When my two daughters were five and three, their dad and I entered a custody arrangement which would define their childhoods. It was devised as equitable – a week each – and we knew a few other families living this way who seemed to cope well enough. But while the shared time was equal, our arrangement was not amicable which created ongoing struggles.
As a single mother struggling with work, study and life upheaval, I took the action most adults do: I pretended everything was fine. To reassure them that everything was fine. As adults we do this without realising kids see through it. A marriage break-up causes grief for all involved. Children are dragged into the harsh realities of adult life and it colours the way they see the world from then on. It is a loss of innocence.
During the early years, my eldest daughter’s stress was palpable, yet she was always dutiful – always helping out while her younger sister threw monumental tantrums. And we all know that it is squeaky wheels that get oiled. I remember my younger daughter, upset at returning to her dad’s place, going ballistic with a power beyond her years and completely upending her bedroom. Instead of seeing the impact on my older daughter, I expected her to help clean it up. I relied on her.
I missed them so much when they were with their dad that I took a job at the school aftercare so I could still be with them; I over-compensated when they were with me, lavishing them with home-cooked desserts.
The girls are adults now. But this split arrangement impacted on how I parented them for most of their childhoods: I missed them so much when they were with their dad that I took a job at the school aftercare so I could still be with them; I over-compensated when they were with me, lavishing them with home-cooked desserts. Most of all, I just wanted to bring some magic into their lives when I knew they were facing harsh truths every day. I would throw over-the-top birthday parties – like the time we had a Willy Wonka birthday. The invitations were hidden golden tickets in chocolate bars and I spent a whole day sticking lollies all over the walls of the house. I even dressed as an Oompa Loompa with a green wig and the other parents thought I was the entertainment, not the mum.
A few years ago, my eldest daughter, now living in a share house, was struggling with anxiety. While I was on the train heading to her place, her voice came into my head, urgent and clear. But it wasn’t her adult voice. It was her voice as a child, waiting for me to pick her up after school on the changeover day of our ‘week-about’ custody arrangement. That voice came to me so strongly that I had to type the stream of consciousness into my phone.
Those words have now become chapter two in my middle-grade novel, The Secret Library of Hummingbird House: ‘I stand on tiptoe to see over the crowd of students and parents. For some other kid, spotting their mum would be easy peasy lemon squeezy. But for me it’s different. I haven’t seen my mum for a whole week. Yep. Seven whole days and seven whole nights. Not since last Monday morning, when she dropped me off for school and kissed me goodbye and gave me a really, really, really, really (picture me here squashed in her arms and gasping for air!) extra-long hug.’
Kids often feel stress but can’t articulate it in the same way as adults. Their feelings manifest as other things, like fussiness about food or clothes or just in how they interact with their friends.
Kids often feel stress but can’t articulate it in the same way as adults. Their feelings manifest as other things, like fussiness about food or clothes or just in how they interact with their friends. Kids also can’t help but wonder if they were somehow the cause of the break-up. If they were loved more, would their parents have stayed together? Were they not special enough? It can impact on their self-esteem at critical times in their development.
Almost half of divorces in Australia involve children. Kids rightly feel disempowered when adults make big decisions that change their lives. That’s why kids love books like the Narnia series where children escape into other worlds and have a level of autonomy that doesn’t exist in the real world. There aren’t many children’s books written about marriage break-ups. But that voice of my daughter wouldn’t leave me alone. Delving back into that time turned out to be very cathartic, especially in transforming what was an incredibly difficult time into a joyful story infused with friendship, empowerment and fun.
There aren’t many children’s books written about marriage break-ups. But that voice of my daughter wouldn’t leave me alone.
I’m not saying I know how to parent through break-ups. I made so many mistakes. But I knew instinctively back then that kids need magic in their lives, be it books, games or films. I would secretly place cards in their lockers and messages in their lunch boxes; I’d tie a string to their beds that led to a treasure map describing an elaborate treasure hunts for their birthdays; and, at Halloween, I’d turn up at school dressed as a witch. I know from experience that we need to listen harder because kids don’t necessarily articulate what they’re experiencing in a language we understand. And I also know that books like The Secret Library of Hummingbird House can help a young reader recognise their feelings and perhaps help to start those important conversations.
Break-ups, like all major life changes, can bring harsh realities. This can temporarily obscure the positive things in the world as the ugly adult world comes into sharper focus. In my book I wanted to write a story so close to my daughter’s truth – a stressed-out voice navigating a week-about arrangement – but I wanted to elevate this experience with magic and fun, just like I tried to do for my daughters when they were small. In The Secret Library of Hummingbird House, Hattie goes on an adventure that leads to her empowerment and resilience. I’ve dedicated the book to my daughters. It reads: I know it wasn’t like this but I hope there was some magic.
Julianne Negri’s middle-grade novel The Secret Library of Hummingbird House (Affirm Press) is out now.