One day some years ago I asked my daughter “what do you think it means to love someone?”. She couldn’t answer me. It was a wake up call. So I made the decision to do a big re-write of my family definition. I didn’t want to be in an *intact* family any more because it was a disservice to my children. So, I didn’t have a plan or a strong vision for what I wanted at that time. But I just knew that I needed “better”. A lot has happened between then and now. But in the last however-many years, I’ve totally reshaped mine and my children’s lives by approaching conflict from a place of love and compassion.
We are in a state of constant evolution and change. Especially since having a new partner join our family, and a new baby too, we redefine what family means to us. Sometimes, redefining our relationships are big re-writes, and other times just footnotes. So I thought I’d share seven things I’ve learnt through that process.
Re-Defining your new family
Family isn’t blood. Family is heart.
Whether you’re a single mum, or are inviting a new partner to in to join your family, things will change every day. I cannot tell you how they will exactly. But they just will. It’s a dynamic environment. The things I thought were simple in my previous definition of the family became more complex. What I thought was complicated, gained clarity and simplicity. But, the same can be said for people in “intact” (or whatever label you want to use) families. Families are not immune to change and perspective is important as we all have different races to run. A child reaching adolescence, having troubles at school, receiving diagnoses etc all impact on the definition of your family.
So, when it comes to redefining my family, I learnt seven things about how to shape this complicated and individual idea of what family means.
1. Simplify everything
If you’re newly single and have children, believe me, you’ll find life gets complicated really quickly. This is especially true if you’ve parted ways without a concrete understanding of each other’s roles in the lives of your children. If there is any ambiguity regarding those roles into the future, you need to sit down and define that now. Even couples who think they have it sorted can find themselves in the corridors of the Federal Circuit Court or Family Law Courts. And if you go down the Court route, and three to four years later you have Orders on a Final Basis, it might not stop even then. Conflict can be all-consuming. For many people, it is. Technically, you can be brought back to court at any time if the other side is sufficiently motivated.
So, you can allow chaos to define your life, or you can simplify and do your best to recognise what you can control and what you can’t.
Add routine and structure. Add budgets (or money plans) and goals. Know what you want and work towards that. You’ll be amazed at how much simpler things can become when you automate much of what you do.
2. Be open to learning + re-learning
I honestly found that contacting Relationships Australia was one of the best things I did. Not for mediation which was great but not applicable in my circumstance. But rather for their Post-Orders Parenting Course and Triple P programs. My definition of myself as a mother was reasonably shaky in the beginning and especially post-separation. I was dealing with constant challenges to my relationship with my children via the behaviour of others and didn’t know what to do. So I decided to do what I always do to solve a problem and that is to learn (aka hide in a library haha).
I reached out to Relationships Australia and eventually undertook the Post-Orders Parenting Course. I’d recommend it to anyone. It was confronting, as typically they do not have much by way of support for DV survivors, but it was so super helpful. It was through this course that I gained a deeper perspective of conflict and what drives it. I learnt that some people go to court over socks not being returned. Others go to Court for serious and persistent issues that need to be dealt with behind closed doors. But whatever the reason, all these people will be sitting out together dressed well in the corridors of the Federal Circuit Court. So it’s up to you to pick your battles. I think that it’s true no matter what drives conflict in any area of life.
I learnt that I am allowed to have a voice and that my children need me to have a voice.
The courses reminded me of the basics/essentials of parenting. It helped nourish my sense of self and my confidence which had been shaken over years. I left feeling proud, nourished and capable. I found a tribe of people who were also dealing with various issues that people who’ve never been in a Courtroom simply don’t understand.
3. Understand that everyone has an opinion. Learn to ignore them.
You know what they say about opinions. It’s really true. I still reflect on how remarkable it was that so many people decided to involve themselves in my business. I was getting private messages of abuse as much as I was getting private messages of support immediately following separation from people I knew and people I didn’t. And this was before anything *really chaotic* started happening. It could easily become all-consuming. Negativity and conflict often is all-absorbing and can often limit your capacity to keep a clear head and find the most reasonable solution.
I’ve had people say to my face things like how “you’ve ruined his life because he is supporting your children” and variations on that theme when it comes to a new partner. Yes. Actually people have verbalised it as though it’s a *normal* thing to say. Or “why should he pay Child Support?” or “You are the cause of all the problems”. If you’re in an intact family, you probably get opinions about just your parenting. If you’re a single parent or in a *blended* or *step* family (god I hate these labels!) you’ll get opinions on all aspects of your life, including your parenting. All I can say is get tough skin, find a great tribe of awesome people who get you (therefore can tell you if you’re being an asshole) and ignore everyone else’s opinion.
I made the conscious decision to keep to myself.
So, I didn’t post publically about it nor did I comment on it, despite many temptations to do so. I took the position that it is important to know your truth and I do my best to ignore the constant stream of unhelpful criticism. Normal functioning people don’t have anything to prove to anyone.
As my dad would say “Go quietly amidst the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, be on good terms with all people. Even the dull and ignorant. For they too have their story”.
I don’t report on my decision making or run ideas I have for my life or my children’s lives by anyone other than those who are important to me. This position carries through to when you come to redefining family. It’s up to you to determine who has the right to tell you how to live.
