Gender

Published on March 25th, 2014 | by Andrea Lawlor

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ANDREA LAWLOR on Why Hart Doesn’t Have Two Mommies

So, here’s my news, if we’re not Facebook friends: I have a really sweet and beautiful new baby, Hart, who at seven months [1] is both enormous and tiny. As a new parent, I have been welcomed, on a nearly daily basis, into the worst-kept secret society ever. I always enjoy entering a new discourse community and learning its special terminology and customs, so I am having fun bragging about our baby’s excellent flange or comparing swaddling techniques or parsing the various diaper options. People with whom I for my entire adult life have never thought to speak (and who have never spoken to me) suddenly appear like sages, keepers of esoteric knowledge about sleep schedules and vaccines and the fact that babies growl (what? yes! for real!).

Our baby had the great good sense to grow for nine plus months in my girlfriend’s belly. This is one lucky kid, to have her for a mom. Many moms are wonderful! My own mom, my baby’s grandmother, is wonderful. Some babies have two moms—actually a lot of babies, here in Western Mass—and that’s wonderful. But I’m not my baby’s other mom.

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I knew, going into this adventure, that I would need talking points. Let me back up here for a minute. I never thought about having kids before my girlfriend brought the subject up, maybe ten years ago and extremely hypothetically at that. To the extent I thought about kids, I thought, that’s for other people. Because I came of age in the early 90s, in Queer Nation and ACT UP, I even thought, with righteous contempt, that’s for breeders. Mind you, I knew queer parents way back then. I even knew queerspawn. I just never imagined myself as a parent, in part, undoubtedly, because until quite recently I felt like a teenager myself, in part because of internalized homophobia, and in part because the parent role that seemed to be available—mom—was anathema to me as a butch. In much the same way, I’ve had trouble with the word “lesbian.” I don’t identify as a mother, a lesbian, or a woman at all, frankly. Yet I don’t identify as a man either.

When I realized, after countless discussions about gender identity and the heteropatriarchy and many partial hours of therapy, that I could be a parent without being a mother (or transitioning), everything changed. I turned out to be excited about parenting. I like kids; we share many of the same interests: baby animals, puns, tiny things, Legos, asking “but why?” repeatedly, science fiction trilogies.

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So one of the biggest decisions of my life came down to a missing word. If I’m not Mom, who am I? I didn’t like the idea of my kid calling me by my first name, as if I were the manny. I wanted a title, to be a noun. I began asking friends and acquaintances how they’d solved this problem. Most of the lesbian or queer couples I knew with kids used some variation of Mom and Mama, even for the butches. Most of the gay and/or trans guys were using variations on Daddy or Papa. I am already Papa to our cats, so I was drawn to that word, but claiming it outright felt like too much of a project for me, and also perhaps a nonconsensual experiment we’d be doing on our child [2].

My girlfriend suggested “Baba,” which in many parts of the world is a word for family members (often father, sometimes grandmother) and also is an easy sound for a baby to make. I took to the internet, and lo and behold, other butch parents had grappled with this same issue and ended up babas themselves.

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I like “Baba” because it’s sort of in between Mama and Papa, which gestures towards my position in between what’s expected for my sex (female parts) and my gender (masculine) [3]. I also like the growing critical mass of butches who are babas. I like to be one of a group, part of a plural noun.

In my ideal world, strangers would glance at me and my girlfriend and our baby, and just assume that I’m the baba, and that my girlfriend is the mama, and that I did not give birth. Why do I care, I ask myself. I have dear friends who are butches who bore their babies (see A.K. Summers’ genius graphic novel PREGNANT BUTCH.) Some of them probably want strangers to take a glance and assume they are the mothers. But that’s not me.

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We’re all just coping with being misunderstood so often. When I go out to eat with my girlfriend, and the well-meaning waitrons (who, especially in Northampton, have been trained within an inch of their lives to recognize androgynous or masculine-appearing female humans as women) call us “ladies,” I don’t trip. They’re at work and how important is it, really? I know other people don’t get me all the time and I’m usually pretty okay with that. But I’m going to have to start insisting on who I am in the world, and soon, because my kid is watching. And how important is that? Extremely.

Notes:

[1] When I started this essay, Hart was 13 weeks old. I have since changed this number about five times.

[2] Of course some butch/masculine type parents totally rock the dad word, and it’s completely awesome.

