Putting a square family in a round hole

Co-parenting - square family in a round hole | The Kids Are All Right

Filling out a government form when you are a separated couple that co-parents,
is like trying to fit a square family in a round hole.

By Rachel Hynes.

In NSW state schools, there is an enrollment form parents submit when their child starts a new school. I was filling it out this year for my five-year-old and found myself getting irritated again.

The last time I completed it was when my teenager moved high schools.

What’s nuts about this form is its sheer inability to cope with kids whose parents are not together but who co-parent.

Our Federal and state governments promote co-parenting, urging separated couples to avoid family court if possible and instead seek mediation if they need to. They emphasise the importance of both parents in a child’s life (where possible and healthy) and implore parents to make arrangements that are best for the children.

My daughter’s dad and I were fortunate enough to be able to stay friends, skip the courts and mediation, and redefine our family situation our way. So it irks me that government forms cater only to families where one parent is the predominant caregiver.

Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but to me it seems these forms treat the other parent as a second rate parent, an also-ran. I have always filled them out myself because I’ve been too embarrassed to show my ex-partner what role he is reduced to on paper.

Here’s how filling out one of these forms goes.

Family Details

This section is for the parents/carers with whom the student normally lives.

Parent/Carer 1

We have a flexible arrangement, which can change depending on the needs of our daughter or on our own schedule. Sometimes we go by gut feel. If her dad has been out of town a bit or busy and we haven’t stuck to our usual arrangement, Ms 15 will say “I miss dad. I want to go to his place tonight.” And off she trots.

I don’t count the days or hours she spends in our two homes. In the grand scheme of things, she probably spends a bit more time at mine than at her dad’s. And as I tend to handle the paperwork or be the first point of call, and the form field isn’t large enough for my explanation, I fill out this section in my name.

Parent/Carer 2

This is for the other parent at the same address as me.

I made the mistake of entering my husband’s details here when my daughter started high school, and now we get mail from her school addressed to him, her stepdad, and me as his wife, secondary, with his surname, which I didn’t take when we married and certainly didn’t fill in as such (also annoying, but off topic.)

I thought I’d get mail sent to me, which I would then share with her dad, because he is her dad, and we co-parent, which means we make decisions about our daughter together.

Other Parent/Carer contact details for parent/carer not living with this student

The government wants to know all sorts of things about her stepdad and I –  occupations,  education level, country of birth, the languages we speak, all of our contact details. They want to know considerably less about her actual dad, the “parent/carer not living with this student”. So now her dad is “not living with this student” – when I NEVER SAID THAT.

I understand I am in the minority. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, of all kids who had a natural parent living elsewhere, just 3.3% stayed overnight with that parent for at least half the year, and 4.1% stayed overnight 110-181 nights a year.

So that form probably isn’t going to get changed anytime soon, and in the grand scheme of things, there may be bigger things to worry about than the way some boxes and words on a page makes me or a ‘secondary caregiver’ feel about their role as a parent. Same sex parents are probably well ahead of me in the queue to get annoying paperwork stereotypes changed. But still, it irks me.

My teenage daughter said to me this week, after her two grandmothers from her separated parents spent the day together, “You know, I’m just beginning to realise how lucky I am that our families are … the way we are.”

Pff. Eat that, stupid purple form.

Do you ever feel like a square family being jammed into a round hole?
Do you think I’m being overly sensitive about a silly piece of paper?



  1. It does sound extremely frustrating. It’s another one of those social issues that Australia isn’t ready to deal with yet. Blended families are becoming far more prominent than ever. But I guess bureaucracy just can’t keep up.
    Grace recently posted..FYBF – The Bow Chica Bow Wow Free ZoneMy Profile

    • Like I said, it’s probably a petty thing to complain about. But what if little things like this play a part in normalising acrimonious separations?

  2. Stupid government! Your daughter (and all of you) are so lucky to have such a loving supportive family network, regardless of the structure.
    Lisa Barton-Collins recently posted..First World ProblemsMy Profile

  3. I’m really surprised by those statistics. Of all of my kids’ friends who have a natural parent living elsewhere, I can only think of one who spends very little time with that other parent. Even if the percentages are small, it still represents a lot of people!

    Those forms make no sense – if the second parent is supposed to be at the same address, why does it ask for the address again? I think they’ve just kind of evolved over the years, and no-one’s ever done a sanity check.

    I also don’t think you’re being overly sensitive. These kinds of things erase the existence of whole swathes of people. Bureaucratic structures have a habit of influencing the way people think – the form says this is what a family looks like, so it must be what a family looks like (in a subconscious kind of way of course). Much like forms which force a gender choice. We see them constantly, and it reinforces the idea that people who don’t fit either category don’t exist, which must be a near constant irritation to those who do, in fact, exist.
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    • I think you are right about the evolution of these things. And the stereotype/bureacracy runs so deep – you could almost hear the springs flinging off the head of the high school admin lady as I tried to explain our situation when we were talking about school boundaries – “you-spend-equal-time-at-parents-does-not-compute”. And yes. You’ve articulated what I worry about with “little things” like these forms. To steal another’s words, “You can’t be what you can’t see”.

    • If the information you’re giving doesn’t fit neatly into the database fields neither the admin person nor the system can cope!

      Btw, you can tell same sex parents are a little ahead in the line to get forms changed, Parent/Carer 1 and 2 would have been Mother and Father originally. Not that a change like that fixes all problems, but it does matter and is worth campaigning for.
      mimbles recently posted..Friday Fragments – Heatwave editionMy Profile

      • If Senator Bernadi’s predictions are correct, I might need to wait in line behind household pets too. Now I really am getting off-topic.

  4. It stupid , all they really need to know is who the main and secondary point of contact are,isnt that what it ‘a all about? not the family circumstances…very lucky to be in a situaton for your daughter where both parents are amicable , alot of people could take note out of that book! If she is like me [child of seperated parents] i pretty much ran the show ![to a point]

  5. That’s interesting. I’m pretty used to these forms with my job but seriously, I have never thought about it this way. Great post. Definitely and eye opener. Thanks. X

  6. I can’t imagine how hard it is for separated parents to overcome all this hassle on top of everything else they have to deal with. You are lucky your arrangement is as amicable as it is, no wonder so many breakdown in the face of so much red tape.
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  7. It seems a shame the bureacracy can’t manage to accommodate a co-parenting arrangement (or any arrangement that falls outside of their realm of “standard”). I must admit it was a shock recently to mistakenly select “female” for my husband’s gender in an online form and be told that same sex couples were not eligible to apply. Frankly, the bureacracy should be grateful when people establish effective families of any description.
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  8. As an enrolment secretary at a secondary school, I too am familiar with these forms and their limits. But as we enrol mostly families that are new to Australia and usually have VERY complicated situations, we also enquire about their individual family setup in the interview as this helps with not only administration (whether a copy of their report needs to go to maybe a parent in another country plus their home stay parent or agent), but with understanding which parent will be more willing to assist with homework and practising their English or whether the child needs a check in with the counsellor. Thankfully we are a small school and its a lot easier than some main stream schools.
    Plus the database the forms’ information is entered into caters for more flexible family situations. Hopefully at the enrolment interview the school’s registrar will be noting down all this (we have a form developed for this which we call Pastoral Information).
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