Take two homes, three parents, four children; throw in one broken marriage and mix into a family unit. It sounds like a recipe for disaster.
But not for one blended family spread between two houses on either side of a Co Kilkenny town, between which children come and go, while the adults support each other in their parenting roles.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been pain and intense difficulties in reaching a harmonious co-existence. However, for all the challenges that the coronavirus pandemic era has brought, the three adults believe it has given them the opportunity to strengthen the bonds of their blended family. Co-operating to make the best of the situation has never been more important for each of them.
“There is no book written for my family,” says Muirne O’Connor, as she outlines the layers of relationships that she, her former husband and his fiancee have had to navigate as they look to what’s best for the children.
There’s Muirne (34) and her eldest daughter Ronia O’Connor (13), whose father, “Papa Vova”, is no longer in their life. He was deported to his native Georgia in 2009 when Ronia was just 2½.
Muirne has a younger daughter, Aesien O’Connor Ferguson (10), with her former husband Jarrad Ferguson (39), from New South Wales in Australia. After they separated in 2012, he met Jana Petrášková (29) from the Czech Republic and they now have two sons together, Nathaniel Ferguson (4) and Joshua Ferguson (2).
“It’s not paradise, but we make it work,” says Jarrad of the current arrangements in which Aesien splits her time 50:50 between the houses in Thomastown; Ronia regularly babysits the two boys and Nathaniel has “play dates” at Muirne’s home.
“We just try to keep the focus on the kids and make sure things are going as well as they can for them,” says Jarrad. While Jana has no issues when meeting Muirne, “I wouldn’t say they are best friends”, he continues. However, in the last year, “particularly with Covid, things have improved and it has encouraged us to work together more”.
It all started with a strong friendship Muirne had with Vova, an asylum seeker living in direct provision in Co Waterford, which developed into a brief romance. It became clear from very early on in the pregnancy, she says, “that there wasn’t a relationship there”. But they agreed to co-parent Ronia and “he was very much part of her life”.
However, the little girl “lost her co-parent due to the State”, says Muirne, who supported Vova throughout his ultimately unsuccessful challenge to deportation. When he was in prison, she and Ronia visited him and, after he got out, they would go and stay with him one or two nights a week to keep up the father-daughter contact.
On his last night in Ireland in 2009, after he was handed into the Garda for deportation, she and Ronia were there as he was going. There were several video calls between them after he left but they soon lost contact. "I think it was an incredibly painful experience for him. He also has another daughter in Ireland that we don't have contact with." He went back to an impoverished place and she believes he had a huge sense of failure in returning "without having made it".
Meanwhile, Ronia was only three months old when Jarrad came into her life in 2007. He was a volunteer at the Camphill Community in Co Kilkenny where Muirne has lived on and off since 2000. Having been raised in Co Down, where her mother and father lived and worked at another Camphill centre for people with intellectual disabilities and other special needs, she moved south as a teenager when her parents transferred to Co Kilkenny.
Muirne says it was a “wham bam” relationship with Jarrad, and while he was soon integrated into her daughter’s life, distinctions were made.
“With Ronia very early on it was clear that Jarrad was my partner and she started calling him ‘Daddy’ and Vova was her ‘Papa’. There was no mystery around that.”
Although there was no pretending he was her biological father, Jarrad says that over time he took up the parenting role. “There was no formal adoption but I guess it was very clear that I was her father figure.”
The three of them went to Australia in 2008 where the couple got married and Aesien was born in Ireland the following year. Muirne says her relationship with Jarrad was very intense. “He is an incredibly talented and caring and wonderful man but it was clear that we were very different and we weren’t bringing out the best in each other.
“We looked it as best we could in the terms of the resources we had, how could we sustain this? We got on very well, we were amazing room-mates, but when you’re young you need more than that.”
Looking back, she is not sure if she had ever fully recovered from Vova’s leaving. “I found it incredibly hard for Ronia and for me.”
Muirne also felt she didn’t want any more children and that Jarrad might. “Subconsciously, maybe, I knew there was a different life that he needed to live and a life I wanted to live and they weren’t really compatible.”
It was a “somewhat amicable” separation in 2012, she says. “I often felt when Jarrad and I were left to it, we could find our way but when other people got involved, it was quite something to negotiate.
“There were periods when it was incredibly challenging to communicate and find our path with each other.” They were both growing as individuals but also had to find themselves as parents in changing circumstances.