4. Invest in yourself and all else follows
In the first days of post-separation life, my dad said to me “you need to fit your oxygen mask before helping others“. No truer words have ever been spoken. Whilst at times you will not feel like it, you are holding the keys to your own destiny. The relationship you have with yourself is an entirely separate issue to that which you have with your children, your former partner or your future partner. Care for yourself. Reflect on what you like to do.
Know what you value and what makes you feel good. If you don’t know, then take the time to learn.
Being single can be really glorious and empowering. An amazing thing starts to happen as your children see you change. They change with you and you can grow closer.
5. Never, ever talk about the other side negatively
There are some caveats to this as I’m sure you can understand given the complex dynamics of family relationships. One such caveat is that I believe it is important to battle lies with the truth. But that’s probably a whole other blog post right there. It can be really tempting to vent to your children about your woes, your feelings or the idiotic things the other side has done. But it is not helpful or fair on them. Their childhoods are already tainted by the curses of manoeuvre conflict which would cause most adults to feel queasy.
Don’t throw oil on the fires of their hearts.
I know it sounds obvious. But you really need to understand that it will be one of those times where saying nothing can be best. I learnt this because after my children came home from spending time with the other side, they’d say things like “dad says you’re a liar” or “dad says that it should be Nanny who should be in prison” blah blah. If you knew the person and the harm he has caused, you’d probably find it ridiculous he feels the need to poison young mind’s. But that is beside the point.
However, I do not get cross at the children were saying directly. Despite my heart burning with rage and my brain racing at five million miles an hour with fury at such ineptitude. Unloading on them would’ve been really easy to do (especially as this behaviour persists to this day. I understand that they were parroting what they were hearing; they didn’t actually feel that way. Secondly, I asked myself “what good does it do to involve them all this rubbish?”. Lastly I thought “what good does all this do them?”. I want to be in their lives for the long-haul. I don’t want to have anything to do with causing them stress or heartache.
Focus on your children and protect their childhood.
So, I nurtured their joy, stability and confidence. My whole family and I demonstrated to them what family means and how normal families function. In short, we let them go through the process of redefining family themselves. While they were home, I focussed on creating a nice environment for them to enjoy. I rarely ever addressed these statements and chose to instead focus on our relationship, rather than whatever was happening while they were spending time with the other side.
6. Celebrate joy and teach your children gratitude
I first considered the many complicated and at times abnormal realities of my new life to be unique. I initially felt like no one else in the world had experienced what I have. In some ways, that’s probably true. It’s really easy to feel hard-done-by. But over time, and after spending days upon days in the corridors of Federal Circuit Court, I’ve learnt that we all have struggles. We have different reasons and causes for those struggles. We aren’t all in some perverse competition on who has life worse. The person who owns a Mazerati and lives on Sydney Harbour can still feel hard-done-by. The corridors of Federal Circuit Court are littered with people who all have a difference in opinion about what is best for their children. Some of those people’s opinion are founded in reality and come from a good, well-meaning place, and others don’t.
Whether we are single or partnered, everyone has tales of conquering adversity as they also have tales of joy and hope.
Keep your head high and learn to celebrate joy wherever you find it. Teach your children the honour and integrity of paying your bills, doing what you say and saying what you think, caring for your family and being respectful and courteous to others.
7. Conduct yourself in a way that your children would speak highly of as adults
I learnt this from a confronting experience I had. TW: Rape + Sexual Violence in the next paragraph.
I made the decision to go to the Police to be a witness for a very serious sexual crime which the perpetrator confessed to me. Initially, I wanted nothing to do with it nor any of the people involved in it. It wasn’t my issue. Not my horse. Not my race. I thought of it as a whole heap of drama I didn’t need. Whether that position was selfish or self-preserving is for other people to determine. I knew I had to put myself and my children first and we already had way too much to deal with.
However, it ate away at me that I chose not to act to protect and help someone else. I never came forward for making my own sexual violence complaints. Anyone with any awareness of how these crimes are treated in Australia know that making a complaint is often futile. Eventually, I chose to come forward because I looked at my daughter and my sons and thought “what would they think of me if they found out I didn’t speak up about this?”. So, I did.
Safe to read from here –
I choose to be responsible for raising good humans and to demonstrate “being good”.
Since that time, I have learnt to use that as a benchmark for my decision making. To me, that involves demonstrating what being a good human means. I felt that while redefining family, I had to take a stand. Because I realised one day, such an experience might befall my own daughter. So I wanted my new definition of family to include ideas of justice, personal accountability and courage. So, I also chose to name this offender on a social media platform on the day of his sentencing and incarceration. Others took up the cause and campaigned for the real and tangible change which resulted. Young women are safer because of that time I played a small part and wrote a few words of fact. Despite having paid substantially for making such a post, I remain proud of contributing to positive change in culture. In the end of the day,
I think about what my children will think of me. I hope they will think “she always did the right thing and stood up for what is right, not what is easiest”.
What does family mean to you?
Let me know in the comments. Share your story. Be bold. Be brave. Relieve yourself of your worries in the comments. I moderate comments so there is no nastiness. We’re a community of wonderful humans who lift each other up.