Joining forces

The 40th that turned into an engagement party.
When a 40th turns into an engagement party.

You probably won’t believe me, but I knew about two weeks after I started dating The Musician that I was going to marry him – that was two years and eight months ago. It has been two years and eight months of smiling, singing, laughing and basically all-round bliss. I’m not kidding. It’s true. You probably won’t believe this either, but we STILL haven’t had a single argument. NOT. ONE. Not a raised voice, not a rolled eye, not a bad word. Don’t get me wrong – there have been plenty of other “EX-ternal” reasons for raised voices and frustrations, but even in the face of obscene difficulties, his resolve and grace under pressure only make me love him more.

Should I be letting a geneticist know so we can clone this guy?

I almost feel guilty I hit the jackpot and I have all these amazing single girlfriends who are wading through tinder profiles of serial killers and tragic nobodies lost in the abyss of singledom, not to mention the liars, the cheaters, the married men and the closet homosexuals who are wasting everyone’s time (don’t get me started). Not that there’s anything wrong with singledom – I loved it. I just didn’t love the propensity for dickheads to congregate there. There are plenty of married dickheads too I suppose (like the ones on tinder).

Saying “I do” the second time around feels sooo right compared to the uncertainty I felt the first time I was blinkered and coaxed into the holding yards – that was a race no one won. Although I think my then mother-in-law may have been taking bets on the loser. Over the last decade or so less Australians have married for the second time, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). In 2013 almost one third of marriages in Australia were between couples where one or both had been married before (approximately 32,000 compared to 37,000 in 1993).

And of those marriages there is a greater likelihood of blended families with children present from previous marriages or relationships. This brings me to my two little cherubs. There are only a few absolutes in life – things that resonate with such certainty down to your very core. Two of those absolutes are my daughters and the bond that we share. Any mother will tell you the connection you have to your child is as certain as the air you breathe.

One of my absolutes, let’s call her A1, isn’t so enthusiastic about sharing her mum with The Musician. She sees us as a tight-knit trio, not a quartet. Her exact words were “we’re like the Gilmore Girls mum. It’s just us. You’re mine and I’m yours.” And I completely understand how she feels. I was THE most over protective daughter when it came to my own single mother and potential new partners. I had seen the hurt and pain she endured after my father left and it took us years to overcome the financial and emotional strain. A1 has also seen enough in her short life to warrant a well-founded fear of marriage and probably men in general. Thankfully The Musician is helping to dispel those fears with the gentle assurance only he can impart.

Meanwhile my assurance that I love her the same today as I did the day she was born, regardless of whether I’m married, divorced or repartnered, seems to serve as little comfort to her. I know her concern for me comes from a place of deep, consuming love. I am her constant, her starting point in her own life’s journey. And if psychologist John Bowlby’s attachment theory is anything to go by –she needs me to form a healthy foundation from which to proceed out into the big, wide world.

In addition, children of parents or families who have experienced violence feel they have a greater responsibility and concern for the welfare of the abused parent. She sees herself as my protector.

I understand she worries for our little trio given we are still licking the wounds from a disastrous marriage past. But what is a mother to do? I considered waiting until the children left high school, had more life experience and could emotionally cope better with a second marriage. Then my own mother reminded me I also thought it was a good idea to stay with the children’s father until they were older and better able to cope with a divorce – there’s 15 years I won’t be getting back.

“You have to start living your own life at some point Heidi,” my mother declared.

Is she right?

It seems A2, in stark contrast to A1, is well and truly ready for me to move on with my life – she has already picked out my wedding dress, decided the colour scheme (I didn’t know we had to have one), chosen her dress and can barely contain her excitement. The only absolute in this parental dilemma is absolute opposites.

Then of course, there is the absolute I feel with him. I can’t tell you exactly what it was that sparked that sense of knowing two years and eight months ago, but I definitely knew. Some might call it women’s intuition, some might say it was a master stroke of genius from the ethereal artist, some might say it was pot luck. My mother says it is a miracle. Honestly, I don’t care what it was, or how it happened, I’m just grateful I decided to send my daughter to guitar lessons all those years ago and he was the teacher.

Increasingly I feel like I have lived two completely different lives – the first half filled with sadness and a depressing hopelessness that made me question the point of it all and the second half so wonderfully whole and united it makes living in this world a pleasure. My children have walked with me through both of those lives.

I remember when I was in my mid-teens asking my mother what love was and how I would know when love found me. Surely in her profound wisdom she would have some insightful explanation of what to look out for, some sign or feelings, or heart-stopping moments for which I should brace myself. “Oh you just know,” she said matter-of-factly. You just know!? That doesn’t help me at all. I remember being very disappointed with her answer. Now however, I appreciate the complexity of my question – how do you adequately describe to someone what it feels like to be in love?

