real life

'My daughter, her step-mother and I: How I truly feel about the other mother.'

When I look at the photo above, I feel a surge of mixed emotions: pride, gratitude, love, relief, respect and joy, peppered with some shame and humility… Let me explain.

Most of those emotions are obvious. For example, I’m very proud of the young woman in the middle – my daughter, Paige. You only have to look into her sparkling eyes to know she’s a good one. She has strong likes and dislikes and a very firm sense of the world. She basically knows how to push all of my buttons and her strong will can test me to the point I sometimes wonder which of us is the adult. It’s also what I love and respect most about her. I’ve always felt somewhat fragile and she’s always been strong, like a little lioness.

The other emotions I feel are entirely towards the woman on the left of this photo. She’s my daughter’s other mother, Clare.

She’s been around for years now, but recently, as we celebrated Paige’s Year 12 graduation ball, it finally hit me how extremely lucky we are to have her in our lives and how much my relationship with Clare has taught me as a mother and a woman.

Chloe Shorten speaks to Mia Freedman about her blended family on No Filter:

I don’t think it matters how long it’s been after a relationship involving a child has ended, there are always going to be lots of ‘feelings’ on all sides when new people enter the scene. My ex-partner Shayne and I were at university when Paige was born, we were basically kids ourselves and really had no idea what the hell we were doing (truth be told, I still don’t).

It was when Paige was about 8 or so that I first met Clare. I knew nothing about her except she was lot younger and, wait for the kickerhad the body of a supermodel. Other than that, I had no idea who she was or what she was about.

So, feeling somewhat uncertain and a little threatened, naturally I did what any self-respecting idiot would do. I threw on my “I-know-best” arrogant pants and got on with the job of co-parenting (and by “co-parenting, I mean I was going to run the show). I don’t know if Clare knows about this, and it’s shameful to admit, but in the early days I could get pretty worked up about the smallest stuff.

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A much younger Paige with her dad. Source: supplied
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Like the day they cut Paige’s fringe. I had always been the one to get her hair cut, how dare anyone try and take a job off my list of ‘to-dos’? When I found out, I think I said something ridiculous to Paige like “What on earth gives them the right to cut my baby's hair?!”.  She was almost 12 at the time.

I think part of the problem was I had parented her alone for such a long time and  I didn’t have to consult anyone about what she needed. The circumstances were that Paige couldn’t see her dad much due to geographical reasons and that meant we didn’t really have to deal with each other.

I perceived that I was alone in the role of parent and yet at the same time Shayne must have felt so alienated. I also think being so young and trying to figure everything out by myself meant that I was in survival mode. I was so stressed a lot of the time just trying to parent and provide that I didn’t really have the time or the inclination to think about the bigger picture or how anyone else felt about things.

Clare’s arrival was a turning point. Of course, I was still going to criticise everything she did because I knew best, but I could tell her intentions were good and that was the beginning of a whole new dynamic.

Now, almost 10 years on, I feel a huge sense of respect for how she has fitted into our family, and the way she continues to consider Paige a part of her own family with Shayne.

Clare is methodical and realistic, and I’ve learned she has an excellent sense of empathy, probably choosing to let some things go here and there.

To say the dynamics of blended families are complex is an understatement. I’ve learned you’re working with the emotions of two separate parenting teams, possible past hurts and resentments, mixed with different personality types and ways of doing things, cultural values, belief systems and a plethora of other factors like economic capacity, geography, health and the like. But, most complex of all, are the individual needs of your child.

In split families, children should be central to the decision making, always, yet with all of these dynamics at play it’s hardly surprising that so frequently they aren’t.

Believe it or not, I’ve often wondered what it’s like being in Clare’s shoes. What it might feel like to have a partner who will always have someone else in their lives to some extent. What it’s like when he must deal with things for her, then has to deal with things with me concerning our daughter. Or better yet, when he has an anxious, irate or upset ex on the phone on top of all his other ‘stuff’.

What affect does that have on Clare and Shayne in their day-to-day lives or when planning their own family and future? Or how she even managed to find her place between Shayne and Paige and I in the first instance. I can only imagine that (depending on circumstances of course) being an ‘extra mum’ must be like finding a position somewhere between a mother and a good friend.

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What does it feel like to correct someone else’s child?

What are your rights?

These were questions I had fleetingly considered but never really pondered to huge extent… I mean heck, I had my own problems, right?

Well, that changed recently, when I became the ‘other person’ in my new partner’s life and he in mine. During the navigation of our relationship and all the children involved, it’s hit me that being the ‘other person’ isn’t as easy as I thought it might have been and that Clare has handled it bravely and graciously.

She has always been proactive in supporting Shayne’s relationship with Paige and when decisions need to be made about her welfare, she contributes with the same interest and enthusiasm as if they were deciding about their young daughter, Vera. This is where the gratitude comes in. I mean, if we must share our kids with another woman, why wouldn’t you want it to be with someone who will love them like their own?

That’s not to say we’ve agreed on everything. We’ve had our differences of opinion and I suppose it’s taken some trust and negotiating. I think this mainly comes from our backgrounds and the way we’ve been raised. It’s amazing how our own experiences of being parented shapes the way we raise our children, and then suddenly you have two parents and potentially two more step-parents, all with different experiences trying to raise a kid.

When I think about it now, successful co-parenting isn’t really a linear experience, sometimes it feels like one step forward and a few steps back depending on what we all have going on in our lives.

It feels much like working out any new relationship. You have to figure out each person’s perspectives, values and ideals, identify what each of you brings to the table and come up with a set of expectations and common understandings so that everyone is on the same page – then the child can truly become the focus (plus it stops the little darlings playing everyone off and manipulating).

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I couldn't be prouder of Paige. Source: supplied
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It’s taken some work and patience on everyone’s part, but I feel we have that now and it makes raising humans so much easier, hence the relief I feel. Clare deserves a lot of credit for her part in this; even if we have conflicting views on an issue, her intention regarding Paige is always from the heart. From Paige’s point of view, while it must be difficult in a way I can't imagine, it also means she has more options; she doesn’t just have to accept my perspective - she can go to Clare and seek more advice/wisdom. How can this be a bad thing?

It’s hard enough being a mother and surviving the constant worry and guilt you have about your child. That’s why I’m happy I've got Clare. I realise it’s not all on me to try and get it right. We can be a united front working towards the common goal of Paige’s best interests. We may not come up with the same solution to a problem, but we’re clever enough to get on the same page. She’s not only been an excellent support to Shayne in his role as a dad (something he does magnificently by the way), she’s also helped me mother Paige, and even become a friend and confidante.

One of my favourite catch cries is that the world needs more empathy. More kindness of course, but mainly more empathy. If you can understand what it’s like to be another person, you’ve a far better shot at putting your own sh*t aside and being kind in the first place. My relationship with Clare has taught me that when we try to understand others, we learn more about ourselves. And when we do that, we not only raise kickarse kids who know they are loved, we also contribute something indescribably beautiful to the collective consciousness.

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