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.

Beautiful Weekend in Prarie Dog Town

jetpack climbing in a tree, blurry sunlight

Yesterday the three of us went to Prairie du Chein to visit family, and Jetpack jumped in every puddle and covered himself in mud. We went to Pizza Hut and Jetpack climbed in a tree and greeted every child going to a birthday party there. And then we went to Cabela’s and Jetpack schooled a group of adults and children on the different kinds of sportfish that they had in the display aquariums.

Prairie du Chein is kind of adorable, in a run-down rural Wisconsin town way. It sits at the edge of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. The terrain is wonderfully jagged with hills and bluffs and rocky outcroppings, and trains fly through the area several times a day. There’s a lot of very old, lovely brick buildings. Prairie du Chein was, once upon a time, a very important town in the fur trade business, and it has that lovely, dated feeling. Though we were only in town for a little while, I think we plan on trying to stay for longer, next time.

Villa-louis

It’s always a little strange to be the “gay” family in a rural midwestern town. Being white, and male, and cis-appearing, we don’t feel unsafe–just on display. We’re out of our comfort zone but not out of safety. (Rest in Power, the both of you. My heart goes out to your family and your child and your friends.)

And Jetpack, oh Jetpack. He’s quite a kid to have around when you’re an awkward introvert, let me tell you. He still patiently and happily explains that he has no mom to anyone who makes that mistake. And it’s sometimes odd to see that mistake happen—for example, when we’re at Costco and he runs up to get a food sample. The clerk says “make sure to ask your mom” even as I’m standing there with him. That’s not a case of misgendering—it’s merely that the cultural narrative is of mom as the primary caregiver. That a kid would be out with their dad is beyond the scope of how a lot of people understand the world. This hurts moms—we expect mom to take care of the kids, so their contributions aren’t valued— and dads—we expect dad to NOT care, and if they do, we’re treated like special snowflakes.

When you have two dads, those special snowflake moments are even bigger. When we were in Prairie, for example, we received a lot of very broad smiles. While it was the midwest and all, I’m pretty sure some of it has to do with being a pair of unicorns and a precocious, adorable kid.

But it was a beautiful weekend. It made the shit-sandwich of this week so far–The Mister has extra work to do, I’ve got a second-hand-smoke induced cold, Jetpack was made fun of AGAIN at preschool–a little easier to bear. Horray for sunshine, and greasy pizza, and my cute kid. I hope your weekend was lovely, reader. Feel free to share in the comments!

Princess Movies

 Like a invasive bug in your home. Kids bring it home from preschool, like lice. There’s no chemical treatment, no nit comb. No definitive recovery.

Negative gender stereotyping.

I’ve noticed an insidious motion in Jetpack’s preschool class. As the kids approach five, they are starting to segregate by gender more and more frequently. I don’t know whether it’s encouraged by his teachers (I wouldn’t be surprised, this year) or just a natural age progression.

We were at the library last week, and I was looking for a movie to watch with him. I pulled “Alice in Wonderland” off the shelf. The book is one of my partner’s favorites, and Jetpack has a book of Lewis Carrol’s poetry that he loves.

“I don’t want that. I don’t watch princess movies.”

I was thunderstruck. You what now?

I mean, he doesn’t. He doesn’t watch princess movies—or anyway, he never has. We’ve never offered. He also found Finding Nemo was terrifying, and Earth’s Mightiest Heroes left him shaking after twenty minutes*. So his outright refusal was bizarre. I had never offered a princess movie. Furthermore, I mean, what exactly made him refuse Alice as a princess movie?

 

Alice in Wonderland DVD cover, with Alice, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, etc.

 

Here’s the cover. What screams princess about this? There’s no pink dresses, no crowns (well, except on the Red Queen, but she’s itty bitty in the corner and not really indicative of the “Princess” stereotype). So was he actually reacting to the fact that there was a girl on the cover? It’s about the only conclusion I can come to—that we’ve coded “movies about girls” into “princess movies” into “boring movies for boys” and that he’s picked that up from society at large.

Flames. Flames from the side of my face.

