Published on July 30th, 2018 | by Mad Kate2
MAD KATE is a DADA
On Mother’s Day, my kid and I got to talking about the existence, or rather non-existence, of a Dada’s Day.
My kid is four years old, almost five, so no, they didn’t say, “Dada, is there a gender neutral parent day in which I can honor you?” No, they just said, “When is Dada’s Day?”
Feeling, as a gender neutral parent, both seen and not seen, I really appreciated the sentiment. But I didn’t know what to say, other than, “Well, there isn’t one really.”
I pander to “that was then” logic and say, “well, it’s not officially celebrated because in old fashioned days they only thought there were boys and girls, men and women, mamas and papas. There isn’t a special day specifically for other parents.”
My kid thinks about this and then says: “In the United States they say Dada for Father.”
“Yes,” I say, “that’s true.”
Then we kind of looked at each other— well, does that fit? – and both shrug our shoulders.
My kid says, “You are a kind of like a Mama, but you are a Dada.” I nod my head noncommittally.
“So should we celebrate on Mother’s Day?” I ask.
Hmmmm. Somehow this doesn’t fit for them either. “No,” they say, “I think we should celebrate on Father’s Day.”
“Okay,” I say, happy for them to dictate this.
Many of our conversations surround such breaks in logic, “problems,” if you will. They are fissures in societal frames or ways of seeing the world that most kids are quick to point out; but I realize they are especially pronounced by our family’s chosen language and positioning in the world.
I could just call myself Mama Number Two and call them (my kid) a “she,” and a lot of things might be less confusing—but I don’t think it would make these breaks in logic disappear. No, they just keep popping up, everywhere we turn, giving us both the opportunity to assert/insert ourselves—if we have the energy.
We were just coming back from having spent a long day at the lake with a bunch of people ranging in ages from infant to eighty. It was lovely, and we had a lot of chances to explain our familial structure to people we met. Not because we go around explaining our familial structure, but because it came up a lot.
I didn’t plan on this emotional labour when choosing Dada as my parental name. I did want to queer my name and queer my relationship to parenting. I did want to honor my relationship with my Dad, and I did want to honor Mama as “birth mom.” I did want each of us three parents to have unique names for ourselves. But I naively didn’t realize the power such a name could have, and I certainly wasn’t prepared for the work.
I choose my name the moment that I volunteered to be a co-parent, in a conversation over the phone with my good friend, the birth mama, who was already pregnant but still looking for co-parents.
“I want to be a Dad,” I remember saying, and the name took shape. There hasn’t been a moment since that I’ve wanted any other name.
Whether I planned on it or not, however, this name has served as a means of complicating our familial structure, marking me/us as queer, and giving rise to the topic of queer parenting in everyday interactions. Using a word like Dada that causes a “double take”, helps me me to normalize our family structure—for myself and others.
At the picnic, we had many opportunities to talk about our family. Kids and parents alike notice that my kid calls me Dada, especially when they are shouting it from a raft on a lake to shore, or asking if they can have another cookie from the picnic blanket.
People often ask, Why does your kid call you Dada? They are asking, presumably, because I am femme presenting that day, or they read me as a cis woman, and assume my kid should be calling me Mama.
More frequently, people ask the “opposite question,” which is one of the following: Are you the mother? (a funny way to put it, I find), or Are you the real mother? (what’s real?) or, finally, and probably the one I find the most preferable, Are you the birth mother?
I don’t know all the calculations in people’s heads that lead them to ask, but they do. Maybe it’s because they heard my kid call me Dada, maybe it’s because I don’t look like my kid, or maybe they think I don’t look or act “like a mother” – who knows. But in any case, normally I just answer with our truth and say: “My kid has three parents. I am Dada. There is also Mama and Papa.”
That often clears things up. But sometimes, especially with direct and honest children, it’s not enough.
Out on a raft on a lake alone with my kid and two others, we found ourselves explaining our story. The children were curious and wanted to understand.
“So,” one of the children asks, “you are a stepmom?”
“No,” I say, “I’m a parent—I’m a Dada.”
The children look more confused.
Then my kid steps in, offering help, “A Dada is kind of like a Mama.”
The older child wants further explanation. “How exactly is it that she has three parents?”
I try to keep it simple, without talking about biology. “Well,” I say, “we are three friends who wanted to have a kid together—so that is what we did.”
This kid cocks their head at me and pauses. Finally, they smile.
“Oh!” they say brightly, “Well! I have two parents, and they have two children.” They seem to accept our truth, and offer their truth as a parallel. The issue seems resolved, and we raft on.
I’m not the first person to point out that children have a particularly charming and generally easy way of accepting new realities that are presented to them, rather than having fixed ideas of the way the world works. But this is not just true of children – adults can also be normalized to new realities—and, increasingly, as I gain my own power and clarity, I appreciate the opportunity to help do that. Even more, I appreciate offering my child the opportunity to witness and participate in the creation of the new reality.
