A Parent By Any Other Name

Lesbian couple with baby at home.
Lesbian couple with baby at home.

Today is Mother's Day, which has me thinking about the many ways of being a mother in today's world, and about the concept of a "parenting identity" -- which may or may not correspond with one's gender identity.

Mothers traditionally are female -- but mothers today include transgender men who had children before transitioning and may still think of themselves as mothers, as well as transgender women with children who may have taken on the title of mother in accordance with their gender identity. They may include masculine-of-center lesbian women, along with genderqueer and intersex people who do not identify as strictly male or female, but somehow feel drawn to the amalgam of qualities and actions our society typically associates with mothers. They may include some gay men who similarly feel closer to this "mother's" role, even if their gender identity is male -- and might even include straight, cisgender men of similar persuasion.

Law professor Carlos Ball, a gay dad, wrote a HuffPo essay for Mother's Day several years ago in which he proposed, "Motherhood is not about who one is; instead, it is about what one does. This means that we need to start thinking of mother as a verb rather than as a noun. We should focus, in other words, on what it means to mother a child, rather than on the gender of the parent who does the mothering."

There's a lot of merit in that verb-based view, and I've quoted Ball often. As I ponder it now, though, I wonder if we can go still further in rethinking parenting roles and labels.

Let's start by looking at some dictionary definitions of the verbs "to mother" and "to father." "To mother," according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, means to "Bring up (a child) with care and affection: the art of mothering" or to "Look after kindly and protectively, sometimes excessively so." To "father," however, means, perhaps obviously, to "Be the father of," or, a little less circularly, "Treat with the protective care usually associated with a father."

One might conclude from this that both mothers and fathers care for and protect their children. Mothers may be differentiated by doing so with affection and kindness -- but can we really say that the majority of fathers don't exhibit kindness and affection towards their children?

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, defines "to mother" as "to give birth to" or "to care for or protect like a mother." It defines "to father" as "to care for or look after someone as a father might." Interestingly, it omits "protect" -- a common cultural association -- from "to father."

The Random House Dictionary (via the popular Dictionary.com website), defines "to mother" as "to be the mother of; give origin or rise to," "to care for or protect like a mother; act maternally toward," or "to perform the tasks or duties of a female parent; act maternally." When one looks up "maternal," however, it is defined circularly as "of, pertaining to, having the qualities of, or befitting a mother." "Father" and "paternal" are defined in nearly identical ways, simply substituting those words. The dictionary avoids defining what the qualities of a mother or father actually are.

It seems, then, that the dictionary definitions are either circular (to mother is to be a mother; to father is to be a father), so close as to be indistinguishable (both care and protect), or leave off factors (kindness and affection) that seem like obvious oversights. Is there really any difference, then, between "mothering" and "fathering"? Isn't it all just parenting?

At the same time, certain cultural associations still cling to the words, with mothers often seen as more nurturing and fathers as more protective. Social stereotypes often try to force parents into traditional gender-based parenting roles -- mother as caregiver, father as protector and money earner. Ball is right, though, in that fathers can nurture. And there's a reason that calling someone a "mama bear" denotes a fierce protective instinct.

To me, then, the parenting label one adopts is thus less a matter of specific definition and more a matter of choice and personal parenting identity -- an identity that may or may not correspond to one's gender identity. Some parents may gravitate towards one word or another because of cultural connotations or personal experience (feeling more akin to one's own parent of a certain label, say). We should each use the word that works for us -- or make up our own just as people have made up genderqueer pronouns. I know several lesbians on the more masculine end of the spectrum, for example, who go by "Baba" to their kids. (For more examples of LGBTQ parental names, see the spreadsheet I've been compiling for a few years now.)

This delightful mix of identities is one of the reasons I hold my annual Blogging for LGBTQ Families Day on the first weekday of June. Not only is it the start of Pride Month, but it sits roughly midway between Mother's Day and Father's Day -- honoring both, but reminding us that not all parents exist at one of those poles. I hope you'll join me for the event's 11th year. Simply post in celebration of LGBTQ families at your own blog (or other public social media channel) on or before June 1, then submit the link here. I will compile all the links to showcase the wonderful variety and ceaseless love within our community. Allies are welcome!

Whatever parenting title you choose, and whichever parenting holiday(s) you celebrate (or if you make up your own observances), may they be times of joy for you and your families.