Thankfully, my partner swooped in to the rescue, as I stood, mouth agape. “You do too. You like Star Wars, right? That’s a princess movie.” (No, we haven’t shown our 4-year-old Star Wars. He’s played Star Wars Angry Birds a lot, though, and is familiar with the cast and stuff).

“No it isn’t!”

My partner deftly explained who Princess Leia was, and it was settled—we rented Alice in Wonderland, and he loved it (though the Red Queen terrified him). He asked to watch the next episode the next day (if only!) and then we watched the movie again the day after that (he hid trembling behind a chair during all the “off with her head” bits).

I hope that next time he’s more interested in movies with girls on the covers. I may have to rent a bunch more, for since.

Any recommendations?

 

 

*He was concerned because someone was trying to hurt Tony Stark. Cute, but misguided—I mean, come on, it’s Tony.

Tantrum City

Tantrums. Every kid has them. Little Bear has been throwing some real good ones lately. My partner and I have been both feeling frustrated. I won’t speak for Rebecca, but I’ve been feeling downright angry when Little Bear pitches a tantrum. I want to give her space to work through emotions and feelings, but sometimes I need her to put her boots on. Now. 

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Little Bear and wall collage!

Lately, what I’m trying to work on is not reinforcing that pitching a tantrum works, which is harder than it sounds. A recent example: Little Bear pitched a tantrum over not getting to walk up the stairs one night before bed. I had been repeatedly saying we were going to go upstairs and use the potty and get ready for bed. I finally just picked her up and carried her, and she sobbed and cried about “My go upstairs! My walk upstairs!” So I took her downstairs and let her walk up herself and we carried on with the night. This is perhaps not a super dramatic example, but I had been saying it was time to go upstairs and trying to corral her for a while before picking her up. I reinforced that whining and crying would get her something she wanted (and let her delay bedtime, which is already a long process in our house).

One technique that we’ve been using is saying something like “I’m going to count back from five, and when I get to one I’m going to help you put your boots on.” Then I count back from five and do whatever it was I said, even if she continues to tantrum. To be honest, one of the reasons I’ve been liking this is that it gives me a second to breath and think about what I’m going to do instead of reacting in the moment and yelling or letting the tantrum work. I also like it because it gives Little Bear really clear communication about what we’re going to do and when. She gets warning instead of just getting picked up out of what might feel like nowhere. Now, most of the time she’ll keep whining up until I get to two or one and then she stops and does whatever I was asking her to do. 

How do you deal with tantrums? What are your favorite strategies for redirecting tantrums? How do you keep your cool and not throw a tantrum right back?

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.

Family to the Rescue!

The day after New Year’s, our house came down with sickness. If you name the symptom, we had it. Someone was coughing, someone was barfing, someone could not stop singing Kidz Bop. Ok, that last one may not be related to sickness, but it’s definitely a symptom of some kind of ailment.

We had just started a stretch of the 5 day parenting schedule. My partner and I played a symptom game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, and I lost. (In case you’re wondering, Vomit trumps Cough.) I ended up doing most of the parenting for the next 2 days, balancing a fever and chest congestion. My partner vacillated between the bed and the toilet. It was not good.

By day 3 we were allowing way more screen time than ever, and my partner was able to get back to parenting (even if that meant laying on the couch in a heap while the kid watched her 4th episode of Winx). Some dear friends with kids offered to come by and get the kid for a playdate. They kept her through lunch and dinner, returning her at the relaxing hour of bedtime. Yesterday, another friend with a kid offered to have an extended playdate as well. He took the kid roller skating and out to lunch. At the house, we managed to clean our bodies and weep quietly for the love of our friends.

We don’t often think of friends as family. We’re taught as Americans (and for this house, white Americans), that we are a closed family unit; that problems must be solved by the family. That we can DO IT ALONE, NO THANKS TO ANYONE ELSE. ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE, GRRR. Well after 4 days of the flu, I am happy to report that my family extends beyond the borders of my house. I’ve got kin down the street and across the country.

