Top divorce lawyer Ayesha Vardag on how her charming but absent father shaped her life

By Ayesha Vardag

As a leading lawyer dubbed the ‘Diva of Divorce’, Ayesha Vardag has seen more than her fair share of family battles – starting with her own parents. She reveals how her complex relationship with her charming but absent father shaped the course of her life.


Last Christmas was all about Star Wars in my family: huge excitement about the release of The Force Awakens, going to the cinema with my husband and our five children and having immense fun. But it also forced me to relive, in a deeply troubling way, the experience of going to see the first Star Wars with my father in 1977, when I was nine – younger than my little daughter is now. It was one of the painfully few visits he made to me and my mother when I was growing up and remains one of only a handful of childhood memories I have of my father.


There are some others. When I was maybe four or five, we played elephants on the walk home from primary school – me tucked under the back of his coat like the rear end of a pantomime horse, waving my hand behind me like a tail, while he swayed his arm before him for a trunk. It made me giggle inordinately. I remember rowing a boat with him alone on the river Cherwell, near to where we lived in Oxford.


Whenever my father visited I was so excited; I would do my homework in morning break and in the middle of lessons so that I could jump, illicitly, on my bike and dash home at lunch time, so I could rush home at the end of the day, so I could have every possible moment with him, so I didn’t waste a drop of the precious time he was giving me.


My father came from a royal Indian line of the proud Pashtun race and had a distinguished political heritage.


My grandmother, from the Lodhi family which ruled Delhi before the Mughals, grew up in such a grand way that the walk down the aisle for her wedding was the longest she had ever made – all her life she had been carried in a palanquin.  My grandfather had been a prominent pro-independence politician during the Raj and was later exiled to Saudi Arabia where he had ambassadorial posts. He would send mules loaded with gold coins to my grandmother’s fort in the Saudi desert for her to provision the house, descend upon her with hundreds of guests and feast for days, then vanish back to the world of international diplomacy.


My father met my mother, Barbara, early in his career while studying at Magdalen College, Oxford.


Ayesha aged six

My mother, a very British, 22-year-old Northumbrian country girl, was working for the city treasury and living with an aunt. They went to parties, danced until dawn and fell wildly in love. She drove across Europe and the Middle East with him and married him en route in Afghanistan.


Once they arrived in Pakistan, things were not as he had told her they would be. Stricken with amoebic dysentery, pregnant, devastated and alone, she borrowed money from one of his friends and came home to her parents in Northumberland to have me. My father went into politics in his own right, and became the youngest senator Pakistan had known.


I grew up with my Scottish grandmother and English mother, on mince and tatties and haggis, in Oxford.


My father sent me postcards which were windows into another world, his world: Arabian horses, Pashtun tribesmen, women in beautiful, exotic costumes and, once, a mountain in the Himalayas.


Ayesha on her wedding day in 2014 with children (from left) Jasper, Helena and Felix
Ayesha on her wedding day in 2014 with children (from left) Jasper, Helena and Felix

He wrote, ‘This mountain has never yet been climbed, but one day it will be conquered, and one day you and your mother and I will be together.’


I pinned the postcards on a cork notice board on the wall in the room I shared with my mother, in the Oxford house where she and my grandmother and I lodged with a couple of elderly ladies and a Siamese cat. I filled the void with dreams and infinite romance. Whenever I had a chicken wishbone, I would wish for my father. The moments when he was with us were bound up with magic. These memories of his visits are so strong – they were the golden times. His arrival filled our glum and overwrought household with all the fun and warmth and optimism for which I longed so deeply. He made the sun come out.


My pretty, pale mother was always so lonely, so depressed, immeasurably loving but consumed by frequent distress. Desperately anxious, she worked all day and into the night to look after my grandmother and me on a secretary’s salary and by doing piece-work. But she would blossom when he appeared, becoming happy and jolly again.


