Angela Mollard: Let’s hear it for the new era of step parents


The relationship between William Callaghan’s two dads was a lesson not just in grace, but also in the very modern way blended families live and thrive today, writes Angela Mollard.

Mostly the fact that he was found safe and well but also the local bushman’s care upon finding the non-verbal teenager, and the irony that a positive outcome could eventuate from a place with such a cheerless name as Mount Disappointment (explorers were apparently disheartened not to be rewarded a view upon reaching the top).

But there was a footnote to the story which was largely overlooked: the relationship between William’s two dads. In fact, it was just a few words, a verbal hand on the shoulder between two ordinary men, but in our current battle-worn world the exchange between the pair was a lesson in grace.

Reflecting on the days the boy was missing, his stepfather Nathan Ezard gave an insight into how this blended family had coped: “(William’s dad) Phil and I have talked lots over the last few days, and, you know, Phil’s very magnanimous – he said to me multiple times over the years and the last couple of days that, you know, you’re just as much his dad as I am.”

In return, instead of blaming the boy’s father for losing him in the bush, Ezard showed deep empathy. “I’ve been trying to tell Phil, I understand what you’re going through is horrible. The feelings he would have been going through are the worst for any of us.”

Camera IconMissing teenager William Callaghan was found alive after two cold nights in Victoria’s bush, and was reunited with his stepdad Nathan Ezard and father Phil. Credit: AAP

I love this story because I am this story. I have a dad and stepdad who have always treated each other with respect and decency, and in doing so have given me the tools to navigate a world that still operates as if everyone has an intact conventional family.

I’m heartened by the story of William and Nathan and Phil not just because it had a happy ending, but because two blokes effectively made the “unusual” seem completely normal.

Ever since the Brothers Grimm painted Snow White’s stepmother as a jealous and spiteful witch step-parents have got a bad rap.

Largely invisible to politicians who seem to direct policy at some fictional 1950s family, and often overlooked by the media who regard the various elements as too complicated to explain, the cultural phenomenon of step-parents has barely evolved since Mike shacked up with Carol in The Brady Bunch. Back then, Mike was a socially acceptable widow and no mention was made of Carol’s ex, though the actor who played her, Florence Henderson, would later joke that she killed him.

Yet modern step-parents, far from being an aberration, are some of the genuine pillars of our changing society.

Unrecognised when it comes to Mother’s and Father’s Day, often an afterthought at family occasions and, to some grown up children, a stumbling block to an expected inheritance, they remain status-less however valuable they might be.

You can only hope their prevalence will shift attitudes.

With Princess Beatrice poised to become a stepmother when she marries Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi, and Prince Charles a stepfather to Camilla’s children, surely it’s time our structures and storytelling reflected the nuance and optimism in these reconstructed but equally effective families.

I was 18 when my stepdad came into my life. He immediately nailed the tone. Warm, humorous and never interfering, he loved my mum and that meant he loved my brothers and me.

Early on I asked him to write me a character reference, which he duly delivered. But included in the envelope was a second note, noting my skill as a motorcycle stunt driver. In the preceding few months I’d written off two scooters and he and my mum had come to collect me on both occasions.

He could’ve railed at me for my carelessness, showed consternation in upsetting my mum but, instead, he helped me buy a car. Decades later we still laugh at my lack of motorcycle prowess.

In the years since my own marriage ended, my stepdad has given weeks of his time doing odd jobs and getting my house ready for sale.

My daughters joke that any man who became their stepfather could not hope to live up to the standard their Poppa has set. He is, without question, the most decent person I know.

Of course, there are some selfish step-parents who missed the memo on putting the children first, but fortunately popular culture is starting to show step-parents in a more favourable light. The Hate U Give may be a film about race, but the mother in the story also accepts the son her husband had with another woman.

Model Gisele Bündchen has admitted it was challenging learning that her then boyfriend Tom Brady was expecting a child with another woman two months into their relationship. She calls Jack, now 12, her “bonus child”. As she’s said: “I feel so lucky that I got to have an extra wonderful little angel in my life.”

Writer Glennon Doyle’s wife Abby Wambach has also praised her wife’s former husband for embracing their relationship. “Craig gave me the biggest gift in allowing me into the family dynamic,” she has said. “He gave the kids permission to love me.”

The stories we see inform the people we will be.

William Callaghan could not articulate his relief when he was rescued. But the image of him being carried out of the bush by his stepfather spoke volumes, not just about hope, but acceptance.

@angelamollard





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