Communicating with families can make all the difference

I am a parent. It is my greatest joy and, like all parents, I have fears and hopes for my child.

My goal is to provide my child with a healthy, functioning family, full of warmth and positive interactions and secure environments that foster this. Her family constellation just happens to consist of, well, me. My child has a great relationship with her grandmother, though she lives a three-hour drive away. In family composition data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics I would be classed as a ‘lone mother’. My child and I would be classed as a single-mother family. In much of the discourse around caregiving and income-generation, our family structure is called a ‘father-absent family’.

This idea that our family is missing something, most particularly a father, has been an undercurrent of my contacts in public or with government agencies. I’ve been met with tones of moral admonition and a sense that others are ‘coping’ with this uncomfortable problem, the ‘lone mother’.

As a lone mother (a term I’m quickly learning to loathe) the dilemmas I face are most always to do with allowing enough time for parenting and about generating income. I’m in my last year of full-time study at university so that I can re-enter the workforce with a reasonable chance at some economic stability. I don’t necessarily shield my child from the problems I face, but it makes me keenly aware of the socio-emotional influences around her and the effects they could have on the development of an authentic personal response. It also makes me aware of how significant the childcare setting is to not only the care and wellbeing of my child but as a support mechanism for me. It was one moment in particular that made me realise how important it is to recognise and build the partnership between parents and educators.

It’s important to me that my child feels capable and worthy and I care about what messages of approval she is being given by others, even other children. It’s in the small interactions where big issues come to light.

‘Why doesn’t she have a father?’, a little girl at our child care centre wanted to know. Naturally, you would say that every child has a right to ask questions. And I would agree. What answer would you have me give this little girl? The answer I gave was that our family was just the two of us, and we talk to grandma on the phone. Then another little friend assured that if my child prayed to Jesus he would bring us a daddy for Christmas! It was in this moment that I realised that the father-centric family structure is still seen as the model of normality. I didn’t want my child to be defined as fatherless. I needed to talk.

So I approached the staff at our childcare centre, and where I wouldn’t normally talk about my personal life, I found myself doing just that.

I believe truly that the quality of family relationships is more important than how that family is formed. While it sounds like an obvious statement, the lines of communication between parents and educators can keep this understanding of the complexities of family surrounding each child to the fore. I also want to draw attention to the positive experience I had in building collaboration around my child’s learning with the educators at Wiradjuri Childcare Centre, at the University of Canberra, through our discussion around this important aspect of my child’s life.

Julie McElhone

Every Child magazine – vol. 18 no. 2, 2012.

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