The thing about the start of school is that it’s filled with a million “get to know you” questionnaires and projects. What’s your favorite color? Do you prefer to do math or read a book? What TV shows do you watch? Who is in your family?
Oh, yes, there’s always that last one. It’s an important one, and as a teacher, I don’t shy away from it either. It’s vital to understanding more about the student in front of you.
And yet, I now know what a bomb it can feel like to answer that question, especially if all of the other kids are making posters with a mom, a dad, 2.5 kids and a dog. (I’d like to note here that plenty of other kids have families that are different from that example, but to a kid (and her single mom) it can seem like everyone else’s families are all the same except your own. Maybe because you just become more sensitive to it?)
I’ve appreciated that at my kids’ schools, there has been a focus on events and projects about “family” over things like “donuts with dads” or some other horror show that many widows I know have to endure with their kids. (No, it is not the same to send an uncle to an event like this, because all of the other kids know he’s not your dad. I hear that all the time and it’s just insane. Please, schools, just stop.) But even with this understanding, my kids still have to bring in photos of our family every year, or talk about our family in some way. I like it, honestly, because I think it makes my kids proud of who we’ve been throughout the past 3 years.
But it’s also complicated, especially for Claire. As she got into older elementary school, she wondered if she should include Grandpa Tom, since he lived with us, or her dead father, since he’d always be her dad. I always told her that it was fine to include anyone she wanted to include, but again, she knew that most kids at her school wouldn’t be including a grandparent or a dead parent. I can’t actually remember what she decided to do for 4th and 5th grade, but I do remember the discussion that we had about how she was conceptualizing family.
Things are different this year, but no less complicated. Chris is a daily presence in the kids’ lives, but he is not their legal guardian, so we’ve already encountered some interesting discussions as we try and get him looped into emails and other communication with the kids’ schools. It’s easier with the elementary school, because they know my family. But Claire is in middle school now, and that means no one knows much about us. And protocol dictates that communication only goes out to official channels (i.e. me) until I make that change. It’s been fairly easy to do, and yet, when those forms come out, they can give us pause.
After Chris’s name, many of the forms ask, “relationship to student?” which is a bit tricky to answer. “Mother’s partner” doesn’t fully cover it, and “father” isn’t quite the answer either. We decided on “parent.” Because isn’t that what he’s doing if he wants school emails?
For the kids, they face this same dilemma. What do you say when other people, especially teachers, ask about your family?
What we’ve found is that the best policy is actually the most straightforward one. Chris is a member of our family. What’s his title?
That’s it! “Is he your dad?” kids and teachers have asked. Sometimes, Claire will give a longer answer about how Chris is her mom’s boyfriend but he is a parent to her.
But with the boys, it’s just become a straightforward thing. On his “family” poster, Austin wrote, “my family is me, my sister, my brother, my mom and Chris.”
Tommy drew a picture. I simply gave him paper and asked him to draw our family. In the image, I stand on the left (and it looks like I have a black eye which seems accurate for my emotions during the first week of school). In the middle stand my three kids. And on the right, there’s Chris. Each of us are labeled. I am “mom” and Chris is “Chris.”
“This is my family!” Tommy said on Zoom, pointing out each of us in turn: Mom, Austin, Tommy, Claire and Chris.
And really, that’s all the labeling any of us need.