The real victims of high-profile breakups

14th February 2018 12:38 PM

AMID all the furore over Barnaby Joyce's love child, including questions about taxpayer funds and when his partner actually became his partner, there's been little consideration of one key aspect of the fiasco.

His children.

Not the child due in April who has been the subject of Kardashian-level attention but the four children the Deputy Prime Minister has with his wife Natalie.

Bridgette, Julia, Caroline and Odette Joyce are aged between 21 and 15. In a matter of months they've had to cope with their parents separating, their dad moving out of the family home, his relationship with a new woman and now the impending arrival of a half-sibling, rumoured to be a baby boy.

One of the girls was sitting her HSC while all this was happening.

 

We can talk about how Barnaby Joyce's poor judgment has made his position as Deputy Prime Minister untenable. We can talk about his hypocrisy in blocking same sex marriage to protect the sanctity of that between a man and a woman. But as society becomes ever more rife with family breakdown and mental illness we also have to talk about how a parent's choices and behaviour deeply affect a child.

We live long lives. Marriages break down. Affairs are regrettable but human. What matters - and what will continue to matter long after the separation - is how parents conduct themselves in the aftermath.

It's a mistake to believe teenagers are virtually adults and thus can understand. Teens and young adults are already dealing with detachment and a growing sense of autonomy. Divorce can accelerate their desire to pull away - from one parent or both. They also have the emotional maturity to look back and wonder whether the family life they were living was a lie.

Every psychologist will tell you that children benefit from their parents acting calmly and rationally. They need to be reassured that they're loved and that they are the priority. As one told me after my marriage breakup: "They will be guided by your mood. If you're warm and reasoned and solid, they'll take their cue from you."

In fact, "solid" is the word I've focused on every day since I separated nearly four years ago. It's the one I tell friends who find themselves in a similar position.

Natalie Joyce has clearly been the rock to her daughters, having spent long periods without Barnaby while he’s been in Canberra or on the road. Picture: Facebook
Natalie Joyce has clearly been the rock to her daughters, having spent long periods without Barnaby while he’s been in Canberra or on the road. Picture: Facebook

The other message the experts give is to go slow. Slower than slow. Give children and adolescents time to adjust. Don't introduce new partners into their lives until you sense they might be ready. This is not about your new love, it's about your child's shaky sense of self.

Clearly Barnaby Joyce does not have the option to go slow. Whether the impending birth of his child with partner Vikki Campion was planned or not is now irrelevant. The fact is four young women are now having to adjust to their dad creating a whole new family. As their mum has said, they feel "deceived and hurt". As if that wasn't pain enough, they have to cope with the entire nation transfixed by the story.

Barnaby’s actions will have a longstanding impact on his daughters, who have had to deal a national obsession with the story.
Barnaby’s actions will have a longstanding impact on his daughters, who have had to deal a national obsession with the story.

It's the same for Karl Stefanovic's kids. The youngest two are only 10 and 12 but their eldest son is 18 and, like Joyce's daughter, was trying to finish his schooling as his parents' marriage fell apart. When Stefanovic recently became engaged to his new partner Jasmine Yarbrough, his former wife Cassandra Thorburn intimated how painful it was for their children. "I am just focused on helping those affected by the ever-changing landscape of my ex-husband's life to navigate it," she said.

While Ms Thorburn has every right to tell her side of the story, as she did last October to Woman's Day, her most heartbreaking revelation was the impact her marriage breakdown had had on their 18-year-old son, Jackson. Describing how they had to move out of the family home, Ms Thorburn said: "Jackson found it really hard to leave. He actually stayed in the house when I'd left with the other children, even though we'd moved out all the furniture. He slept on the floor of his bedroom and I couldn't, and didn't, want to make him leave."

Cassandra Thorburn has spoken out about just how much Karl’s actions have affected her kids. Picture: Belinda Rolland
Cassandra Thorburn has spoken out about just how much Karl’s actions have affected her kids. Picture: Belinda Rolland

Teenagers are deeply vulnerable when their family breaks. They are too hurt to care about their parents' happiness, only their own. They may inhabit large bodies and speak with a sharpness that could strip paint but underneath they are furious little kids. They couldn't care less if their parent is "madly in love" as Joyce is said to be - in fact they find any thought of their parents being in love or having sex deeply embarrassing. They are selfish and they're allowed to be. They grow out of it.

What's important is that they know they matter more than anything else. That they are, as the cliche goes, first and foremost. They won't always need to be so - they'll heal and move on in their own lives - but in those days and months it's incumbent on the grown-ups to be grown up. It's vital that their new partners do likewise.

That families break and reshape is part of modern life. What's critical is that they do the least harm in the process.

Karl Stefanovic moved on with new partner Jasmine Yarbrough very soon after splitting from his wife and mother of his three children. Picture: Christian Gilles
Karl Stefanovic moved on with new partner Jasmine Yarbrough very soon after splitting from his wife and mother of his three children. Picture: Christian Gilles