Just a couple of weeks to go until the majority of UK schools open their doors after the six-week summer holidays. For those whose children are starting school for the very first time, this is perhaps the biggest 'shift' in circumstances since becoming a parent and can often be an emotional and anxious time for all involved.
I'm not convinced the term 'different family' is the most appropriate but over the years since my daughter started school in 2010, I've come to notice that a number of the concerns or considerations we've had are similar to those of other parents who would consider themselves as a 'minority family' (i.e. not the 2.4 children living at home with both birth parents) - they have identified themselves as 'different' (e.g. child living between separated parents, families created using donor egg and/or sperm, disability within a family etc.) and it's these 'differences' and the considerations that surround them that have often united us as parents chatting at the school gates.
So, do those of us with 'different families' feel any additional anxiety surrounding their children starting school? Should we take be taking further steps in settling our children (and us) into the school community?
Our daughter was starting school in a neighbouring village to where we lived, hadn't attended the on-site pre-school (which 11 out of the 15 Reception intake had) and as a family, we didn't know anyone else at the school or in the village!
We felt that we wanted to meet with the class and head teachers in the term before she started school which we described at the time as 'making a fuss about not making a fuss'! Whilst we didn't envisage there being any teething problems, we were aware there might be some. It was important to us that the school knew how we talked about our family at home, the terminology we used, what our daughter called us both so they knew how to refer to us and furthermore enabling the teacher to answer questions/comments from other children and parents comfortably.
As far as we know there have been no major problems for our children related to our 'different family' as such. We've had tears on a couple of occasions due to the perceived validity of our family relationships, which our daughter found upsetting, rather than anything overt ('they can't both be your mums as you can only have one mum', 'he's your stepbrother not your real one').
Of course we've had the amusing and often personal questions and comments over the years - but that's another post entirely!!
So here's a toolkit for starting school - it doesn't cover everything and some elements apply to one and all - but there may just be a few handy hints to guide those 'different families' out there navigating their children starting school.
This time next year will be a whole new ball game for us - starting secondary school - which I'm anticipating will bring a whole new set of issues. Anyone got a toolkit for that??
Toolkit for Starting School
*Don't make a big deal of any differences - there is enough going on with making sure you've the right number and type of footwear and agonising over packed lunches or school dinners!
*Meet with the class and head teacher - let them know how you as a family talk about your family, the terminology you use (we warned them that our little 4 year old was well aware that it is not a man and woman that make a baby but egg and sperm!!), take in story books that you refer to at home and then tell your child what you've told the school. Think ahead for events such a Father's Day or Mother's Day and prevent the teachers awkwardness by suggesting alternatives (i.e. making a card for Grandad).
*Have a few phrases ready for when the inevitable questions are asked (by children and parents) - perhaps reflecting questions back: 'do you know anyone with two mums? It maybe a bit unusual - a different kind of family', 'families come in different packages'.
*Introduce 'difference' to your child - generally talk about different types of family to increase their awareness and to enhance their resilience.
*Be aware but not wary - don't assume that family difference is the issue if your child is upset or worried about something, in our experience it's been extremely rare.
*Find support - from friends and school parents (including those in similar families as yourselves) as well as organisations who may have resources to assist and guide you (i.e. Donor Conception Network, Out with the Family).