Blended families and the rise of the 'ghost town' household

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

It's a scene becoming more prevalent in parts of Australia: a large suburban home with five bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms. Anita* and Steve* are in the kitchen talking about their days while making a chicken vindaloo for dinner. 

They are both parents of young children but it's just them tonight. The remaining four bedrooms will be empty for the next few days.

Anita and Steve live in a 'ghost town' home – it's a house set up for six people, but it's rare that they're all there at the same time.

Steve's boys Oscar, 8, and Sam, 6, spend every second weekend and alternate Wednesdays living at this home, and the rest of the time with their mother a few suburbs away. And Anita's children Zach, 7, and Lily, 6, alternative between this home and their father's place nearby every few days.

'It felt so wasteful'

It's a complicated arrangement from the outside but Anita says they make it work.

"It's not something I ever would have planned for my life – the logistics are crazy sometimes," she says. "But after I'd separated from my ex-husband and I'd taken the time to heal, I knew I wanted to get back out there and date.

"I couldn't be with someone who wasn't good with kids, so it makes sense that I've ended up with someone's dad." 

Anita says it took her a while to get used to living in such a large home and not using it all.

"It felt so wasteful!" she says. "Not to mention it's a bit eerie sometimes. Steve travels a lot for work so sometimes it's just me rattling around in this massive home on my own."

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The expenses add up too, says Steve.

"Basically each child has two homes fully set up for them," he says. "It costs a lot to run it that way but there's no other solution unless one parent gives up custody of the children – and nobody is even entertaining the idea of that.

"The benefits that the children have from feeling at home in both their houses are worth the expense."

Parents are dating and re-partnering

Although 82 per cent of children are born into two-parent families, the Institute of Family Studies says only about half (53 per cent) are still living with both biological parents together in the same home by the time they reach the age of 17. That means there are a whole lot of parents out there dating and re-partnering.

Stepfamilies Australia says that although the process of blending families can be a positive one for all involved, with good communication and planning, it is important that all children feel like they have their own space.

"Children thrive on routines, so make sure they feel part of a household by ensuring they have their own personal space, whether it is their own room or cupboards where they can keep their special things," the organisation advises.

Brisbane mum of two and stepmother of three Nicole had her children living with her and her husband full-time, while his children lived with them 50/50 for eight years. Two of his children now live full-time with their mother.

"At first, while the children were young, this situation was perfect for all involved," says Nicole. "My husband's kids were able to happily live between the two houses and my kids were happy to be with us full-time.

"Over the years, however, we found that the different rules in each house created problems."

Nicole says the expenses impacted her family too.

"As the household who earned substantially more, not only were we responsible for their costs 50 per cent of the time, we were also paying huge child support costs, so there were many times the family went without so that we could meet those obligations."

Nicole says that the experience overall was a positive one though.

'A type of loneliness I'd not expected'

Sunshine Coast mum of three Sarah* has shared her two older children – both now grown up – with her ex-husband for 13 years. They spent a week at a time with each parent.

"After our separation, my kid's father quickly moved in with a woman and her three children which meant on alternate weeks my kids became two of five," she says. "The situation took some adjusting at the time as they were only primary school-aged."

Sarah says living in a big empty house without her kids was hard.

"I remember the house being so quiet and empty," she says. "While I've always loved my own space and enjoyed my own company, there were times I'd be almost distraught at knowing they were so close by, but not with me where I thought they should have been; a type of loneliness I hadn't known before nor expected.

"My way through this was to keep busy, develop new interests and practise lots of self care."

Sarah then met her new partner (who didn't have any children) and together they had a third child.

"Once my youngest child arrived, the challenge was explaining why the other two kids weren't always here," she says. "It was a difficult concept for the young one to grasp as the older two were missed so very much.

"They still are, as adults now who have moved away for study and independent living."

With the rate of divorce and separation of de facto couples not slowing down any time soon – and with the rise of more equitable parenting arrangements – ghost town homes are sure to be on the rise too. We're spending more to maintain larger homes, while ensuring our kids are cared for and loved by both their parents.

It's probably not what any of us would choose, but the children seem to be thriving.

* Names have been changed to protect privacy