You can’t – you just know. And as Michael Leunig said – it’s a simple and as difficult as that.

Teenagers and Skype – The New World Order

Access all areas: The battle for teenage attention in the social media era.
Access all areas: The battle for teenage attention in the social media era.

This week my almost 14-year-old told me when she grows up she isn’t going to be like me. Um, back up there sister. What do you mean – you’re not going to be like me? What’s wrong with being like me?

“Well, you know mum. I’m not going to be a Goody Two Shoes,” she replied.*

“Oh I see. Being a Goody Two Shoes is not cool. I get it. It’s all about being popular right now. But if you’re not a Goody Two Shoes, then what are you? A bad arse, drug-taking, tattoo-covered, expletive-laden, disobedient rebel?”

Oh I can’t wait. My life has been so boring and drama free to date. I could really use a rebellious, test-my-patience-in-every-possible-way teenager right now. Just to spice things up a bit. Keep me on my toes. Make sure I never get any sleep. EVER.

I thought this sleepless night thing was supposed to end around the same time they grew out of nappies. I can tell you right now there is a massive error in ‘The Child Rearing Manual For Idiots’.

In fact, an entire chapter is missing. It’s the one entitled ‘How Not to Lose Your Shit After 14 Years with Next to No Sleep’. It needs to be slotted in somewhere between the chapter on ‘Why Daddy is a Bankrupt’ and ‘When it’s ok to Kill Your Mother-In-Law’.

Instead of penning ‘Go the F**k to Sleep’ Adam Mansbach would have been better placed writing ‘Stay the F**k Awake – A Parent’s Guide’.

After the events of this week it seems I will need to employ the nocturnal proficiencies of a vampire to keep this kid in my sights. I plan to hover over her bed until she turns at least 21. It’s either that or round up every hormone-crazed teenage boy in the southern hemisphere and ship them off to a deserted island.

This week not one, not two, but THREE teenage boys decided it would be a good idea to call her. Not at 10pm, not at 11pm, not even at midnight. No. After midnight. Sometime in the early hours of the morning.

In addition to their poor timing, they also thought it might be advantageous to discuss some highly, HIGHLY, inappropriate topics – none of which I can mention here, but all of which were mentioned to their parents when my expertly-honed investigative skills discovered their misdemeanour.

Anybody who has ever had the misfortune of doing me wrong knows of my much-maligned ability to find shit out. When I get tired of this journalism thing, I’m thinking I could make my fortune as a private investigator.

Needless to say, after our parental round table and several apologies later (both written and verbal) I think we are all in a much better place –teenagers and parents alike.

However, the overarching revelation I took away from ‘Episode 503 of Teenage Angst’ is how reasonable and measured the boys’ parents were upon learning of their children’s indiscretions.

Thank God for adults who want the best for their kids, who don’t make excuses for bad behaviour, who assign appropriate punishment, who are as horrified as I am that Little Johnny/Jenny has experienced a short circuit in their cerebral function.

It gives me hope the next generation might survive this age of social media saturation, intimidation and perversion.


*This whole Goody Two Shoes thing might be just a little overplayed. Admittedly my shoes were ever so slightly scuffed, but I’m running with it. Little do these kids know we all had starring roles in ‘Episode 504, 505, and 506 of Teenage Angst’.  How else do I manage to stay one step ahead? Checkmate.

Life is a highway – avoid the potholes

Get in, sit down, buckle up.
Get in, sit down, buckle up.

There are moments in my life I refer to as ‘car crash’ moments. When the world stops spinning and time stands still. When slow motion kicks in and the focus fades. They are the moments when you are overly conscious of the pounding in your chest and a shortness of breath and the rising panic that is about to render you helpless. This is the moment life has an opportunity to overcome you.

And I have been overcome by life … well… a lot. I am not ashamed to admit I have been semi-conscious on the bathroom floor a few times now (those tiles are really uncomfortable).

Note to first timers: lay in the foetal position with your head away from the toilet bowl, towels are compulsory, sobbing is optional.

I have always been cognisant of the ferocious passing of time. This week my uncle reminded me “we weren’t here one hundred years ago and we won’t be here in a hundred years to come”.  It’s a sobering, if not frightening, thought. It’s a thought that will either get you up off the bathroom floor, or put you right back down on it.

When my girls were babies and I watched them sleeping I was very much aware that life was fleeting. Time was ephemeral. In but a moment they would be grown. I knew to burn even the most inane, seemingly frivolous events into my memory. I remember their soft skin, their short little breathes, their baby smell, their fat little fingers, their wispy thin hair.

I remember how they grew and changed and their personalities blossomed. I remember how they held my hand as we walked along. The adorable, innocent, funny things they said. Now they are as tall as me. They put their arms around my shoulder instead of my waist. They are still adorable, and I still watch them sleep and I drink in each precious second of their existence.

