After a year of ‘magpie parenting’, it’s time to make a new home

Anna Whitehouse
Anna Whitehouse: 'Home is the safety and security the right person gives wherever you are in the world' - Clara Molden for The Telegraph

There was an element of denial initially. A false belief that my ex and I could somehow break up and, yet maintain the family equilibrium. Perhaps separate romantically and somehow stay together as a family. And I truly believe it worked for a few months, as the dust settled on our 17-year relationship. And I know we aren’t alone in willing this new post-divorce normal to somehow play out seamlessly. There’s naïve hope in the early days of separation that it is, indeed, possible to exit stage left and yet stay front and centre as a team; Team Mum and Dad.

But it was a utopian vision without other partners thrown into the mix. Without decree nisi landing and E-form-filling. Without slightly tense What’s App exchanges on why spellings hadn’t been learnt or hamster cages cleaned.

It was the early stages of divorce when we set out magpie parenting – the children remaining in the family home as we swooped in and out week-on-week. And it worked for the best part of a year. But as both of us found new partners, the cracks started to form on a set-up that was, well, not made for the long haul. (Something we arguably knew as we set out on this journey.)

On my weeks in the family home, I’d spend the first day clearing my ex’s dirty dishes and tidying toys strewn about the place. On his weeks there was frustration at milk that hadn’t been replaced or pesto pasta that had been raked through. Tiny irritations that built up into bigger frustrations – and weightier –  What’sApp exchanges as the co-parenting journey unravelled.

Throw in both of us meeting new partners – fortuitiously around the same time – and we needed an exit strategy. For the children as much as ourselves. It was no man’s land. A world where we were living separate lives while trying to be together as a family intermittently under one roof. And it was time to move out and move on from a structure that increasingly had a leaky roof.

There is a sadness in leaving the family home that had so much promise of happily ever after. Sometimes there is so much wrangling over what bathroom tiles to go for or what colour the kitchen island should be pre-move-in that you lose each other among it all. Does the argument over the bedroom shelving really matter now in retrospect? Was it really worth huffing over the rogue mustard-hued stair runner choice made in my absence?

Sure the writing was on the wall for my ex and I but there was one moment pre-break up where I found myself in a bleak retail park staring at a “bumblebee yellow” kitchen cupboard, with a solitary tear rolling down my face. Just wondering if that brash yellow finish might be enough to make it all come together. Home and marriage. Wondering what I was building this all for, perhaps, knowing the foundations of our relationship were feeling increasingly rocky.

So moving out was a relief on many levels but also there was grief of the graft it had taken to inhabit those bricks and mortar. The hopes and dreams for that family home. And that’s before getting to the personal items. The family photos gathered over the year – a veritable National Portrait gallery of gurning smiles and first steps. The mementos from trips pre-kids, baby books, children’s toys, a lifetime of collectibles from a family unit that need to be divvied up.

Then there are the grey area items, such as sofas, beds, side tables that are neutral; not clearly belonging to one or the other. Those things we squabbled about moving in are now staring back at us to be divided up brutally as we move out.

The day the removal van turned up at the house was emotional. There was joy in moving out – and on – from this hinterland of confused co-habitation. But there was sadness in leaving the house to my ex, with Stripey the goldfish who had lived through a pandemic, two house moves – and irretrievable breakdown. And Ziggy the hamster, who had become my work comrade on lonelier days when I’d struggled with writer’s block.

Until we sell the house, my ex is staying there while I move into another place with my boyfriend. It was exciting house-hunting together. Finding a place that would house our collective four children – two from his former relationship and two from mine. A merry band of miniature followers under one roof.

And despite boxes dotted about everywhere and long-winded calls to Internet companies about dodgy WiFi, it does feel like home. I walked into this new space and it felt like my shoulders relaxed and I could breath fully for the first time in a while.

I always thought “home” was a physical place, a building, a homestead. A fortress protecting those within it from everything from storms and fireworks to the wonky decisions of government. “There’s no place like home” repeated by Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz was always a tangible place. On a map. With walls.

But at 42 it’s in a person. The safety and security the right person gives wherever you are in the world – or even day. That’s home. It’s where Olly, my partner, is. It’s where my children are. It’s where my friends can pop by when I’m struggling and vice versa. It’s a feeling, not a place. The rest is just geography and John Lewis wedding list items. But the way I feel, the calm after the divorce storm: that’s what’s anchored me in 2024, after years of wondering why I was always feeling untethered in my own four walls. It’s not the address. Or the kitchen tiles. Or the front door. It’s the person. Home sweet home, indeed.