Idyll speculation

It’s Labor Day, which should inspire me to either celebrate the working peoples of the world, or the birthing peoples, or the work of the birthing peoples. But I think Barbara Ehrenreich and MomsRising would do a better job of that. And really I’m thinking more about the other implications of Labor Day: the end of summer, and the start of the school year(s). Our daughter’s first day of pre-school is just around the corner, and with it come her first steps into community, a sort of gentle little public space, without us. We daily shrug off the typical pre-pre-school parental jitters, knowing that it’s highly likely she’ll thrive there. Because of who she is and in spite of who we are. Also, because of who we are and in spite of who she is.

She’s had a wee taste of community outside our family and friendship networks. She was in an at-home day care for a while, but she was very young then. Many of the other kids barely had a dozen vocabulary words at their disposal; the make-up of people’s families seemed more or less lost on them. It helped, too, that the guy who ran it was a Latino Paul Lynde, more fey than our kids’ Grandpappy, which is an accomplishment. Now, more than a year later, she knows enough words to fake her way past an oral exit exam for elementary school. And she certainly knows about family.

Family and its public face was a big topic of conversation the other night with the nice lesbian family from across the street, with whom we shared a late summer BBQ dinner. They have a Baba too, a butch gal of an ilk such as myself, frequently eyeballed with suspicion if not ire in women’s restrooms, ain’t worn a lick of gal’s clothes for decades; you know, the usual. Milling around the grill, we were talking about how our daughters related to us as the non-birth parent, and how we were beginning the task of managing our parental gender identity out and about in a public ill-prepared to comprehend us, for the most part, and quite certainly unprepared for anything other than two mutually exclusive gender options for parents. We were talking about the degrees to which we were beginning to sketch, for our toddler girls, our families’ uniqueness relative to the world around us.

For our family’s part, we’ve started with the proposition that she can handle an age-appropriate take on the truth from the get-go. And that in fact we are tying her shoelaces together if we lead her to believe that she’ll run across oodles and oodles of two-mom and two-dad families in the world outside our family and friendship networks. Or that many other people other than her or her best buddy across the street not only (a) have two women for parents, but (b) call one of them Baba rather than a variant of Mama.

I’ve been working up ways to characterize the degree of our family’s rarity. I’ve been figuring she’ll run into same-sex parents as frequently as she’ll run into lefties – I hasten to say that in this case, I mean left-handed folks; there are more than enough left-wingers in our metropolitan region, saints be praised. She’ll run into mannish lesbian parents, “third sex”-kinda parents, a whole lot less often. She may meet as many people with albinism as she’ll meet Babas like me. Maybe. I dunno.

But we’re not alone in our uniqueness, and she knows that, too. We also say that there are lots of ways to form and be in family, a truth just as consequential as our family’s being headed by two parents of the same sex. The “norm” – married heterosexual folks with kids they conceived and birthed, with no third party intervention – stopped being the “norm” a good ten years ago. The most recent census confirms that “alternative” family structures of various different ilks (grandparents or uncles and aunts raising kids, families “blended” with kids from previous marriages, adopted kids, assisted conception, LGBT-headed families, and so on) now make up more than half of American families. It ain’t just us queer folk queering the do.*

And then, in the face of all this thoughtful preparation for her that we’re as exotic as some clump of everglades orchids, come the blessed days when we manage to run into a whole rogue outcropping of hothouse flowers. Like yesterday. On a hike in one of our local regional parks, we ran across a lesbian friend walking her two dogs. You’d think there was always going to be a lesbian friend walking her dogs, when you went out in nature. Which, around these parts, is quite likely.

Later that same day, we supped on a fine burrito meal at one of the handful of lip-smackin’ taquerias within a mile of our home. This one has an outdoor fountain where a hot girlie can splash her fingers around as her hot tired parents eat and watch. The lil’ monkey made fast friends with another girl about her age. Fountain bonding. Each time the lil’ monkey trotted back to us to tell us something else about her new friend, the beloved and I exchanged glances that were a combination of be-charmed and relieved. We have to know she’ll be okay on her own, and this was early intel. We prompted her with all sorts of ideas about things she could ask and tell the girl. Name. Whether going to school in fall. Name of new school. Things of this nature. It was all very delightful.

