It’s a parent

After letting loose a week’s worth of spit-polished essay (the better to pass our time as I nursed my surgery wounds), I am a tad sheepish. I give your average blog post a whole lot less rehearsal time, shoving it in front of the footlights, wig akimbo and costume unbuttoned, with only a fraction of its lines committed to memory. Poor thing.

But I suppose that’s a bit of what a blog is: an open rehearsal. A notebook, a sketch pad, a drafting board. Particularly if it is done in the off hours, as this one is. The leg a blog has up over print media — and it’s substantial — is that it thrives on, is even substantiated by, dialog. Which is well worth the embarrassment of flashing a bit of writerly plumber’s butt on a regular basis.

Re-reading my Confessions essay, I’m reminded of the welter of unanswered questions that defined the beginning of my parenthood. What shall I be called? How shall I prove to others, if not my child, or myself, that I am an authentic parent? Just what is an authentic parent, anyway? And on and on, ad infinitum. I’m so very glad to report that, three or so years into the journey, plenty of my early questions have been answered by the quiet, insistent truth that I am on the job every day. It’s not so hard to define Baba: it’s a parent, which is me.

I have found parenting in general to be – surprise! — much, much more deeply rewarding than I could ever have imagined, and far more deeply trying, too (infants and toddlers and menopause – o my!). You know how members of your own family are able to find and stand on your various “buttons,” the idiosyncratic things that irritate or torture the bejeezus out of you? Well, guess what? Your own kids are going to be members of your family! Who knew?! Your daily intimacy with them, coupled with the wide spectrum of the emotional and physical needs it’s your work to meet, will inevitably push past whatever curtains you’d like to have installed in front your lesser self. Before you know it, you’ll see both the noblest and the crummiest parts of you pressed into service. Sigh.

But then all sorts of wonderful, sappy cliché things are true, like you do feel your heart grow bigger as you watch your child sleeping; you indeed can’t keep yourself from babbling on about their most infinitesimal accomplishments as if they were of equal national import as, say, the outcome of Super Tuesday primaries in a presidential election year.

More unexpected — but even more welcome — has been the realization that parenthood has connected me to people all over the world with whom I previously felt little connection. For instance: just the other day, my son staggered a moment and fell down. Watching him, my mind ran through a series of images in rapid succession. First I flashed on an image of an actor pretending to be shot; then real people being shot; then a young man being shot in Iraq (in this case, an American soldier, whose parents back home are politically conservative, say, and hear weekly in their church that folks like me are due something between pity and scorn, but certainly not equal rights or respect); then I flashed on that young man’s mother in shock and grief upon learning of his death.

At the end of that seconds-long staccato barrage — initiated by nothing more dramatic than my one-year-old’s trial and error as he learns to walk — I recognized an avenue of connection that I never had before. Because I now have a son, I can now begin to imagine what it would feel like to lose him to violence, something that happens over and over again in the world, every day. A maudlin series of thoughts, maybe, but there they were. Fortunately, I am connected as much in joy as in sorrow: the thrill of watching a baby’s first steps is felt by loving people the world ‘round. The sense of triumphant beginning renews us all, regardless of what soil those steps are taken on.

Second off, as to Baba-ing in particular: I’ve found that people “get” who I am, as a parent — a genderqueer, both/and kind of parent — about as much as they “get” who I am as a gendered person. Which is to say, small percentage of people, mostly friends and family and kindred spirits, “get” me most of the time. And most others “get” me a small percentage of the time. If that. Or they “get” a small percentage of me. I find that recognition of my gendered parenthood matters about as little and as much as does recognition of my gendered self. Which is to say: much of the time it’s irrelevant; sometimes it’s huge.

Anecdotally, I’ve found that two-mom families are not so utterly uncommon or unusual now. Most people we encounter have some previous point of reference to help guide them. Granted, we choose to live where there’s a lot of us — and at no small cost, most folks in the Bay Area will hasten to tell you — so we probably experience less surprise (at best) and hostility (at worst) than we could. Public discomfort with our non-normativeness, at least to the point that we’d pick up on it in our daily peregrinations, has been modest.

What we find more often is a vast ignorance about the extent of family diversity in American life today, and a language with which to talk about it. It is all-pervasive, the presumption of a heterosexual, married, non-blended, non-adopted family as norm. Despite the fact that as of the last census, it slipped from the majority family formation, to be eclipsed by the amalgam of all of the rest of us adoptive, blended, single parent-headed, same-sex parent-headed families. Perhaps this perception will change over time. But the myth of the nuclear norm is powerful.

Given that pervasiveness, we find ourselves having to nudge out space to fit. Printed forms for things — preschool applications, doctors’ or dentists’ office intake forms, you name it — almost always provide spaces for “Mother” and “Father” rather than “Parent.” “Parent” appears as a referent, but far more rarely. I certainly want to help that to change, since that’s the best, maybe the only accurate description of who I am to my kids.

I’ve made some pleasant realizations (imperceptible, before, for the fog of worries hanging over me). I hadn’t anticipated, way back before my daughter began to emerge, that I’d be able to simply talk directly to her about most of the matters that had earlier stumped me. I just plain tell her people won’t know me as a Baba, that Babas are rare and not everyone can see them. Like fairies. So far as I can tell, this makes perfect sense to her. It reflects and explains her experience. I simply ask her whether she’d like me to correct people when they call me her “mother.” (Her answer: “Yes.”) When we’re reading and we encounter a beardless Dad, I simply say, “It says ‘Dad’ here, but I’d like to change it and make it a Baba. Is that okay?” (Her answer, so far: “Yes.”) Every so often I re-iterate why: “There’s not a lot of books and stories that have Mamas and Babas in them, so I like to write us into this one.” This is normal for her, to take liberties with a story, and bend it to make it begin to speak to her own family. That’s a skill she’ll be using more and more throughout her life, and we’re teaching it to her as casually and as diligently as we teach her how to brush her teeth. It feels about as important.

