What’s in a Name? On Being DadaMama Instead of MaMa

Sometimes I still wish to be the one who walks beside my children, while others follow.

Originally Appeared here on RoleReboot.org.

Only when my twins were 20 months old did they master the correct use of the words “mama” and “dada.”  They took quite a long time to even SAY these words, despite beginning to talk about six months prior.  Their first words were “uh oh” and “ba ba” (bottle), (ba)”nana,” “hi,” “bye” and “boon” (balloon).  I figured, okay, as long as they are starting to say words, no problem.  But on the inside I was wondering what was wrong.  Was I, as Mama, not as important to them as I should be if they learned “boon” first?  Had I been neglectful somehow?  I couldn’t help measuring myself against other moms with kids younger than mine who were constantly saying “Mama.”

In the next few months the twins started throwing around the words Mama and Dada, but they didn’t seem to be in reference to anyone.  Sometimes they would point at the window or a light switch and shout “Mama.”  Sometimes they were directed toward Seth or I, but also toward the babysitter, Grammy and Grampy, aunts and uncles, etc.  What was this about?  Wasn’t I supposed to be much more important than these other folks?

My anxiety only increased when their words started to get more complex.  They started saying “window,” “shake it” (when we danced) and “okra.”  My daughter started to refer to her Minnie Mouse doll as “Minya Minya Maow” and her stuffed kangaroo as “Kanga.”  Really, I thought, you know Minnie and Kanga and Hippo and Poo Bear and not Mama?  I was starting to feel peeved.  Okay, maybe even a little hurt. Then something strange began to happen.  One day my daughter looked right at me, and with a big smile, and great exuberance, as though she’d had had a revelation, she shouted “Dada!” and pointed in my direction.  Over the next couple weeks both babies began to refer to my husband AND me as DaDa.

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Tuesday’s Discussion of Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids

Valenti argues that complete maternal love and maternal instinct are overblown concepts used to promote the idea that mothers should be sacrificial and expert on all things related to their children.

To what extent do you believe in maternal instinct and the idea of all-encompassing maternal devotion?  In your experience are these concepts mostly societally-generated or do they ring true to your experience or that of people you know?  If you believe they are part of an un-natural societal ideal, what function does this ideal serve?

For me, these concepts mostly do not ring true.  I have definitely had great instincts about my kids at times.  I often feel like I know why they are acting a certain way, what they want or need, and notice things others don’t.  Having said that, there are also many, many times where I feel totally perplexed by them.  I often feel other mothers are aware of minutiae about their kids that I would never pay attention to, like how many times they poop.  I also feel my husband has many moments of great instincts about our kids that I’m oblivious to. If I tend to get it right most often, it’s only because I’m with them the most.  But I would say my husband is a close second, and could easily have “the best” instincts if he were with them more than I.

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My Husband Does Do That – My Journey out of the Equal Parenting Closet

Seth holding the twins.

Originally Posted on RoleReboot.org, also featured on Feministing.com, and Offbeat Mama:

The first time it happened, I was at a Mothers of Multiples Club welcome brunch.  My fantasy was that my terror at the impending birth of my twins would dissipate as soon as I met the wise kindred spirits who would be guiding me through the transition to multiple-motherhood.  Much to my surprise, however, brunch soon descended into a husband-bashing session, replete with the kind of ominous warnings I would receive over and over during my pregnancy.

“Make sure you leave the house when they’re a few months old.  I waited three years to leave my kids alone with my husband, and now he refuses to babysit,” one mom insisted.  My initial response was confusion.  I was planning to leave the house the first week.  I had written my doctoral dissertation on equally shared parenting for frig’s sake!  Caught totally off guard, I responded, “That’s not going to be a problem for me.”  Several of the women chuckled sweetly, shooting me the pitying “you’ll see” glance I would receive time and time again.

What was this strange land I was entering?  These were smart, accomplished moms –some working, some stay-at-home– all of whom swore that when kids came into the picture, roles changed overnight.  Were the brilliant, creative, feminist women I’d known in college really now accepting such arrangements?  My twin terror was quickly compounded by the fear of losing the egalitarian marriage I so valued.

