Names: Sarah Munn and David Swain
Years together: 38
Occupations: Manager and chef
If you’d told Sarah Munn and David Swain years ago that they’d end up in somewhat conventional gender roles, they’d have laughed.
When they met in the 80s, the twenty-somethings from Adelaide were would-be punks: he had a mohawk and a Vespa while she channeled Annabella Lwin from Bow Wow Wow. Both were passionate about politics, the environment and art, and could be found handing out how to vote cards for the Nuclear Disarmament party and dancing to the Clash at raucous parties.
Yet now, in their fifties, while their values haven’t changed, they’ve found that what works for their family looks rather traditional. Sarah runs their home in Aldinga Beach, South Australia, and did most of the hands-on parenting of their two sons, while David works and spends time gardening. He does do most of the cooking, unusual for a professional chef, but he gets as much enjoyment out of preparing food at home as he does at work. And while they’ve always valued gender equality, they both find it amusing the way things have turned out. “It’s like oh my god we’re just really traditional people,” Sarah laughs.
They never bothered to get married though. “Marriage and weddings never sat with our atheist, feminist beliefs,” says Sarah. “Some people expected that we would get married when we had children but it has never been on the agenda for us. I think that we both enjoy the statement that not being married makes … It appeals to our inner punk and desire to not conform.”
They met when a mutual friend set them up. A big group of friends went to see comedy group the Comic Strip at Adelaide festival and the pair were struck by each other. “He was incredibly good looking,” Sarah remembers. “[He] had all this hair and these piercing eyes so I thought he was such a spunk.” David was similarly taken. “I was besotted,” he says of his first impressions. “Have been ever since.”
After a few months, the couple moved into a share house together with another couple. “We were still part of a family of all different people, so we were together but there were always a lot of distractions, there was always a party happening, and we were experimenting in lots of different ways.” Those early years were a “messy” time for the couple, with recreational drug use and the occasional indiscretion, but something kept them connected.
The turning point came when David moved to London and then, a few months later, Sarah joined him. “It solidified our relationship because it was obvious to both of us that we hated being apart. Even though we were off having a good time independently and it was probably good for us, I feel that when we came together again, we were very clear that we weren’t going to be going anywhere else.” Reunited, they travelled together and worked in London before returning home.
They’d both been working in hospitality. Sarah, who was training to be a dancer, worked as a waitress while David was working in kitchens. When they arrived in Melbourne, David started to get serious about his chef aspirations, working at top restaurants like the Melbourne Wine Room and Veludo.
They became parents around that time too, when the first of their two boys arrived. It was intense. David worked long hours while Sarah was mostly solo-parenting. Sarah and a close friend used to jokingly refer to themselves as “chefs widows” because they were on their own so much. “There were times when I did feel isolated, especially when the children were little, but I’m pretty happy with my own company [and] I’m good at finding ways to keep myself amused … I think that is a trait which makes it easier to live with the fact that your partner is at work all the time.”
David made sure she knew he would never be unfaithful: “I made that decision early on when we were in Melbourne, knowing the hospitality crew and everything that happens in hospitality, to have Sarah at home looking after the boys, she deserved to know she had absolute trust in me. I always made it clear that if I came home at two or three in the morning, she could feel confident that there was nothing going on.”
The long hours and demands of David’s job prompted the pair to find a better work-life balance. The family moved to South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula, where David set up his own restaurant, Fino, with business partner Sharon Romeo and, a few years later, with Sarah. They designed the restaurant’s hours so that David would only work a few nights a week. “It was a completely different work relationship with a family and that’s what we strove for, to get that balance so I wouldn’t miss the boys growing up.”
Both boys are adults now, something the couple are excited about. “We officially don’t have teenagers anymore and that was an amazing revelation … the idea of being empty nesters,” says Sarah. “We still really like each other and it’s a whole other phase of life which we’re looking forward to.”
That friendship is at the core of their relationship. “I’ve always felt that,” says David. “I would be lost without Sarah in so many ways because I speak about everything I have on my mind to Sarah and always have. That’s one of the lovely things I know we can do together, talk about anything we want to without any prejudice from the other.”
Sarah agrees. There’s something else too: “We’ve always been really into each other physically,” she says. “We have a good relationship that way and I think that intimacy is a real glue. I’ve always thought that is an important part of real longevity. It’s something that we both have kept a focus on, making sure that we keep our sexual relationship alive, and I feel lucky like that because I know plenty of people [where] that can be the thing that pulls them apart.”
Over the years, their approach to conflict has evolved. “We don’t like conflict,” they both say quickly when asked – but they’ve learnt not to ignore it. “We address issues as soon as they emerge,” says Sarah. “I used to be a silent treatment type of person, I wouldn’t speak for a day and thankfully I have learnt that that is not a great way to go about things. It is better to not waste a day sulking but to get on with it.”
That’s something they’ve also learnt working together, where it’s important to tackle issues quickly. Running the business together means they have to maintain boundaries between home and work.
“Those boundaries are sometimes spoken, one of us will start a conversation and [the other will] go, ‘I don’t want to talk about it now, we’re at home’. We also have a rule that there is no talking about business in the bedroom. Other times we’ll openly talk about work when we’re at home because we need to deal with things … [We try] to allocate one weekend day where we don’t open a laptop and there is no work talk, but it takes some discipline.” It’s something they have to work on constantly, particularly at the moment, as they’ve opened a new restaurant. “Otherwise it’s overwhelming to work seven days a week on your small business. Six days is okay, seven days is no good,” says David.
They regularly spend time outdoors to unwind, taking long walks on the beach not far from where they live. It’s an opportunity for solitude – together. “Because of the work we do, it’s a people business,” says Sarah, “you’re always talking to people, you’re always engaging, you’re always on. For us, we balance that by being in nature.”
Although they don’t often articulate it, after all these years, their bond is strong. “We trust each other so deeply that I think that’s what forms the real foundation of our commitment,” says Sarah.
“I’ve always felt us as a unit is a very strong unit, more powerful than individuals,” says David. Sarah agrees: “We are lucky because together we can power through so many things. I always say I can’t do life without [David but] I can do this with you, knowing the strength you get from being a solid unit.” They understand their roles in everything they do, which brings out the best in the other. This has given their business and relationship an unbreakable strength. Says David: “If we work as a team, we can make this happen, and we can make it successful.”
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