This week I was driving along the freeway late at night. It had been a tragic day, with some tragic news. I had been up since 4am. I hadn’t showered or changed. I had a migraine. My brother called while I was driving. I answered – on hands free of course. The conversation was difficult. I was sobbing. I couldn’t see the road. Tears spilled onto my lap. Car headlights were a blur. I made it home alive by the sheer grace of God. This week I had a ‘car crash’ moment – two actually. Thankfully not on the freeway, but it was a total wreck of a week. A very close family member is sick.

Life is officially moving in slow motion. The reassuring thing is – I’ve been here before and I know it will pass. We will all catch our breath and our hearts will stop pounding quite so hard and the movie reel will pick up speed again.

*I know because I felt this same way when my grandfather died, when I left my husband, when my husband told me what he had really been doing, when I was told I had cancer, when I miscarried, when I lost every worldly possession (insert novel here).

I know when all the awful, tragic things start to overwhelm you – you have to look inward, not outward.

*Not necessarily in chronological order.

Our DV epidemic: it’s time we got real

The legal system does not do enough to protect domestic violence victims.
The legal system does not do enough to protect domestic violence victims.

Rosie Batty – how do you begin to describe her courage? She left him. She found something inside her that pushed her onwards, forwards, past the fear. No one will ever know the torment that she endured inside and outside of her relationship with Greg.

She may have felt equal parts horrified and liberated by her decision to keep her violent ex-partner out of her life. There was a sense of freedom.

But then came the fear – the gut-wrenching anguish. Perhaps she pushed it to the back of her mind. Did she try not to think about his threats, what he was capable of? Perhaps he would get help. Perhaps things would be ok.

But in the stillness of night or the most random of moments (at work, driving home, at a social function) did she have panic attacks? Did she ask herself ‘what if I can’t fight him off? How will I protect my child? Have I done enough?’

Like an animal being hunted, her primal instinct would force her to watch the shadows, look behind her more frequently, remain alert to her surroundings, never let her guard down. Every day she would live with what had become an accepted part of her existence – either inside or outside of their relationship – he would find a way to hurt her.

People might have told her leaving was the right thing to do. It’s the same old bullshit line women get fed every day of the week – “you can’t stay in a violent relationship”. And we convince ourselves leaving is the right thing to do.  We have one hundred conversations with ourselves about how the system will protect us and he will see reason.

Let me tell you unequivocally – THAT DOES NOT HAPPEN. The system does not provide adequate protection for women in domestic violence situations. The system does not provide adequate protection for children in domestic violence situations either. I’m sure Rosie knew that every time Greg threatened her. And she certainly knows it now – leaving a violent man is sometimes the very thing that triggers the avalanche.

Rosie says Greg was always unstable and every time he stayed with them it ended in abusive behaviour. He may have committed this cowardly act even if they were together. No one will know, but either way the system failed all of them.

After Luke’s death the Victorian criminal justice system was shocked into action. An investigation was ordered and 130 families in that state were deemed to be in grave danger.

Any woman who has been in a violent relationship knows no number of domestic violence orders handed down by the court will make an ounce of difference. If he wanted to hurt her, he could. We are not protected by a piece of paper. In fact, taking out a DVO can be like waving a red flag at a bull. Men who have an elevated sense of power dare not be challenged in this way. Restricting their control is the very thing that might tip them over the edge.

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, statistics show the period during a relationship breakdown and separation is one of the most at risk times for domestic violence between ex-partners (Flood & Fergus 2008).

More women are killed after they leave a violent partner than during the relationship. What our society needs to consider is not just support and empowerment for women, but a focus on prevention. As a community we are reacting to this epidemic of violence. We are not being proactive in the prevention of it.

We need to focus on education and enlightenment courses for men – given they are the predominant perpetrators. Victim blaming, whereby the woman is held accountable for the abuse because she did not leave – is no longer acceptable.

Let’s shift the attention to curing the problem at the outset. Remove the violence and we remove the need for DVOs and safe houses and women’s shelters. Educate the abusers – not just the abused.

The Australian Institute of Criminology states one-third of Australian women who have a former or current intimate partner have experienced some form of physical, sexual or psychological violence (Mouzos & Makkai 2004).

In addition, the levels and severity of violence perpetrated by former partners is higher than that experienced from current partners and women who experienced violence from former partners are more likely to report sustaining injuries and feeling as though their lives are at risk.

A friend of mine endured almost two decades in a violent relationship. No one knew how bad it was. In fact she hid the abuse better than he did. She was more embarrassed about admitting there was a problem than he was. She thought she could help him. He told her he would get help. He begged her for forgiveness every time he lost control. He told her no one would love her like he did. He told her if she left he would kill himself. They had children. She decided it was better to stay and spend every waking moment monitoring his behaviour, watching for mood swings, taking his attention away from the children and diverting his wrath on to her. She thought she could manage the abuse, talk him down from an “episode”.

