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Bill and Chloe Shorten share lessons from their step-family

 Here's a story of a lovely lady, who was bringing up two very lovely children. Here's a story of a man named Shorten, who was busy as the head of the Australian Worker's Union.

And here's the story of Chloe and Bill Shorten, parents, step-parents, partners, and how they found their "new normal" when they knew it was much more than a hunch.

While real data on step-families is hard to gather given the complexity of family structures, and indeed a reluctance of some to identify as being in a step-family, the Australia Institute of Family Studies found that in 2016 more than two in five Australian children experienced living in families who don't fit the stereotype of a nuclear family.

When the Shorten's found themselves in this position, after marrying in 2009, Chloe knew she wanted to do it right.

"I'm quite happy to admit that when it came to parenting I was never one to rely on instinct," she says.

Always a stickler for research and evidence, Chloe started a search for books about step-families, but was dismayed when most of them took a negative approach.


"There's this stigma about step-families, from popular culture to stereotypes, that in some ways you don't fully realise until you become a step-family," she says.

"I wanted to find the evidence that said children, that families, who are not living in the traditional model are doing okay."

Chloe's children Rupert and Georgette were only seven and six when she moved them from Brisbane, where their father Roger lived, to Melbourne to live with Bill. For her it was essential that the children came first, that the transition be as smooth as possible. And in 2009 when baby Clementine came along that was more important than ever.

But she couldn't find a book. And so now she has written one: Take Heart: A story for modern stepfamilies.

While it's peppered with anecdotes about how she and Bill handled different situations - from counselling to IKEA trips, to handling the pressure of public scrutiny about their marriage - Chloe says this is not "their autobiography".

"There are so many experiences outside mine," she said.

"Some days are fabulous, some days are pretty average. I just wanted to look at some of the lessons I learned the hard way and provide some information that might make it easier for other people."

She said the biggest myth she found in the evidence she collected was that stepchildren fared poorly in health, education and well-being outcomes.

"There's this idea that there is some sort of problem, that you come from a broken place, but the evidence shows that 80 per cent of stepchildren are thriving, healthy, happy kids. It's the 20 per cent we should be focussing on."

She said she would like to see "families spoken about a lot more than they are", which sounds like some sort of political rhetoric, but she said there are so many different family types these days we can't focus on the traditional idea of a "nuclear family".

"We should be focussing on how we're parenting and the functioning of our families and not on the form," she says.

"We've got to make sure those people who are doing it slightly differently are given as much support and respect as anyone else."

Bill's out politicking in Queensland on the day of our interview. I ask Chloe what she thinks Bill would say the best thing about being part of a step-family was.

"Let me text him," she says.

And within the hour she forwards me his reply.

"I am most surprised at how much my kids have taught me about life and what's really important," the Leader of the Opposition says.

"And the thing I love most about being a step-dad: two words, Rupert and Georgette."

Take Heart: A story for modern stepfamilies. By Chloe Shorten. Melbourne University Publishing. $32.99.

Chloe Shorten will talk about her new book at an ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author event on Tuesday, May 30, 6.30pm, Copland Lecture Theatre, ANU. In conversation with Anna-Maria Arabia. Free event, book signings from 6pm. Bookings at or 6125 4144.