From getting “Sirred” to getting “Mom’d”

Ever since I cut my hair short – almost ten years ago, I have become accustomed to regularly being addressed as “sir” by the vast majority of strangers I encounter. It’s partly because of how I dress (and the fact that I do not, and have not ever, had boobs of any noticeable size), but mostly, I think it’s the hair. I don’t mind being “sirred” most of the time – as someone who claims a genderqueer identity, I don’t tend to enjoy being referred to as “lady” or “ma’am” – so given the choices, “sir” is not the worst thing. It’s awkward on occasion – usually more so for the folks with me, or for whoever’s doing the “sirring,” than it is for me. I don’t love awkwardness, but again, it’s not the worst thing.

What I didn’t realize, is that not only is being sirred not the worst thing, I think part of me really likes it. I came to this realization during the near eleven months I recently spent as a stay-at-home parent, during which time I was not sirred a single time. As long as I was with the baby, everywhere I went, I was “mom’d.”

We are not planning for our baby to call me “mom” – we’ve been referring to me as “papa” (read more about that here). But it’s not the fact that folks are calling me “mom” when I don’t claim that title that throws me off – there’s no way people would know I prefer “papa” if I don’t say so and there’s no need to have that conversation with every grocery store clerk on the planet. Rather, I’m feeling thrown off by the draIMG_4605 - Version 2matic shift in how I’m being read. I’ve gone from being predominantly read as masculine in public to being predominantly read as feminine. It’s jarring, in part because it has changed how people treat me, and in part because I completely didn’t expect it. Perhaps I’m naive to have been surprised, but since nothing about my appearance or expression changed – hair, clothes, mannerisms – save for having an infant strapped to my chest most of the time, I assumed people would still read me as masculine, as they always had.

Because I was frequently read as a very young man in the past (young enough that perhaps nobody would expect me to have a kid), the fact that I now frequently have a baby in tow leads to the immediate conclusion: Mom/woman. In the past people either confidently addressed me as sir, or hesitated and waffled back and forth between “ma’m” and “sir” as they tried to figure me out. What’s fascinating to me now is that there is absolutely no hesitation when I’m with the baby. I am “mom’d” without question every time. The truth is, people still don’t expect to see men or boys with children. I think it’s also possible that people don’t expect to see queer and genderqueer folks with children either. Perhaps people now see the baby in my arms, or the stroller, or the diaper bag over my shoulder, and don’t see anything else.

It’s been an uncomfortable shift, as I feel less comfortable with the title “mom” than with “sir,” though neither is really right. This shift in perception has also illuminated the limitations of the gender binary in ways I hadn’t considered before becoming a parent. Before, I was “sir.” Now, I am “mom.” As a queer-identified person, I am invisible either way.

This blog entry is cross-posted at Queeringtheline.com.

The Things That Spring Uncovers

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I pry the skull from my dog’s frenzied jaw. The old bone is yellow and the smell of rancid death still clings to it, though it is mostly clean now. I wonder how it died, how it came to be so clean under mounds of Wisconsin snow and record-cold temperatures. The things that spring brings up.

I carry it home in the poop-scoop. This is the second time she’d tried to claim the skull, and it’s unlikely to be the last unless I move it. Picking it up is neighborly, right? I’m sure the elderly couple whose yard the squirrel died in don’t have any particular attachment to it. And I’m saving all the other dog-owners in the area from having to pry little skulls from their dog’s maws.

It reminds me of a Georgia O’Keefe painting, although I think O’Keefe dealt in animals more romantic than gray squirrels. But there’s something to the slope of front teeth and the jagged edge of back teeth, and the way it’s just the top of the skull. The jaw has disappeared. Maybe a dog ate it.

 

Spring forces this up.

 

The smell of blood and road salt. My son was born in spring. The tulips heralded his first cry. His first full day of life, we stood outside in the sunlight with relatives, and his tiny, red fists senselessly battered the warm, not hot, air. I remember the smell of breastmilk mingling with the smell of lilacs, and the smell of the birthing tub. Spring things.

