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Joint custody

Joint custody
Galah's editor Annabelle Hickson with her children, pre-boarding school. Photograph by Pip Williams.
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Annabelle Hickson
Annabelle Hickson Tenterfield, NSW
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This is a fortnightly newsletter from Galah's editor Annabelle Hickson, made for our Galah subscribers. You are our most valuable supporters. You keep the lights on and the engine room running. Thank you.

Words Annabelle Hickson

As a rule, poetry does not open itself up to me. I like the idea of being someone who’s into poetry, but when I stand in the metaphorical waiting room—book open, hoping I might be let in—nothing happens, and I end up wandering off to the other doors that have books and movies and Binge behind them.

That’s until Ada Limón’s poem ‘Joint Custody’ came crashing in.

My 11-year-old son had just started boarding school four-and-a-half hours east. His new bedroom is in an office cubicle in a large dorm, which he decided to jazz up with a desk fan, a pink bedspread and a photo of him with his two sisters squinting in the sun at the beach. These days I don’t know what he has for dinner. Even when I ask him, I can’t be sure. “Chicken, I think?” he says, when I can get him on the phone. Other times, he does that call-reject thing, texting, “Sorry I am in a meeting. Call you soon.” Like The Boss Baby.

His life is bifurcating. He has two homes now, with two timetables, two sets of people to talk to, even two climates. Although there are lots of reasons we chose to send our children to boarding school, I can’t fully shake the feeling I have failed them by doing so. That I let their lives bifurcate too early. Because wherever there is a fork in the road, there’s always somewhere you are not. And that can hurt. But then Limón gave me another perspective.

Why did I never see it for what it was:
abundance? Two families, two different
kitchen tables, two sets of rules, two
creeks, two highways, two stepparents
with their fish tanks or eight-tracks or
cigarette smoke or expertise in recipes or
reading skills.

I think it was that word abundance that did me in. Could it be? God, I hope so.

This issue of Galah is devoted to love: love of family and friends, but also the love of nature and history, art and land. But it’s impossible to think or write about love without accepting the flipsides of love: loss, change, heartache, obsession. You sign up, you get it all.

For the first time in 10 years, the adults now outnumber the children at home. It feels more like a share house than anything else. We’re three flatmates having dinner together, while the other two are taking meetings at boarding school. Soon all three of them will be away.

I feel their absence in a physical way—like an aching phantom limb—but it’s not as unbearable as I thought it might be. After all, they’ve already taken lots of paths that don’t include me. And while boarding school felt like a particularly sudden separation, the truth is I’ve already had to get used to sharing custody of them with their ever-branching lives. They were never mine, but they are mine to love. And I can do that no matter where our paths take us.