As my Facebook page fills up with my friends' urgings to celebrate my mother, the TV shouts at me to buy a gift for my mother and the junk mail in my letterbox splatters images of mothers all over my consciousness, I've started thinking about children who don't have a mother and how they (and their dads) deal with Mothers' Day. And of course there's the flip side- mums who've lost their partner and children who've lost their father, and who have to deal with that as Fathers' Day approaches, complete with school craft projects and gift stalls and morning teas and card-making.
I'm thinking like that, of course, because all this Mothers' Day saturation still makes me wince- and it's nearly 25 years since my mother died.
So, how do teachers make sure they don't bruise feelings through their programming at this time of year? And how do parents who've lost a partner- whether to death or divorce- ensure that their children don't feel lost and miserable at these times of year?
I used to teach a little 3-year-old whose father had died tragically- and recently- of cancer. As Fathers' Day approached, and other mothers started asking me excitedly what we would be doing to celebrate, I was terribly aware that I might have a problem.
I couldn't do nothing, and just ignore the day completely, which is what I'd always done in my own life to avoid the pain; that would have left the other mums and kids feeling that they'd been robbed of something special, something that they were clearly looking forward to with great anticipation. The children ALWAYS made gifts and cards for dad at preschool, and they ALWAYS had a special afternoon tea for the dads.
I couldn't just go ahead regardless, and ignore the feelings of this special little family of two who were still suffering so much. The mum- let's call her 'Joanne'- was still so traumatised that she was likely to burst into tears if one so much as mentioned what had happened; I couldn't turn a blind eye and hope her daughter (let's call her Kyla) would just not understand, or would be away sick that week, and that Joanne wouldn't even notice the signs on the door and the special craft projects hanging everywhere.
I decided that I really had to open communications with Joanne, even though I feared it might be a terribly difficult conversation. I waited for a moment when could ask a co-worker to cover my duties as Joanne arrived and I called her aside to somewhere we could have a private conversation. Then I trusted in my theory of authenticity- I was just completely honest with her. This is what I said:
"I've got a bit of a problem and I really need your help. We always do lots of activities around Fathers' Day here, and I'm just so aware that you and Kyla are really vulnerable about that right now. How would you like me to handle this?"
There, that wasn't so hard... oh okay, yes it was... I was so worried that she would crumble. But people are so resilient if you just give them the chance, and Joanne was no exception. Yes, her eyes did fill with tears. So did mine.
But bless her, she'd already thought about this problem and she had an answer for me. This is what Joanne said:
"Thanks so much for asking. I've decided that I want Kyla to feel as normal as possible at times like this and not be completely different from the other kids. She DOES have a father- it's just that he's not with us any more. We talk about him all the time at home and we look at his picture and we visit his grave. So what I want is for Kyla to do all the activities the other kids do. Whatever she makes for Fathers' Day we will take with us when we visit his grave and we'll give it to him there."
What a mum.
Kyla had a wonderful time making a special card and present for her dad with the other children, and took them home with great excitement. I invited Joanne to come along to the afternoon tea with a picture of Kyla's dad, too. She did that, and it was quite beautiful to see Kyla explaining frankly to the other kids that she had a picture because her Daddy was in heaven.
Joanne's forethought and empathy with her child is a wonderful lesson to any parent who's in this situation. She looked the problem in the eye and thought about her child's needs, even through her own pain- and recognising that the problem was going to be there, she worked out a strategy that both acknowledged Kyla's need to be 'one of the crowd' and made their special circumstances no barrier to Kyla expressing her love for Daddy. I take my hat off to her.
And teachers- do make sure you look the problem in the eye, too. It is hard to talk about these things, but I'm so glad I trusted to my instincts. If you're honest- and if you make sure you create the right environment before you start talking about difficult subjects- you can make great breakthroughs in understanding.