Now he is older, and like the little skull, he fights the frozen ground and still-present mounds of dirty snow for purchase. He races outside in the sunlight, heedless of frozen fingers and cheeks, to chalk sea monsters and spindly flowers on the patio. He blows bubbles, as if it were summer already. So impatient. He’s done with spring before the snowdrops even showed up. But maybe that’s the most spring-like thing of all.

 

The smell of blood, in water, in spring.

 

Spring brings these things up, frozen as they were, buried under mulch and rocks. Spring pushes them forth, yellowed skulls and the impatience of children.

 

Blood, in water, in a springtime breeze.

 

He was born at home. I gave birth to him. We don’t talk about that anymore. I don’t. I don’t have words, I lack purchase. I’m slipping on dirty mounds of ice and snow, the scent of blood and water and birth is in my nose, and I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m just falling.

 

And it’s springtime. And springtime pushes these things up.

photo credit: jacilluch via photopin cc

What’s in a Name?

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.

Mister Mom

A couple of things:

 

 

 

  • Are you reading VillageQ? Because you should be. Because there’s a host of excellence going on there.

 

  • I have a short story published in THEM Lit. If you have any interested in gender and literature, check it out. Everything in the publication is phenomenal—AND I hear they’re coming out with a paper run pretty soon here!

 

On to the proper post:

 

Members of Queen, in drag, looking amazing. From the music video for I Want To Break Free.

Members of Queen, in drag, looking amazing. From the music video for I Want To Break Free.

 

 

I hate that phrase. Mr Mom. It always made me feel uncomfortable when I was a kid—like I wasn’t sure who they were mocking, but I was pretty sure I didn’t like it. Maybe it was personal—my dad does things coded as feminine by the patriarchy—he loves cooking and sewing, for example. Or maybe it was both my parents and their second wave teachings. Either way, I hate the phrase. I’m glad it seems to be going out of style, though a quick search on google’s news page tells me it’s not fully out of vernacular.

But it haunted my thoughts the other day. Our neighbors stopped to talk to Jetpack. They asked what he learned that day at preschool—”nothing.” They suggested he teach it, since he’s so smart. And then they suggested I teach it. I laughed, and Jetpack agreed. “Daddy Levi can teach cooking!”

OWCH. Cooking? I mean. I love cooking. I love feeding my family. But—and I admit this sounds a little ridiculous, but this is how it felt—if I died tomorrow, he’d remember me as that guy that cooked a lot. Not as the guy who writes. Not as a dad who reads with him, or who helps people out, or who gardens—but that guy that cooks.

I don’t think I prepared myself for the little disappointments—the way that kids can sometimes cut at their parents. They have a lot of power! I’m sure there’s a lesson in here somewhere—maybe my own internalized sexism? Maybe not taking things so seriously? Maybe some of both?

Anyway. We’re getting take out for dinner tonight. Gyros. You know you’re jealous.

Guest Post: Maintaining Self-Identity as a Parent

Our guest post this week comes from Fab Mama, writing about identity, visibility, and family. Interested in submitting your own guest post? Click here!


Once I became a parent my identity was forever changed.  When people ask me about myself one of the first things I say is that I am a mom (to the most amazing toddler on the planet).  I am also a partner, a teacher, a cis-gender woman, a former dancer (who still itches to move), a quiet artist (who is probably a closeted crafter), a baker, and so many other things.  But for the first year of Fab Baby’s life, my complex identity dissolved into one primary role: motherhood.  I nursed Fab Baby around the clock, stayed home during the day to care for her, washed her diapers, cleaned up her spit-up, held her as she napped, and co-slept with her.   The line between my end and her beginning was blurred; we were some kind of symbiotic being, breathing and pulsating together.

But, as we rounded the bend on Fab Baby’s first birthday I began to see that my “momminess” was showing.  I had a frumpy haircut, carried more post-baby weight than I felt comfortable with, wore a “mom” coat because my more fashionable coats still didn’t fit, and felt overall uninspired.

So, here we are 16 months into parenthood and I am just now regaining some of my former parts.  I’m going to the gym more regularly, I got some clothes that I feel good in, I got a part-time job out of the house, my partner and I schedule more time for me to be alone and do things that fuel me, and I got a better haircut.  I have realized that while being a mom is important, I don’t want that to be the only (or even most important) way that I define myself.