Well, fourteen months into motherhood my marriage is as egalitarian as ever.  However, the “our husbands suck and don’t do anything” motif turned out to be rampant at the mommy meet-ups and play-dates that were supposed to help maintain my sanity during the first year with infant twins.  Now don’t get me wrong, my husband can be an ass.  Then again, so can I!  But the truth is– (hushed whisper) I like my husband.  He is a fantastic husband.  No one has the perfect marriage, but it was the gendered aspects of the husband-bashing which eluded me most– husbands not “helping” around the house, never “watching the kids,” oblivious to routines and childcare tasks.

Despite my relief that my own marriage hadn’t followed this path, my own parenting experience felt utterly erased during these conversations.  I would feel like a total asshole if I sat there repeating, “My husband does do that,” and adding obnoxiously, “My husband cleans more than I do.”  So instead I just passed, keeping my identity practicing equally shared parenting hidden.  I was also a queer mom passing as straight at these gatherings, but amazingly, stating, “My husband taught me how to swaddle,” orSometimes Seth is more comfortable with our kids than I am,” felt more threatening than announcing I was queer.

When I really examined my fear, I realized it felt like I would be “coming out” as a bad mom.  Had we somehow gotten the message that fairness and equality were okay for us to enjoy in our marriages but to be good mothers, we had to be the ones drastically rearranging our lives to make room for children?  If my husband was parenting as well as me, must I not be parenting well at all?

Seth Wearing Babies

I desperately want to be accepted by my peers.  After all, this mothering thing is hard, and I am going to need them.  Then again, am I really even there if I just hide out at playgroups , nod and pass, not only as straight, but as June Cleaver?  And the truth is husband-bashing isn’t the kind of support that I need anyway.  What about adult stimulation?  What about moms who can talk politics, who are activists?  What about discussing how the hell we are going to give our kids the space to explore flexible gender identities and orientations toward love and sex while media and culture steer them onto narrow, limiting paths?  What about the massive, profound transition that is becoming a mother?  Let’s talk about the guilt, the ecstasy, the terror, trying to find balance, trying to hold on to ourselves!  Some moms I’ve met seem so burdened with the lion’s share of childcare that they’ve had to lose the rest of themselves to manage it.  Is this the culturally-accepted ideal of motherhood?  No selves allowed?

I’m still trying to work out why my husband and I never walked through that time warp back to the 1950s that all those couples who “swore it wouldn’t happen to them” walked through.  I ask myself if these women complaining about their male partners’ traditional responses to parenting were themselves willing to be flexible in their own gender roles.  As long as we have the attitude that we can do it better, men probably won’t step up, because what man enjoys feeling incompetent?

That mom who didn’t leave the children with her husband for three years obviously didn’t see him as a competent caretaker, but now seems bitter that he’s not one.  We have to believe men can care for children and manage homes, just as we believe we can run companies and nations, rather than expect them to “help” while we maintain control over the private domain.  How would we react to that kind of attitude toward our work in the public sphere?  Imagine men expecting to supervise and micromanage our works as CEOs?

So why are moms so hesitant to view their male partners as full, competent parents?  Is it just that hard to picture?  I don’t think so.  I think it’s because deep down there is a part of us that believes if we demand equal parenting, if we demand holding onto ourselves– as our husbands do when children come into the picture– then we are not good mothers.  I can understand this fear.  When I really sit and think about it, I have it, too.  When I work, when I take time to write, when I keep up with friends, go out with other adults, and spend time fantasizing about things I’m passionate about, there is always this little nagging feeling that a “good mom” would have let go of these things.

I’ve held onto my egalitarian marriage and my sense of self, but I haven’t managed to not beat myself up about it.  So my husband has all the parenting skills and responsibility I do, but I still look at him and he seems unburdened, free of the guilt and self-doubt that plagues me.  If he can be a full person and also believe he is a good parent, why can’t I be out and proud as an egalitarian mother?


