real life

When her son's dad moved away, this mum did something amazing.

Elly Varrenti


Three years ago I moved to Castlemaine, a large regional town 90 minutes from Melbourne. I did the tree-change thing, even though I’d always hated the country. But I wanted our son to live in the same town as his father for the first time since he was 5 months old. His father wanted it too.

I’ve lived in over 30 houses in Melbourne but have never actually lived outside the town where I was born. I wonder if when we travel we become more of who we are or less? Do we become more like our real selves or do we invent a different self to suit the place? I was ready for a shot at personal reinvention.

My ex said that one of the reasons he left was because I didn’t want to live in the country. I did change my mind at the last minute but it was too late by then; he’d already bought a new bed and moved out. He found a nice country house to live in a few months later.

Then he wanted his son to stay with him a couple nights a week. So I handed him over. I say ‘handed him over’ as if it were a form of capitulation, some kind of surrender. But he was as much his father’s child as he was mine and I had post-natal depression at the time so wasn’t in great shape.

I thought his father was more reliable, consistent and, yes, a better parent than I was back then. Not now, though. Not today. But ever since, I’ve never really felt like I have fully regained my good-parenting creds. My ex is uber-critical. Our son calls his stepmother ‘Mum’ too. I feel superfluous sometimes, like some kind of an interloper.

In the early days in my new town I’d be surprised to overhear my ex ordering a coffee at one of the local cafes. I used to love his North German accent- sexy and arrogant at the same time. Now it just sounds arrogant. Now when I see that little thing he does with his left hand I used to find so endearing, I am miffed it’s what our son does with his hand too. My son has his father’s mouth and hair.

Do all parents feel a bit jealous if their offspring looks more like the ex?

Our first year in the country was a bit of a novelty; we were novelties. We made new friends and lived in a lovely weatherboard house with a wrap-around veranda and a yard big enough to set up soccer goals.

I moved so my son could live in the same town as his father.

I still need to stay in the city 3 days a week for work but at least now our son’s weekly commuting days are over. Now if he forgets something, it’s a 5-minute bike ride not 90min by car. These days my 10-year-old and I are both living double lives; managing two houses, two sets of clothes and two bedside tables.  He appears to be doing quite well at it. He has lived in 2 homes all his life after all. I still need more practice.

Two years ago my little sister took her own life.  She was 42: smart, compassionate, funny and beautiful. She had a mental illness. She left an 18-month-old son. She left mum and me. And dad and her half-brother. She left her friends and her patients.

The grief will never go away. But I will learn to live with it, they say.

Six months ago Mum and my sister’s son moved to Castlemaine too. So now it’s not just me co-parenting with varying degrees of efficacy, contentment (and dignity), but my mother is co-parenting in the country too.


Grief can make you feel like you’re living with stones in your pockets and holes in your heart.

In my co-parenting set-up I sometimes feel inadequate and angry. I have found it difficult on occasions to manage my grief around my son. I worry that when I am called on to take over the mothering of my sister’s child, I will not be up to the task. Mum is 81 this year.

My nephew’s father is an Iraqi refugee who spent 5 years in detention. My sister worked hard to get him and many others out of detention. He loves his son and his son adores him but he lacks a regular job and suffers from post-traumatic stress.  He has his son every weekend while my mother has her grandson the rest of the time.

“In my co-parenting set-up I sometimes feel inadequate and angry.”

My mother co-parents with a broken man and a broken heart. We are both of us sad and angry a lot of the time but Mum is patient, loving and dedicated. Her grandson said to her the other day: You are lucky to have me, you know. He’s not 4 yet but he’s clever like his mum.

I see my sister in my nephew every day and Mum sees the daughter she lost. Both of us experience a strange and conflicted kind of gratitude and grace in this little boy’s presence.

I took him to the local pool last week, his first time. I love it! He said. I love pools! He gets to do some of the more active stuff with me.

My son is currently spending his school holidays in Germany with his dad and step-mum of 9 years. I have been keeping myself very busy, of course; walking, cleaning, working, reading, cleaning, writing, socialising, iViewing, cleaning. Did I mention cleaning?

He has finally emailed me!

 Hi Mum.

It’s really cool here. I mean literally. LOL. Here’s a photo of me in the slalom race. There were four of us and I came third. (One of those little faces with an upside down smile.) See ya!

BTW Mum! Your spelling is reeeeally bad. The mountain is spelt Krispl.


 I miss you. (No, don’t write that, it will make me sound sad and he might feel guilty.)

All good here. Your grandmother and cousin send their love. I got you that soccer jersey thingo you wanted for Christmas.

Elly Varrenti’s latest book

 It’s 40 today! What a contrast to your below 4 degrees, I bet?

Hey! You look like you can actually ski in those photos you sent. I’m impressed.

I love you. Speak soon.

Mum x

PS Here’s a photo of me cleaning.

PPS Did I mention I love you?

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 she is currently writing one about shared-parenting due for release late 2013.