I imagine most first-time parents, especially stay-at-home and nursing parents, can relate to this temporary loss of identity.

In addition to temporarily misplacing my identity in mommyland, I also struggle with finding a way to self-identify in the context of my new family.  I have always struggled to find the right label for my sexual orientation.  When I dated a woman it was easy to say things like, “My girlfriend…” or “My partner, she…” and people knew I wasn’t straight without my needing to come up with a label for myself.  Now being the partner of a transgender man I am often misread as a straight lady.  This is even more so the case now that we have a child; people hear that I have a baby and a partner/husband, and assume that we are just your average got-knocked-up-the-old-fashion-way hetero couple.  This perception couldn’t be further from the truth.  I am proud to be a member of the LGBTQ community (even if my identity doesn’t fall under one of those labels).  Sometimes when I’m in a room full of straight-appearing folks I want to scream at the top of my lungs, “I’m not just like you! I’m different!”

But then, how do I talk about myself?  I can’t casually mention my same-gendered partner to out myself.  Sure I can use “partner” instead of “husband” when talking with people, but lots of hip folks – gay, straight, or otherwise—use this term now.  I could also reveal that I am married to a trans guy, but I hate that one of the only ways I can think of to self-identify involves outing my partner.  This is unfair to him, as he should be the one who gets to decide who is privy to that information, and it’s unfair to me.  It makes me feel less than a whole person and that I don’t have my own unique identity without my partner.

How do I talk about my family open and honestly without sharing information that isn’t mine to share?  How do I self-identify if my identity is wrapped up in other people?  I suppose the larger question, for people of all family compositions, gender identities, and sexual orientations, is: how do you maintain a sense of self within the context of a family?

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Little Bear at six months browsing the kid bookshelf in our living room

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the books we have available for Little Bear. I love reading, and even as a child reading was part of the way I made sense of the world. I really resonate with Hermione from the Harry Potter books in that my first response in the face of a problem is to check the library. While I recognize that Little Bear is probably not going to have the same relationship to books that I have, I want her to have access to books that help her make sense of the world. As a parent and a book-lover, I want to be able to have ways of introducing age-appropriate discussions about difference, inequalities, and justice.

I was doing a little research about children’s books and race, and found some really disturbing statistics over at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center about books by and about people of color. For example, in 2012 there are approximately 5,000 new children’s books published. However, only 119 were about African-Americans and only 68 were written by African-Americans. There were only 6 books about Native Americans and 22 by Native Americans. There were only 76 books about Asian Pacific Americans, and 83 books by Asian Pacific Americans. Only 59 books were by Latinos and 54 books were about Latinos. To be clear, I am not saying I think all children’s book authors who are people of color should only write or illustrate books about people of color, nor am I saying that white people absolutely shouldn’t write books about people of color. To be honest, I am still wrestling with notions of authority and authenticity when thinking about who should or shouldn’t be telling stories about marginalized communities. However, on the whole I try to operate on the basis that people in marginalized communities know their struggles, joys, lives better than someone not in that community.

So why is this important? Why are kid’s book in particular important? In Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature Allison Lurie writes that

The great subversive works of children’s literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten. 

The stories we tell are powerful. Stories help shape our sense of the world, of what is right and wrong. Children’s books have explicit and implicit messages about race, gender, class, ability, power, and culture. Being able to share books that explore these issues is important to me as a parent. My partner and I have tried to provide Little Bear with books by and about a lot of different types of people and families. As we saw above with books by and about people of color most books are still by and about white people. I am willing to bet all the coffee in my cupboard that a similar trend emerges for ability, sexual orientation, class and gender identity.

In a pretty quick search for children’s literature by and about people of color, I found a few decent lists and essays at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center and a list at my local public library website.  Where have you found good lists of books by and about people of color? How about books about sexual orientation and gender identity? Books about ability? Am I over-emphasizing the importance of children’s books? Whether you are a parent or not, what are your thoughts about finding a variety of books for the kids in your life?

CCBC Multicultural Children’s Literature Page

CCBC’s 50 multicultural books every kid should know

Hennepin County Library Birth to Six book list on Helping Kids Relate