Changes in technology have had an impact on childhood. But societal changes have changed parenthood, which also has its impact on childhood. The change brought by mothers of young children increasingly employed outside the home, requiring different forms of childcare, is the change most often commented on.
Along with that change has been the greater participation by fathers in child care. This in turn has brought about an increasing number of fathers becoming full time caregivers for their children while mothers are in the workplace full time. A sign of the times is the recent story of a father making a legal challenge to his employer for the same number of paid weeks leave granted mothers after the birth or adoption of a child. The older idea that men are the breadwinners and women the caregivers is being challenged. Although both parents and baby benefit from the new involvement by fathers, employers often are not accommodating. Also, many fathers feel they will be penalized later if they do take such leaves, even when permitted to do so.
Some societal changes have been even more controversial than that of fathers as primary caregivers. Families today may consist of two fathers or two mothers. Bi-racial families are far less unusual than in the past, not only because of more frequent intermarriages, but also because the high number of children adopted from other countries. Blended families, composed of children from earlier marriages are common, too, given high divorce and remarriage rate, and have received their own share of attention.
Scientific advances have helped bring about still other societal changes. Today there are many single mothers by choice, rather than because of divorce or the death of a spouse. Even women who have not found life partners but want to be mothers, have the opportunity to become pregnant and bear children with donor sperm. Also in cases of infertility there are now new options, such as donor eggs and surrogate mothers.
The point is that for many children, their experience growing up is different than the one considered normal in the past. That experience was thought to be one of a nuclear family with father the breadwinner, and mother the caregiver and homemaker. Much developmental research has been based on that model of child-rearing, forming many of our ideas about child development, children’s needs, and what is good for children. That body of thought and information influences the way we view many of the changes that are now taking place. Perhaps even more important, it has an impact on the concerns of parents, many of whom feel unsure about the possible impact on their children of the new kinds of families they have created.
Many parents anticipate, or have already experienced the questions that children have, or will ask about their biological heritage, or the composition of their families. They think about how to answer these questions and what kind of information is appropriate to give children at various stages of development. They also worry about the impact on their children of receiving this information, and of the experience of feeling different from their peers.
Adoptive parents have been thinking about these questions for many years and have received changing advice about what is the “right” information to give their children and ways to talk to them. Newer kinds of families have not existed long enough to have a body of information about outcomes in children. Perhaps that is just as well since it gives parents an opportunity to think through their own situations in regard to themselves and their children without worrying about the “right” thing to say or do.
In many ways, the issue for parents is no different than that of talking to children about other matters that adults have always found challenging to talk about, in particular sex and death. But often there are other family or personal issues, even family “secrets” that parents would like to avoid having to discuss. We often think our concern is protecting our children from things that may upset them. In reality, it may be that we are protecting ourselves from things that upset us, or from having to deal with the reactions we anticipate from our children.
The question is how to talk to children in a real way about real things with information and language appropriate to their developmental level. Children want to know the story of their birth and family history – where they came from. Whatever its complexity, that story can and needs to be told, although most likely not all at once. The story may involve a discussion of how babies are conceived – a story the telling of which at times makes parents uneasy and which now has some new variations. We can take a cue from what our children ask, as to what it is they are ready to hear.
It is important to be in touch with our own feelings about the story we have to tell. That self-awareness can help keep our own feelings about the story from interfering with the telling. But perhaps more important still, is recognizing and accepting our children’s reactions even when we find them difficult.
Some months ago, the gay father of an adopted daughter wrote about his daughter calling him “mommy” when she snuggled up to him. While he felt it is great for a child to have two dads, he recognized that she needs to know you understand that not having a mom in your life is hard, that it is o.k. to long for a soft cheek instead of a stubbly one.
In the same way, no matter what the nature of our story, children may at times long for a different cheek to rest on. But that doesn’t mean they won’t turn out well without one.