“Why Australia? Why now?” Samantha said, almost choking on her jacket potato and beans, as we announced the topic of that night’s family conference.
“That's awesome!” said Robert, a keen surfer.
“Can we have a kangaroo?” said Jaime, keen to show off her knowledge of Australian animals.
This is how it started, our journey. It is not just the physical one, but also the psychological, social and emotional one to achieving our dream of a new life in Australia. Our journey would test us in so many ways, and we would have just our positive approach to life to lean on during the toughest times.
Sometimes, enough is enough. In 1997, living or just surviving, I was on the hamster wheel of a life. As a single mum, I combined juggling a full-time job as a nurse, with three young children living at home. It was time for something to change. For many years, I behaved like a victim, allowing myself to wallow in self-pity and the ‘why me?’ syndrome. My glass appeared half-empty, with no refill accessible. The breakdown of my first marriage was to a man eleven years my senior. The sham, dubbed my second marriage, to a prolific philanderer, tore a wound in my heart when the court awarded custody of my beautiful baby daughter Molly to him. I tried to find a sense of family, after my mum died, but this ended in a fruitless search for my biological father. I used all of these excuses for my tolerance of undeserving people, despite intuitively knowing that my life did not have to be this way. Changes, in whatever form I made them, had to ensure that from then on I would always see my glass as half-full. I decided not to squander my time on undeserving people, or those who did not appreciate the value of life itself. This new positive approach would help me perceive my glass as half-full and achieve a good life for me and my children.
In 1997, I met Nigel; we live life to the full. We have no children together, but I have four children, Samantha and Robert from my first marriage, and Molly and Jaime from my second. Nigel has three children, Laurence, Phillip and Clair, so together we have made our contribution to the population. Family life, for us, has always been busy, but fun. At any one time, three or four of the children lived with us, whilst the others visited on weekends and during the school holidays.
In 2007, two of our children had recently moved out of home. Robert, seventeen years old, was living and working on a holiday resort complex in the seaside town of Looe, Cornwall. Samantha, nineteen years old also worked there, and she lived with her partner Doug, in nearby Liskeard. Despite living away from home, they always returned once a week for dinner and they never missed a family conference. We always used family conferences, around the dinner table, to discuss important matters like moving house, changing jobs or schools. On this occasion, we decided that, in addition to the family conferences, we also needed ‘one to one’ talks with each of them. That way they were free to have their say, un-influenced by their siblings. These hard discussions took time and patience, but we are very proud of the mature way in which they listened, questioned, accepted and understood our rationale for moving.
As you can imagine, finding the right time to consider an international move was never going to be easy. In addition, we struggled with my problematic ex-husband, Jack, Jaime’s biological father, from day one of our relationship. In the main the issues were in relation to child custody issues, hence this would become one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in order to start our new adventure ‘down under’.
In February 2007 and now with only one child, Jaime, living at home permanently, we made our first visit to Australia. We visited my now father-in-law John, who lives in the state of Tasmania. John emigrated ten years ago to become a carer for his widowed mother whose health was deteriorating. At that time, John was divorced from Nigel’s mother, Sheila, but after ten years apart, they were back in touch and trying to reconcile their relationship. We immediately felt at home in Australia, falling in love with the dream of a more fulfilling life. The substantial career opportunities and a life changing experience for us all drifted into our viewfinder. There would be increased opportunity for the outdoor activities we love as a family, i.e. camping, walking and beach holidays. All we had to decide was, is it the right time and the right thing to do for our family and for us.
Decision made on our part; we wanted to go. During our stay, we visited not only Hobart in Tasmania, but also Sydney in New South Wales and Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. We saw and experienced a cross section of outback, metropolitan and regional Australia in two states and one territory. February is summer in Australia. The temperatures and humidity vary considerably from state to state. With temperatures of twenty degrees and changeable in Hobart, twenty-eight degrees and balmy in Sydney, and forty degrees and arid in Alice Springs we had it all.
We soon realised, after the initial research, that if we wanted to pursue a new life in Australia that we had to apply before my forty-fifth birthday. If not we would have no chance of an employer sponsored visa, based on my nursing experience and qualifications. The ideal scenario would be to achieve the move before Jaime started high school. Therefore, we had a quite a small window of opportunity to make our dream a reality. The decision to move to another country involves not only the formal process, but also the moral and personal decision-making process. This requires the input of the whole family to ensure its success. There are no hard and fast rules that apply to making the ‘right’ decision and there will always be an element of compromise on someone’s part.
