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How One Inter-Abled Married Couple Stay Together

October 7, 2019

Ron McCallum and Mary Crock share an office in their Sydney home. The couple live together, teach together and work together. In 2017, they wrote a book about disabled refugees together. Both are law professors – Crock in public law and migration, McCallum in industrial law – and both are passionate about social justice. Their chairs are back to back and a portrait of McCallum, painted by Crock, hangs on the wall. But, says McCallum with a laugh: “It’s easier to share a bed than an office.”

They have been together for more than 34 years. They met at a dinner party in Melbourne in 1984, when she was 25 and he was 35. McCallum, who has been blind since birth due to retrolental fibroplasia (RLF), heard her “beautiful mellow” voice across the table. When he introduced himself, she said: “You are obviously an RLF child.” As the daughter of Australia’s first full professor of ophthalmology, Gerard Crock, she was at ease in the company of blind people. McCallum was captivated: “Her voice, her breathing, her inquiring mind and her scent overwhelmed me,” he writes in his autobiography.

Crock was also drawn to McCallum. After their second meeting a few months later, she knew they would be together. “I remember walking on the beach thinking, ‘What will it be like married to a blind man?’. Not ‘Is this going to happen?’ But ‘What will it be like?’”

He proposed six weeks after that second meeting. “We were sitting on the couch. I said ‘Anyway I think you’ve just got to marry me, will you marry me?’. And she said, ‘Yeah, I guess.’”

They married and soon became parents to three children. Then in 1991, Ron was appointed professor in industrial law at the University of Sydney and the family moved from Melbourne to Sydney. Away from their wider families, in a city where they knew only five people, both working full-time with three young children, it was a challenging and stressful time.

“We’re still standing is all I can say,” Crock says. “I think chaos theory came into it. The children will tell you that they are all excellent cooks. And they will tell you ‘We learned everything we know from our nanny’.”

There was little time for their relationship. Their solution was what they call “48-hour holidays”. McCallum explains: “That’s all the time we had. [We’d say] ‘Let’s go somewhere for a day’. Or ‘Let’s go to a conference and sleep somewhere’.”

Common intellectual interests and working in the same field has its benefits. They often read and discuss each other’s academic work. “It’s a rare privilege to have somebody who can read everything that you write and make really good criticisms of it,” Crock says.

They don’t always agree. McCallum remembers teaching a joint class on labour law and migration, and after he’d made a point, Crock turned to the class and said she disagreed with everything he’d said. “I said ‘Could you please give the class reasons?’ And they were good reasons.” While they debate academic issues, they share a similar worldview. Says Crock: “There was some sympathy between the way that we thought when we met [and] it’s a world view that we very much developed together as well.”

In 1995, Crock also began lecturing at the faculty of law at the University of Sydney, working in the same building as McCallum. While it was “a godsend” in many ways, Crock was conscious her husband was the boss. “We’ve both had to make compromises, I think at different times … At the same time, I think I’ve felt over the years that I’ve had to make myself invisible as Ron became more and more senior.”

McCallum’s blindness has its own challenges. Crock says they made conscious decisions early on about the extent to which she helped him. “We have been careful to create boundaries so that I haven’t been his full time carer.”

Their physicality is part of their connection. “Touching is a very important part of a relationship,” McCallum says. “And I think it also can help when things can get a bit rocky … And I’m not meaning anything erotic, but it just can help. It’s almost like the oil can smooth [things] over.” Although she hesitates when he raises the topic, Crock agrees: “It‘s actually a good point to make because Ron’s dependent on me for his mobility a lot of the time [so] we do touch each other a lot more.” Advertisement

McCallum is quick to stress they’re far from perfect. “We do have our moments and we’ve had our disputes.” However, conflict has its place. “Showing your children conflict and resolving conflict is as important a life lesson as you can get,” Crock says. “Because it shows the children that you can still be your own person. And you can disagree with someone sometimes quite profoundly but still, at the end of the day, love them and continue the relationship.”

McCallum agrees: “I think the best thing we can give our children is [the sense] that we’ve had a reasonably good relationship that they’ve grown up in, and they’ve seen us in our underwear at one place. And they’ve seen us argue, and they’ve seen us in good times. And they know that we’re very committed, and committed to them.”

Commitment is what keeps them together. “It’s about reflecting on how your life is going to be and what you want to achieve together. Rather than just having personal goals, you end up having goals together,” Crock says. “And I think one of the important things for me is that it’s a relationship that involves creativity and fun.”

And, while shared interests are important, so too are individual activities: “We have also managed to leave each other to have a bit of personal space as well. Over the years, [Ron’s] pushed me to do a lot of things that have taken me out of my comfort zone. He’s also pushed me to do things that he knows that I’m passionate about that he can’t share in.” For Crock, that means painting – and she has her own space for this. “I have a shed” she says pointing to the garden. “That’s Mary’s shed out there.”

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