National frontiers don’t mean much when you’re madly in love. We’re all jet-setters now, and this is multicultural Australia, so a time zone or two shouldn’t present insurmountable problems. Love conquers all …
The chance of meeting and falling in love with someone from somewhere else has increased over the past decades. Once upon a time, men and women spent their whole lives in the same country. Now they travel for work, education and for fun, at the very age when they are ripe for falling in love.
Each Sunday the newspapers’ wedding pages tell the same story, with gorgeous photographs of a bride from Auckland, perhaps, or a groom from London. Not to mention a bride from Tasmania and a royal groom from Copenhagen.
And they all live happily ever after … Not always, unfortunately. That first task, setting up a home together, is already an issue for these mixed marriages. She may call Australia home, but the US is his land of the free. Her qualifications are recognised here - but his best job prospects are in Germany. Or he may feel happiest tossing snags on the barbie and playing backyard cricket with his mates, while she longs for snow, mountains and her mother’s wise words. Some couples track back and forth between their two countries, unable to choose between them.
The same thing also happens to people who immigrate: one may adjust enthusiastically, the other may long for home. Easy travel by air (“You can fly home every Christmas”) is just another technological fix. Will travel always be as easy, or as cheap, as it is today? A strong relationship may be able to surmount this difficulty. But what if the relationship starts to sour?
In Australia, in 2001, 17 per cent of couples had divorced within the first five years of marriage, while a further 26 per cent had broken up before the tenth anniversary. But for these marriages torn between two nations, separation is fraught with special difficulty.
Separation and divorce mean property settlements and custody awards. In Australia, such painful matters are handled by the Australian Family Court. Australians living elsewhere must deal with the legal jurisdiction of the country where they live. This can come as a rude shock.
Property can be cashed up and divided, but not a child. King Solomon, in his wisdom and absolute authority, famously ordered the splitting in half of a child claimed by two women. When one of the women withdrew her claim to save the child, Solomon awarded custody to that woman - because she cared more for the child than she did for winning. Courts now face similar dilemmas, but their options are more limited. Compared to the rulings judges must hand down now, Solomon had it easy.
When a trans-national marriage with a dependent child breaks down, one partner may face the prospect of a lonely life in an unfamiliar country. She or he may be desperate to go home - but unwilling to leave without the child. The likelihood is that the courts will not give their consent for that to happen.
Why would a parent want to return to their home? Rather, why wouldn’t they? There’s no place like it: for job prospects and recognition of qualifications; for the joy and connection of extended family; for the familiar sounds, places, tastes and smells; for the chance of finding someone to love, marry and have children with; for the sense of belonging. When a marriage breaks up, many women do want to go “home to mother”.
This is not a battleground in the war of the sexes. As Chief Justice of the Family Court Diana Bryant (quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year) said, “[o]nce you have a child with someone from another country, both parents have rights”.
Fathers and mothers both face this predicament. It’s often a case of musical chairs: when the love song stops, whose country are you in? Fathers may hang about on the fringes of their child’s life, perhaps counting the years until the child is old enough to say: “Seeya, Dad”. For people who break up when their children are young, that’s a hard 18 years. Time enough for pain to become embitterment, especially when the other parent - perhaps the one more at fault - makes a new life and a new family.