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You Don’t Need A Conventional Marriage To Have A Happy Family

In our decidedly non-nuclear family, the one consistency was love.

Around 18 months ago I travelled back to the UK to surprise my father for his 70th birthday party. It was an absolutely magical moment as I shuffled towards the front door with a cardboard box in front of my face and yelled "SURPRISE!".

My dad was delighted, my brother and sister were delighted, and so was my mum. Even though she and Dad have been divorced for 17 years -- more than half my life -- she was the one who drove me to the party.

We are a loving, supportive family, but we are not a conventional family. My mum came out when I was 14. In a dimly lit room, she quietly told me that the woman we knew as a close friend was someone she had embarked on a relationship with.

My parents lived together (in separate rooms) for a further two years, something that I now see for the huge sacrifice it was: living in the same house to provide stability and consistency for their teenage children.

Love is the basis of our family, not marriage.

Tony Abbott recently wrote that, "if you change marriage, you change society; because marriage is the basis of family; and family is the foundation of community".

Of course, every family is different. But in my family, what matters wasn't and isn't that my parents divorced, or that my mum came out. What mattered, what still matters most, is love, support and respect.

When my mum moved out of the home that my brother, my sister and I grew up in, she moved five minutes around the corner so we could walk between each parent's house and sleep at whichever house we wanted to. No complicated custody agreements, just whatever my siblings and I wanted to do. When my dad made us 'curry' during his experimental cooking phase, we ate it even though pineapple, chicken, curry sauce and peas are not necessarily an appetising combination. We ate it because he tried.

If my mum knew Dad was at work, she would come over -- take the back-door key from its 'secret' hiding spot -- wash and dry his curtains and re-hang them before he got home. Not because my dad was lazy, he simply didn't notice when the curtains were dirty, and Mum wanted the house to be nice for all of us.

Dad never said a bad word about Mum, and Mum never said a bad word about Dad. They had each other's backs. We spent every birthday and Christmas together, sometimes with my parent's new partners. And now they both have long-term partners or companions who we have known for years -- it's almost like having a mum, a dad and then two more mums.

That's not to say it was never sad or hard to accept that they had separated. It doesn't mean that we never argued with our parents, or had teenage tantrums or that Mum and Dad were perfect. We all f****d up in different ways, but the one consistency was love.

My family has helped me understand that marriage is simply allowing two people who are in love to have that love recognised by law. Conflating family and marriage does a disservice to both.

Having an unconventional family has not harmed me or my brother or sister. We have all gone on to be successful and happy in our chosen fields. We did this with our 21st Century, decidedly non-nuclear family. We did it because our parents backed us, and loved us, and told us if we worked hard we could be what we wanted in life.

So we did. And we are. My family is not about the specific sum of its parts, the number of men or women who play the role of parents, it's about how capable each member of the family is to love and support one another, unconditionally.

It's about parents answering phone calls at 1am when their kids are in a foreign country and stressed out about work. It's about writing 12 cards to be opened on each of the 12 days of Christmas when a daughter lives overseas or taking a six-hour round trip to drive and pick up a child from the airport.

Once, four or five years ago, the five of us had dinner at Dad's house. Mum mentioned that someone had asked her when she would be getting some grandchildren, and she had warned them never to say that in front of my brother or sister or me. We thanked her and Dad for never pressuring us to be -- or do -- anything other than what made us happy. Dad looked taken aback. "Of course! Our job is just to support you and help you be happy," he said. I won't ever forget that.

The truth is that my parents were, and are, better as friends. They should be allowed to love and marry who they want. That should be the case for everyone, including here in Australia. Because loving who they wanted enabled them to be better parents, better and happier people and made our family vastly richer in love and understanding.

It has made my siblings and I better people, more capable of being better members of our communities. Love is the basis of our family, not marriage.

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