Raising Six Children on My Own

THE day before Anne Meli’s sixth child started kinder, and her eldest was in Year 12, her husband left her.

They were “the pin-up Catholic family”, meeting at a youth group at St Christopher’s Cathedral, marrying when Anne was 22 and having their first child a year later. Anne home schooled her six children and the family were active members of a charismatic community.

“We had been through a period of turmoil but I thought that was normal,” Anne explains.

“I thought we’d had a mid-life crisis but everything would be fine, until he suddenly left. The children were just aware there was tension in the house; that Mum and Dad weren’t happy. Our marriage looked really good on the outside but it wasn’t good on the inside.

“Every day after that for two years, I cried.”

With so much of her identity tied to being the Catholic Mum of a large family, Anne admits she felt an incredible sense of shame after her husband left, as if she had become a second-class citizen.

“I couldn’t believe that something like this could happen to a practising Catholic,” Anne says.
“I used to be really proud. I had forged a successful identity as a model Catholic mother and had standing in the community and I lost everything.

“I wondered how I could ever show my face again and spent eight months in counselling trying to fix myself up so that everything would be right.”

The response from Catholic friends was nothing but positive and accepting. They consoled and encouraged, poured tea, passed tissues and sent husbands over to fix Anne’s house.

“I have heard many stories of divorced people who suffer the stigma of failure and the feeling they don’t quite belong to their parish community because they can no longer tick all the boxes for living the fully authentic Catholic life,” Anne says. “But for me it was the opposite.

“In fact, when people found out it had happened to me, many felt free to share similar painful journeys.

“I found that I was more, not less, able to participate in parish activities such as hospitality because I could now connect with people on a more honest and empathetic level.”

Anne’s faith was also turned upside down. She went from striving to earn God’s love to realising she didn’t need to, because he loved her as she was.

“To the best of my ability I was always trying to live a very active Catholic life,” Anne reflects.

“It was like I was trying to buy God’s favour or blessings by home schooling and attending not just Sunday Mass but weekday Masses as well. I thought that if I could prove I was a wonderful mother and loving wife then I could win back the love that I had missed out on growing up.

“After 19 years of marriage this facade finally crumbled and I was left with the awful reality of still feeling unlovable, abandoned and alone despite a lifetime of struggling to prove otherwise.
“Eventually I discovered that faith is essentially about knowing the depths of God’s love for us and sharing this with others.

“I realised that my value is in who I am, not in what I do or how I look.”

The pain of her marriage ending hasn’t been the only hardship in Anne’s life.

Growing up in a traditional Catholic family in Yarralumla, Anne struggled with seeing her mother suffer a breakdown while caring for Anne’s younger brother Michael, who has a disability.
As a teenager, Anne became Michael’s sister carer. She went through a period of intense loneliness and stopped believing in God.

“There was so much turmoil inside the family that I lost my faith,” she explains. “I thought ‘Where is God in all this?’ Because Mum was so focussed on my brother I lost out. I was very resentful and went through a period of depression and loss.”

At 18, Anne joined the St Christopher’s Youth Group, “because I was lonely, not because I was seeking God,” she adds.

“I met my husband on my first youth camp and we married three years later,” Anne continues. “The next 27 years of my life were at home raising children. I poured all my energy into them. I wanted a happier life for them and a closer mother-child relationship and I saw home schooling as a way to achieve that. I knew that somehow or other God would be part of that. You never stop being a Catholic no matter what you go through.”

The death of her mother was a time of release for Anne, who describes their relationship as painful.

“We both loved each other but we were never close,” she says. “After my mother died it was like I became a different person and the marriage didn’t fit anymore.

“I’d been trained to care for people. I cared for my brother and then my husband and children and that dynamic didn’t work anymore. And then, in 2004, he suddenly left. It was the most horrible time.

“Every night I’d go from bed to bed and be torn apart with the children crying for Daddy or pleading for him to come home. One night my seven year old said, ‘I know why Daddy left, it was because I wasn’t loveable enough’. I felt powerless to solve the pain and blamed myself completely.

“But now, I can say it’s been a positive thing for me personally. And despite the pain in their lives, it’s been positive for the children too. They are emotionally healthier now. We learned the truth about what it means to have healthy relationships.”

Anne’s ex-husband is still involved in the children’s lives. To survive financially, Anne did family day care for many years, because looking after children was all that she knew.

She now has only two children at home, a son and daughter aged 16 and 14, looks after her Dad and is also her brother’s guardian. So the caring continues.

But there is something Anne is doing for herself which she relishes – a writing course at the University of Canberra, which she hopes will lead to paid work one day.

“Writing is what I’ve wanted to do since I was 20 and my goal is to have something published,” she reveals.

“Every life has its struggles and sufferings. But I am proud all my children have kept their faith. When you pass on faith to your children, it doesn’t mean their life will be easy. It just means they will have some anchor.

“I’m a better mother now. I don’t have to try so hard. Life’s settled down. My divorce initially seemed like a death but it was from this profoundly painful turning point that true joy and peace have come. Life has come to a calmer place.”