When I was growing up, most of my friends’ families had a mom and a dad. A few parents were divorced and that meant stepdads and stepmoms were also in the picture. That was about the extent of family diversity in my experience. During my teaching credential program, I learned about children having two moms or two dads. I made a mental note to remember this. I have discovered that family configurations are limitless and I now work to be inclusive, aware and respectful.
In the part of Oakland where I taught, fathers in the household were unusual. Some kids did not know their father. Some had met a father once or twice. Some fathers were in jail. I was thankful that Father’s Day fell after school was over so I didn’t have to deal with that minefield, and avoided questions that would make it sound like I assumed kids had a dad in their lives.
I thought that would be the most difficult family topic and then I surveyed my students. Some students were being raised by aunties and others by grandmothers. I had two students being raised by their great-grandmothers, and at least two more being raised by a great-aunt. One child in our school was being raised by her 21-year-old sister. Another mother I knew was taking care of her kids and her younger brother. Other kids were in foster situations.
The reasons for these different family situations were as diverse as my students. Most were heart-wrenching stories of incarceration, substance abuse and neglect.
One year, when Mother’s Day came along, I got creative.
A student asked when we were going to make Mother’s Day cards. Several others joined in. I saw the look of panic on another student’s face. I explained that it was a time to honor all the women taking care of us, and added that Father’s Day was a time to honor the men who took care of us. It was an extremely imperfect explanation that still left out some possible situations, but it was the best I could come up with at the time.
We talked about grandmothers, aunts and cousins, moms and foster moms, sisters, neighbors and guardians. In typical third-grade fashion, they all shouted out their ideas at once. We talked about how it felt to have someone love and care for them. A student asked if she could make her dad a Mother’s Day card and I said yes. In fact, I said yes to every suggestion that was made, throwing out my idea of it being a sort of “woman’s day” and just going with anyone the children felt cared for them.
Many of the guardians later thanked me for the card project. It was encouraging to be acknowledged, they said. They had worried about the impact of their child not having a mother or father in her life. I looked for other ways to acknowledge family members who were raising the children. I stopped addressing notes with “Dear Parents.” I threw out all templates for student letters that began with “Dear Mom and Dad.”
I got my own reward at the end of that project: one of the nicest cards I received in my life. It showed me that what I was doing mattered and that the kids could see past my clumsy attempts at inclusion to the heart of what I meant. On the giant piece of construction paper is a stick figure with long hair, it reads: “To my teacher who is a woman. And she takes care of me and she loves me and she is my family in my heart.”
Harris is a teacher, tutor and volunteer in California.