By ELLY VARRENTI
‘Is tomorrow a daddy or a mummy day?’ my son asks me. He should be able to work it out for himself given he’s currently learning the days of the week in Prep.
My six-year-old son is leading a double life and he’s been living like this, an intrepid little traveller, since he was six months old.
This year he started school in the city with me and lives with his dad and stepmother in the country on the weekends. The rhythm feels easier. Our son is more settled. I feel better. His father probably feels more cut off.
These days shared parenting is common, they say. One in four families – or is it one in three- is co-parented, blended, or outside the traditional nuclear model. These days children commonly have two homes: two bedrooms, two sets of photographs and Lego. In my son’s case, two different linguistic universes as well. My son and his father and stepmother speak only German when they are together. I don’t speak German.
The first time I handed my six-month-old baby over to his father for a couple of nights it felt like surrendering a limb without anaesthetic.
‘Don’t do it. You’ll regret it’, said a friend.
‘You’re still in shock!’ said my mother.
But I did do it. I handed over my son, I mean, our son, to his father that first time because even though his father had stopped loving me, I knew he hadn’t stopped loving his child. I knew he was as good a parent as I was. Maybe even better, given I had post-natal depression at the time. I grew up without my father; I wasn’t going to let it happen to my child.
Today and five and a half years later it still feels like an amputation every time my son goes off to his father’s house for a few days a week. Except that now it’s the status quo. Now I am meant to be used to it. I should be relieved my husband and I separated when we did, and not later, when our son had got used to the idea of his parents living in the same house.
I have friends who do it. Some do the one-week on, week off thing or the half-week here, the other half there. For us, there’s one birthday party in the country and another one in the city. His father lives in the country and I live in the city. That’s our shared-parenting set-up. It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock n roll. It’s a little bit acrimonious too.
Usually it’s the logistics, the legalities and the nuts and bolts of how to co-parent we hear about. We all know for example, that it’s a far more workable scenario if the two parents get along amicably. It’s even better if they live close by. You hear less about the complex and confusing emotional life of the co-parent spending half the time outside their own child’s life.
I’ve had ‘child-free’ time for some years now and can even look forward to it. It’s the time I fill up with work, friends and half-hearted searches for new romance. But I still feel at a loss after my son leaves: it seems counter-intuitive somehow.
It’s the missing.
There’s a growing demographic of co-parents out there who spend half their time intensely involved with their children and the other half trying to work out who they’re meant to be while the kids are living with the other parent in another house.
We are all of us negotiating double lives as well as trying to understand that our child is leading one too. Sometimes we may know little about what he does or how he does it while he’s living it. When I ask my son about his daddy time, he usually mutters something vague and unilluminating and I am none-the-wiser. So I just have to wait and hope the details of his alternative identity emerge in more indirect ways during our time together.
‘When I’m with you I miss daddy and when I’m with daddy I miss you,’ said my friend’s eight-year-old daughter to her mother, recently. My friend rang me in tears to tell me.
‘I didn’t know what to say to her! It all seems too much for her to manage. Or is it just me who finds it hard to manage?’
Creating a functional family is an on-going challenge and its beauties and terrors come with the territory. Regardless of whether it’s a mummy or a daddy day.
Since writing this piece 4 years ago my son and I have moved to the country so that Ernie could live close to his father for the first time since he was 6 months old. My son is now 10 years old and we have both been living in this large regional Victorian town for almost 3 years now. With mixed results.
I still need to travel to Melbourne to work 3-4 days a week and leaving my friends and family (and part time boyfriend) back then was tough. Still is.
For the last 2 years my mother has been rearing my late sister’s little boy and 3 months ago, she and her 3 year-old grandson moved to the country as well. So here we all are. Who would have thought? I always hated the country.
How does the whole shared-parenting set up look now days? And how does my 80-year-old mother handle co-parenting with my nephew’s father – an Iraqi refugee still living in Melbourne?
Watch this space.
Elly Varrenti is a writer, broadcaster and teacher. She is a regular columnist for ABC Radio National’s Life Matters program, is a former Age Theatre Critic and teaches writing at Box Hill Institute. Her book ‘This is Not my Beautiful Life’ is published by Penguin (and you can buy it HERE) and she is currently writing one about shared-parenting due for release late 2013.