My partner is pregnant and due this July. We’re excited and nervous, and like any new parents, we have a lot of questions. We’ve got most of the basics covered, but we also have a question that seems to be increasingly common among masculine-identified female queer parents. What to be called? We likely appear to most folks as a run-of-the-mill lesbian couple. Many people probably assume that when the baby arrives, we’ll both be moms. While we have yet to come to a final decision on my parental moniker, we do know one thing. I won’t be “Mom.” Or “Mama” or “Ma” or any other variation thereof. “Baba” is now in vogue among lesbian couples, and we’ve talked about whether or not we like it. On the one hand, “Baba” means father or daddy in Kiswahili (and about a bazillion other languages… except for the ones where it means grandma), and I speak a little Kiswahili, so it feels somewhat familiar. But it’s also the way lots of English-speaking babies say “bottle” or “blanket” (or possibly “Barbara,” which is my partner’s name), and we’re having trouble shaking these other associations. “Dad” or “daddy” are in the running, and in reality, we may just default to those for ease’s sake, but most days, we imagine our child calling me “Papa.” It’s what our cats “call” me (yep, we’re those people), and we both already like it. But using the name “Papa” for a female parent brings up yet another set of questions that I’ve been contending with of late.
Our culture is rife with situations that draw a hard line between maleness and femaleness, masculinity and femininity. There are moments when the gender binary – namely, the notion that there are only two sexes and two corresponding genders and that these categories are completely distinct and exclusive from one another – is quieter, fading into the background of our social interactions. There are other times when the binary forcefully rears its head, making many of us think that there are no alternatives. Parenting is one of those latter cultural moments. Social mores lead us to believe that parents come in two flavors only – fathers and mothers. Moreover, although many people understand that the activities and traits ascribed to motherhood and fatherhood can be flexible (i.e., that fathers can cook dinner or be stay-at-home parents and mothers can throw a football or be breadwinners), the idea that mothers are women and fathers are men is decidedly more fixed in our culture. These identities are so ingrained that even within some LGBT communities, the notion of gender-segregated parent identities persists with vigor.
As much as I hate to admit it, I worry what other people will think or how they’ll react to the idea of me being a “Papa” or whatever I end up choosing to be called. My partner is awesome at reminding me that none of that matters, but I still fret all the same because once we’re parents – and especially once our kid is walking and talking and sharing all manner of our personal business with strangers in the grocery checkout line – I have to live this reality publicly, even if it’s the right one, and sometimes the publicly lived realities of trans and gender queer people are stressful or awkward or even scary. For instance, I imagine the following likely scenario: Our kid is preschool age and we’re out in public. Some well-meaning stranger refers to me as the child’s mother and the child (out of indignation, pride, or just general confusion that this person can’t plainly see that I am not the child’s mother) loudly proclaims, “That’s not my mom. She’s my papa!” I shared this anxiety with my partner who rather unhelpfully pointed out that most people probably won’t mistake me for our child’s mom but will more likely mistake me for our child’s brother. Awesome. Thanks.
In truth, though, we’ve spent some time thinking about how we would respond to such an incident were it to occur not in our own neighborhood but, say, at an interstate rest stop in rural Ohio, or a restaurant in Virginia, or some other location where we are likely to find ourselves at some point and where we might hesitate to affirm my identity and our family, not out of awkwardness, but for fear of our emotional or physical safety. A veteran queer parent whose partner feels similarly to me pointed out that if someone asks if I’m our child’s mom, I can always respond by saying, “I’m the parent.” Because really, most people are just curious about babies and most people are well meaning and kind, but even so all the intimate details of our family are also not most people’s business.
I am trying to settle into and embrace the knowledge that queer families are remaking a heteronormative world in their own image. We are remaking what it means to be spouses, lovers, parents, mothers, fathers, men, women, or creating new identities altogether. I hope this extends into my child’s life as well. This is what excites me most about parenthood – creating a family is like creating a new world that we will in turn share with the people we encounter. People might not get it. They might say hurtful things. This is another lesson my children will learn – perhaps earlier than others. I hope they will see that love is stronger than any obstacle we face.
Sumner McRae is new to the Queer Dads blogging team as of March 2014. She also writes about the gender binary at queeringtheline.com.