[3] I’m not particularly androgynous or genderqueer. My masculinity is fairly similar to that of many white middle-class Gen X dudes: formed in reaction to organized sports, embracing of poetry, completist in regards to Pogues’ albums and certain Vertigo titles, a little awed by girls.

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About the Author

Andrea Lawlor

Andrea Lawlor teaches writing at Mount Holyoke College, edits fiction for Fence, and has been awarded fellowships by Lambda Literary and Radar Labs. Lawlor’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, the Millionsjubilat, and the Brooklyn Rail, as well as a chapbook, Position Papers (Factory Hollow, 2016), and a novel coming from Rescue Press in 2017. More at anderlawlor.tumblr.com.



29 Responses to ANDREA LAWLOR on Why Hart Doesn’t Have Two Mommies

  1. Debbie says:

    Hurray for baba! My wife is a baba too, with a gender that sounds a bit like yours. It’s been very interesting to watch our nearly-three-year-old daughter evolve in her understanding of what a baba is, exactly. At first she used to say: I don’t have two moms! I have a mommy and a baba! But now she is starting to identify as having two moms, one of whom is named baba. It’s nice to have a name that’s used in other cultures, too. There are some books with babas in them, and occasionally you can find a onesie like this: http://www.zulily.com/p/heather-gray-i-love-my-baba-bodysuit-infant-60521-4726530.html?tid=social_pin_ref_shareviaicon_na_modal_e85baea68379e89ccee23835598c6cba&pid=4726530&ns=ns_000990423|1395772850044

  2. Eve Eve says:

    Love this piece. I love “baba”. Also, I love you for this line: “When I started this essay, Hart was 13 weeks old. I have since changed this number about five times.”

  3. NFA says:

    I think this has a lot more to do with being a new parent, than being a queer parent. And that’s something that you don’t find out until after you’ve had a kid and feel shitty because it takes a while for your new life to sink in. As a queer parent myself, who identified as butch, I can tell you that the concept of becoming a “mom” was not something that I instantly took to. It takes time to grow into your role as a parent. When my son started talking, and “mama” was one of the first words, I was almost taken aback: “I am somebodies “mom”…”, I thought. While I’m sure that the author’s masculine identity plays a role in this, I think it is also important to note that the roots of this are adjusting to life as a new parent, which is common to everyone, not just queers.

  4. My 7 month old son, my Jr., started saying “dada” today… though mama is teaching him the way of the Germans- “papa”. I am thankful for folks to raise their babies in ways that make sense to their configurations; I pray for school systems to honor this in the future. [ I helped to found the GSSC in order to protect queerly situated young people in their educational environments].

  5. Sandra says:

    HI! I Don’t know if you read that online, but baba means also in Serbio – Croatian grandma!

  6. Vikki says:

    I love how we are bringing complexity in identity to the forefront of discussions of family. Thank you for this.

    Also, I am one of the executive editors of VillageQ and just wanted to include the corrected link to the article from our site cited here: http://www.villageq.com/baba-hood/

    One last thing – totally needed a cute baby fix today 🙂

  7. Barbara says:

    Hi! Thank you for writing this article! 🙂

  8. Meaghan says:

    On behalf of the almost 30,000+ readers I’ve cultivated over the past three years at Butches + Babies, a submission-based photoblog which features babies and butch-identified folks (be they friends or family!) and seeks to share the beauty of those binary-crushing connections, I want to say THANK YOU for this post! There are so many fantastic ways to be a parent, and I’m so appreciative when folks like you take the time to articulate your experiences and share them with the masses. I will happily share this post at B+B, and hope that you consider submitting a photo of you and Hart to our site, too! Congratulations! I hear parenthood is a magical journey, and you seem to be navigating it with such admirable grace and courage.

  9. Arlene Lev says:

    You are not alone. Our babies are 18 and almost 14. My butch partner does use Mom, but struggled with it back it the day. I have a chapter in my book The Complete Lesbian and Gay Parenting Book, that addressed the multitude of names we’ve invited, included Beda (Butch Dad).

    I like Baba since I had a meditation teacher fondly called Baba many years ago.

  10. Claire says:

    Hi there
    I love the thought, the analysis that is happening, and I value the discussion. However, the piece that is missing for me is your child’s own input. In less than two years, you will have Hart’s opinion. And Hart WILL find something that works. Honestly. Our child came up with “Mo-Mo”. The title ends up being less important than the role, but it takes time to move through that process. GOOD LUCK and congratulations!

