Step­ping in to make new fam­i­lies work

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Step­fam­i­lies — or “com­plex” fam­i­lies in the new jar­gon — are in­creas­ingly com­mon. They com­prise about 28 per cent of all Aus­tralian fam­i­lies, and the pro­por­tion is sim­i­lar across the West.

The main fac­tor driv­ing the ex­is­tence of step­fam­i­lies to­day — no-fault di­vorce — is rel­a­tively re­cent. Yet step­fam­i­lies have been a ubiq­ui­tous phe­nom­e­non through­out most of hu­man his­tory. In ear­lier eras sec­ond mar­riages were fre­quent be­cause many adults died young: women in child­birth, for ex­am­ple, and men in war. Ge­orge Washington was a step­fa­ther and Je­sus of Nazareth was raised by one (ad­mit­tedly his cir­cum­stances were unique).

Two new books ex­plore this im­por­tant sub­ject in a mod­ern Aus­tralian con­text.

Chloe Shorten, wife of fed­eral La­bor leader Bill Shorten, has writ­ten one of them, Take Heart, in which she draws on “deeply per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence”. When she and Bill wed in Novem­ber 2009, Chloe brought two chil­dren from her first mar­riage (Ru­pert, then 7, and Ge­or­gette, 6) and was preg­nant with Bill’s baby. Cle­men­tine was born just weeks later. As Bill is ap­par­ently fond of say­ing: “I went from zero kids to three.” His first mar­riage had been child­less, so (in his sec­ond wife’s words) he was “on train­ing wheels”.

Huge chal­lenges con­front all step­fam­i­lies. About 60 per cent dis­in­te­grate in­side five years, on the break-up of the sec­ond mar­riage. But as Shorten ex­plains, her own step­fam­ily be­gan in cir­cum­stances that were even more dif­fi­cult than most: it was “blast-fur­nace-level char­ac­ter build­ing”. Both Bill and her mother, then gov­er­nor-gen­eral Quentin Bryce, were pub­lic fig­ures. On top of the me­dia at­ten­tion, some of it nas­tily pruri­ent, Shorten coped with a move to Mel­bourne from her na­tive Brisbane and a switch from sat­is­fy­ing full-time work to stay-at-home mother­hood.

Des­per­ately wish­ing to avoid fail­ure, she sought out information on step­fam­i­lies and un­earthed a lot of aca­demic re­search (most of it from overseas). But there was a dearth of ac­ces­si­ble books. She wrote Take Heart be­cause “the book I was search­ing for wasn’t there”.

Mel­bourne au­thor Kelly Chan­dler was sim­i­larly mo­ti­vated. In late 2011, when she be­came a de facto step­mother of two small boys (Harry, 5, and Char­lie, 2), she “couldn’t find books writ­ten by any of the peo­ple I trusted”. She ex­plains in The Other Mother: “I wanted to know how such fam­i­lies sur­vived and flour­ished.”

Chan­dler’s read­just­ment was not played out in the pub­lic eye. But in other re­spects it was even more com­pli­cated than Shorten’s. As a teenager she had cold-shoul­dered her own step­mother (Fiona) for 13 years. Be­fore be­com­ing in­volved with Pete (her for­mer boss, the fa­ther of Harry and Char­lie), she had never moth­ered or looked af­ter chil­dren. Her most re­cent longterm re­la­tion­ship was with a wo­man.

Pete re­mained on good terms not only with his ex-wife Jane but also with Jane’s par­ents. Be­fore long Chan­dler found her­self at reg­u­lar din­ners with Pete’s “ex-in-laws”, saintly sound­ing peo­ple known to all as Granny Jenny and Grandpa Roy. Yet it has all worked out well. In 2013 Chan­dler and Pete got mar­ried and now have their own child as well, a boy named Al­bie. Chan­dler’s mem­oir of how they got there “isn’t a how-to or a how-not-to book, although read­ers who are look­ing for clues might ac­ci­den­tally find some along the way”.

The cen­tral theme of both books is that, like it or not, step­fam­i­lies are a ba­sic fea­ture of Aus­tralian life. “We need,” Shorten writes, “broad un­der­stand­ing that the health of these mi­cro- sys­tems is vi­tal to our na­tional well­be­ing.” Thus, the aim of pub­lic pol­icy ought to be “valu­ing fam­i­lies”, rather than pro­mot­ing nar­row (nu­clear) fam­ily val­ues. Lin­ger­ing cul­tural stereo­types are un­help­ful, she be­lieves, and Aus­tralia would do well to es­tab­lish an equiv­a­lent of the Step­fam­ily As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica.

Chan­dler’s world view is sim­i­lar. She is an art­ful writer — more pol­ished and witty than the earnest Shorten — though prone to shar­ing a few de­tails too many. But per­haps that is the point. If you re­ally want to learn about the nit­tygritty of step-par­ent­ing — bod­ily func­tions, house­hold chores, sleep­ing ar­range­ments, va­sec­tomies, petty jeal­ousies, sched­ul­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions, you name it — then The Other Mother is the book for you.

And Chan­dler’s way with words is a fre­quent de­light. She muses at one stage about the un­fair cul­tural treat­ment of step­moth­ers down the ages. “Cin­derella’s step­mum prob­a­bly had her own stuff go­ing on: stuff that wasn’t ad­dressed in the fairy­tale. Maybe Cin­derella crum­bled too many muffins all over the clean floor and she couldn’t hack it any­more,” she writes.

For step-par­ents and stepchil­dren seek­ing use­ful advice, there is much to gar­ner from The Other Mother and Take Heart. For me, three cen­tral lessons stood out.

First — and though this is scarcely rocket

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.