How I created a new ‘home’ for my kids after my separation

After the breakdown of his marriage, JC Clapham moved out of the family home. This is how he built another one for his three young kids.

“It’s not a house it’s a home. It’s got everything. People who love each other, care for each other. It’s got memories, great memories. I mean it’s a place for the family to turn to, come back to.”

— Darryl Kerrigan, The Castle.

I had one: a home. One I’d worked my backside off to buy. With some help from our parents, my then-wife and I had finally been able to purchase a place.

We moved in a few days before our middle child, Gus, had his third birthday. His brother Leo was four, and their sister Ada was only a few months old. That house was to be our family home, where the kids grew up and my wife and I grew old.

But three and a half years later, I moved out. My now ex-wife and I had decided to separate. The ‘ruts’ were much more than that; we were well and truly over.

My family unit collapsed. While my then-job kept me busy with long days and frequent travel, now there was no chance a change of job would change that — I would no longer be able to see my kids every day.

My heart was broken about that more than the marriage. I no longer had a home.

Packing my things and a little furniture from the family home was extremely hard: it was the big change that cemented my marriage as a failure. We left the issue of what to do with the wedding and family photos for another time.

I cried most of the first night in the two-bedroom apartment I moved into. My heart was and always will be with my kids, but I would never live in the family home again.

I wasn’t allowed a dog or cat, but the kids all wanted a turtle. We went to the pet shop and Gus — the self-declared animal expert — chose the specific turtle. Ada named it ‘Snuggles’.

It’s a sweet name but also a constant reminder of the activity that newly-single me was missing and craving. Cute, but sardonic. And turtles are shithouse company for a lonely, heartbroken, and crying man.

The first Father’s Day post-separation came around quickly. Gus made me a card and inside was a map he’d drawn: showing a winding road from a tall building to a house.

He told me it was so I’d remember where to pick them up for their time with me. His thoughtfulness punctured my resolve and I sobbed, and sweet Gus gave me the warmest hug.

We spent 18 months in that apartment, but it didn’t have a yard for a dog, and three kids sharing a bedroom would only last for so long.

I knew the area I’d like to live, which would be a little closer to where my kids go to school. I shortlisted a few places and told them we were moving.

We all wanted to find something where they would hopefully have a room each, a backyard for a dog, and somewhere close (by car) to the beach and some parks. They wanted to move immediately.

One particular place looked perfect for us. I arranged an inspection the next afternoon I had my kids.

We timed the drive to the beach! Eight minutes, woohoo! The kids were sold on that. The place had huge bedrooms and a good-sized yard, and our application was approved.

I explained to my kids we’d need more furniture for their bedrooms, and because we needed quite a bit, it would need to be second-hand.

They’re quite grounded children, and while admittedly would love shopping for brand-new bedroom furniture, they understood that wasn’t possible.

Separation and divorce is a costly thing, and moving house is always a costly exercise. I was already completely strapped, and had to borrow money just to make this move happen.

Rent on the newer place was actually cheaper than the apartment, but it’d be a very tight few months of toasted sandwiches, with low-key (and cheap) weekends spent at the park, before things evened out. I wanted to be able to do more fun things with my kids, and felt awful that I couldn’t afford to.

Facebook Buy/Swap/Sell groups proved a treasure trove for cheap furniture: we ended up with the extra drawers, bookcases, wardrobes and beds we needed.

The one brand-new thing I did buy was my daughter’s bed. Ada had never had a brand-new bed, as she was given her elder cousin’s once she was too big for the cot.

It was a chance for our home together to have something special for her. Most of their toys and special things were at their mum’s place, which made me feel like my place was more of a hotel and less of a home.

I told her I’d need to save for a while before I had enough money. Ada chose what she’d like and didn’t mind waiting. A few months later I picked up her new bed. Showing it to her on Facetime was amazing — her smile was enormous!

I was conscious of ensuring the place would be our ‘home’. Not just ‘Dad’s place’, as my father’s various rental houses were after he left my mum. Our house needed to be comfortable and homely.

And it is. I’m proud of what the kids and I have put together.

We each have a bookshelf and reading chair in our rooms. We have comfortable beds. And the loungeroom is the thoroughfare of our home life as a family.

Earlier this year we adopted an eight-year-old Australian bulldog named Ozzy. He’s right at home with us and we walk him to the park most days we’re all together. Snuggles is still around, too.

Ada and I have started growing some vegetables, fruit and flowers, in barrels and pots.

For Christmas, the kids got outside playthings as presents (inflatable pool, cricket set, basketball ring, totem tennis), and one of my brothers got them brand-new desks for their rooms (which was a huge help as I couldn’t afford to).

The living room and kitchen walls don’t have fancy prints or paintings, but ‘art’ made by the kids, and their latest school photos.

When the kids are with their mum, I leave their things around the place so it doesn’t feel empty for me. It means the coffee table will usually have an assortment of playdough tubs, chapter books and trinkets all over it, but it also means our house really is a home.

I smile at the small bum imprints on the couch, and both groan and chuckle at the socks I find poking out from under the couch.

It’s not the house I dreamed of, but this place is home to me and my kids for now. It also has everything we need — each other.

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