I’M A QUEER FEMME WOMAN—CAN I CALL MYSELF “PAPA”?

Dear Bear,

I am pregnant! It’s so marvelous. I’m a femme-identified ciswoman and I’m married to a somewhat butchier ciswoman who is THE greatest human who has ever lived. She is so loving to the cats and so patient with me.  And she’s so good at closing jars and refilling my prenatals and using I-statements and her vocabulary! I can’t even.  I am a great breadwinner, and a great money spender, and really what I want is to be a great papa. I want my wife to be the primary parent and I want to make it explicit to the world that though I’m nursing, I am really only following her orders.

Can I please be a femme nursing person who goes by papa? Or is this request rooted in sexist assumptions about male parenting roles that I should be working to abolish rather than uphold?

• • •

Dear Brave Correspondent,

First, congratulations. I hope you have an extremely uneventful and very boring pregnancy.

Immediately second, let’s get one thing sorted promptly: You should ABSOLUTELY go by Papa if you want to, without regard to your gender identity or bodily topography or baby-feeding duties or whatever.  That is nothing less than your birthright as a queer person. Do you see a cultural trope that you think you can get some use out of if you just tilt it a little and maybe add a dab of rickrack or glitter or lube? Then by golly, I encourage you. It’s not like the mainstream is all busy trying to make us feel included and validated. We’re going to have to take what we can get and use it in the way that serves us best, as have our queercestors since the dawn of time. If that’s being a Papa for you, then I would like to stand first to welcome you to the ranks of Papahood. We are a proud (and tired) people.

At the risk of bursting your bubble, it may be difficult to get other people on board with this. Family members and friends might go along, but teachers, daycare staff, store clerks, librarians, health care providers and so forth will probably refer to you as Mommy a lot. A LOT. And not infrequently in weird ways, like “Okay, Mommy, can you stand right here?” But stand your ground.

(Though if you can pull off bursting into fake tears while exclaiming, “No one was supposed to know about that baby all those years ago! How did you find me? Do the press know yet?” I cannot bring myself to discourage you.)

There’s also the question of what your partner will be called, and what that will mean for your eventual spawn, going forward. If you’re to be Papa, and your partner some version of Mom/Mama, then your child will spend a certain amount of time being assumed the child of heterosexuals and an additional amount of time having to undo that (heterosexism is such a drag, and not the eyelashes kind). Which may support your values of being out out out or you might have other ideas —both options are actually jim dandy, but I’m saying you should think this all the way through to parent-teacher night in the first grade, at least before you start making lasting decisions.

On the topic of nursing, you should know that even if your commitment is human milk for human babies, you can pump milk and have your partner feed the baby. It’s a remarkably useful and important way to help the non-nursing parent be important and real to the baby, who, like all babies, is such a little mammal and will blindly push toward comfort. It also allows for that parent to also feel… real? Which can be a question that gets exhausting and unpleasant during the inevitable interrogations of queer families: Which of you is the realmother? Obviously the answer is “we both are,” (and if you can keep yourself from adding “you incompressible jizztrumpet” then you may count yourself polite enough by my lights). I say this mostly because I think on some level you are already anticipating some of these questions, and building to suit as best you can. Which, based on extensive personal experience, I think is very wise.

Now about the sexism, which is a more complex question. Because the answer to that one is sort of “yes, and also yes.” It’s the kind of difficult bind that people with disempowered/targeted identities get caught up in a lot, because there are always two things at work. There’s the world we’re working to build, and the world we’re actually trying to survive and maybe thrive in right now. It’s not always possible to be 100% living all of our ideals no matter how deeply felt they are, because all of our choices are constrained and complicated by the current world in which we live. We often do our best and wind up having to accept partial victories that come with a side order of defeat or loss or shame.

I think of this a lot in the WalMart problem. How many of us hate them because of their terrible policies and low wages? How many of us are only able to keep our kids fed because of how low the prices on things at WalMart sometimes are? So sometimes, we both disapprove of something politically and also engage with it in the real world. See also: jobs, cars, the housing market, health care, computers, smart phones, quinoa, and so on, and so on, and so on. Do I want to be composing this column using a machine that was almost certainly produced under inhumane conditions in a place where human rights violations are commonplace (the same sort of item on which you are reading it right now)? No, I don’t. But since I am not prepared to handwrite my column on a legal pad and mail it to the nice people who set the pixels (who would then type it into the same kind of machine, etc.), here we are.

So, with regard to gender roles and sexism, listen: it is true that we don’t appreciate women when they do parenting work because—culturally—that’s the expected default. Also, and I am speaking from experience here, we valorize men who are even anywhere near their children as “great dads!” for doing basically nothing (I have this experience daily as I do very basic things with my kids, like hand one of them a spoon). It’s profoundly sexist. No question. Would it be so much better for everyone if our ideas about parenting and gender roles had more room in them? Yes. Are there a lot of things for queer parents to teach the heteros of the world about nonsexist division of chores and tasks related to childraising? Yes. Also, queer parents make excellent possibility models for straight kids of straight parents – where else will they see a grown woman hitting a line drive home run in her adorable summer dress and running the bases with a glint in her eye, or a man cheerfully canning the season’s fresh sour cherries in three ways and baking them into delicious pies besides? Possibly not at their Uncle Ed and Auntie Peg’s house.

Here’s a thing, though. I don’t think being a femme Papa makes the system more sexist. I think it makes you feel seen and valued for your actual qualities and talents rather than only the ones that are socially acceptable. Which seems like the opposite of sexism, and at the very least like the better part of valor. And your title choice may even provide opportunities for you to interrupt sexism. We can work on the world even as it works on us.

Enjoy being a Papa, Brave Correspondent. It’s a delicious club you’re joining. Exhausting, but delicious.

Love and courage,

Bear

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