There have been times when Rachaele Hambleton has briefly lost track of one of her six children. “The front door goes,” she says, “and I think ‘who’s that?’ and then one of the kids walks in and I think, ‘oh my God, I’d not even noticed they hadn’t come home’.” She certainly notices their presence at mealtimes, though. “It can be stressful, especially as one was vegan for a while, another one has other dietary needs. It’s probably one of our biggest arguments, especially about the timing of everything and which child is coming home from school or college at what time, and whether their dinner will be cold.”
Hambleton, a 40-year-old parenting blogger in Paignton, Devon, has since 2016 become hugely popular online for her honesty about her domestic life in all its turbulence and glory. She has a daughter, Betsy, who she had at 22 with her first husband, and a second daughter Tallulah, now 13, from that same marriage.
“That was an abusive relationship,” says Hambleton, “and we fled with a police escort over Christmas in 2010.”
Hambleton then met her new partner, had two miscarriages and then conceived their daughter Edie, now 9.
The relationship ended almost as soon as Edie was born. “There was a lot of pressure on us,” she says, “he was broken from his previous relationship as was I, and we got together and thought we could heal each other, but the reality is that it was never meant to be.” Soon after, Hambleton met her police officer husband Josh, who already had two sons Seb, now 16, and Isaac 12, and the couple went on to have Wilby, who is now three years old and has recently been diagnosed with autism.
All the children live with Hambleton full-time. Edie, Hambleton’s third daughter, sees her dad every week and they have “a lovely relationship”, but due to family court orders for the childrens’ safety, Josh’s sons don’t see their mum, and Hambleton’s daughters from her abusive first marriage don’t see their dad. Hambleton documented the ordeal of this legal process in a best-selling book five years ago, and now as her new memoir Patchwork Family – a book about her experiences as a mother – is published, she is reeling at how much has changed.
“Five years ago we were really in the thick of family courts,” she says, “and the kids were broken and damaged because they had endured a lot. It now feels like we’re coming out of the other side. They’ve not seen their other parents for over five years now, so we’re way down the line, but that has its trauma. I want my children to have the healthiest upbringing and in an ideal world the boys would go to their mum regularly, and the girls to their dad, but we try to make the best of the situation.”
Hambleton, who is talking to me in the quiet of her friend’s house – “too noisy at home to hear each other”- has a loyal blog following (plus 244k Instagram followers) largely due to the honesty with which she talks about her parental failings. “Perfect families don’t exist,” she says.
“And if you think yours is perfect, there’s probably some kind of trauma there all the same.” In a world of social-media gloss, Hambleton has spent the last few years being unusually frank about the mess of life.
“I’ve not always been a great mum,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I’ve made some really bad choices. When my two oldest daughters and I left my abusive relationship, I should really have worked on myself, healed and tried to get back some self-worth but instead I jumped into relationship after relationship. I was always looking for someone to validate me, as my mum left me when I was four, and I went into foster care as a teenager, and I don’t think I’ve ever healed from that heartbreak. My poor decisions have affected my children, and I think it’s important to own that. I’m a massive advocate of apologising to your kids when you mess up in general too, and I do that regularly!”
As well as being honest with her teenage daughters about her destructive relationships, she’s honest about the drugs and alcohol and sex she escaped into during her troubled teenage years. “I have conversations with them about the terrible things I did, while also surrounding them in a bubble of love. It means that they feel they can come to me with anything, as do their friends. I tell them that, yes, drugs feel good, but they have to remember that that wonderful feeling can lead to a bad place. I hate the saying, ‘my trauma made me who I am’, because actually my trauma nearly killed me a lot of the time. But you’ve got to educate children so that they can go into the world, and be strong enough to cope with it – because it can be a brutal place to exist in.”
Brutality is something Hambleton knows about, and as a result of the domestic abuse she survived, she has gone on to this year open a women’s centre in her local area. One of her aims, as she earned more money from her best-selling book, blog and social media influencing, was to leave rented accommodation and buy a house where each of her children could have her own bedroom. The second aim was to open somewhere abused women could seek respite.
“When I fled with my girls, we were lucky enough to get a flat,” she says, “but it was a horrific place next door to the police station, full of old used needles. I was in a bad place mentally and I’d have probably gone back to my ex if it hadn’t been for my friends coming in and saying, ‘remember why you’re doing this, Rachaele?’ We’d read through the list of pros and cons I’d made, and I’d be reminded that I had to stay away from him because of my children above all else, and that it wasn’t about me anymore. Our centre has support, advice, free internet, a washer and dryer – the simple things that when you come out of a relationship you’ve been controlled in, feel completely overwhelming. I guarantee that if I opened one of these in every town in the UK, they’d be full within three months. I fight to get my women to live alone, because that means they’re strong.”
Being at the centre is the highlight of Hambleton’s week, but there’s plenty happening at home to tend to, too. Wilby’s autism, which Hambleton says she initially hid from the world online by covering videos of the sounds he would make with music, is slowly but surely starting to become less of a mystery to her. “I was in denial and cut the parts of videos out where he flapped his hands, and stood on his tip toes, and fixated on an object for 30 minutes. I ignored messages from people asking me whether he was talking yet.”
Hambleton received some online backlash for saying she was in tears over the diagnosis. “People would tell me I was being disrespectful because autism was a gift. I felt sick about that, but I was trying to cope the best I could. I wouldn’t change Wilby for the world, but this journey has been very hard.”
Her husband Josh, has given up his work as a police officer for now, and does the school run each morning, to a pre-school, a primary school, a secondary school, and a college. Often Hambleton feels pulled in too many directions, worrying that she’s not there enough for the children when they need her.
“I’ll sit in the room with Tallulah while she’s having a tantrum, and then I’ll think, ‘oh, Isaac’s had a bad day, I need to check on him’, and then one of the other teenagers will be experiencing heartbreak and I’ll need to spend time with them.”
Hambleton is nowadays more careful about what she shares online, thinking twice before writing about a Wilby stress on Instagram, in case of backlash or trolling from “horrid” people. Yet, she finds a lot of solace in the online parenting community, whether it’s about Autism or teenagehood.
“I found all these vapes recently at home in one of the teenager’s bedrooms, and started googling ‘can you die from vaping’ and felt really panicked. Then I went online and talked to my followers and subscribers about it, and so many parents said their kids were doing it too, and that it’s because they’re marketed like lollipops. That made me feel less like I’d failed as a parent.”
As our interview comes to an end, Hambleton says that she’s going to tell her family that our conversation went on for half an hour longer than it did, just so she can have a cup of tea in peace before returning to the fold. “Life at home is absolute chaos,” she says, “but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The Patchwork Family by Rachaele Hambleton is available now