When I was pregnant with Leigh, Lyn and I had many many many conversations about how we would structure our family. Naturally, the ever-popular subject of names came up. In a family with two moms, who gets called what? Do you both go with “Mommy?” Does one person get the Mom/Mommy moniker and the other person get a made-up name? In establishing our names, we both wanted to take names that meant “Mom.”
In the end, we decided that I would be “Ima,” which means “Mother” in Hebrew, and that Lyn would be “Mama.” One reason that made sense at the time was that I was Jewish and Lyn was not (she has since converted). We also liked that neither of us was “Mommy” which, to us, felt like it more strongly implied “one.”
We started to use our names with Leigh very early, and often felt silly doing so. “Mama” was pretty easy for her to say, but it took her a long time to get “Ima” down. She said “Ahh-ma” instead of “Ima” for what seemed like forever (it was frustrating at the time, but of course now it seems sweet). Now she uses our names, sometimes saying “my Mama” or “my Ima,” and sometimes saying “ImaMama” or “MamaIma” as a generic term.
In hindsight, I realize that we didn’t really know what we were doing when we picked names. “Ima” isn’t a name for mom that everyone readily recognizes, and I when I chose that name, I didn’t think about the fact that it wouldn’t instantly peg me as a mother. When I am out with Leigh and she calls me “Ima,” I wonder if the people around us think I am an aunt or a nanny, especially if we are alone together and talking about how Mama woke her up this morning or how she misses Mama. We have to make sure that her daycare and other care providers know that Leigh calls me “Ima” so that they’ll recognize and respond when Leigh says it. Daycare is actually pretty good overall, but it still does happen that someone will say “Leigh, your Mama is here,” when really, it’s her Ima that has arrived.
So you may be thinking, Why does this fit into “What we did right without knowing it?” Isn’t this something they did wrong without knowing it? It’s true that I did not anticipate the consequences of having a non-standard name, and that sometimes it makes me feel uncomfortable. The good consequence is that I am shouldering some of the burdens that come along with creating a non-standard family structure.
In many lesbian families, it’s the non-bio-mom who takes the more non-standard name, but in our family, the non-bio-mom has a very easily recognizable name — Lyn’s name declares her relationship to our daughter to anyone who hears Leigh holler “Mama!” Her name helps to establish societal and community support for the relationship. Because Lyn and Leigh don’t have a biological bond, that relationship might be fragile, either because Lyn and Leigh don’t have a strong tie (which they do, so no problems there) or because people outside of our family don’t recognize the relationship. Having a standard name helps to shore up this support from outside the family.
That tells us why it’s important that Lyn (as a non-bio-mom) took on an instantly-identifiable parental name. But was it really a good thing that I didn’t? We could have both gone with “Mama” (and then we likely would have become “Mama Lyn” and “Mama Gail” eventually). I think it has been good for all of us that I sometimes experience the world as a “second” or “non-standard” mom. Whenever I talk about nursing or pregnancy or childbirth, I’m effectively declaring that Leigh is mine. It’s easy to lose sight of what I might call “bio-mom privilege.” My relationship to Leigh was never in question. Lyn on the other hand has often felt questioned. She and Leigh are different enough in appearance that people wonder if she’s Leigh’s mother, whereas Leigh and I look like we are genetically related. Before Leigh was born, it was clear to anyone and everyone that I was becoming a mother, while people that Lyn worked with regularly forgot that she was becoming a mother. It has been very useful for me to be able to feel a little bit of the insecurity that can come with being a non-bio mom. It’s not an internal insecurity — within our family unit we all feel very secure and comfortable. But people outside of our family have to learn how to treat us all as a family unit, and I’ve been glad to have some experience of what it’s like to worry that others don’t see me as a real mom.
Of course, now the tables are turned and we’re on our way toward having baby number two. I’m going to be a non-bio-mom with a non-standard name, and I don’t think that’s really a great place to be in. However, I am very comfortable in my role as mother, and our community, from family to friends to acquaintances to childcare providers, is used to seeing us as a family unit, and used to perceiving me as a mother. I think we ran a much bigger risk of our choice of names negatively influencing our roles and confidence the first time through.