Indeed, I had many conversations about our family constellation at the Mother’s Day picnic—both with my kid as witness and on my own. Some adults wanted to know about all the biological elements and, feeling fairly comfortable at a picnic arranged by our queer midwife, I shared with some of them our biological story. But I know that I don’t and shouldn’t have to.
If I have the energy, and I feel safe, I answer questions. Not all questions, not all the time, and not in every situation, but in this situation, I did. I want my kid to see me feeling proud and clear about what our family is. I want them to understand that I’m clear about it, or at least—the way that I see it—that I’m in the life-long process of clarifying.
I know that my kid must be getting a lot of opportunities to explain (or avoid explaining) what our family is—so I want to model for them a few possible options. I know that they receive pressure from kids at kita (preschool), not always negatively, about who I am exactly and who the other parents and parents’ partners are too. A year ago, when my partner and I had completely shaved heads and eyebrows, kids asked me daily about my gender, even when I’d told them the day before. It gave me the opportunity to give them different answers on different days.
But lately more than ever, I find that my kid slips into calling me Mama, in private and sometimes in public. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve grown out my mohawk quite long and often appear femme. Or if it’s because they know that calling me Dada puts them on the spot, or if they honestly just slip up since they spend so much time with me and their Mama lately.
I don’t correct them, because I’ve never wanted to “enforce” the name Dada on them. I also don’t think it’s just a mistake—I can tell when it’s just a mistake because they generally correct themselves immediately. I think, rather, that we both recognize in those moments that my kid is playing with boundaries and with new ideas, pushing at the edges of our logic, trying to make sense of it. They know that when they call me Mama, it doesn’t quite fit. But they also know, and have experienced, some shame, or at least some confusion, around Dada.
I know that this can be tough for my kid and I want to help them learn strategies for how to normalize our gender/queer family. I also think my kid is trying to understand some of society’s “logistical breaks.” Like how it is that I can be a feminine / feminized creature and be a Dada at the same time, when Dada is a name with masculine connotations, at least in English speaking contexts. I recognize the significance of the fact that they choose to say, “A Dada is kind of like a Mama” rather than, “A Dada is kind of like a Papa”–which is, or could be, equally true.
Such linguistic fissures get at fundamental ideas about sex and gender that simply are confusing and even contradictory. Kids are just trying to figure out how their community, and later, their world, handles those things.
Take gender neutral pronouns—another queer thing about our family. Somewhere in their third year, we decided to start using gender neutral pronouns when referring to our kid because our kid identifies as a Girl-Boy, Mädchen-Junge or Boy-Girl, Junge Mädchen. They came up with the term themselves when they were two years old and have been using it more consistently and affirmatively since that time.
The first time I heard them say it was when a kid at kita was quizzing us both about our gender.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” The kid asked us both.
“I am a Junge-Mädchen,” my kid responded—and I thought it was brilliant. I agreed that I was, too.
At four years old, they asked us explicitly to tell the kita teachers that they are a girlboy / boygirl. That seemed like a good sign that they wanted to be recognized and seen “officially” as genderqueer, whether or not they could put it in terms of preferred pronoun.
I don’t believe that my child is exceptional in their choice of “boygirl” as an identity, or that they have a sense of dysphoria around body and identity—they give no signs of that. Rather, I believe that they are simply aware that their interests span what is seen as either “for boys” or “for girls,” and they are trying to navigate the rather bizarre gender/sex structures that have been set out for them, attempting to describe themselves.
Inflexibilities lead to labor, but also opportunity—a chance to tell, revise and reimagine our genderqueer stories. What I hope is that I can offer my kid a toolbox of ideas about how to tell their own story, like when the school photographer tells them that boys pose one way and girls pose another way. Or when a kid tells them they can’t play the father in a game.
We are still trying to figure out how to do this and to know when to be prepared to advocate. My co-parent recently asked that teachers include me when the children make Mothers- and Fathers Day gifts. She was met with confusion and resistance—but it was a huge step towards un-doing old forms.
Simplifying my story and that of my kid might feel easier in the present, but sometimes ends up obfuscating real relationship dynamics in the long term. Simple answers or attempts to pass can create silences and darkness around important features of our lives and identities.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the energy or desire all the time to insert new forms, tell new stories and invent new possible futures. Sometimes we are just too tired or too embarrassed or something else entirely. But when we do feel ready, complicating and explaining words like Dada and they gives rise to great conversations and opportunities for modeling, witnessing, demonstrating and sharing our familial constellation in ways that I never predicted. Engaging with complication often helps me to feel seen, and I hope this process of storytelling empowers my kid to make themselves and their family visible, too.
(first and final photos courtesy of the of author; “Reaching for Dad” by Andrew Seaman and unicorn child by Andrea Timmons, both via unsplash)