Recently, on an afternoon where we were a little more knee-deep in the after-effects of toddler tornado than usual, my partner and I decided to put our 17-month-old on the waitlist for a French-language preschool, which would start when she’s three. Our parenting life is remarkably banal except for the fact that I’m non-binary, and I don’t fit the labels of “mom” or “dad.”
When I looked up the preschool intake form and saw blank spaces only for mère and père, I let the tab languish, unattended, at the corner of my browser window. If I was to cross out mère, I’m not even sure what I’d put because I haven’t settled on a parent name. Baba, which is probably the most common parental label used by non-binary people, means “dad” in multiple languages, but I don’t have a connection to it, and it feels culturally appropriative for me to borrow it. So I’ve remained label-less.
At home, this doesn’t matter. The toddler’s first word was “Boop!” and we are trying — moderately unsuccessfully — to teach her to verbalize “yes” and “no.” She prefers “cheese,” “meow” and “uh oh.” When people ask us what parent names she uses for us, we shrug: we work from home and we’re around her all the time. She doesn’t bother calling us anything, at least not yet. I’ve resigned myself to going by my first name with other adults who will be interacting with her regularly — friends, family, teachers. My partner will go by “dad,” and I’m guessing this will probably cause some momentary misunderstandings because people will assume that I’m her dad’s partner, not her parent. But neither of us wish to restrict my partner’s choice simply because there’s nothing equivalent to “dad” for me.
Labels are ubiquitous, contentious. The ones we’re comfortable with slide by like water, so common that we don’t even stop to think about them. It’s only when we add new ones, or incorporate the unfamiliar, that labels begin to chafe. A comment on a piece about non-binary parenthood I co-wrote a few years ago sums up the hetero lament: “Don’t you find all those labels divisive? Undermining? And reductive?” I really doubt that the person who wrote this stopped to wonder if calling their parents “mom” and “dad” was divisive, undermining or reductive. Even if, perhaps, it was.
In hetero-parent families, “mom” and “dad” delineate the roles each takes in the relationship, both with each other and with their kids. While nothing is ever as simple as it appears, it remains true that for the majority of straight couples with kids, “mom” handles the bulk of childcare, housework, cooking and household coordination, often while working; “dad” works and pitches in with “mom’s” duties. This seems exhausting, a situation in which parenthood both erodes one’s sense of self for many mothers and shores up outdated gender roles for both parents. We expect more of “mom,” we’re intensely critical of “mom,” and to “dad” we assign the condescending burden of lowered expectations. (In capsule form, thanks to Zoe Whittall: “I just want to be as universally revered by everyone as the man who holds his own baby in a coffee shop.”)
When you’re a queer parent, there is no automatic delineation of roles; every family looks a little different, but somebody has to bathe the child, teach her to read, do the laundry. There’s no falling back on cultural expectations, so a negotiation follows: what’s important to you? What do you like, dislike? How will we share things in a way that seems fair and sustainable? For me and my partner, this negotiation extends from things that are insubstantial — I never vacuum and he does far fewer dishes — to those that feel more meaningful. Our kid carries my last name, for example. And one of her first words was “butt,” indicative of the fact that my partner has been her primary 9-to-5 caregiver — I would have taught her, if I were changing the lion’s share of diapers, to say “bum.”
It feels surreal to be comfortable tackling the gendered expectations of parenthood but to have no warm, loving way to voice who you are to your own child. Non-binary folks have adopted pronouns, like “they” and “ze,” to carve out space for ourselves in language. Parenting labels could use a similar revision — to establish terms that are recognized not only in queer communities, but more broadly in our culture.
I’ve learned you are the best parent to your kid when you take time to triage your own needs and wants alongside theirs. I was pregnant in Montreal, pregnant in a city that uses my second language as a primary means of communication. I thought, for the sake of not appearing too “weird,” too much of a hazard, that I could stomach nine months of maman and madame and then go back to my real self. It’s worth noting that there was no real change in presentation for me — I’m masculine-of-centre but often read, I think, as a queer or butch woman — but rather a return to being more assertive about pronouns, honorifics, titles and the assumptions people make about my family structure.
