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.

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.

Ambiguous Loss

Who knew this baby would turn into such a weirdo!

Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a strong family identity. I would do anything for my family, move across the country, drop everything I’m doing, and give them the shirt off my back. It sounds nice, except no one else in my immediate family shares this identity. Looking back, I wonder how I developed this strong family identity. When I was a kid, I asked my older sibling for a sweater that no longer fit them:

“No.” they said.
“But you can’t wear it. It literally does not fit you anymore.” I said.
“I know,” they said, “I just just don’t want you to have it.”

This is a good example of my family’s mentality. Don’t share, look out for yourself. Everyone will take what they can. This example was also repeated by my mother when I moved out for the first time and she wouldn’t let me take my bed. It’s now broken under a hundred pounds of fabric that she’ll use “someday”.

I moved to a neighboring state in my early 20’s, driving three hours round trip to see my parents once a month. They returned those visits twice in the four years I lived there. This theme continued for years, and I finally stopped asking if they’d visit. My parents and sibling don’t write, call, email, facebook or text me except on rare occasions. I once asked my mother how she would know if I was ok, and she said “One of your friends would contact us if something happened to you.” I recently told them (via email) that my partner and I are trying to get pregnant. My mother’s response was “What’s ‘IUI’?” and no one else replied. This non-reaction sent me over an emotional cliff that I didn’t even see coming. As a comparison: my partner’s parents showed excitement, wished us luck, and hope for more grandkids.

I’ve always managed to push down any disappointing family of origin behavior by reminding myself that as a child, you don’t pick your family and I know they love me (I do know this). But something is happening to me as I am, for the first time in my life, feeling like I am part of my own little family. I am finding it hard to accept my family of origin’s ambivalence about my existence. Do I want my kids to see that this is how families treat each other? I find myself wanting more from my family of origin. They don’t seem to care about my life, or want to get to know me as an adult. I’m lucky to have extended family members that fill that gap, and we make the effort to stay close (though I could do a better job there). But it doesn’t replace my parents; the very people who loved and breathed me into existence. As my friend recently said: “It is just difficult to understand how a parent’s profound love for their child doesn’t translate into action very often.”

So what now? It’s not as if I’ve been cut out of my family of origin. There’s no situation or event that I can point to, memorialize, or mourn. I can’t change them; I can only let myself grieve and try to heal in some way. I can be grateful and love my own family a little bit more. I can keep working to make our family strong and healthy and know that I’ll always be interested in who they are and where their lives may take them.

Summers We Remember

Summer is winding down. I never do as much as I think I’ll do during the summer; I didn’t get out and paddleboard and I went swimming just a handful of times. I did hang out with the kid every Friday to cut down on the childcare costs. It seemed daunting at the beginning of the summer. Every SINGLE Friday?! I’ve spent plenty of evenings and random daytime hours watching the kid alone, if her mom has plans with a friend, or wants to catch a yoga class. I had not spent an uninterrupted 8 solid hours of being solely responsible for her. It turns out that it’s not a big deal. You just roll with the punches, find time when you can to be alone, and make sure there are enough snacks to keep everyone’s blood sugar level nice and even. I’m not saying every Friday was a perfect parenting dream. On the Fridays when we had her for the weekend, it made for a long stretch of kid time where my patience ebbed away. Overall, I really liked spending our Fridays together and I’m a little sad that they’ve ended. She started school (1st grade!!), and the routine was needed by everyone, in both houses!

One thing that stood out to me over the summer of Fridays is how strong she is in defining her family. We had adventures all over the city on our Fridays, and we ended up interacting with different stranger adults and kids that would assume things about our family. The kid was swinging with a kid she just met at the park who wanted to invite E back to her house to play.

If it’s ok with your dad.
I don’t have a dad.
(Kid gestures to me) I mean, if your dad says it’s fine.
Yeah but I don’t have a dad. I have two moms. That’s Ethan.

We went to storytime at the library and the librarian was identifying everyone’s relationship in the room (I really don’t know why they did that. The stories were not about families or relationships. Seemed strange and without context to me..), she got to us and said “Oh, and this must be your Papa!”. E clung to my arm, buried her forehead in my side, and said nothing. Body language cue heard loud and clear, kiddo. I smiled and said “I’m more like her stepdad.” The librarian stammered a bit and made a vague statement about families and referred to me as “Papa” again. “Stepdad.” She hastily picked up a book to get started.

We have a different family that other people may not be used to. But we know who we are and don’t need others to define us for us.

Without further ado, here’s a photographic glimpse into our summer:

Science Museum colors

Six years old!

Hanging out with Dylan‘s kid

BONES

End of summer vacation (and haircut!)

* I do not post photos of the kid’s face or other kid’s faces. The internet is a vast place. To read more, check out this Salon article.