    • Charlie Charlie says:

      I’m not sure I agree with this – one of the important things I hope to teach my children is that they need to respect what people call themselves, especially with respect to naming and gender, even if it’s uncomfortable to do so. When I have a child, as I hope to soon, I will be very interested in hearing how s/he describes our family. But my name in that family will be up to me, just as I will respect hi/r decision about what s/he would like to be called.

      • Dora says:

        As a straight, cis, SMC, I agree with this. I intend to teach my daughter to respect how people identify and what they prefer to be called. Of course as babies grow up discussions will occur, and if there is a valid reason why a child would want to call a parent something other than what the parent prefers, there should be consideration. On a simpler note since she was two, my daughter (now four), has experimented with calling my by my first name. I let her know I don’t like it. As she is entitled to her feelings if she doesn’t like a silly nickname I come up for her.

        Bounced here through a couple of links. Great post and utterly adorable baby!

  11. There is an inherent gender ambiguity to the word “baba.” In Slavic languages, it is the common diminutive for grandmother. In parts of the Middle East, including Iran and Iraq, it is the common diminutive for father.

  12. Marg Scott says:

    Baba, Bubba, Mumma…as a butch who bore a baby & am a solo parent, I wrestled with this too. I have now been christened Mummo & I’m diggin’ it.

  13. J.B. says:

    Thank you for allowing me to be able to read this. It always helps to have my horizon broadened. AND I have to be honest here – I’d likely make a lot of the mistakes others make, simply because I just don’t know of many alternatives. Instead of Ladies what? Folks? If I were a waitress, I imagine that would be a little too casual.
    Baba is a wonderful title, but again, I imagine I’d have to be introduced to it.

  14. camille roy says:

    God what a cute baby. Makes my teeth ache.
    In my lesbian family the butchie birthed the baby and it worked out fine. There were some very funny moments. Once when my partner was climbing a fence my son cried out to his friends (proudly) “Here comes Masculine Mom!” It was like a new form of super hero. Anyway, have fun.

  15. E.G. says:

    do lots of babies have two moms though? really? as a two mom child (born in the 1980’s) partnered with a two mom child and friends with many others, i hardly know any one who truly feels like the “two mom” idea is accurate. this gets talked about a lottttt. it’s just something you say to outsiders. the “mom” is different and the other person in the relationship is rarely also called “mom” even if we tell other people that we call them that. that other person usually has their own set of identifiable qualities that signify a parent that is really neither “mom” nor “dad”. “mom”, too, is also pretty different from other people’s moms. i remember my parents hated being called ladies at restaurants and calling my second parent “mom” as a joke knowing how wrong it seemed. now, as an adult, i sometimes recognize other parent qualities in my partners. not mom or dad but nameless nurturing qualities that i recognize. just a thought! definitely remember the “ladies” at restaurants thing being a peeve in my family.

    • Amy says:

      E.G., I am one of two mothers (neither of us is called “Mom”–at present we’re Mama and Mommy) and know lots of other two-mom families. I live in SF so there is an abundance of queer-parent families with a wide variety of gender identities and titles, including Babas male and female and genderqueer. Not sure what you mean by “the ‘mom’ is different”–do you mean the birth parent, if there is one, is really the mom? Or that the female-identified parent is the mom? What if there are two female-identified parents?

      Andrea, great piece. Thanks, and OMG is Hart a cutie.

  16. Polly says:

    Thank you Andrea and I loved every dadgum word of this! Brother from another mother! Thank you also to linking to my post from the long ago on how I came into “Baba” as the key that unlocked my own parenthood.

    I want to just note (particularly to Claire up-thread here) that nine-and a half years and two kids into “Baba” and we all love the living daylights out of it. My kids know me to be female, yet not feminine. And they have said, in increasingly more sophisticated language the older they get, that I feel to them neither mother nor father, but both. Thus, something new. Genderqueer folks’ parenthood is ripe for neologisms and for my part a both/and name has made all the difference.

    Also, I would answer to anything these kids cared to call me, I love ’em so damn much. Andrea, hearty and heart-felt congratulations.

  17. Phyllis says:

    I love the sound of ‘baba’. The nickname I have for my granddaughter Ally is Baba, (hence Ali-Baba) It just fits her!

