months old, Marion, 62, and John, 69, regularly cared for her.
Their efforts, they say, enabled their son Paul and his partner to go out to their jobs in retail.
So when the couple broke up, the last thing Marion and John expected was that they’d lose contact with the little girl.
‘Obviously any break-up is upsetting, but we never realised we would be stopped from seeing our grandchild,’ says Marion.
‘Yet it seemed that overnight Emma’s mum, who’d met another man, didn’t want anything to do with us. For ten months, she didn’t allow even Paul to see his daughter, let alone us.
‘It was absolutely devastating because Emma had been such a huge part of our lives.’
Ten months after the break-up, Paul gained some access and his parents were allowed to see Emma on occasional weekends too.
This set-up proved short-lived, however, and since Easter, contact between the Mitchells and their granddaughter has once again stopped.
And this is despite the fact that their son has been officially granted access in the courts. ‘Emma’s mother has remarried and now we don’t see Emma at all,’ says Marion. ‘It is tearing us apart.
‘Children change so quickly and we are desperately worried that, because she is so young, she will forget us. We feel it is incredibly important for grandparents to have rights, and we won’t give up trying to see the little girl we love so much.’
So strongly do Jane Jackson, 57, a retired teaching assistant, and her husband Marc Jackson, 61, a retired supermarket manager, feel about the matter that they have dedicated what they hoped would be a more relaxed period of their life to running their local branch of the Grandparents’ Association.
Depressingly, yet again, Jane and Marc are victims of divorce. Their eldest son Andrew, 32, had been with his partner for four years, then married for two, when the relationship broke down four years ago.
‘Right now, Marc and I are steeling ourselves because we don’t know how we will face another Christmas without seeing our only grandchild,’ says Jane.
‘Charlotte is aged nine now. She has always loved Christmas, but it is two years since I saw her and I don’t even know if she will remember us, let alone the times we sat making cards with glue and glitter.
‘Although her mother is in a new relationship, we never dreamed that we would find ourselves in this situation.
‘When their marriage broke up, naturally we were sad, but we never envisaged it would mean not seeing Charlotte.
‘Andrew has never tried for custody – he never wanted to take Charlotte away from her mum. All he’s ever wanted is to be able to see her. But although Charlotte always said she wouldn’t deny him access, this isn’t the reality.
‘We have informally consulted solicitors to try to see her, but we are having to face the reality that her mother has simply forged a new life and, for some reason, does not want us in it.’
In a particularly upsetting turn of events, Jane says her former daughter-in-law has actually written to her son telling him that Charlotte does not want anything to do with any of them, including Andrew himself.
They are words that Jane is unsure she can believe, but words that are painful nonetheless.
‘We had such a wonderful relationship with our granddaughter that it’s hard to believe she would really want such a thing,’ says Jane. ‘Perhaps Charlotte’s mother sees us as a reminder of her old life.
‘We send presents and cards on her birthday, but we never hear if Charlotte has received them or not. And if we send presents by recorded delivery, they are often returned saying they were unable to deliver them. It is so heartbreaking.
‘All we can hope is that when Charlotte is old enough to make up her own mind, she will realise she does have other blood family who love her dearly, and she will make her own mind up that she does want to see us.’
Names have been changed.
When you, as a grandparent, feel you need a tool to initiate conversation with your grandchild around painful issues that the child is usually reluctant to talk about, you may do so through the help of the computer game and book Earthquake in Zipland.