And then on the way out we saw a lesbian family. Or rather, they saw us. One of the gals was wily enough to use our youngest kids as a contrivance to be sure we paused and had the opportunity to drink each other in. “Look, it’s a baby!” said the one lesbo mum to the wee sprout in her arms. I can never resist someone wanting to lap up our little Adonis, and it matters not whether the admirer is two or ninety-two. So I pulled my baseball hat from where I’d perched it, backwards, on the lil’ peanut’s tiny head, and paused. We stopped and exchanged niceties, vital statistics (ages of babies, pounds, etc.).

Then after much meaningful mutual smiling, we turned to be on our way. Their older child, a boy who looked to be a few years older than our lil’ monkey, had a sweet, more-attentive-than-usual sort of look. I saw that flicker, and took it right off to be the flicker of recognition of another two-gal-headed family like his. I flashed him a special smile, and gave him a special good-bye wave, before fixing my baseball hat, catcher-style, back on my own head. Just as we were walking across the street, the fountain buddy and her crowd exited the taqueria with a flourish and much waving. “Good-bye, new friend!” we all of us called out, fluttering our arms enthusiastically.

As we were driving away, the lil’ monkey was mulling something over.

“I should have — I should have said — I should have said your name to her,” she stammered from the back seat. The stammering is ordinary, since she so often is bearing down on a multi-word, compound/complex sentence. Most of the big ones take multiple passes. But what was new was the note of regret.

The beloved and I stole a look at each other. Did she mean “your” as in just Mama, or “your” as in both Mama and Baba? And was it the lost social nicety that she regreted? Or was it that she was beginning to want to tell the story of our family?

“What, honey?” said the beloved.

“I should have told that girl your name.”

Then the regret passed, along with the thought that it came in on, just as quickly as it had come.

*Family Pride’s Stats and Facts page notes that, “According to the 2000 U.S. Census, only 23% of families in this country are married mom-dad families with kids. That means that the vast majority of families in this country, 77%, are different from that societal recognized norm.”

6 thoughts on “Idyll speculation”

  1. I am always very careful never to use “Mom” or “Dad” when referring to customers or speaking to their children. I think this is partially because I would like to be careful anyway, and partially because I live in a city with a large LGBT community, specifically the L and T kind of people, and I never know what they’re called among family and friends. It’s actually quite easy to avoid those dichotomous (is that even a word?) names. Instead of saying “But Mom, I want to eat it with my fingers!” to a woman whose child has just attempted to faceplant into his or her ice cream, I simply say “But I want to eat it with my fingers!” Same idea comes across. No difference. All it takes is one more millisecond of thought before opening my mouth (which all of us could probably use).

  2. Yes, I don’t tend to assume any titles for the adults that kids are with. If talking to young children I usually refer to the adult/s with them as ‘your grown up/s’. Our kids sometimes call us ‘the mummies’ collectively but use our first names mainly. When they were born I thought it would matter a lot to be called ‘Mummy Allie’ by both of them but I have actually found that I really like the fact that they just use my name. They have also adopted loving nicknames for the two of us that only they use, which is very sweet.

  3. A friend of mine, a man of South Asian descent who spent a fair number of years growing up in London, tells a story about how he and his siblings always got family trees ‘wrong’ in school. Their cultural concept of family meant that when they drew a picture of family, it included a whole raft of people, including the man who owned the corner store.
    I’ve found your last two posts profoundly thought-provoking. On the verge of adopting, my wife and I are having to consider how to juggle all sorts of notions of family and community, and how we name them. Is it more important that we help our children work on the concept of birth vs. adopted family? Same-sex vs. hetero families? Multi-cultural families (my wife and I are a multi-cultural couple) where all the family members look different? Which of these conceptual struggles will be the ones that mark them most deeply, the ones they’ll struggle with the hardest? And in helping them with all of that – how will we name and describe all of it for them, and for others, in simple, accessible terms?
    Of course, thinking about how to deal with all of that makes me freeze in terror. It seems as though you and your partner have done some very pro-active and thoughtful work on this; any (extremely detailed) thoughts on how you’ve gone about making the choices you’ve made would sure be welcome!

