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'I worry they'll resent me.' The families torn apart by border restrictions.

About a month ago, Nic's daughter Ellie called her in tears.

It had been months since they'd seen each other in person, and Ellie was worried about if she'd ever see her mum again.

Nic lives in Launceston, Tasmania with her 19-month-old daughter, and her three eldest kids live in rural Victoria with their father.

She usually spends quality time with her children, nine-year-old Zara, eight-year-old Ellie and seven-year-old Max each school holidays, but as of right now, the 33-year-old has no idea when she'll next be able to see them outside of their FaceTime calls.

The humble mask can do so much good for your every day life... other than stopping the spread of COVID-19, of course. Post continues below video.


Video via Mamamia.

During a normal year, their situation works smoothly. The children will visit her in Tasmania, or they'll meet in Adelaide for a big trip full of "big city" things, like museums and zoo trips, and a trip to see the grandparents.

They had planned such a trip for the March/April holidays, but as we know: 2020 is not a 'normal year'.

Since March, Australia's international borders have been closed to non-citizens and residents. Each individual state has its own rules for interstate travel, too.

Tasmania has barred entry to residents of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland or the ACT. As Victoria fights its second wave, South Australia will not allow entry to travellers from Victoria.

Nic, Zara, Ellie and Max will be separated for the foreseeable future.

She's not alone. She finds support in a Facebook group called Mother's Together, for mothers who are not primary carers of their children. It is a place full of those in similar situations due to state border restrictions, who understand the predicament.

Of course, there are also fathers separated by borders too, and parents whose children live in other countries, sometimes on the other side of the world.

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***

For more than five years, Natalie and her two eldest children have had a "crazy, yet workable" arrangement. She lives in Sydney, and her eight-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter live in Canada with their father.

Typically, she will see them for "three long chunks of time" each year, which involves them visiting Australia at least once a year and two trips for her to visit them.

She counts herself lucky to have seen them in March when they visited for a week. At the time, COVID-19 was sweeping through Canada but was still a week or two away from really hitting home in Australia.

The plan had been for her kids to return in July for a longer period of time, and actually attend school for a little while. 

In March, July seemed so far away. Surely things would look a bit more normal by then. But July came and went, and with the pandemic escalating globally, rather than getting better, Natalie faces the possibility of not seeing her children for a year or more.

Image: Getty.

Right now, her only option is video chats.

"What I decided is, I said to them look, 'It's better that we miss each other at the moment', than putting them at risk [by travelling]. I don't want to get stuck somewhere and I don't want them to get stuck somewhere.

"I sort of feel helpless now, because I can manage the fact they're not coming right now. It's probably nice for them to have summer time in Canada anyway, but I don't know how long this is going to go on for... That's my big thing. I don't know how long this is going to go on for, so I don’t know how to manage it."

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That sentiment is shared by Nic, and other parents separated due to the pandemic.

While border closures are a necessity in beating COVID-19, what must be done does not happen without sacrifice.

Throughout Australia - and the world - are families separated by lockdowns, cancelled flights and travel restrictions. 

Grandparents who can't meet their grandchildren, perhaps for the very first time. Others who may never see their loved ones alive again.

Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunties, uncles and friends kept apart for the foreseeable future.

For these parents, the frustration is not with governments and experts advising on virus controls. Not at all. For the most part, these parents understand exactly why it must be done. They don't want to put themselves and their families at risk.

But even though there is an inevitability about it all, you can't stop the feelings of profound disappointment and anger at the situation.

***

Natalie's children understand the pandemic. Her son "rolls with the punches", but her daughter is upset by it all. She had wanted to move to Australia with her mum, and now she's stuck more than 10,000 kilometres away from her.

"The only plus side is just learning about things not going to plan," Natalie told Mamamia.

"I'm trying to help them with that lesson, but I do have days where I'm struggling with a lot of grief and sadness."

When will these families next be able to put their arms around each other? To see their smile in person, and not through a phone screen? To hear their children's laugh down the hallway or kiss them goodnight?

Nobody knows.

Daniel's eight-year-old son, nine-year-old daughter and 15-year-old daughter are in Melbourne, while he and their brother, 14, are in Western Australia.

WA's hard border closures show no sign of going away, and he thinks it's quite likely their planned trip in January may be cancelled. 

"I try not to think about it too much but it is heartbreaking," he told Mamamia.

"I'm really close to them all and it's hard enough not seeing them for six months between summer and winter holidays, but now at best it will be 12 months between giving them a hug."

Nic recalls a devastating phone call from her eight-year-old.

"[Ellie] did ring me a month ago in tears that she would never see me again until I was dead. It all just got too much for her," she says.

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"I didn't let her see it at the time but that upset me for days because in their little minds they can't process this the same way we adults do.

"My eldest Zara, she understands more. Her and Max will often tell me they miss me, that they can't wait to see me and the things we will do together when we finally get to see each other. They ask to see their room here in my house, just to make sure their stuff is still here, like how they left it at Christmas."

Zara, Ellie and Max with their younger sister. Image: Supplied.

The hardest part is the unknown.

"We can't say 'Oh, I'll see you next holidays!' like we normally would," Nic explains.

"I'm in two minds. Half of me has resigned to the fact that we just have to wait it out and there is no way we can rush it. Another part of me, perhaps that maternal bit that mums have when they're apart from their children, feels like there is something missing.