But then, it wasn’t that simple: as the parent of a young kid, your “real self” is more often than not necessarily tethered to your relationship with your child and the way that relationship is read in the world.
On the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale last week, I walked up and down the aisles with my toddler, who likes to stop and make new friends. It is bewildering the number of grown adults who talk to her, referring to me, in the third person, as “mom.” Being that I am the same person who often receives a quick gender-check on my way into the women’s bathroom on those same ferries, my guess is that this happens to me now for the same reason it happened when I was pregnant: pregnancy and childcare are seen as inherently feminine acts, most often associated with women. Being spoken about in the third person while I was immediately present was not something that occurred to me nearly as often pre-parenthood. I’ve considered buying “they/she” pins (I’m comfortable with both pronouns) and carpeting my body with them, but I don’t know if it would help. Maybe a “not the mama” iron-on?
The experience of being misgendered in this way comes with the added weight of feminism, despite its best efforts, having managed to undermine less the idea of “motherhood” than it has something like “woman.” While feminism has tried to move the needle on parenting issues, we are still culturally stuck in 101-level conversations about mothering and fathering — school pickups, caregiving, household management. “Mothering” is a field that has not expanded nearly as much as “woman.” Because I present as masculine, I don’t deal with garden-variety sexism — catcalling, assumptions about work-related competency, sexual harassment — nearly as often as most female-presenting women. Having a kid, though, has undermined that, reinscribing both a womanhood that doesn’t suit me as well as the corresponding binaristic ideas we hold about parenting.
Case in point: another common refrain, when I travel alone and a stranger learns that I have a toddler, is to ask, “who’s taking care of her?!” Once, an older man followed up, “You trust him to do that?” When people call me “mom,” I dissociate for a hot second before returning back to my well-worn body. But when they ask me what I’ve done with my child in order to travel away from her, I leave an accidental long pause, not able to get to the premise of the question nearly quickly enough.
Last year, the first year I had a child, people wished me a happy Mother’s Day and a little piece of me felt like it had been hole-punched out. My loved ones aren’t being harmful on purpose, but it actually feels worse than when a stranger misgenders me: I wonder if I’m not legibly trans enough, if I haven’t made myself known, if I can correct someone I care for deeply on this for the 24th time without causing harm to our relationship. I wonder how people think about me, talk about me, when I’m not around. (Is my request for gender-neutral kinship terms seen as something quirky, rather than something foundational?)
It hurts, but I recognize that it’s a problem that’s both interpersonal and cultural — it wouldn’t be as hard for friends and family to conceive of me correctly if they’d grown up in place that made space for me. In a place that had a parent term for me, like it has for most people. I deeply hope that all the recent mainstream discussions about trans identities and queer identities has brought some understanding, some shift that will make it easier for the generations of queer parents who follow us.
Thankfully, the actual experience of being a non-binary parent is worlds apart from my interactions as a parent. My kid cares about being loved, about snacking, about going outside, about reading books. I love her, I give her snacks, we go outside, I read her books. And when I asked my partner if he’d be a different dad if it wasn’t for me — if he’d ended up with a cis woman, someone comfortable with mothering — he said no. The whole point of having a kid, he said, is to raise her.
I am not sure if I am queering parenthood just by being a parent; I guess I am if I’ll be asking my kid’s schools to edit their intake forms so there’s a space for me to put my name, to render myself a bureaucratic part of her world on top of being a daily cornerstone of it. There are days when I don’t think about the ways in which being non-binary and being a parent intersect, mesh and clash, when my top priorities include picking all the fish-shaped cheese crackers off the floor and making sure the toddler doesn’t do a header off a kitchen chair. And then there are others when my internal monologue is the Manifesto of the Boring-as-Hell Queer Parent: I need the world to make just enough space for me that I can become completely unremarkable.