Wishing For A Strong Marriage
Growing up with five brothers, one sister and a devoted mum and dad, Gerard Heffernan always thought that, one day, he’d have a happy marriage and family like his own parents.
Now, a single dad of four children with two failed marriages behind him, the 47-year-old knows life doesn’t always go to plan.
His first wife left him because she wasn’t happy while his second wife moved on to another relationship.
Gerard is still coming to terms with his marriage breakdowns. Counselling helps. His Catholic faith has also taken a hammering.
“I wish I had a strong marriage,” Gerard admits. “There was always that yearning, and expectation.
“But now, it’s okay if it’s just me. There are times when I get lonely, but they’re short-lived. I’ve got a lot of family and friends.”
One of the hardest things was having to tell his family that his second marriage had ended. Unable to face the conversations, Gerard sent a group text.
“That was a huge thing for me because I thought, Okay, I’ve failed again,” Gerard explains. “I took all this on board as a personal failure. It was a terrible feeling.
“For me, not having realised the ‘goal’ of marriage, to use modern jargon, is a really big disappointment. There is a real sense of loss about that.
“There’s also a level of embarrassment, and guilt. I remember a priest said to me years ago, ‘The people who mind, don’t matter. The people who matter, don’t mind’.
“That has stayed with me. I can’t let the people who judge and vent and make negative comments get to me, I can’t let them matter, or they’ll destroy me.”
A mortgage broker, Gerard has two children from each marriage and three of them live with him. Ebony, 21, moved back home last October after studying in Newcastle and does office work. Her brother Jacob, 20, is a jackeroo in the Northern Territory.
Ebony helps a lot with her half-sisters Jessica, 12 and Bianca, 9. The two younger girls spend their school holidays in Townsville, where their mum lives with her partner.
Life is certainly different to how Gerard imagined.
“I grew up on a dairy farm in Bega, was pushing trolleys at Coles when I was 19 and then got a job at the State Bank of New South Wales,” he explains. “I got married in 1991 and Ebony and Jacob were born. Then, in mid-1994, my wife left, with the words, ‘You’re the best husband and best father anyone could ever wish for but I’m just not happy’.”
The news was a shock. The following year, Gerard moved to Melbourne with the bank, and travelled to Canberra each month to see his three year old daughter and two year old son.
“I suppose I was scarred relationship wise, but I grew up pretty quickly,” Gerard admits. “In hindsight, it was all rushed. We weren’t suited. We met through a Catholic youth group when I was 24 and she was 19 and we thought we knew what love and marriage was all about.”
At the start of 1996, Gerard began dating a lady he met at Mass, where he was part of the music ministry. A few months later, his ex-wife announced she wanted Gerard to have the two children full-time.
“I was 29 years old and running a branch of the bank in the CBD of Melbourne, so my workload was huge,” he says. “Suddenly I had to become a single dad. I had to put two children into family day care and didn’t even know what family day care was.
“The kids would be up early with me and I’d take them to day care at about 7.30am or 8am. Then I’d hop on the tram and be at work by 8.30am. I’d pick them up by 6pm and then we’d take the tram home. I used to cook our meals on the weekend and freeze them so then it was dinner, bath and bed. It was stressful, but I coped. You have to.”
By the end of the year, the children’s mother felt better, was working part-time and took the children back, which Gerard agreed to. He was on good terms with the staff at his local Flight Centre, booking frequent trips to Canberra to see the young children.
In 1998, Gerard married his second wife and the couple moved to Canberra. By that time, Jacob and Ebony’s mum had taken them to Port Macquarie, where she was from, so Gerard was commuting there to visit them.
Life seemed good. Jessica was born in 2000 and Bianca in 2003. His wife worked in child protection and Gerard was a mortgage broker working flexible hours. It was only in 2010 that things got rocky.
“She wasn’t happy and I was getting, ‘You’re not trying, you need to do this or that, you need to change’,” Gerard says. “I felt under attack. And I felt it was unfair. I kept thinking, Why? In what way?
“But she is a psychologist so I thought, you must have an idea about this kind of stuff. She was the expert. I thought it was me. I was walking on eggshells. It was tense.
“She’d say things like, ‘I need to live on my own’, ‘We need to split things up’.
I had a strong sense she didn’t want to make our marriage and family work.
“Then, in 2011, she sat me down and told me she no longer wanted to be married.
“I was devastated and couldn’t help thinking, here we go again. With my first marriage, while it wasn’t great, my focus was my family and I just so much wanted to hang onto it. So I just took it. I just couldn’t believe I was re-living it all again.
“This time, I realised there was no turning back, so we agreed on a 50/50 split with the children and she moved to Townsville in October 2011.”
His second wife wanted to take the children with her but Gerard refused.
Managing the girls and the household on his own is challenging, and life is busy, but Gerard is doing well.
There are art lessons, swimming lessons and netball and basketball (Gerard tries to restrict the girls’ out-of-school activities to two activities each a week); he’s the chairman of the St Clare of Assisi Primary School Community Council, plus there’s work. Not to mention the mundane stuff like cooking and cleaning.
“I love cooking, and Bianca says I make a great bolognese and butter chicken,” Gerard boasts. “But I’ve never been fantastic at house cleaning. I hired a cleaner once a fortnight because it was getting out of control, and when the ironing basket is spilling over there’s someone I can call on for help.
“I’ve paid babysitters as well. When Ebony moved in last October that took a lot of pressure off.”
There’s been quite a lot of soul-searching for this intelligent and sociable Dad, who’s also a talented musician and plays in a Celtic folk band.
“I don’t hide the fact that I’ve sought help,” he says. “There’s a lot of stuff there – anger, resentment, guilt. It’s all the stuff about loss and bereavement.
“When I was young, I was desperate. I really wanted marriage and family life. But then you start to question it all. I wouldn’t rush into a relationship again. My kids feel secure and it’s all about them now.
“I feel I’ve taken control of my life. Prior to that, I was hiding under the umbrella of a relationship I didn’t have a lot of control over. Being married, I was shunted this way or that and told how to behave. It was unhealthy.”
While Gerard says his faith is strong, it’s been sorely tested.
“Towards the end of my second marriage, my faith and church attendance started to wane,” he admits. “I wasn’t connecting to God and that was a deliberate thing. I thought, ‘What is God doing to me and why am I going down this path again?’
“I’m still in the process of reconciling all this with my faith. There’s a lot of unanswered questions. But I do feel the strong presence of Jesus in my life and my faith is a comfort. I often think, yes, there’s been a lot of messiness in my life, but it would have been more difficult for me without my faith. There’s solace in that.”