DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley with her children

One of the Most Important Things a School Can Do

I just got an email from my son Tommy’s pre-kindergarten teacher that made me cry. I’ll paraphrase it here:

Dear Parents,

Mark your calendars for FAMILY DAY! In lieu of Mother’s and Father’s day celebrations we would love you to join us for breakfast to celebrate our pre-kindergarten families! Coffee, juice and assorted pastries will be served, along with the special bread recipe created by our class! Hope to see you there!

Obviously the teacher wasn’t trying to make me cry. But, she did. She made me cry because of this simple act of inclusion. And it made me think this: I bet the teacher was thinking of me when she wrote it.

Maybe she was also thinking of the family with two dads in it. Or the family where the grandma picks up her grandchild every day. I don’t know, really. But I know that Tommy’s teacher had to plan a purposeful day in order to deal with these parenting holidays that surround the end of the school year.

She didn’t have to do this. She could have done what I always did when I taught Sunday school and Mother’s or Father’s Day came around: I’d just have the kids make a card for a special woman or man in their lives. I figured, that’s okay, right?

Then my kids lost their dad. And all of the sudden I realized that no, it wouldn’t be okay for a teacher to ask one of my kids to make a card for their godfather or uncle or grandfather when all of the other kids were making cards for their fathers. Even if each of my children smiled through the card-making, I know they would hurt inside. Because what child wants to be different? And what child wants it pointed out that while every other kid in the class is making a card for his or her dad, you have to make one for a random relative or family friend?

My kids have all had really thoughtful teachers every year, but Tommy’s teacher is particularly wonderful. I didn’t know who she was when he was assigned to her class, but at the meeting we had right before school started, she told me that she lost her father when she was about Tommy’s age.

I cannot tell you how reassuring that was for me. Obviously, it’s terrible that she lost her father so young, but I knew it meant that she would have an even better understanding of my boy. She would know what to do if he had an outburst around the anniversary of his father’s death. She would know how important it would be to read diverse books and champion all different kids of families. And she would know that celebrating Mother’s or Father’s day would be potentially really tough for some of her 5-year-olds. Or at least for mine.

So she decided on Family Day. Sure, this might mean that for some mothers (myself included!) it’s unlikely our kid will independently make us a Mother’s Day card. But I’m willing to give that up. Because I’m a mom and Tommy’s happiness matters a hell of a lot more than a card he might make me in class.

I know there are so many schools in America where kids without mothers or fathers are still “encouraged” to make a card even if they are missing a parent. Worse, I know that those dreaded “father-daughter” dances still exist, and some of my online widow friends have had to figure out how to navigate such “celebrations.” But how great are these celebrations if they leave people out? Especially if those people are 5-year-olds?

It’s a little thing, this Family Day celebration. But I love it. It makes me feel seen and it makes me feel like my family is a part of the school where I send my children. And that strikes me as one of the most important things a school can do. Include us all.

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.


  • Ivan

    Dear Marjorie,
    That’s a great idea! My children are a bit older than yours and they don’t make cards at school anymore but Mother’s Day has been very tough this year (it’s the first Sunday of May here). I think last year we were all still numb, or at least I was and I didn’t notice, but this year I found one of the girls (12 years old) listening to sad songs about mothers on YouTube and crying and that was really hard.
    On a more positive note, she told me today she’s learning to understand her feelings and control her anger. This is like a rollercoaster!

    • Marjorie

      Parenting through grief is certainly like a rollercoaster – and it’s all so tough. In a way, I’m dreading Mother’s Day because I don’t know if the kids will make me cards or do anything special for me, as they are still so young. But I’m going to try and make the best of it!