So back to the children, Samantha, Robert and Jaime had been at our first family conference, and although Samantha was shocked at our decision, she understood our rationale. However, she knew her partner Doug would never leave the UK so if we went she would have to choose between coming with us and staying with Doug. Robert would be eighteen years old by the time we left. We knew he would jump at this opportunity, as a keen traveller and an avid, experienced surfer. Robert, having surfed at various Cornish coastal towns, for most of his teenage years was eager to go to the mecca for all surfers.
The first big question to answer now would be; what would the other children say?
For Laurence, Clair, Phillip and Molly, where the discussions were not around them moving to Australia with us, we focused entirely on the contact visits and communication methods. Laurence, Clair and Phillip were living with their mother Tracey, Nigel’s ex-wife, in Colchester. Molly was living with Jack; he had refused me contact with Molly when it suited his circumstances over the years, and had never shown any interest in Jaime. However, we knew this would change when he became aware of our plans, and it did. We were adamant that the discussions about contact frequency and methods of communication were all discussions that based on honesty and facts. Not pipe dreams through rose tinted spectacles, as we knew this process would not be without its challenges.
However, the final and most important question was, how would we all cope with the reality of being separated by continents? With our tangled web of family relationships to consider it, we had our work cut out. For the children, who did not live with us on a permanent basis, the discussions focused around the visits by us, back to the UK, and by them to Australia in the future. The result of our family conferences and one to one discussions was that Jaime and Robert wanted to come to Australia with us. However, we now needed court approval for Jaime because Jack randomly lodged a custody request for her.
Guilt is a reasonably small word, but with such a huge impact. We rode a wave of guilty thoughts, and feelings, as we discussed, researched, and investigated if we could actually make it happen, and if we could live with the consequences.
The Australian visa process and criteria were very stringent, and highly scrutinized. As we talked and interacted with people living and working in Alice Springs, on our visit there and afterwards by email, it was evident that there is a high demand for skilled professionals in all fields of healthcare. In the Northern Territory, for all areas of healthcare services, the process can be faster and the packages of relocation and salary benefits more lucrative. Therefore, although Alice Springs was not our ideal destination, we knew that we could use the system to help us achieve our dream. In exchange for two years in Alice Springs, taking advantage of the benefits of territory tax allowances, extra annual leave, parental leave, etc., we could then relocate anywhere in Australia. At the end of my contract, with permanent residency in place, Australia and all its wonders would be open to us.
Our preferred destination to live in was Queensland; near to the Sunshine, and Gold Coasts, bordering Brisbane. This would enable easy access to the beaches, snorkelling, whale watching, and the outdoor lifestyle we wanted for not only ourselves but for our children. We wanted to create a family home, that any of the children could come to, and call home, now or in the future.
A work offer at the Alice Springs Hospital was quickly and efficiently, sourced and processed. After an internet search for nursing vacancies in Alice Springs, I found a variety of positions available, with great scope for career progression. I completed an online application form, had my criminal reference bureau police check completed in the UK and Alice Springs Hospital checked my professional references. There then followed a self-assessment professional development questionnaire, and telephone interview. In the early hours of the morning, due to the time difference, and including a medication calculation test I feared tiredness would jeopardise the results. I need not of worried I completed it all successfully, we had the first piece of the visa criteria in place. The result was an offer of employment with a two-year contract. This was subject to acceptance onto the Australian Nurse Register. This came with sponsorship for a 457 temporary visa initially, and the ability to apply for a permanent resident 857 sponsored visa, after a three-month probationary period.
The next step of the visa process was to obtain recognition and accreditation of my nursing qualifications, from the Northern Territory Nursing Board and ANMC – Australian Nursing and Midwifery Council. This was a lengthy and bureaucratic process, but obviously very necessary, when employing a healthcare professional who has been trained overseas. I sourced the transcripts of my nurse-training syllabus and results, obtaining them from the archives at Angela Ruskin University, in Chelmsford. The submission of certified copies of my nursing qualifications and professional development certificates followed, and after the payment of the registration fees, then the wait began. When my Australian Nurse Registration certificate arrived, we were another step closer to achieving our dream.
Our visa application now submission ready, subject to the court granting permission for my youngest daughter Jaime to move to Australia. Sadly, as anticipated, this permission was not forthcoming from her biological father, Jack, despite him having no interest in her life up to that time. He lodged a custody application, which the court denied, pending reports and the final hearing. The reason, there was no existing relationship, however a contact order was granted to him for supervised visits with Jaime in a contact centre in Cornwall. The stress for me of just being in the same room as him, and the distress for Jaime was obvious. Having to spend time with a stranger, whose body language demonstrated he had no love for her.
It is a continual conscious act to remind myself; during life’s testing and difficult times, that ‘I am going to survive this,’ that ‘I am a good person,’ and above all that, ‘I deserve to be happy.’ So let the battles of this war of commence; enter the solicitors, barristers and social workers.
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