  18. Julie says:

    Oh my partner walked this road 17 years ago then with the almost same story…then just went with what the kids named her ..MomS…kind of rhyming with hummus!

    We heard the term LADDY (lesbian daddy) a decade into parenting and that was perfect…just too late for us as yur kids are 16 & 15 years old now.

    We live in a very small rural community … And eventually as my spouse became more comfortable with her Butch identity and pride, everyone else fell I to place with love and acceptance .

    Congrats… And my daughter is looking at Mt. HOLYOKE for college in a year…and if so, will send her your way and she can write essays about having a Butch mom!

  19. berit says:

    I agree with the commenter that stated it’s more about being a new parent than being a queer parent. I am straight myself and still don’t feel like a mom and find it strange when friends refer to me as mom-to-be. Maybe that’ll change once the baby’s born, but until then I keep thinking “Man, not every woman is born to be a mommy…some have to learn it and I think I am one of them”.

    PS: I loooove the pictures: So much love in them 🙂

  20. Karyn says:

    Love your choice of terms. I hope I can say here, as part of the straight contingency, that we all deal with labels. Mine was silly – I didn’t feel like a grandma when my son started having kids. I was nothing like my mother and didn’t really feel ready to identify with her generation and my vision of grandparents in her era. So my son and I settled on Kay Kay – KK were my initials as a kid. My grandkids all start shouting ‘Kay Kay! Kay Kay!’ as soon as we fire up Skype, and it sounds like the most natural thing in the world. Labels shouldn’t define us – we should define our labels with what makes us comfortable. Those around us will adapt.

  21. elizabeth says:

    i am “mommie”, though our 2 1/2 year old son often calls me by my first name because he likes the sound of it, and my partner (who is a you type of person) is “bear”. it was my nickname for her already, is gender-neutral, and brings up images of a big, fuzzy, fiercely protective sort of being. it works for us. some people have had difficulty getting on board and seem to need to gender this bear…”mama bear”. no. it’s just “bear”. we know our son may one day choose to call her and/or me something of his own choosing, but for now, he has mommie & bear. and yes, we often call our son “baby bear”, which i guess would make me “mama bear”???

  22. elizabeth says:

    ps-there’s a distinction between biological parent and mom. people who are on the masculine spectrum tend to not really identify (or be identified) as mom. this would be like putting a dress onto a masculine person…it just doesn’t work. the author of this article isn’t a mom, not because they didn’t carry the child, but because they really don’t identify as that feminine person. hope that makes sense. on a related note, i cannot in good faith call my partner wife, though we’ve been legally married for 7 yrs. i am the wife, and i get left calling her my partner because she’s not my husband either. not ideal, but the best we’ve got at present. fiancee was wonderfully gender-neutral…

  23. Another Baba says:

    I was Baba, as well. Our son instinctively called me that for his first four or five years. Now as a tween, he calls me Mom. This is also the name he uses for my wife (don’t care much for that term, either, but it’s the legal word), his birthmother, but it’s an inflection thing (I can hear it; she can’t). Sometimes he uses our first names. I’m cool with whatever; the wife hates the first name thing. So, just saying that you wrote a nice piece, but sometimes, unless you want to get pissy, what your kid calls you may not be up to you. Just don’t call me late for dinner.

  24. Carrie says:

    Your article came at a perfect time! I am 61, genderqueer, and will become a grandparent in April.
    What my grandchild calls me will be a name that lasts the rest of my life. Most in my family assume that name will be Nana, as my beloved mother and all the grandmothers before her were called. But as my gender shifts more and more toward the masculine, I’m uncomfortable with ‘Nana’. I’m thinking ‘Baba’ might be just the thing. I especially appreciate the comment that Baba is a diminutive of Grandma in Scandinavia and a diminutive of Grandpa in the Middle East!
    Thanks so much for your thoughts!

  25. Lisa says:

    I really wanted to say this to you ‘privately’, but couldn’t find an e-mail address.

    Thank you for writing this. I stumbled across it after reading your “Why I’m not celebrating’ piece and ending up confused. I really appreciate the (non-condescending) explanation that this gave. It took me until about half through the first article before I figured out going on… until that point I had thought you were a Dad with non-performing sperm. I also thank you for the frank discussion because some of us thought we had the whole straight/gay/bi thing figured out but are confused by the ‘queer’ thing…. and afraid to ask for fear of offending someone.

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