  • Katherine

    Marjorie what a relief for you and a how great is your son’s teacher with her insights learnt through her own experiences. I’m amazed at my kids’ school’s lack of empathy in these occasions . Last year Father’s Day was 2 months after my partner died. My 7 year old’s teacher grabbed me in the playground and cheerfully told me that the kids would be making Father’s Day seed pots and cards and did my son have another significant male that he could make this gifts for. It completely caught me off guard as I though she though I might have a new boyfriend. I was reduced to a crying mess and told her I’d think about it. She seemed surprised when I later emailed and told her that my son would stay home every day they were doing the craft and having the Father’s Day stall but she let me know the dates. I can’t help thinking that given the timing this was really insensitive and would any dads have minded if for one year they didn’t get a seed pot? And my 11 year old daughter didn’t want to miss school but not did she want to visit the Father’s Day stall and buy a soap on a rope for her grandfather. This involved all sorts of negotiations with the teacher and finding out what time the stall was on, collecting my daughter for an hour then taking her back. All of it was traumatic and I’m sure we’re not the only family in this situation. I wonder whether the couple of thousand dollars the school makes at these stalls is worth the trauma and anxiety and stress that they create for some families. Every time we see the advert in the newsletter or the sign at school our souls ache just a little bit more. It would be nice if there were more people like your son’s teacher in positions of influence. Thanks for letting me know that we’re not alone and all we’re all dealing with this stuff every day.

    • Marjorie

      This story is awful, and I’m so sorry. You know, this is where I think it actually matters that we have diversity – all kinds of diversity – in the classroom. My son’s pre-K teacher lost her dad and is teaching everyone (not just the 4 and 5 year olds) about what it means to really be inclusive. Maybe she’d be that way without losing her dad, but maybe it’s also important to recognize that a teacher’s life experiences can really affect students. I’ve thought a lot about this lately. Thanks so much for sharing this really meaningful post.

      • Katherine

        Not meaning to wallow in self pity or be a grinch you really shined a light on the awful situations that we have to negotiate every day. Sometimes I would just like to ignore it all but my kids don’t have that choice so I have decided that, u til they can negotiate this themselves, I will be their outspoken advocate, even if it means I am regularly a tear-soaked fixture in the playground. My heart breaks for everyone else in this unfair but it’s good to know I’m not alone and lots of us are in this mess together.

        • Marjorie

          Exactly. I think acknowledging that it’s hard for all of us somehow can make it just a tiny bit easier.

  • Betsy

    Yes! So much to be learned from celebrating what unites us rather than accentuating the differences.

    Yesterday was the first time I actually received a craft/gift made at school for Mother’s Day and as much as I appreciated the love my guy poured into it, it still made me pause. He has several classmates with two Dads, different family makeups, and how did they handle it? I know if it was June he’d be a but sad, despite feeling secure in the love he has from his grandfather and godfathers and uncles.

    Kudos to Tommy’s teacher!

    • Marjorie

      I AGREE! I just finished Mother’s Day and only my daughter independently remembered to make me a card (though she got her brothers to make something eventually.) But you know what? I swear I didn’t care because the three of them feel totally included in their classrooms. I love my school for this. I wish all schools were like this.

  • Melanie

    This is great. In all my years of teaching I’ve only had two students without a father and both of them readily made cards or gifts for their grandfathers. That said, our district is currently undergoing training in diversity and inclusiveness. It’s about parenting, not mothering or fathering. I love your achool’s Family Day.

    • Marjorie

      Me too! I mean, it’s such a simple answer. But what I’d say is this – I’m sure my kids would “readily” make cards for their grandfather. But they would KNOW they were different. They would likely be upset about it at home even if they smiled about it at school. Family day is just so so so much better. Maybe you can offer it up as an idea to your district!

  • Melanie

    This is great. In all my years of teaching I’ve only had two students without a father and both of them readily made cards or gifts for their grandfathers. That said, our district is currently undergoing training in diversity and inclusiveness. It’s about parenting, not mothering or fathering. I love your school’s Family Day.

  • Kelly

    Great post! I’m new to your blog but everything I’ve read makes me nod my head in agreement. My youngest son is in 5th grade and was headed into first grade when his dad died. He had to suffer through 4 years of ‘AllPro Dads’ a monthly morning meeting for dads to come and share breakfast with their kid at school. It was heart-wrenching and he started dealing with school refusal during this time. The kids would come in as a group from the event held in the cafeteria, central to the school and where the kids who weren’t participating had to file past.

    The program finally adjusted its’ policy to be more inclusive to anyone who wanted to come, regardless of gender, but by that time, my son and I already had a way to deal with those mornings. We went out to breakfast and ate donuts together, which was a special treat for him. Being in fifth grade now has him at another school so the program is a memory, albeit not a good one.

    • Marjorie

      That’s so hard. Why do schools do stuff like this? There are just SO MANY other ways to include family members without excluding kids who come from untraditional families! I’m glad you were able to do your donuts mornings, but I’m sorry it had to come to that.