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