Of Struggling With Labels

“I don’t like my fake name” muttered Ammu, my first daughter.

I was bent over the stove tossing rice noodles in a base of lemon and sesame oil. The heady aroma of tempered mustard and curry leaves almost made me miss the statement. A part of me always attuned to disturbances in the air peaked and I half turned, paying attention to what was being said. I half expected them to be talking of their dolls or the pseudonyms they give themselves when they play with each other.

“Don’t say that!” admonished Pattu, Ammu’s twin.

“I don’t like my fake name” repeated Ammu stressing each word, pausing for effect and then bending over her milk and taking a sip.

“Ammu, what is a fake name?” I asked and waited while she stared into her milk refusing to meet my eyes. Lifting her chin up, I stared into the warm brown eyes that were starting to mist.

“I want my real name back” she said and tried to look down.

“Do you not like your first name? I can call you by your middle name if that is what you want Ammu but I want you to tell me why you feel your name is fake?”

“I want my real name back” she repeated. I hugged her an extra minute and was about to walk back to packing lunches when Pattu chimed in.

“I always tell new people I meet my middle name. You know, so they won’t be unhappy.”

I stopped in my tracks knowing I had to sit down with them.

“Why kannamma? Why does making them happy mean so much to you? Are you unhappy with your name too?”

She looked at me, eyes direct and voice clear. “No Amma, I like my name but I think it is easier for others if I told them my middle name.”

We stood in the middle of the kitchen, my arms around both of them. I felt out of depth, unsure of what to say. Lifting each child in turn, I held her close to me as I repeated as much for them as for me.

“There is nothing fake about our names or lives kutty. You may not like your name and that is OK. If you ask me to call you by your middle names, I happily will. If you want to go by your middle names at school, that is OK as well. What I want you to know is that life is not fair. Not everybody has to deal with things like two names and two moms and two dads. Why don’t we look at the bright side and think about how you have two real names, two real moms who love you to pieces and two families that love you to the moon and back?”

I will never know if the two of them got the essence of what I was trying to tell. I let each child go, ruffling their hair, drawing them for another hug and cuddle and kissing them on their cheeks. They ran off already talking about Captain Underpants and Super Diaper Babies.

I stood my back to the rest of the world, my eyes clouding over, hurting for them, hurting for us. Laddu strained in her high chair screaming to get down. I finished packing lunches, scooped her up and it hit me. There is no undoing what has happened. Ammu and Pattu will never have the uncomplicated life that Laddu has. The confidence and peace that comes from knowing that she belongs wholly and completely to us. They will move through life struggling to reconcile their identities and families. Even in the best of circumstances when both families love them with every ounce of our beings, they will feel torn, they will feel compelled to explain their existence.

Real, Fake, First, Original, Birth, Natural. The labels are multitudinous. None of them can capture what they are to us, what we are to them. The only labels worth applying are mom and dad. Simply mom when talking about me and their mother. Simply dad when talking of their father and their dad. Just family whether the ones they are being raised in or were born into.

The days are long and the years are short. I hope by the time they are adults and into their world building their own families they understand that sometimes love does conquer all.

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