It lingers in the back of my head like a smudge on your glasses that you can't get rid of. You know it's there; you can't get rid of it it so you just go about your days with it there, ignoring it where you can."

***

The separation brings its own grief, but there is also the anxiety surrounding the health of themselves and their children.

"My 10-year-old daughter has asthma and gets unwell quite easily so I worry about her as the virus changes," Daniel says.

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"My eldest daughter's mental health concerns me being locked down and isolated from friends, and remote learning does cause her some anxiety. I'm just hoping for the best and that it’s brought under control as soon as possible."

He tells his children the restrictions - and the separation they have caused - is "for the best", in an attempt to help their disappointment and frustrations.

It's "to keep nan and pop safe," he tells them.

He is also desperately concerned that their separation will impact the connection he has with his children, and their connection with their brother.

What if they simply get used to not having him around?

Nic with Zara, Ellie and Max. Image: Supplied.

Nic's trying to remind herself worrying about her children forgetting her is silly. But those thoughts still creep in.

"I worry that they will start to think of this time apart as normal, and as silly as it sounds, that they will forget me. That whole 'out of sight, out of mind' saying runs through my head often. That they will resent me because I left, and I live here where we can do things like go to the park and play sports, and they can't," she says.

"The extended time apart has meant I have had too much time alone with my brain and the 'what ifs' with this question."

Philip, a father living in Brisbane, considers himself lucky as the CEO of a community-based charity in Brisbane. They do essential work, so Philip has been able to remain working outside of his home through most of the pandemic.

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From a mental health perspective, this has been extremely beneficial.

Philip's 17-year-old son lives in their hometown of Melbourne, as do Philip's adult children and his parents.

Philip doesn't want to miss his youngest son's final years before adulthood. Image: Supplied.

Last year, Philip returned to Australia after five years working for charities in South East Asia in order to be closer to family. They're now a far shorter flight away, but restrictions mean they seem just as far.

He considers himself fortunate in that living overseas means he and his family have already established a bit of a routine, but he too worries about missing crucial milestones.

"You go through a certain point where your kids, they grow up and move on and spend all their time with their friends, they move out… You realise ‘that’s it’, they’re no longer kids and they’ve got their own lives," Philip explains to Mamamia.

"My adult kids you see from time-to-time, you know? I sort of think if this drags on another six to 12 months, yes, you are missing that final stage of [his youngest son's] childhood.

"I think we’ll always have a close relationship but it does change in some way and this is such a pivotal time when they’re transitioning to more independence… Maybe nothing will change, but I think... this is a really significant time and it does weigh on me a bit."

His son, though pretty content with at-home learning and not fearful of contracting the virus himself, is disappointed at not being able to take scheduled trips to see his dad.

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Normally, Philip would see his son every six to eight weeks, as well as one week each school holidays. They're like best mates when they're together, and catching up over the phone - especially with a non-talkative teenage boy - is no replacement for face-to-face contact.

Philip, who through his work sees domestic violence and other social issues first-hand, is concerned about the other impacts of sustained lockdowns.

As time goes on, he wonders how long families will be able to keep their distance.

"The toll it takes on us personally is real. I'm not angry at the government because of it, I think the government is doing the best they can in a really difficult situation," he explains.

"I think families are going to need some sort of allowance made for that contact between parents and their kids."

***

Family lawyer Shaya Lewis-Dermody has seen an uptick in inquiries from families going through or considering separation since the pandemic began.

Her Family Law Project law firm represents parents and children in family matters, both in and out of court, and in March she ran live webinars 'in lockdown with your lawyer' to address the increasing intensity and concerns felt by parents with custody agreements, both informal and court ordered.

Shaya told Mamamia the family court's view is that unless there is a "reasonable excuse", court orders must still be followed during the pandemic.

But that doesn't solve all parents' issues, because many don't have court ordered agreements. Many parents rely on an informal long-standing agreement or parenting plan, especially if there is an amicable relationship there.

Without a court order, it is deemed non-essential travel.

The Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia have each established a court list dedicated to dealing exclusively with urgent family law disputes that have arisen as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which can fast-track hearings.

Image: Getty.

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For those not wanting to get the law involved, the only real option is to wait.

And above all, kindness and compassion - both for parents and children - is most important.

"Now is the time to co-parent as best as you can and to, if you can, be amicable and communicate as best you can with your ex-partner," Shaya said.

"One of the big tips that I give to my clients and just to parents generally is if you can’t comply with orders because of the restrictions, or if one parent gets COVID for example, you should really be doing everything you can to maintain your children’s relationship with the other parent."

She cited a client in South Australia who has a new hobby of playing online games with his children in Victoria. It's not ideal, but it's a way of keeping up the connection and enjoying time together, even if it is just virtually.

"We're really lucky with technology now with FaceTime and so on, and for children that's really important. Ensure that if you are in lockdown, have as many phone calls as possible and FaceTime. Use the technology that's available, that's really important for kids," Shaya said.

The pandemic will end at some stage. There's comfort in knowing this won't be our lives forever, but for families facing separation for months, maybe years, there is a sense of desperation.

COVID-19 has impacted all of our lives in one way or another, and just as there's no rule book for governments in dealing with the virus, there's no rulebook for families desperate to reunite with one another.

Be kind and empathetic while we all do our bit to better the situation.

In the meantime, parents, children, grandparents and the rest will continue to catch up via phone calls and video chats.

Hopefully, a hug is not too far from the horizon.

Feature image: Supplied/Getty.

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