Part two of a six-part series of excerpts from “Confessions of a Lesbian Dad,” originally published in Confessions of the Other Mother: Non-biological Lesbian Moms Tell All (Ed. Harlyn Aizley. Boston: Beacon, 2006).
[Series intro and backstory here.]
A few months after I outed myself as a butchy lesbian not-mom at a family dinner party, my old grad school comrade was visiting. Susanne — German, feminist, hippie, vegetarian, and now New Orleans-based professor — is the classic Straight-But-Far-From-Narrow hetero ally. For years she resisted getting married — for solidarity purposes — until her lack of a green card was going to boot her out of the country. When she did marry, it was during the intermission of a Grateful Dead concert, and the service was conducted by a 19 year-old gal deputized by her mother, the local Justice of the Peace. Over ten years later she and David continue to call each other “partner.”
Susanne and I had sat ourselves down to a nice afternoon stückchen, as she would call it — coffee and a pastry — a ritual we had engaged in for years when we were preparing lectures for the Women’s Studies class we co-taught. I was reviewing for her where Jennifer and I were in our baby hatching process: listing possible donor chums, carefully tracking ovulation cycles. Names we were contemplating for the bairn (we decided on the same one, whether for girl or boy: my mother’s maiden name). But I had been getting stuck on the dilemma of what parental names we would call ourselves. I say “call ourselves,” of course, because all along I’ve known that as our kid acquires the gift of language, all bets are off and we’ll pretty much be answering to whatever the little squirt chooses to call out in our direction.
“I just don’t think I can do the Mamma/Mommy thing,” I was telling her. “I mean, first off, never mind the kid — I’d be confused all the time. I can’t even get the names of my two dogs right, when I’m jangled.”
“Is that the only objection you have?” she offered, sagely. “Because I’m sure you’d catch on soon enough.”
“Well, no.” Caught. Susanne had spent years waving away the fog from around my head and holding up a mirror to whatever eventually became visible. My resistance to the Mamma/Mommy thing was just a front for a deeper unease.
“I’m not so sure that either of those two names feels right for me, period. I wish Jennifer or I had some other language besides English in our backgrounds. Then one of us could be Mom and the other could be Ima.”
I had copped this fine idea from a couple whose story I saw in the documentary Choosing Children, which I had seen eons before, with my first sweetie, back in the mid-1980s. But the truth was that, because I don’t speak Hebrew, Ima seemed like an improvement over Mom. Rather than, well, Mom, only in Hebrew. The truth was that, given the choice, I’d take Aba over Ima any day. I just hadn’t gotten far enough in my thinking to realize that the “lesbian dad” I had begun to sketch at the dinner table might be worthy of her own, special name.
“Hmm.” Susanne was pushing the crumbs around her plate. “You know, in Frankfurter dialect, the diminutive for father is Baba. Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”
“Baba.” I narrowed my eyes and began to nod slowly. “Hmm… Baba. Yeah, Baba!” I was Helen Keller with the tap water on her palm. Liza Doolittle making her breakthrough. I clapped Susanne triumphantly on the shoulder. “By Jove, schwester, I think we’ve got it!”
The more I rolled it over my tongue, the better it sounded. Kind of like Aba, only dyslexic! And my paternal great grandfather came here from Germany, so I could trace a cultural link, however tendril-like. I began to explore the word with other friends. One, a Sicilian American, said that her family calls her grandfather Babo. Of course! O mio babbino caro, I began to hum to myself, allegro vivace or whatever. I could do worse than to be a “sweet daddy” in Italian. Still another friend, a Belizean American and devout Rastafarian, told me that Baba in Kiswahili means dad, and also protector, guard, and forbear. Good, good. So it means “grandmother” in Russian (short for, and more pronounceable to children than, babushka). And in some families I know, it’s what the word “bottle” winds up being for a while. But everywhere else I looked, it was a diminutive or straight-up term for “father.” China. India. If I was to name myself Baba, seems I’d be some kind of diminutive father in the eyes of most of the world, or at worst, to others, a vessel delivering milk. Overall, the term denoted a kindly, loving, protective family figure, who was not the bearer of the child. That would be me!
When I tried it on for size, I noticed some of the pre-parental tensions dissolving. With a name, I began to feel as if I was an actual thing. A somebody! Not a hyphenated mom, a kind-of-mom, a non-bio mom, an also-ran. But an actual, bona fide thing. My own turf. Some elbow room. The name Baba christened my earlier, inchoate musings about a lesbian fatherhood, and in so doing helped crystallize them. Jennifer and I realized we’d be able to celebrate Mama’s day and Baba’s day, rather than crowd each other out of the way for the accolades on just one day of the year. Anyway, how could I compete with the biomom on a day like that? All this might have been different had our relationship to the child been more equalized by our adopting a child, or if I felt less cognitive dissonance over the thought of stepping into an über-female role like Mother. But we weren’t, and I did.
Even if Baba would require a little explaining to others, it made perfect sense to Jennifer and me. When we began to furnish the space in our imagination that would one day be filled with our actual parenthood and child, we used this language. She imagined things we might say to the wee one: “No honey, listen to Baba and take the string bean out of your nose.” We replaced various “Papa” words and phrases with “Baba” ones, all the while featuring our as yet would-be baby. And we each smiled a double smile, for the joy of envisioning our child, and for the joy of envisioning a place, the place, I would have relative to that child.
On Tuesday, Part three: “Conception”