I am wearing my purple dress for our Aussie Dads lunch in Melbourne. Parents At Work are in the business of supporting working parents and carers and while we run a campaign on supporting Aussie Dads, I am conscious of the fact that not all families have a Dad living at home all the time. Especially today, on Wear it Purple Day – let’s acknowledge and celebrate families with one or two or even three Mums, as is the case of Michelle Dance’s 4 year old boy.
This morning I spoke with Michelle, who is living with her female partner and together they are raising children in a modern family. Michelle has three children including shared custody of a 4 year old boy, a 19 year old daughter living with her and her partner and a 23 year old boy who lives in Brisbane. Michelle has a long history of shared custody, both with same-sex parents and with her ex-husband. So I asked her some questions about her reality.
Michelle Dance works for the Commonwealth Bank and is an Executive Director in the Real Estate business. Her partner also works at CBA and they both work in full time roles. Their 4 year old’s other mother who they share custody with also works full time running her own business.
What does this year’s theme of Empower Together for Wear It Purple Day mean to you and your modern family?
Like all families, we have our differences from time to time and we drive each other crazy as much as we love each other, but the support I’ve had from my siblings and from my ex-partners has been fantastic. When my elder boy was at high school, he was really scared that his friends would find out that I was gay and that would ruin his life. His Dad was really, really supportive of me and that meant a lot. So even though, as things often are sometimes a little bit difficult with our exes, the support on those really key important things, integrity and family and inclusiveness, just mean so much.
What are some positive aspects of sharing the caring with your partner now?
I’m very fortunate to have a wonderful partner who’s incredibly brave for taking on the chaos that is children from teenagers to what was a toddler when we got together. I’m sure anyone who’s stepped into a pre-formed family has some empathy for how difficult that can be. Some of my heterosexual friends complain about there being an imbalance in the caring responsibilities, between the gender split for household duties.
That hasn’t been my experience and I think that’s a big upside for same-sex couples. There’s no preconceived idea about boy jobs or girl jobs, there are just jobs that need to be done and we all just pitch in and get them done.
Are there any unique challenges you face as same-sex parents?
I think we share some things with any minority, in that we worry about our kids being bullied because of difference and sometimes those fears are quite well-founded. The difference for us is, when children are afraid of be bullied, they can hide their parents. You can’t hide your ethnicity, that’s something you wear on the outside. If you’ve got a visible disability, that can be hard to hide. However, you can hide your parents and you can hide your own sexuality to avoid being bullied and that’s a very difficult place to be.
Have you noticed there’s a change in society from your older children to what you expect your 4-year-old will go through when he goes to school?
Things have changed rapidly. My older boy for many years hid me from his friends at school, and at that time, I went and spoke to the principal at his school who was not empathetic or helpful at all. Only a few years later when my daughter was starting high school, I spoke with the principal when she was starting there, at a Catholic school and they couldn’t have been more wonderful, so the difference just in a few years was huge. My youngest boy is only 4, but the school he’s in is incredibly inclusive.
I got a text from a friend this morning for Wear It Purple Day – her boy is at the same school that my eldest son went to. The text had a screen shot of the newsletter from that school and it was talking about Wear It Purple Day, the importance of inclusion and what the Catholic ethos says about accepting everyone and everyone being a child of God. I can’t overstate the 180-degree swing in a period of six years – from that school, from saying we don’t think we’ve got a responsibility to care about our students’ sexuality or the sexuality of their parents, and seeing the real conflict between their faith and being inclusive, to the message that went out today, so I feel incredibly hopeful.
Was there any impact on your family through last year’s marriage equality debate?
Definitely, last year was really hard. I expected it to be something that would just be a bit annoying, but it was really emotionally upsetting. It was incredibly stressful. I would struggle every day reading in the paper the things that people were saying about same-sex couples, knowing that my older children were reading the same things and hearing it on the airwaves, and the impact that that had on our community was really hard.
The sense of euphoria when it passed was wonderful and working for an employer that actively supported that meant so much. Coming out the other side, we’ve come from a situation where our government was saying to my children that my relationship with my current partner is worth less than the relationship I had with their Dad, where it’s saying to my little boy that the relationship I have with my partner is less than the marriages that his friends who have heterosexual parents have. That’s gone, and whether same-sex couples choose to actually get married or not doesn’t matter, that the absence of legal “less-than” is incredibly important.
What has CBA done in terms of supporting your modern family and parenting journey?
Where I’ve worked in the past has been very different with 90/10 gender splits and even worse at the senior levels. The focus on men as being the hunter-gatherers and women being the people who look after babies was as much an inhibitor to flexibility as the inherent homophobia.
Coming to CBA, I had been here a week when I got a phone call from two of the people who are on the Unity/LBGTI council committee to say “Hey, let us buy you a coffee tell you about what we’re doing.” Having people reaching out and saying “We’re here to support, what can we do?” was just wonderful.
The bank went to a lot of effort to go through all of our policies and not just make them non-gender specific, including same-sex couples, but to make the language actively inclusive. Sometimes LGBTI people can read policies and see exclusion in it, because it doesn’t say explicitly if you’re a same-sex couple the policy applies to you equally. CBA has gone to a lot of effort to make sure that the people feel included. The work that Unity’s done has been fantastic.
As you know, we often use the analogy of diversity being invited to the party and inclusion being asked to dance. That is quite descriptive. To feel truly included, someone has to reach out and really make an active step to make you feel welcome.
Thank you, Michelle Dance, for sharing your story with us, for sharing your story of your modern family with some heart-felt emotional experiences and some really important tips for other employers.
Happy Wear It Purple Day.