There would be money to buy things. There would be a sense of celebration. The days would be crystal-bright and filled with love and hope and inexpressible joy. It was transformational.


After I was born, he came once every year or two. It then became three years, then five. There were only three trips home that I was old enough to remember. He always arrived without announcement and went, after a few weeks or a month, at short notice. Black despair, loss, sleeplessness and depression would follow. I’d never know when or if he was coming back. Somehow I’d failed. I didn’t deserve him. I’d been cross, or naughty, or not interesting enough, or I hadn’t managed to spend enough time with him because of school, or something.


Her father with Ayesha in Northumberland in 1968
Her father with Ayesha in Northumberland in 1968

All the other children had fathers. They all turned up at school; they were visible, real people. Some of the children had told me I didn’t have a father at all. And I didn’t, really. Not like they did. I didn’t have a father because I wasn’t lovable enough to keep him with me, yet somehow they all pulled it off. I could never understand how.


My mother had always told me that my father needed to stay in Pakistan to work in politics and try to bring good to his country. I felt selfish wanting him to stay, but I also wished that he could try to bring good to my country instead and then he’d be able to be with me. I believed that if I was an utterly charming, beautiful, sweet and lovely little girl, the best daughter one could possibly imagine, he would stay with me and my mother, whom he said he loved so much. I was bookish and shy, but I was lovely with him. I just wasn’t as good as the other girls, or if I was, I couldn’t make him see it.


* * * * *


Later, when I was 14, after years of his absence, I remember another visit – a Christmas in Oxford – being immeasurably proud to show my best friend and her father that I really did have a father after all and that he was handsome and charming and brilliant. I was angry with my mother when she didn’t want to pull out all the stops and kill the fatted calf for him. I felt my world collapse when, during that visit, she told him he had to go – that after 15 years of long-distance marriage she wanted a divorce. It was over. He didn’t visit again. Not even to see me.


Only after the divorce, in a big fight with my mother, when I was a stroppy teenager and she was at one of her lowest ebbs, did she tell me that my father had always had another family in Pakistan; that she had always been a second wife; that he had two daughters of his own and didn’t care about me or want me.


Although it explained a lot, it felt surreal, as if my life up to then had been a lie. I tormented myself thinking about a wrapped-up guitar I had seen my father bring into the house, which I thought might be a present for me but which was never given. I realised with an acute pang that it must have been for one of his other children.


I felt desolate, but also as if everything finally made sense. No wonder he wasn’t interested in me. He didn’t need me. I was an extra, a spare.

* * * * *


As an adult, I saw my father a few more times. I had a gap year in which I went to Pakistan and joined him on the political trail, from palaces with harems to mud huts with chickens. I became, I thought, close to him; we talked endlessly. It was in some ways complicated, but in many ways wonderful. He told me he was sorry for his absence in my childhood and asked me to judge him not by the past but by the loving, involved future he would make with me from then on.


I went to see him again when I was 21, but by then he had installed a new, third wife who did not make me welcome.


After that trip, he told me he was not permitted to see me any more. He accepted that, which made me immeasurably angry. I drove myself even harder to succeed, perhaps because only with extreme achievement could I see myself as having any value.


I saw him twice more, secretly and unbeknown to the third wife, in the 26 years after that: once in New York, with my children. He was as charming and jolly as ever in the brief and furtive time he gave me.


Life went on as normal without him, as I struggled to juggle single motherhood, after a failed marriage and a failed cohabitation, with building up a career to provide for my children.


Over time, by dint of relentless work and an obsessive drive for excellence, Vardags, the law firm I had founded, became known for fielding many of the best divorce lawyers in London: its court victories were all over the international media and I was dubbed the ‘Diva of Divorce’.


Gradually, I began to believe I had a real place in the world and something that I could contribute – moving the law forward and making it work for the individuals who needed me to fight for them when their families fell into disarray.


