I do not fit easily into this world. My family does not fit easily into this world.
I remember the first time I felt the sting of how uneasily my family would fit.
My wife and I had brought our daughter home from the adoption agency not three days earlier and we were scheduled for our first doctor’s appointment for her. My wife and I were both still off of work, so we went together, with our 1-month old daughter, to the appointment. After being called into the doctor’s office, we sat down and the nurse began filling out the computerized forms for our daughter. After asking for my name, she then asked for my wife’s name to add to the form. After a few seconds of typing, she looked at the screen, somewhat puzzled. “Hmmm,” she said. “The computer isn’t going to let me put more than one name in the box for mother. Well, one of you is going to have to be the father.”
This was the first moment that we felt the pain of not fitting easily into this world as a family. Though, some might argue that we actually felt it pretty strongly when we had to travel across the country in order to get married because we were not legally allowed to in our own home state at the time.
Then, a few weeks later, we were starting to look for a daycare facility for our daughter for when I went back to work. When we chose the place we loved the most, we were given a packet of forms to fill out. Page after page we had to cross out the word father and rewrite the word mother a second time.
Months later, we received our first, of many, gifts that was intended to be for Father’s Day. It had the word “father” crossed out and the word “mother” written in.
Months after that, we were sent our daughter’s reissued birth certificate (which is a practice I am greatly uncomfortable with in general) and not only had they erased the names of her birth parents, but there I was listed in the spot for “father.”
Years later, for the first time, of many, I heard my three year old daughter have to explain her family to a little boy on the playground before they ran off to play together because he had never heard of a family that didn’t have a dad before.
A year after that, we received our first flyer, of several, for a Daddy-Daughter dance and had to hide it quickly before our daughter saw the princesses splashed across the page and we had to tell her that we weren’t going to be going to this because it wasn’t made for families like ours.
This past year, for the first time, my daughter cried on Father’s Day as she realized that this entire holiday didn’t really fit with who we were. As we tried to celebrate her grandfather and the other men in her life, as we tried to convince her that we did really fit into this space in June, she remained unconvinced as she saw evidence just one more time of the ways we don’t fit easily into this world. And when I took to Facebook in order to simply say that I was thinking of all of those who did not fit comfortably into the Father’s Day holiday, I was told to stop making this day political and ruining a special day for all of those who do wish to simply celebrate fathers.
And over and over and over again, this world provides us with reminders that we are the “other,” that we are different, that we are not the target audience for so many of the events of this world. And there is a particular sting, an extra hurt, when the moments that remind us that we are the other are created by the schools our children attend. Because then it is not just we, the adults, who do not feel as if these spaces are meant for us, but our children are made to feel as if the places where they spend the majority of their days are creating spaces and events that are not meant for them either. We do not have to seek these opportunities out in order to feel sadness about them, we are surrounded by them.
Our decision is not in whether we see them or not. Our decision lays only in whether or not we speak up about them. Every single time we are presented with another moment that reminds us of the heteronormative world that we live in, we have to decide if it is worth saying something. Because when we do, when we speak up, we know what we will face. We know that there will be those who hear our concerns and tell us that we are too emotional, that we are only thinking about ourselves, that this isn’t about us, that we should feel lucky with how much progress has been made, that this isn’t the right time, that acknowledging fathers does not mean that we are discounting mothers, that we shouldn’t hate men, that we ruining things for other people. We know there will be those who see us as angry lesbians, as men-haters, as those who want to lash out against traditional family structures and destroy any join that those traditional families have. We know that this is what we will face, because this is what we always have faced.
These are the things that run through our minds every time we decide to speak up. So it does not come easily. It is not a decision we make lightly. Because the truth is, we walk around every single day feeling as if the world does not fit us and we are desperate in our attempt to keep that feeling away from our children.
And let me be clear, I do not expect the world to conform to me and my family. Because that would mean it would be leaving out anyone who does not look like us. And that is the opposite of what I hope for this world. I would never ask that more people feel the alienation that families like mine so often feel.
So what do I expect? What is my hope when I do choose to push back and to speak up?
I want us to be more aware.
I want us to be more aware that the way we market things, the way we frame things, the language we use, the images we show, they all send a message about who has space here and who is welcome here. They also send a message about who does not have space here and who is not welcome here.
I want us to be more aware that families do not look just one way. They never have. And that when we fall back on traditional assumptions that all families have a mom and a dad, then we are unintentionally leaving out anyone who does not fit that mold. And when the people feeling left out, are the same people who have already been made to feel left out of every other space they’ve encountered, then this can have harmful and dangerous effects.
