This is a rough and imperfect outline of how ordinary people cope with the great tragedy of seperation and divorce. It's not meant to be a prescriptive edict, nor is it meant to be a justification of any of the state institutions associated with the process of divorce, such as the family court or the Child Support Agency. Rather, it is meant as an example of something that I think is happening right across Australia. Ordinary people, despite the aforementioned institutions, and despite the great personal pain associated with divorce, are reconstructing their lives in new ways that often challenge a range of institutions associated with capitalism and patriarchy.
When Mez and I separated a lot of smugness and dreams went out the window. I didn't have a sense of belonging to anyone or anything. Instead, I had a dirty little flatette in freezing cold Katoomba, unemployment, and a glowing hole in my chest and wave after wave of guilt and fear every time I thought of my one year old daughter. I can remember that on the day I moved out, Mez and I did the shopping together, almost as if to reassure ourselves, to cope with the shock. Then we realised we were buying two of everything, and Heather, our one year old daughter, was acting like nothing was happening, totally unaware that I was leaving. Mez started crying, and I felt the burning in my throat, and it was the most painful, pathetic memory I have of seperation.
In the preceding months I got lined up with a men's group, made some good friends, raged and whirled about my shattered marriage, came into contact with other men grieving their marriage breakup, did the full misogynist war dance, tried to get back together with Mez again. Wandered in and out of a fascination with, and a revulsion of, the nuclear family, the hard working provider and the biggest bogey of them all, "damned feminists". I also got a high powered, high stressed, job that involved me working 12 hours a day. It meant that I drifted further and further from the day to day life of my daughter.
For the first year or so Mez and I were incredibly angry, with each other and assorted ghosts from our pasts. We circled each other, and were aware that soon, in order to end this marriage, we'd have to get a property settlement. I thought that Mez would try and delay settlement for as long as possible, in order to continue living in the house we jointly owned outright rent free. Mez thought I would try and take her for everything she was worth.
As it turned out, we both had an aversion of solicitors and barristers, and we both, at the end of the day, didn't really want to hurt each other, so we worked out a solution ourselves, whereby we've both got a house and we are both modestly comfortable. I now live eight minutes walk from Heather and am actively involved in her day to day life. She is an absolute central part of my life. One of the keys to this has been that, from the outset of our seperation, Mez has always acknowledged the legitimacy of and supported my relationship with Heather.
For me, this process has meant asking lots of questions about the nature of power, and the assumptions of power that I made while I was living in a standard or traditional nuclear family. My little family was the one place where I could have some sense of control. It was the one place where I did not have to work very hard to get emotional support, and it was the one place where I could feel connected to others.
When Mez and I separated, I only had one friend, and even with him I felt incredibly embarrassed about what I perceived as my failure to hold together a marriage. I also tried to cope with a crushing sense of isolation and pointlessness by burying myself in a high pressure job, and sort of assuming that I could maintain my relationship with my daughter as a sort of peripheral concern. One of the things that I am proud of has been my ability to build a series of supportive friendships since Mez and I split up. It has enormously helped my self esteem and confidence. I think it needs to be one of the main projects that all separated men embark on. Friends to joke and play with have helped me challenge and question my isolation. The incredible and quite unfair emotional dependence I had just sort of assumed with Mez has stopped. It is also worth noting that most of my friends came from getting involved in a men's group. This men's group was not run by a therapist, was free of charge, and was primarily centred around the idea that men could help other men, far more effectively than some high paid therapist, ie being a man is not a sickness.
My relationship with Heather has been an important aspect of my seperation. It has meant that I have had to be the primary care giver for a while each fortnight. Initially this really panicked me, and I realised just how peripheral I had been in the day to day care of Heather. Now, being in that role, where I have to put my needs behind some one else's, and I get to have fun with a five year old, is a source of great joy and happiness for me. As I have developed friendships with men who have children, it has meant that Heather has been able to develop a range of contacts that have been both enjoyable and productive. This is a practical way that men who are often still in nuclear families have supported and helped legitimate my role as a parent.
I tried to make parenting a peripheral thing, and it didn't take me long to realise that “access" as well as full time parenting needs to be done with commitment and love, otherwise it doesn't work. For me, trying to cram parenting into a busy life centring around a 12 hour work day, nearly resulted in damaging if not killing of my relationship with Heather. This is not a happy ever after story - there are a range of challenges and there is the often destructive role that the Child Support Agency plays. Despite these barriers, ordinary people overcome often immense pain and confusion to create happy and noble outcomes.
First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 6(1), Autumn 1996. XY, PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995