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Out of Which Closet? (My Husband Does Do That Part 3)

Not my mom.  So who am I then?   Or should I say what am I?  Sometimes my husband and I feel like we are different, gay perhaps, or maybe queer?  Is there more to being gay than the sexual preference part?  Where is the line between gender and sexual orientation?

I love and have sex with a man, but I don’t feel straight.  Women are sexy too.  I think I’d love being with a woman, but I can’t say I’d prefer it to a man.  But I also feel like there’s more to my not feeling straight than that, so calling myself bi doesn’t feel right either.

Perhaps it goes back to not believing in gender as most people see it.  Labels of gay and straight necessarily imply hard lines between male and female.  To define one’s sexuality by “who” or “which” one is attracted to, one must buy into the concept that there are clear males and clear females.

What about those who do not fit neatly into those categories?   Did you know there are roughly as many intersex people as there are Jews?  That’s a sizable portion of the population, and it doesn’t even begin to cover those along the transgender spectrum!

I went to a talk once where I was introduced to the term “omnisexual,” meaning attracted to basically anyone, because you reject the notion of dichotomized gender roles.  Is that what I am?

How does one “come out” as omnisexual, pansexual, genderqueer?  And does one have to look the part?  I surely don’t.  And what about the other aspects of my lifestyle?

My husband and I don’t live as male and female the way most people seem to.  We don’t organize our lives around gender… at all.  None of the daily tasks we do, the way we raise our kids, the way we organize work in and outside the home, the way we relate to each other, the power structure in our relationship, none of it is based on the fact that he’s a man and I’m a woman.

I often feel like this is my dirty little secret.  I don’t know how to talk about it.  There’s no word for it.  I don’t know how to find others like me.  This must be how it feels to be gay before one realizes there’s a concept for “it.”  How amazing would it be to be able to go to a bar or a website where everyone is, well, whatever I am?

It always amazes me that so many people seem to exist on the earth who fit into already existing categories.  There’s another “man” who “has sex with men,” must be a “gay man.”  Hell, there’s even a category for people who like animals!

What about the spaces between the categories?  What about new categories?  Isn’t our desire really way more complicated and varied than the available labels we have?  Where’s my category?  I want to come out, but I can’t figure out which closet I’m in!

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My Husband Does Do That Part 2 (Not My Mom Part 3)

In the early 1900s, pink was considered a color for boys.  Wikipedia quotes an article from a 1918 trade publication as saying; “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pink.

Imagine seeing a boy baby dressed in pink?  Imagine dressing your baby boy in pink?  How can these things feel so wrong down to the fiber of our souls and yet be so completely and utterly culturally constructed and random?  But they are.

Despite my belief that gender roles are largely socially constructed, I do not practice what I preach.  I don’t live my life as an androgynous being.  Anyone who saw me would know I was a woman.  Not a girly girl, but also not a woman who is trying to make a statement about gender.  Just your average woman.

I don’t wear make-up or much jewelry, don’t do nail polish, refuse to spend more than five minutes doing my hair.  That said, I enjoy looking nice, and let’s be honest, part of that is looking my gender.  Unless I can somehow magically extract my own mind from its cultural context, I’m never going to look in the mirror at the long dark hair on my legs and think –  I look so beautifully natural, time to go out for a night on the town. 

I try to strike a balance in which I can feel good about myself in the real world, but don’t allow myself to be convinced that I have to mutilate myself, go through painful procedures, put chemicals on my face, take drugs or pills, or buy expensive hair and skin products (again filled with chemicals) to feel like a woman.

I guess you could say that balance is also reflected in my choice of mate.  While Seth also looks like a man, his gender role is quite flexible.

Seth doesn’t have a macho bone in his body.  I know more about sports than he does, and that’s not saying much.

He doesn’t talk shit about women or make nasty jokes or brag about sexual conquests (no really, I’m certain).

He is 100% comfortable with homosexuality.