I want us to be more aware that when we target activities to only one, narrowly-defined gender, making events just for moms or just for dads, especially when those events are made for parents and their children, then we are leaving children out who do not have that mom or dad or do not have that mom or dad available in that moment or who do not come from a family structure that matches the mom and dad mold in any way. It does not matter if we are doing this intentionally or not, the fact is that there is a child who is feeling as if this event is not meant for them.
And I am not asking that we never target events to certain groups of parents or certain groups of people. I am asking that we have a good reason for it when we do and that we make sure that we are being as inclusive as we can be.
If we are holding an event to help families who are recent immigrants go through forms that are not written in their native language, it certainly makes sense to target that event to those who might not have had time yet in this country to master the english language. That is a target group that makes sense because those who do not need the assistance would be taking away resources from those who do.
If we are running a support group for families who are experiencing a specific struggle, like sickness or death or the trauma of racism, then it makes sense to target the group to those families because they deserve a safe space to talk with others who understand what they are going through and having those present who do not understand the struggle might take away from the feeling of safety within the group.
But if we are having a dance. If we are having a dinner. If we are having an event where children are building things with adults. And if we are hoping to bring out family members to these various events, why do those family members have to be a certain gender? What does that distinction matter in this case? If we are trying to build strong adult support for children within a community, why would you ever want to limit that adult support by gender, especially when that understanding of gender is binary and limiting and leaves people feeling unseen? What benefit does that bring? If it doesn’t matter, if there is no reason to limit the focus, then why should? And if there is a reason, if it really does matter, then that is something to think about.
Because I know it is easy to read this and think, “Well, doesn’t that mean she thinks that we should not have programs that work to bring more girls, specifically, into STEM activities? Doesn’t that mean that she thinks that we should not have college scholarships specifically focused on black students?” And no. That is not what I am saying at all.
What I am saying is that we have to be thoughtful about these choices and look at those who have historically been KEPT OUT of opportunities because of systems and laws that were deliberately put into place in order to keep them out. When that is the case, then yes we have a responsibility to help groups of people who have traditionally been oppressed in order to overcome that oppression.
But that is just not the case with a daddy-daughter dance. That is not the case with a BBQ targeted only to Dads. Those events are simply taking oppressive stereotypes and reinforcing them while also leaving out any family who does not have a dad as a part of it.
And I am also not suggesting, though some will think that I am, that we continue be okay with the fact that some dads feel as if they are not important in a school community. I would never ask that we ignore dads simply because not every family has them. What I am asking is that we stop and think more thoughtfully about why dads have traditionally not felt included in the school community.
There have been no laws stopping men from being a part of the school world. Instead, it is narrow thinking and dangerous stereotypes that have kept some men from being a part of the school community or feeling recognized by the school community. Thinking that causes us, as teachers, to immediately reach for mom’s phone number instead of dad’s. Thinking that causes us, as teachers, to email only mom, and not dad, when we have a question about home. And if this is the thinking that has made dads feel excluded (which, by the way, is only one narrow and privileged explanation for a lack of male adults who participate in school activities) then let’s change that thinking.
Let’s ask educators to engage in work that helps us to recognize and acknowledge our own biases and find ways to actively push ourselves beyond them. Let’s ask educators to work to create truly inclusive school spaces and classrooms that do not reinforce narrow and harmful stereotypes about gender and families. Let’s work as educators to get to know our students and their families so that we can better reach out to all families and invite them into the work that we are doing, whether that invitation leads families further into our buildings or simply further into the lives of our students.
I believe that we can do all of this and that it can strengthen the communities we have in our building and the communities that our buildings are a part of. I believe we can do this by being more inclusive and not less inclusive. I believe we can do this by creating events and opportunities where all families and all family members feel welcome. And I believe that the only way to REALLY do that well, is to continue to listen when people share their own experiences and perspectives with us. This is how we build the empathy that is needed in order to build experiences that make everyone feel welcome, even when their experiences lay outside of our own.
So as for me, I will continue to share my experiences. I will continue to share what makes my family feel included and what makes us feel as if we don’t belong. And I will take whatever comes our way in the hopes that I can protect my own daughter, and other kids, from some of it. Because I believe that is how change happens and I have been lucky enough to see some tremendous changes that have happened simply because someone was brave enough to say, this isn’t working for me and others have been brave enough to listen and say, “I had no idea that this would make people feel included, let’s work together to think about how we can change it.” Because it is not that there are stories that are going untold, it is that they are being told and those in power are not stopping to hear them. And that is something that we all have the power to change.