Sometimes she wondered who would die first – would he kill himself or would he kill her? Sometimes she felt sorry for him – he was so lost. Sometimes she felt disgusted by him – he enjoyed hurting her. Sometimes she hated him – he controlled every part of her life. He owned her. Sometimes she saw glimpses of a person she loved. It gave her hope. But the hope was more dangerous than the abuse. It kept her there.

People told her to leave. They told her it would be better if she left. Now the court forces her to give the children to him every second weekend – even though there is a DVO in place. Now they all live with a ticking time bomb. Who will talk him down from an episode? Who will be there for the children? How long will it take before the avalanche hits?

The mother load

Combining forces as a blended family.
Combining forces as a blended family.

I have been separated for three and a half years. In that time I have had four other women attempt to step mother my children. For some parents, this might be confronting and in the beginning it was – blended families are always a challenge. But as a parent who is confident about my relationship with my children, the concern is not about any impact another adult might have on “us”, but rather the frustration of blurred parental lines and the confusion this creates for the kids. And also one of the reasons I was reluctant to bring a man into our lives for so long.

So far the children have told me each of my ex-husband’s girlfriends have been very nice. “She cooks nice food. She makes Dad happy.” Two of his girlfriends have had children of their own. I hoped this would give them a better comprehension of our “complex situation”. Mothers should be able to relate to other mothers.

My love life has been far less exciting. I have not had any live-in partners – until last weekend, when The Musician and I moved into our own place (Yes. It’s serious). However, previously I did date a man who had two little girls whom I saw intermittently. And each time I felt like an imposter. When I read to them at night, when I held their hand to cross the road – I thought about their mother. How she didn’t know me from a bar of soap but I was minding her children. Nurturing them. Consoling them. Feeding them. That’s what their mother was supposed to do. I felt sorry for her and I’d never met her – she had to cope with her children being cared for by another woman. Would I discipline them the same? Should I discipline them at all? Would I cook different food? Have different moral or religious beliefs? Tie their hair differently? Allow them freedoms she might not agree with? Let them stay up late on a school night? So many variables that can potentially create confusion for children who have to cope with different adult role models, different routines and different households.

Of course the sadness and anguish is all equally true in reverse. The father of those little girls had to comprehend another man tucking them in at night when he was not with them. The torture of missing them sometimes too much to bear, especially in cases where the father’s visitation is reduced.

How do separated parents cope with other adults “parenting” their children? As the grown up in this “complex situation” it is my responsibility to guide the children through the maze of emotion and the intricate circumstances we find ourselves in. Situations nuclear families don’t have to deal with. When my daughter recently came home from her father’s girlfriend’s house and announced the new girlfriend had cut her hair. I didn’t call and abuse the girlfriend for over stepping the parental boundaries. I told my daughter her hair looked nice, but next time I would cut it. I reminded myself this situation was no big deal compared to another friend’s shock after her ex-husband’s girlfriend decided to take her toddler for her very first haircut, removing all her baby curls without telling the mother.

Another heartbreaking example of step-parenting blurred lines came from a friend who recounted having to hand her newborn son, whom she was still breastfeeding, to his father for weekend contact. He worked weekends and consequently left their son with his new girlfriend who bottle fed the baby while the mother struggled with swollen breasts and depression – a stranger was responsible for her new baby’s wellbeing.

On the more alarming and potentially dangerous side was a separated dad’s story of his ex-wife taking up with a drug addict who abused his children and beat their mother in front of them. The children eventually came to live with the father permanently. The dad felt helpless, isolated and desperate for his children during that time. While this is an extreme example of unwanted step parent interference, what is the etiquette when it comes to politely telling the new partner to “step away from the offspring”? Or do we forever walk on egg shells to avoid conflict and the potential of upsetting a delicate emotional balance?

In our house, I do the disciplining of the children. He does far more important things like sing them to sleep, read them stories and love their mother. The opportunity for my children to witness a healthy relationship and know a man who is calm and considered and together is one of the most vital aspects he brings to our family. His stance is “It’s not my responsibility to be their father – but it is my responsibility to love them like one.”

Bali bound

Six days and NO COOKING.

Holiday bliss.
Holiday bliss.

After working through the Christmas break, juggling legal documents, court dates, medical issues, new school books, school uniforms, more legal documents and a mountain of editorial deadlines – I plan on sitting by the beach for the next six days doing nothing much at all.

Unless it involves the ocean, shopping, eating or sleeping.

The bikinis and sarongs are packed. The kids are excited. The electronic devices are switched off. Take care of “The Musician” for me while I’m gone.

Love from The Three Of Us.