He is wonderfully domestic.  He is a better cook than I am, does more housework than I do, and he is every bit as competent with our infants as I.

I’ll never forget the first time my husband and I had my Dad and step-mom over for dinner.  Seth cooked so I could talk to my family.  My Dad was utterly perplexed.  He just sat there stupefied, unable to understand what was going on.

I had arrived… I was not my mom!

I often hear women complaining that their male partners don’t “help” enough with children, do housework, etc., but these same women don’t seem willing to be flexible in their own gender roles.  As long as we have the attitude that we can do it better, men probably won’t step up, because what man enjoys feeling incompetent?

We have to believe men can care for children and manage homes, just as we believe we can run companies and lead nations, rather than expect them to “help” while we maintain control over the domains of children and home.  How would we react to that kind of attitude toward our entering the public sphere?

If you want a truly egalitarian life, don’t accept a partner who doesn’t, and don’t be fooled by the belief that there are no men out there with flexible gender roles.  You don’t have to swear off gender all together, but be willing to practice flexibility yourself.  Be the kind of person you want to find.

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Maybe we are all Undercover (My Husband Does Do That, Part 1)

There were wonderful mommy play-date moments where I felt like, wow, they get it, and believe me, no one who doesn’t have twins gets having twins.

(Don’t tell me your one and two year olds are “just like twins!”  Don’t tell me you were “supposed to” have twins.  The fact that your aunt’s secretary’s dog lives in a house with twins does not make you get it!  You do not have twins!  Goodbye.)

But a lot of the time in the midst of such gatherings, I felt this ill, empty kind of feeling as though large chunks of my identity had left the building.

Of course I could relate to topics like getting your twins to sleep (please, for the love of God!), dealing with teething, when to start solids, etc.  They may not have been riveting, and yet, I found myself hanging on the every word of those more experienced mommies… until about 6 months rolled around and I started to have this nagging feeling that… this just isn’t all that complicated… and this nagging desire to, oh, I don’t know, talk about something other than our kids for the love of fuck!

This one night, I attended a twin mommy’s night out.  It was AT A BAR – swoon!  I was so excited, I thought, ok, now we’re actually going to get to know each other, the mommies will be loosened up, away from their babes, bring on the slightly inappropriate, sexually suggestive adult conversation.  FAIL.

I remember at one point wanting to stab myself with my fork when they moved off the topic of what’s the best minivan, to a lengthy discussion of how to find baby socks that fit right.  I actually lost the will to drink.  It’s then that I started looking around at these really quite lovely, but not very interesting moms, and realizing just how white, rich, and straight they really were.

There were many other play-date topics to which I couldn’t relate, my personal favorite being why our husbands suck (and let me assure you, some of these husbands really and truly did suck quite hard).

Now don’t get me wrong, my husband can be an ass.  Then again so can I.  Of course I fight with my spouse.  But the truth is, (hushed whisper) I like my husband.  He is a fantastic husband.

But okay, not everyone has the perfect marriage.   It was the gendered aspects of the husband complaints which eluded me most, husbands not “helping” around the house, never “watching” the kids, not “letting them” buy jewelry, etc.  Really?  Am I living the in the 1950s twilight zone?

I was only willing to do marriage if it was going to be the same deal for my husband and me.  The traditional wife/mother role seemed like a much better deal for a potential husband than for me.  I guess it didn’t occur to me that others wouldn’t feel the same.

And who wants to be a total asshole and sit there repeating, “My husband does do that,” and adding obnoxiously, “My husband cleans more than I do.  He’s a much better wife than I am. ”

Then again, am I really even there if I just sit and nod and sip my white wine?  I feel like I’m “passing” in a way. Not in a way that could be clearly labeled, but in a more subtle, and yet poignant way, I feel closeted

I long for the day when I can find a way to be out and proud, but I’m not even sure what to come out as.  There is no magic word for my lifestyle, or the collection of identity bits that make me up.  I find myself wondering if we are all really undercover, looking at each other from inside our closets thinking she’s just a little too normal.

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