They agreed to co-parent both the girls 50:50, rotating through three days and four days each. They made a point of living in the same town, and now that’s “the best thing ever”, says Muirne, who would bridge the gap between the girls’ creche and school hours and Jarrad’s return from work when necessary during their time with him.
As co-parents, they had new complications to deal with after Jarrad moved on to a new relationship with Jana Petrášková, who had come to Camphill from the Czech Republic as a short-term volunteer. When she became pregnant, she left her native country to live with Jarrad in Thomastown.
“The biggest issue for me was how does this woman being part of our family’s life impact our life?” says Muirne. She felt it was very important for Jarrad and Jana to establish their own family, with their new children and very different parenting approaches and traditions.
Muirne recalls a “wonderful moment” one December day when she realised just how valuable the sum of all the parts of the blended family could be. She was stressed studying for exams and feeling guilty about not having time to do traditional Advent crafts and baking with her daughters, which she herself had grown up with.
Ronia and Aesien had been with Jarrad and they returned to Muirne that Sunday morning “with a tub of these gorgeous smelling Christmas cookies” they had baked with Jana. This was the point at which Muirne could say “yes – thank goodness” for Jana’s contribution, both to the family and her as an individual. It was giving Muirne space to do things for herself but the children were not going to miss out.
However, the changed dynamics proved particularly challenging for Ronia, as she and Aesien continued to split their time between the two homes. Jarrad wasn’t her father and she struggled to find her place in his new relationship with Jana, particularly after more children arrived into the family. “She could see her sister was half connected to this household, that the babies were totally connected and she wasn’t,” says Muirne.
Jarrad says he doesn’t know exactly how his relationship with Ronia fell apart but acknowledges that it coincided with the time he got together with Jana. The girl’s behaviour deteriorated when she was with the couple. “Before that I don’t think she was aware that I wasn’t her biological father but I think that was coming into her consciousness at that time as well. All the things came together at once and stopped working as well as it could have.”
Ronia’s time with Jarrad was gradually reduced until she felt she could no longer see him but Aesien continued to spend half her time with him. “The relationship changed and it didn’t work as smoothly and we had to re-evaluate,” says Muirne. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a way as a family to hold and carry that. My communication at the time with Jarrad would not have been as strong as it might be now and I was developing my relationship with Jana.”
Although Jarrad has always given Ronia gifts for birthdays and Christmas, and tried to have the occasional outing with her, the relationship between him and the teenager has only started to consolidate again since the beginning of this year, when he and Jana started to use her as a babysitter.
“We trust her to look after our boys, she’s lovely,” says Jarrad, who believes Ronia herself wants to spend more time with the boys. “She gets paid to do what she wants to do – it’s a win win for everyone, and we get a bit of time off.”
Jarrad acknowledges there have been difficult times for Jana. He knows what it is like to be parenting a non-biological child and now Jana is in that role with Aesien.
“Jana is very clear that she is not Aesien’s mother and everybody understands that. That can also be tricky because when Aesien is staying with us and I am not there, obviously it is falling on Jana to be in the parental role. Mostly that goes well but Aesien has her moments when she’ll fire ‘you’re not my Mum’.”
However, he believes the situation has improved in recent months for everybody, including Jana. “The Covid period has definitely had its challenges but it has brought out a few positive things as well.”
Jarrad and Muirne got divorced last year “after a little bit of foot-dragging on my part”, admits Muirne, but the formalities brought her a satisfying sense of closure. As they left the court, she was happily saying “invite me to your wedding!”
“I felt it was so wonderful that this was my family; that these people are part of my life and my kids’ lives.” She sees “so much love” between Jarrad and Jana. “They are good for each other, in ways that we weren’t.”
Now, seven years after she and Jarrad drew up a mediated co-parenting agreement, much has changed but they never went back to renegotiate it. Rather they have managed to grow organically with their families.
“It’s probably down to the fact that we have worked on trying to be flexible with each other; be kind and hold some sense of family,” says Muirne, who stresses the importance of moving on from disagreements. “It’s not like we are at the end of the process,” says Jarrad. Aesien is only 10 and she’s heading for the teenage years “with a will”.
“It’s a fluid situation; it seems to be working as it is, which is great,” he continues. “But it’s equally important to stay flexible.
“We are all going to have to parent together whether we like it or not, we might as well make the best of it,” adds Muirne. “The alternative is very chaotic, very painful – and costs so damn much it is beyond our means!”
Read: Tips on how to make those blended families work