I understood their sense of fear and loss, the ache of longing, the guilt of leaving a relationship and the pain of being left, and what it takes to rebuild oneself, survive and become strong. Finally it felt as if it all had a purpose.


I saw my father once more last Christmas, coinciding with the latest release in that mighty father-child epic, Star Wars.


Ayesha with, clockwise from left, husband Stephen Bence (with dogs Kublai Khan and Shah- Namah), Jasper, Felix and Helena
Ayesha with, clockwise from left, husband Stephen Bence (with dogs Kublai Khan and Shah- Namah), Jasper, Felix and Helena

He came to see me at home for a day. He was with me from 4am to 1pm. It was all very focused. He told me I should invest my money in some land that he and his brother were interested in buying. He was extremely enthusiastic about getting me over to Pakistan, fast. He claimed he had come because he had been ‘too busy’ to come to my wedding the previous year and wanted to meet my husband. He assured me that it was not about wanting me to buy the land. I did not believe him.


The saddest thing I find now is that, over the years, all that love, all that longing and hope and enthusiasm, have died away in me to be replaced by indifference. I can’t tell whether it’s denial or self-preservation, or whether life has genuinely moved on and I’ve made a place where he doesn’t matter.


My father is, for me, a charming vessel, hollowed out, with none of the shared memories that take a relationship beyond a genetic connection. I have no idea what he feels about me; it would appear very little. It feels odd, unnatural – it is unnatural – but the truth is, I don’t care any more. It doesn’t make me feel good – it just, well, is. All I have of my relationship with my father is a bleak portfolio of feelings: a sense of loss, a sense of never really believing I’m good enough, of never believing I deserve to be loved, of expecting, always, to be left by any man I really love and tormenting myself and him with my insecurity.


And yet somehow I have had the most wonderful existence, full of love and happiness, fun and children, dancing with babies to the radio around my drawing room, swimming with dolphins at dawn, winning legal battles, building communities about which I care passionately in my family, my firm and my home.


But it’s a constant struggle: trying not to be the little girl who wasn’t lovely enough to keep her dad, trying to reinvent myself as someone strong and whole, trying to find a normal way of life, although I never saw one up close. I hope I’ve got there, with a clever, kind-hearted, problem-solving husband whose love, understanding and capacity to forgive me, with my host of demons, never ceases to amaze me. I have tried to turn the damage I suffered into something good.


My daughter, by my ex-partner, is brought up by a loving father, mother and two step-parents – one family, albeit in separate households, very much as a team with her at the heart of it. She burns with life and happiness and basks in love. She’s so different from the sad little girl I was. It’s not about parents staying together; it’s about them staying loving, present parents, even if they do that from two homes instead of one.


I work with families, usually when they’re divorcing, trying to extricate them from each other in ways that keep relationships with children alive and strong. I have turned away vindictive mothers who have come to me to shut their children off from their fathers, or fathers who wanted to fake a desire for full custody to obtain financial leverage.


I feel strongly that there should be a legal obligation on both parents to see their children, whether it’s convenient for them or not. One of my first cases was for a father who adored his daughters, but whose wife was desperate to keep him out of their lives. Getting those girls back into contact with their father, indeed to spending regular time with him in a home he made for them, was one of the most fulfilling moments of my life. Fathers need to be with their children regularly. If it doesn’t make sense for a couple to share custody equally, they should at least make sure there is a home with each parent and a steady, regular, predictable pattern of being there. Even if it’s a bore, even if their new partner gives them a hard time, even if it’s a long journey. So much of parenting is just turning up and not being actively obnoxious.


Mothers, too, need to respect and value that – even if they loathe and detest their exes, even if they can’t bear the idea of their children with his latest girlfriend who makes them feel so inadequate, even if it rips them apart when they get picked up at the front door on a Friday evening.


They have to keep smiling and make it happen, not for the fathers, but for the children.


Photographs: Mark Harrison, Sueraya Shaheen