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"I watched my mum rip the shirt right off my father’s back."

By Kristy Wagner 4 min read

Shirt buttons popped and hit the tiled kitchen floor. That’s the first memory that usually comes to mind when asked about my life growing up.

I was standing in the hallway looking through the dining area to the kitchen when my mum picked that fight with my dad. He’d been diagnosed with depression a year earlier and was lucky to function from day to day. Mum, on the other hand, was working six days a week to make ends meet. She was stressed and exhausted, and coming home to what had not been done around the house and farm tipped her over the edge. 

Dad refused to engage, turning his back on her, only to have her rip the shirt right off his back in frustration. At that moment, my baby sister became distressed and so I picked her up and took her and another sister to their bedroom, playing with them until things had settled down at the other end of the house. I don’t remember where my brother was that day, but he was old enough to know to steer clear. I was 13 or 14 years old.

Through my later teenage years, I separated out the few good things I could recall from my childhood and recounted them endlessly. However, the sad and negative memories that had accumulated over the years were still strong. 

My focus for a long time was on what I absolutely did not want for my future family, not what I wanted. Years later, as a first-time parent, living in a city "for work" thousands of kilometres from family and long-term friends, I made a deliberate decision. It was one that has changed my life and largely makes me who I am today. I chose to seek out who I would like to be like as a parent. Simultaneously, I made a choice to exercise holding on to the good in life and letting go of the rest.

In perspective, the upside of a very hard childhood is that I became very conscious and deliberate in my parenting approach.

As part of the journey, I also adopted friends’ parents as my own and adopted the qualities of what I loved about them, their marriages and their way of parenting. I've actively sought to wrap my family and friends with unconditional and unrelenting love where, within the security of our home, we have built a sense of community and safety.

Like the popular Triple P parenting program, my personal attitude to parenting also has three Ps. To be:

  • positive
  • passionate
  • purposeful

My husband and I have also committed to a lifestyle of relationship-based parenting.

Positive parenting

One role model parent—my mother’s age—was in my life for a very brief time, but made a massive impact. She spoke positivity into my life at a time when I was still reconciling the brokenness of who I was after my first marriage broke down. Her words addressed my focus and the impact it would have on my children. She encouraged me to focus on the things that are good, proper and right. She reminded me to find those words that empowered me as a woman and a mum and to draw them into my focus. Today, my Facebook wall is continuously plastered with those positive words. 

She also encouraged me to make time for myself and invest in my sense of peace. She reminded me that we struggle to find hope when we can’t find peace, and giving myself time to work on one would in turn help me with the other. She showed me what it was to be positive but also grounded when life throws you lemons.

Passionate parenting

Passion, as an attitude, was not from any of those wonderful adopted mums. I found it on my own journey when I hiked from Alice Springs to Mount Sonder in Central Australia. When you have more than 200 km to travel on foot—largely alone with your own thoughts—you have the chance to truly consider what is important in life. When you have been away from power, running water and even normal human contact for a time, it becomes far easier to find a passion for those things that are important to you in life. 

That hike for me was life-changing. A few days in, I cried for hours, tears pouring down my face as I grieved and let go of so much that had been holding me back, stopping me from grabbing onto those things that I was truly passionate for, especially those things I was passionate to see emerge in the lives and hearts of my children.

Purposeful parenting

The act of being purposeful and how I live that out in my life is very distinct from the idea of just being conscious of what you are doing. It is taking every choice and being deliberate in it. 

I love a clean house and I would love for it to be a picture of perfection, but being purposeful calls you to something more important at times. Sometimes, feeding the heart of an upset child is more important than the dishes; helping a child practise a new skill until they are confident in it is more important than conquering Mount Foldmore. It doesn’t mean those things don’t get done but rather, that priority is put into what is most important in the moment. The rest needs to slip down the list just a little.

Choosing relationships first

The ribbon that ties those three Ps in my life together as a parent is the idea of relationship-based parenting. Jeremy and I have a strong focus on the hearts of our children. This focus is the foundation to the expectations made and discipline approaches used in our home. Helping our children develop the ability to make good decisions comes from educating them from a place of love first. 

In our view, you can’t discipline a child for something that they have not first been taught about and teach-ability in the first instance comes from a sense of love and security. We make it a family priority to invest in the hearts of our children first before teaching and discipline.

Life has changed a lot for me since those early days of parenthood. Holding my first child in my arms, I had no idea what a path life would lead me on. Having nine children in my home was beyond any of my imaginings and you can safely bet the realisation we are expecting a tenth later this year took more than a moment to digest.

For every role model of parenting I have met along the way, I am so very thankful for those people and events in life that have helped me separate the good to hold onto from those things I need to let go. I really count myself blessed.


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Kristy Wagner lives with her husband, Jeremy Clarke, and a family made up of Kristy’s four biological children, Jeremy’s three biological children, what is soon to be two shared children and one child in their kinship care. Clarketribe.net