Can mothers have it all?

The dilemma facing many women who are trying to balance a professional career with motherhood.

Like millions of women of her generation, Karen Martin dared to believe that women really could have it all. A high-flying creative director at a London advertising agency, she got married, had two children and while her husband, Mark, played the house husband, she was the family breadwinner.

For a while this very modern arrangement appeared to be working out perfectly. Then her husband had a fling with a single mother he met at a playgroup and Karen threw him out.

What followed was a traumatic court battle which saw a judge hand residence (formerly custody) of her eight-year-old son and six-year-old daughter to their father, who lived on benefits in a council house. “At the end of the court case, the children went home with him,” she says. ”I was utterly devastated. I virtually collapsed with shock.”

But 43-year-old Karen’s story is far from unusual. Every year the number of mothers who have little or no contact with their children is on the rise. The Children Act 1989 requires a court to regard the best interests of the children as the first consideration and its approach is gender neutral. For many mothers who lose residence of their children it comes as a considerable shock. They had no idea that pursuing a career would put them at risk. These are not “unfit” mothers; they are professional woman who may well be the main earner in the family.

Recent Child Support Agency figures support this anecdotal evidence; the number of women losing sole residence of their children is rising. The instances where mothers are registered as the non-resident parent rose from 57,000 in 2005 to 66,900 in 2010. The support group Mothers Apart From Their Children (MATCH) estimates that around 150,000 mothers no longer live with their children.

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Karen recalls how she was described in court by her former husband’s barrister: “He painted a picture of me as a hard-faced woman who was more interested in board meetings than school plays,” she says. “It was so far from the truth.”

The reality, she explains, was that her ex, a former building site foreman, had volunteered to stay at home with the children because they needed her six-figure salary to pay the mortgage on the family’s three bedroom home in North London.

But observers point out that while the tide may appear to be turning against working women, this shift in custodial arrangements can be seen as a direct consequence of women’s fight for equality in the workplace. For years men who have fulfilled the traditional role of breadwinner have lost out when it comes to living with and looking after their children, regardless of their income. Now women have asserted their right to enjoy similarly challenging careers, do they have the right to complain when they lose residence of their children?

However, if women are only suffering what divorced fathers have experienced for decades, counsellor and author Sarah Hart points out that the stigma attached to women living apart from their children is far worse than it is for men. “People assume they have abandoned their children or been deemed unfit mothers by the courts. They are perceived as bad mums, odd – possibly even heartless – selfish or cruel. Many keep it secret that they have children at all; such is the taboo that still surrounds a mother not living with her offspring. In reality, the circumstances surrounding a mother choosing to live apart from a child can be complex and emotionally charged.”

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One thing is clear: the reversal of traditional roles in the home and at work may be a cause for celebration for feminists, but some women are suffering damaging side-effects.

Lester Aldridge logoThe Lester Aldridge family team deal with these and other issues on a regular basis and are frequently instructed by clients with disputes relating to the arrangements for their children.

If you would like to discuss any aspect of divorce, separation or wish to protect your assets prior to getting married, contact the family team on 01202 786161 or email

The information contained in this publication is for guidance only. No responsibility can be accepted by Lester Aldridge LLP (LA) or by external contributors for action taken as a result of the information contained in this publication. It is not intended to be an exhaustive statement of the law or a substitute for seeking specific advice. Photocopying or other reproduction without LA’s permission is a breach of copyright. LA is regulated and authorised by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. A list of members is available on request. Registered Office: Russell House, Oxford Road, Bournemouth, Dorset BH8 8EX. Registered in England OC321318. Dated: Nov 2012

About Lester Aldridge LLP

Lester Aldridge LLP is a nationally recognised law firm with offices in London, Bournemouth and Southampton. The family team are leaders in their field. Jane, Jo and Rosie are specialist family solicitors with a wealth of experience in all areas of family law from divorce to children, prenuptial agreements to the settlement of financial disputes and everything in between. These women are feisty when they need to be. But their approach is designed to reduce conflict in order to ensure the best possible outcome. They recognise that family issues can be extremely emotional and they offer access to specialist advice delivered in a friendly, approachable and understandable way designed to guide you from start to finish. If you would like an informal, no-obligation chat with Jane, Jo or Rosie please telephone 03300 539754.