Thank you to each and every one of you that watched the kid this weekend (and those who offered!) and did so without question, in complete selflessness. Parenting while being sick is so hard, and my partner and I feel so loved and supported by this great extended chosen family!

a Punch to the Gut

Holiday in California

I wish this post was full of tales from my great vacation last week to California with my partner and the kid. I wish it was some sort of heartwarming story about a family conflict that we resolved over snuggle time before bed. Life isn’t always like that, and truth can hurt without a soft landing or a happy ending.

A few weeks ago, my partner, the kid, and I were getting ready to leave the house. This can be a long process, sometimes ending in Yelling Parent who cannot possibly say “Put your shoes on” for the 6th time. I said something like ‘Is this kid ready to go?’, which the kid heard as ‘Is my kid ready to go?‘. To be clear: I do not refer to the kid as “my kid”. She is clearly not the child I ‘created’, and I think that referring to another person as your property sounds a little creepy. Probably exasperated with the nagging adults trying to get out of the house, she said “Anyways, it’s not like I’m even your kid.” Ouch, man. Yeah, you’re not. But yeah, you sort of are.

If the kid is in the house, I’m an active parent. I plan time with friends around the kid’s schedule, making sure I am contributing in some way to caring for her whether it is helping with dinner, bathtime, bedtime, or playtime. I grocery shop with her likes and dislikes in mind. I notice when fun things happen in town and see if she’d like to go. I listen to her fears, her nightmares, her weird thoughts and creepy imagination. I’m there for her sicknesses, her triumphs, her tears, and her fun projects.

No, I didn’t plan her birth. I’m not a primary parent. I don’t have a say in where she goes to school, what state she lives in, and changes in her routine. I don’t choose her doctors and I don’t choose her haircuts. I’m glad she has a concrete understanding about who her parents are, and that neither myself nor her other parent’s partner are clouding that at all. But dang, that was a real sting of a sentence. She wasn’t upset, and we weren’t fighting about anything; I don’t even think she said it with ill will. She was just correcting what she thought she heard me say.

It was a nice reminder of what her teenage years may be like. Sometimes I think it could go both ways; she could find me a refuge from her folks and seek me out as an ally or she could take the stand of “You’re not my parent” and create that distance that teenagers need from the adults in their lives. Time will tell.

Anxiety.

Picture from Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half. I have lived this feeling.

Last weekend, Jetpack wandered off in the grocery store. I had a basket with six apples, and three other things, and I unloaded it, and turned my head, and he was gone. He’d gone the length of the supermarket to look at the flowers, and he didn’t answer my calls. Luckily, some amazing person had seen him wandering and started looking for me. He was gone for about two minutes, and before I found him I was pretty convinced he had been kidnapped.

A week before that, I wrote all this:

I’m not good enough. I’ve yelled at Jetpack for really stupid reasons, like not listening or not letting me use the toilet without climbing all over me like a caffeinated capuchin. I’m always late on flea/tick drops for the dog, and someday she’s going to get lyme disease again because of it. My sister (I’m her primary caregiver) didn’t get a bath the other night, even though she should’ve, because I took Jetpack trick-or-treating. Sometimes she has dry cereal because we run out of soy milk in the fridge and I don’t notice until after she’s eaten breakfast. Sometimes we yell at each other because we don’t understand each other well. The other night the Mister was up very late because I forgot to clean something up, even though I promised, and it really needed to be done. The last two times I put away laundry, I did so because I needed to the basket, in order to wash all the newly dirtied stuff. I can’t fix everyone’s problems. I don’t think I can fix anyone’s problems. And my worries about something terrible happening to Jetpack are as numerous as grains of sand on the beach.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I saw it first written, about me, in college. The student counsellor didn’t mention anything to me. She just wrote it on her notes, and I happened to see. It left me with a huge mistrust of her, and a diagnosis that I researched on my own. (Protip, mental health professionals: don’t act like we’re stupid, please).

