I’m enjoying the writing prompts on queer parenting at Regular Midwesterners, so I took a go at their second question. Josh and Gretchen ask:

“Do you think of yourself as a “mother”? A “father”? Something in between? Why?”

Five and a half years ago, my wife was pregnant with Leigh and I was in my fourth year of graduate school. A friend, who then had a nearly one-year-old, encouraged me to ask my advisor for some financial support in taking leave with our baby (in my field, grad students are provided with a minimal living stipend). There was no official parental leave policy, but some advisors would provide support, particularly for their pregnant students. I was already planning to take the summer home (our baby was due in June), but had assumed I’d need to forego my usual summer pay (we couldn’t really afford it, but I was going to anyway).

I thought about it, and decided it couldn’t hurt to ask (Note however, there are advisors with whom it might hurt to ask. Mine just wasn’t one of them) and I mentioned the idea to my friend C. We had been in grad school together since day one. We shared an office, an advisor, a field, almost all of our classes, and the same circle of friends (we’re still great friends and colleagues). I’d talked with her often about our expected baby, how it felt in my shoes, as the not-pregnant mom, the plans we were putting in place for me to stay afloat in our program when the baby arrived. I felt real support from her.

But when I mentioned I was thinking about asking for some paid leave, she said, “But should you really do that? Aren’t you really more of a dad? Shouldn’t you just get a couple weeks?”

I froze stock still. A dad? Had she actually said I was more of a dad? That I shouldn’t be taking time with my baby? With our family?

I can’t remember my exact words, but I sputtered something like “I am NOT a dad. I am a mom and I am taking time with my baby. This is NOT more Gail’s baby.”

I was shaking. I started to cry. I don’t remember how the conversation closed. I was deeply hurt.

In just a few sentences, I had heard her give voice to my deepest fears: that I was expendable, apparently so unnecessary they didn’t even need me around the house for more than 5 minutes or so after the baby came. I was secondary and unimportant. It was not at all what C meant, but at that time, in that vulnerable place, all these fears were summed up in one word:

Dad.

I recently checked back in with C about what she remembers of that conversation.** As she recalls, she was making a point about the policy, that maybe I didn’t need supported leave because I wouldn’t be recovering from birth. She was supportive of my plan to take the summer off, thought dads in general should take leave, but was questioning whether an official policy should provide me with the same thing provided for a mom needing to recover from birth. As it was, there was no actual official policy in place, and after I asked, my advisor did generously provide me with about a month of paid leave (I took the remaining time, about another month, unpaid). But this isn’t a post about parental leave policies.

More interesting is how surprised C was by how much the dad comparison hurt me. She in no way meant the comparison to “dad” to imply less involved or less important as a parent, so I’ve been thinking back on the conversation, trying to figure out why it hurt so much.

For all my life, my assumption was that if I ever had kids (less the brief time in my early 20s when I thought being lesbian meant I wouldn’t have them), I would of course be a mom. As Gail and I laid the groundwork for our family, it began to dawn on me that it might not be that simple if Gail was carrying, and once we were to mid-pregnancy, I was grappling with the magnitude of what we were taking on.

Building a family with two moms is a surprisingly subversive thing.

Central to the meaning of “mother” is the idea of “one.” I was in a family with a mom who already met every single standard pre-requisite for the role, so what in the world was I? I’m pretty sure nearly every expectant lesbian non-biological-parent (with a pregnant partner) has asked this question (I like Olive’s recent take). Some come away from the question thinking of themselves comfortably as more of a father, something of a lesbian dad. Some find that they are comfortable (or at least can make peace with) stepping back into something more of a “back-up” mom role, or perhaps instead something of a cross between a mother and a father (see here for an interesting academic article on this combination role, and see Josh’s response to this same question for a similar idea from the perspective of a gay dad). But being me (read: hideously stubborn), I was determined that I would be a Mother. I was a bit unclear on what exactly I meant by that, but at the very least I meant central in my own home and family, deeply connected to my child, and playing a large part in her day-to-day care, and yes, doing some of these things in a traditionally “motherly” way.

But I didn’t have anyone to mother yet (the chores, research, cooking and nesting only got me so far), and I had a wife who grew more motherly by the moment. That belief that it was possible, that we really could have a family with two central moms, was just a dream in my own little head. I had virtually no examples. When the Aizley other mother anthology came out near the end of Gail’s pregnancy, it helped a bit, but so many of those essays reflected exactly what I was hoping to avoid. So when C said “aren’t you more of a dad?” my fragile but fiercely held dream was crushed. Sure, I’d wondered that very thing myself, but to hear it from my close friend, even though she was trying to say something completely different, was excruciating. My identity as a mom was but a wisp of a thing at that point. It didn’t take much.

Another part of why the dad comparison hurt was that as an expectant non-bio-mom, I was beginning to understand a lot about gendered roles in parenting that I had never noticed before. I was actively living how dads are shuttled to the side during pregnancy, how the flurry around preparation for baby is directed only to pregnant moms, how virtually all public conversations about children include only women. I noticed the many ways that dads are both passively and actively excluded from parenting. It wasn’t until I was in shoes arguably somewhat similar to an expectant dad’s, that I realized what a tenuous position fatherhood can be. So another part of why I was hurt, was that I had started to develop a visceral understanding that in our culture as a whole, when it comes to parenting, very often “Dad” really does imply “secondary.” To build a family not structured in this way takes active bucking of the system. C wasn’t living that yet. I was, so I heard something different, and more painful, than what she was actually saying.

My thoughts and feelings about what it means to be a mother or a father have changed since then. Eventually that fear of being “more of a dad” changed into a feeling of connection with parts of what it is to be a dad. Several of our best parent friends are dads who defy gendered and societal assumptions about the place they should or shouldn’t take in their family and instead built it for themselves, from the ground up. As it turned out, with some solid thinking and work by both of them, C’s husband K became exactly that kind of dad when their son arrived a couple years later.

So, in answer to the question, I identify as a mother (though not the kind of “mother” that implies “one”), but I hold that identity less fiercely and more flexibly than I did when Leigh was tiny. Five-and-a-half years later, I would no longer take “more of a dad” as an insult (in some contexts, it would be a compliment). I also hope that soon we’ll live in a world where “dad” doesn’t imply “secondary” when it comes to parenting, one in which we’re all a bit more free to build relationships with our kids outside the lines.

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** Many thanks to C for being willing to think through this with me. You are (and were) a really good friend.