  4. Ah, sister! And the same back atcha! That is to say, lord knows I am a sponge for insight far more than I am a font of it. So I hope you share your own here (and/or offline!) as they evolve.

    I have to say right off that a little voice always shouts out “Both/and!” whenever I see (or pose myself) an either/or question. I’m always surprised how often “both/and” actually winds up being a decent answer. So to all your versuses up there: basically, yes! Family diversity makes sense as diversity when it’s situated in a, well, diverse context. So family diversity is all of the above. Todd Parr’s The Family Book makes that point sweetly and simply, and has been a big hit in our brood.

    One big, very comforting realization , on the other side of our family’s inception (the journey of “developing” it will be a life-long one, I’m figuring) is that love is thicker than water. Or other folks’ bile. Or other people’s ingrown notions of what constitutes a family. I had so, so many more worries when we were on the other side of getting our little pack going. Now that we’re underway, I can see that the love-filled work of parenthood supercedes so very much. Not all, but a very very lot.

    I also think that a major blessing comes in the gradual pace of a child’s growing-up process, and their gradual capacities to see the world around them through other peoples’ eyes. Think of their drawings. They draw what they see of the human body (when they eventually manage to see it distinct and not abstract), and even then it consists of a huuuuuuuge head and far less consequential limbs which sprout directly out of the head. Eventually the details emerge, but only when they become relevant.

    I am hoping, hoping, this continues to work as a metaphor for our children’s developing understandings of family. And that their picture can indeed develop, limb by limb, into the large, multi-branched organism my partner and I experience our family to be. Which is basically akin to your South Asian friend’s conception of family. His family tree is the kind I want our kids to draw, and climb up into, and sit in the shade of.

  5. Now that’s the kind of talk that makes my fear go away. It’s a good, good point about the both/and mentality. I didn’t mean to suggest an either/or paradigm, but isn’t it interesting how that either/or mentality inserts itself into the North American discourse so easily? I find myself having to work on removing that kind of narrowness of thought from my language, and my thought patterns, repeatedly. Thanks for the reminder.
    One of the most easing and heartwarming perspectives I continually receive, as I mentally sit at the knee of your blog, is the perspective of abundance instead of territoriality in child-rearing. Abundance of love, community, family, respect, joy and learning, all moving in all directions. The vision of our families and our children not as our ‘property’, but as a wellspring; not ours to be controlled or owned, but shared in our hearts. Not sure about that image now that I think back on it, but I’m sure you know what I mean.
    Lordy, but it makes me feel better about becoming a parent, having you out there cutting trail.

  6. Wow. That is about the finest thing I could hear. That’s the main reason I’m rummaging around in the bushes up ahead and calling back over my shoulder to give reports of the landscape I see. It’s not everyone’s landscape, but if it resembles something you see too, then I’m so so glad to work together to sharpen our vision of it. Thank you, Shereen.

    I so appreciate it that this is the image of parenthood and child-rearing you get from these words in here, since that’s exactly what I feel so strongly. Kahlil Gibran’s “On Children,” from his work The Prophet, is my main guidepost (won’t be the first time I’m compelled to cite it).

    On Children
    Kahlil Gibran

    Your children are not your children.
    They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
    They come through you but not from you,
    And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

    You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
    For they have their own thoughts.
    You may house their bodies but not their souls,
    For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
    which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
    You may strive to be like them,
    but seek not to make them like you.
    For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

    You are the bows from which your children
    as living arrows are sent forth.
    The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
    and He bends you with His might
    that His arrows may go swift and far.
    Let our bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
    For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
    so He loves also the bow that is stable.

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