But for every early parental question that has been resolved, other questions have cropped up to take their place. Two that spring to mind: as she moves ever outward into the world, how will our daughter begin to field more and more people’s ignorance about our family structure? How can we protect and inform her at the same time, quietly slipping the right tools into her pockets? And now that we’ve been blessed with a son, I wonder: at what age will he begin to see I’m a she-Baba, a lesbian dad, not an ordinary one? And will he long for what he doesn’t have?

Ah, but the real question is: What kind of adventure would all this be if I knew what was going to happen next, or what the hell I was going to do about it before it happened?

7 thoughts on “It’s a parent”

  1. I am so, so grateful to have you to read, LD. My wife and I go to an adoption information meeting tomorrow morning, to find out about the little girl they have tentatively matched us with. She’s 5. And reading the installments of your essay, I think it’s fair to say that we are, in a lot of ways, where you were then. We are discombobulated, to say the least. Excited, absolutely terrified, every nerve raw, and unable to picture how this will all unfold; whether we can be to this, or any, child what s/he needs. Our thoughts are bouncing from carseats to RESPs to the possible behaviour of our dog to schools to appropriate books to fighting gender stereotypes to how it will feel to be out in public, obviously a built rather than a born family.
    And reading you helps to calm me, and let me know that we can, and will, find a path through.
    Thank you. Thank you.

  2. Oh, he’ll love you, don’t worry about that. He’ll hate you, too, from time to time.
    My daughter loves me, but she would very much have preferred a more stereotypical mom – with make-up, I suppose, and shoes with high heels, and a real job. Someone who would ignore her friends instead of talk to them.
    The point is – kids always think there is something wrong with their parents. In your sons case this disgruntlment will sooner or later center on you not being a man, or a “real dad”. But if it weren’t for that, it would center on something else. That’s just a condition of parenthood.

  3. Shereen, thank you. This time is so the time of the “mauvais quart d’heure.” Mostly because your daily parenting work will hog up a lot of the time you now are spending planning, arranging, preparing, and, well, worrying. In the ways you so eloquently describe. All this energy will transform into what you need to find that path, and I wish you — all three of you — radiance and good fortune tomorrow.

    You know, ulla, if I’m lucky — things being the way they are around these parts, the number of us families that are around and visibly so, the younger generation feeling the way it says it does, in polls, about gay people, etc. — he may just be irritated not that I’m a lesbian dad, but that I’m an underearning lesbian dad. Or one whose old truck he gets to learn to drive on is a Toyota, and not a Ford F150. Good thing my cousin has an F150. Hope she keeps it in good enough shape to press into use in a decade or so.

  4. Hear, hear. Just being (a parent) predicates (parental) authenticity. The intricacy of thought and discussion in your essay commands more than a week of snatched reflection…..You wrote that post on the hoof? Raw, natural talent man, keep telling it like it is!
    Perhaps, in time, your new questions will also either answer themselves or become less important.

  5. I loved this entry! I hope that I continue reading your blog, so that I can have these questions answered down the road. I am curious, too! And you’re so right, the last census information is completely outside of public knowledge. Wonder if the media has anything to do with that…

    Much love 🙂

  6. Exactly, exactly, exactly. Their constant ambition is a strain because we are always at the business-end (that is, the wallet-end) of their demands, but really they are just striving for whatever is desirable, being sure nothing is too good for them, but misdirecting their effort to get it. When the time comes, you can help him find a job. And you can tell him, truthfully, that he could have done a lot worse.
    I sometimes ask my daughter to take at good, hard look at her friends lives – the totalities, not just the mothers wardrobe or the vacations, and see if there is anyone she would like to swap with. She hasn’t come back to me on that one. It is, of course, not really fair. She has seen the very worst and the very best of me, as you point out, but only the public facade of other families. Still, I think it dawned on her that there is more to parenting than providing.

  7. I’ve been stewing on a response to this one for a long time (mostly because I sneak in a read at work, but I don’t like to post from there).

    The first thing I thought of was that my Mom always said that it’s a good thing that we don’t have 2 parents who are the same. And by “the same” she meant personality, not so much gender. Because my Aunt and Uncle have the same personality (and probably end up in a very similar location on your masculine/feminine scale, more on the feminine side). I think that my boy cousin suffered a bit from it. He’s a real Boy’s Boy. As an adult, he even HUNTS, with a gun, to kill animals, which he then eats. As a younger boy, he had a hard time because he had no immediate family member to *do* boy things with him and he got into trouble because he had no outlet. Luckily, my Dad stepped up and took him out fishing and canoing and doing other boy stuff.

    Sadly, my Dad never thought of doing the boy-stuff with ME. He tried with my brother, who wasn’t as interested, but never thought of doing boy-stuff with the girl child.

    I know that you have a deep understanding of how people sit on that masculine/feminine continuum (I LOVE that graph BTW). So I think that as long as you look at your children in that way, and then you give them what they NEED, based on their masculine/feminine qualities, I think you’ll be okay.

    Oh sure, they’ll probably BOTH end up telling you they hate you. But I think that’s par for the course in Parenting, and it *usually* means you’re doing a good job. I was going to say don’t worry about it, but as a parent, you can’t, and really you shouldn’t. It’s your job to worry about whether you’re doing a good job. It’s part of doing a good job.

    Keep up the good work.

    Sheri Bheri

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