I’ve never had a job where I didn’t spend some days at home, terrified of going in for absolutely no reason. I’ve never been bad at a job, but I’ve always had attendance issues, usually from days spent sitting at home, sobbing and shaking, afraid of going anywhere. Classes too. I’ve dropped plenty of classes because I was SO SCARED of going. I had a panic attack in spanish class once—not anxiety, a full-on panic episode. Completely lost it. I drove home and actually hid in my bed. (Protip #2: don’t drive directly after a panic attack. I made it home okay, but it was probably the most unsafe I’ve ever been on the road).

Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I had a pretty complicated childhood. I also know I don’t have a lot to complain about—my parents are very loving, I’m white and have never been homeless or without food.

But sometimes I’m still damn crazy.

A friend—who has been travelling her own bumpy mental health road—mentioned the fear of passing these problems on to our children. If you’re genetically related to your child, some of your mental health problems are probably passed on automatically (thanks, genes!). But nature and nurture being the murky waters that they are, who knows. And I know so many people who identify their own neurosis in their parents, and blame them.

I don’t want Jetpack to look back and see that.

Sometimes I wonder, who am I to have a kid? Shouldn’t I have thought about this before taking on that responsibility? (I did, but that’s not the point). I never want to see Jetpack even half as crazy as I feel sometimes. But no matter how much I struggle to shut it down, no matter how much therapy I attend or medication I put into myself, I can’t hide it all. That sad and twisted fucked up me is still in here. I can’t just cut it out. And it scares me that someday he’ll see that too, and he’ll resent me for it.

I don’t have any answers for that friend. I don’t have any hopeful closing paragraph for this litany of my own tragic faults. I can try my best, and I will probably fail.

photo

I recently attended a conference here in town that’s put on by one of the organizations I’m involved with and was pretty saddened by the list the kids created about what they wanted in the kid’s area. The room used as the kid’s area was completely bare, other than having a sink, and academic institution style chairs and tables. The people providing child care had brought some paper and markers, but other than that there wasn’t really anything for the kids to do.

I’m really glad that there was child care available, it made it possible for me to bring Little Bear to part of the conference. However, I also read the list that the kids created, think about how many people said something like “I didn’t know there was childcare, I would’ve brought my kid” or mentioned a friend who could’ve attended had they known, and I wish more thought and resources were given to supporting children, parents, and care givers in justice movements and communities.

I’d like to think that communities rooted in social movements and collective processes can do a better job supporting parents, but it frequently feels like organizing child care and promoting child care falls on to people involved in parenting and care giving. In the LGBTQ community in particular I think there’s still a perception that people aren’t raising children, or that people who are raising children are selling out/opting out of organizing.

When Little Bear was born I pulled back from almost all of the organizing work that I was doing. Meetings weren’t at convenient times, weren’t baby friendly, or were just too long for someone with an infant. Now that I have a toddler I worry her presence will be perceived as disruptive to the community, and meetings are still frequently too late or too long. So when I want to commit to work on something I need to juggle whether I can bring Little Bear or if my partner can look after her, and if I’m doing the parenting and housework 50-50.  I have no easy answers for how to make this better, I only have my deep commitment to be a good partner, a good father and my desire to organize in my community.

Part of parenting is making sure that your kid doesn’t do something stupid like run into the street, but part of parenting is also teaching your kid about the world and giving them tools to engage in creating a more just society. If we don’t teach our kids about the work while we’re busy organizing where does that leave them? The late great Whitney Houston sang it in The Greatest Love of All, “I believe the children are our future.”

Last month I read the book “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind” and had to keep myself from jumping up and shouting “yes!” every five minutes. The essays in the book affirmed my existence as a parent and my hope that making social movements inclusive of parents, caregivers and children is possible. Here’s a nice blurb about the book:

“Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind is a collection of concrete tips, suggestions, and narratives on ways that non-parents can support parents, children, and caregivers in their communities, social movements, and collective processes. Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind focuses on issues affecting children and caregivers within the larger framework of social justice, mutual aid, and collective liberation.”

You can check out the Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind blog for more ideas on ways to include kids, parents, and families in communities. Are there any tips or experiences around including parents and kids in your communities that you value?