THIS ( SPLIT- LEVEL) LIFE

AL­LI­SON MITCHELL

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

THE fa­ther of my two girls drops off their gi­ant suit­cases and ad­di­tional para­pher­na­lia they tried un­suc­cess­fully to cram in. Sports gear, school blaz­ers, art­works, CDs and last- minute clothes, col­lected wet from the wash­ing ma­chine, spill out and re­quire three trips be­tween his car and their rooms. I will make the re­turn de­liv­ery af­ter eight days.

Then the girls ar­rive. Some­times I ar­rive home from work to find them sit­ting out­side, hav­ing left their keys at their other home. We are pleased to see each other and they have news about their baby half- sis­ter, school and their friends. They quickly spread their stuff all over the house and fail to put any­thing away. Their bath­room ac­cu­mu­lates empty toi­let pa­per rolls and damp tow­els. It is hard to bal­ance the pos­i­tive with the neg­a­tive and not dis­solve into in­ces­sant nag­ging.

My daugh­ters are af­fec­tion­ately mean. ‘‘ Mum, your bum is wob­bling.’’ ‘‘ Mum, what is that spot on your nose?’’ ‘‘ Mum, those trousers look too young for you.’’ Some­times they are down­right cruel. ‘‘ You are the worst mother in the world and I hate you.’’ In the odd thrilling mo­ment they ac­knowl­edge the things they say they hate are the things they re­ally love.

My hus­band ar­rives home from one of his reg­u­lar work trips. We try to catch up in the hus­tle and bus­tle of fam­ily life. A few days later his daugh­ter and son ar­rive. We are all pleased to see each other. The four chil­dren are sim­i­lar ages, but the three girls dom­i­nate. My hus­band en­sures the boy, the youngest, gets plenty of cricket, footy and Mec­cano.

They all get on. We sit up­stairs and hear the four of them laugh­ing down­stairs. ‘‘ They are fight­ing again,’’ my hus­band says.

The house is full of ac­tiv­ity. They paint, read, lis­ten to mu­sic, watch DVDs, play in­door cricket and cook. We drive them to sport, to their friends’ places and to the other par­ents’ places to col­lect things they have forgotten. They have friends over.

But things change. They no longer put on shows and the eldest some­times leaves the three younger ones and shuts her­self in her room. Meal­times are fun. Pre­par­ing food is one of our great plea­sures and is is the time when I learn what is go­ing on. There is lots of good hu­moured teas­ing, of which I of­ten bear the ( mostly) good­na­tured brunt.

The chil­dren adapt sur­pris­ingly well to di­vid­ing their time be­tween homes and to the com­plex re­la­tion­ships within each. They know that what may be ac­cept­able in one is not in an­other. I ad­mire them. I would hate to live out of a suit­case, but the four of them, and my hus­band, have been do­ing it for years now. I told my girls that one day they may want to stay in one place and be set­tled, but they told me they would never choose be­tween me and their dad.

My hus­band and I re­turn suit­cases to the other homes and the chil­dren leave us. For a day or two it is ut­ter bliss: peace and quiet and not an empty toi­let roll to be seen. Then, the house gets too quiet. My hus­band leaves for a few days of work in an­other part of the state. We all speak on the phone, but it is not the same. I miss the chil­dren and my hus­band. I want them all to come home again.

this­life@ theaus­tralian. com. au For This Life guide­lines, go to www. theaus­tralian. com. au/ lifestyle

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