Baba, a name I call myself

images 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”

17 thoughts on “Baba, a name I call myself”

  1. …I’m in trouble deep
    Baba don’t preach, I’ve been losing sleep
    But I made up my mind, I’m gonna love ladies, oh
    I’m gonna love ladies, mmm…

    (The first draft of the Madonna classic. Didn’t make the cut; they went for the heavier social issue lyrics instead.)

  2. I’m Ty Ty to my 3 year old daughter, whom my partner carried. My name is Tyler, and before she was born, I struggled with the “other mom-name” issue. Ty Ty felt unique to me and different from “Dad” or “Pops” (my original choice). I definitely fit the lesbian dad role – I’m butch, my partner’s femme, etc. My 9-month-old son hasn’t yet called me anything – I carried him, so I’m interested to see if he relates to me any differently than our daughter does. Anyone else out there have experience as a lesbian dad who actually did the pregnancy thing?

  3. Ooo oo! I am crouching in eager anticipation of answers to your call.

    I know a Baba across the street who’s looking to carry her and her partner’s next child. Also very much a butch mama. This whole gender/parenthood/biology/spirit connection thing is so dang interesting. All twisted in a gorgeous pretzel, different shapes for different people. I’m just really intrigued by the extent to which a lot of us are nibbling on the same shaped pretzel.

    And no, I don’t thing that’s the pain killers talking. I’m afraid I mix metaphors that bad under the influence of nothing but oxygen.

  4. Howse about another other mother who did the pregnancy thing? I have two children born by my wife, and two that I carried. For us, ‘gender identity’ and ‘parental identity’ aren’t necessarily linked: wifey would probably be classed as more butch than me but has the main care-giver role in our family.
    Full-time work (ie full-time absence) compounded my legion of ‘otherness’ feelings about non-bio parenthood. Until fairly recently I would have described the strong unrequited feelings I had as maternal; ‘bio-momhood’ and a year to engage fully with all my children has enriched our family by giving me space, somehow, to get beyond these feelings.
    I too’ have a unique monicer for 1 & 2, my eldest (non-bio) kids. They know that wifey is their Mummy as we’ve explained that I am 3 & 4s.

  5. Ooops- new lap top unwittingly pressed submit too soon- and this is my main point: our experience is that it is you as parents who inform how your children relate to you’ and each other.
    How would you choose this to be?

  6. hooray for mixed metaphors! gorgeous pretzels and madonna retreads!
    she’s back from the land o’ vicodin….YAY
    glad you are okay.

  7. Good to see you up and blogging again and that all is well.

    Here the issue was a little different. My partner was too old to carry our babe, so I was the designated incubator. We discussed the mom/mommy thing for a long time, but felt that similar or identical words would be too confusing. I too suggested aba, ima, etc. but they evoked an older woman to me (given that the word for gran in our family is oma or boma for great-gran).

    I also wanted to make sure that my partner would be fully addressed as mom, to confirm her position as mother. Then, one day, I had an aha-erlebnis, while signing my mail, which I always do with a capital for my name. So I became ’emmy’, M for mama, while my partner is ‘mama’ by name.

    We are now slowly entering the ‘so and so has a mum and dad’ territory. But like the true little Virgo that she is, she launches inane comments at you, which in hindsight reveal much more than you think, and what she is thinking about. Kids, they never cease to amaze me.

  8. So, I realize this is an old post, and maybe you’ve already been told this in the intervening years, but “baba” is also the Egyptian colloquial Arabic word for dad/father/papa/etc. (probably French influence; Arabic doesn’t have a “p” sound, so they all change to “b”, so, for example, Pepsi becomes “bebsi”, and papa becomes baba).

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