When Barrie arrived in Australia in 1966, he was ready to start a new life.
He and his wife were ‘Ten Pound Poms’, British subjects whose passage to Australia was subsidised by the government under the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme.
They settled into life in their new country and soon started a family. “When Nigel was born, I was up on cloud nine,” recalls Barrie in an episode of Look Me In The Eye, a new series on SBS where two estranged people attempt to heal old wounds by looking at each other, in silence, face-to-face for five minutes.
The pair had another son, Richard, and soon bought a house. Barrie reflects on the way life used to be in those early days, on those bittersweet memories of family life and the kids running around the backyard. “We were all very excited,” he says. “It was an enjoyable time.”
Barrie also owned a busy car repair workshop. But what Barrie didn't realise was that his long hours and commitment to providing for his family may have contributed to the breakdown of the family unit.
“I was working pretty hard,” he tells the show’s host, Ray Martin. “I was working 12 hour days to make ends meet, to provide all these things for the family but I was so happy doing it. It really didn’t matter to me if I was working 24 hours, if I was keeping the family happy.”
The long hours took a toll on his marriage and his wife left him. “I just felt like my legs had been kicked out from under me. My whole world had fallen apart. I just didn’t want to live from there on in, it hit me that hard… I was just heartbroken.”
Barrie says he had to accept the fact that his family were gone. “I sometimes think that maybe I should have tried to keep in touch with them. But I didn’t want to disturb their lives.”
Forty years later, Barrie is desperate to reconnect with his long-lost son. “I really don’t know anything about him, what he looks like, what he does for a living, whether he’s happy,” he says. “When I’m looking into his eyes, I want to show love. I want him to see it.”
Barrie and Nigel’s story is not uncommon. According to the ABS, there were 48,517 divorces granted in Australia in 2015. Just under half involved children.
Many divorces can leave the father feeling excluded from the family, rejected by children, and isolated from those he cares for and loves most dearly, says clinical psychologist Dr Nick Marsden, who runs Wollongong practice Marsden Clinical Psychology.
“Children can be left feeling abandoned by the parent who has left the family home, which can result in significant ruptures to the attachment and bond between the parent and child,” says Dr Marsden.
I just felt like my legs had been kicked out from under me. My whole world had fallen apart. I just didn’t want to live from there on in...
Through the experimental new show, Look Me In The Eye, the father and son take a chance to reconnect.
As son Nigel waits to see Barrie for the first time since he was a boy, he is anxious. The estranged son also recalls that when his parents separated, his mum wanted the children to live with her. “That wasn’t my choice at the time,” he says, explaining that he didn't want to move houses and it wasn't his choice at the time. “So in my mind, it was his way of telling us he didn’t want us anymore.”
Finally, the time comes for the estranged father and son to hold each other’s gaze for five minutes. Barrie, overcome with emotion during the experiment, later tells the camera he tried to hold back his tears.
“No son likes to see his father cry, and no father likes to see his son cry. I sort of let it well up inside me instead of letting it out,” Barrie says.
An episode of prolonged eye contact can help re-establish an emotional connection, but repairing an estranged relationship takes work. Barrie and Nigel have a lot to catch up on.
“I’ve always missed you, all the time, but this last couple of years, it’s really been getting to me,” Barrie tells his son.
“It’s been a long time, but now it’s finished. I’ve found you.”