Lesbian and Gay Parenting Questions & Answers Column With Arlene Istar LevDear Ari

A column by Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

“Mommy,” “Daddy,” or…?

Posted By on August 29, 2010

Dear Ari:

I began my transition 2 years ago with my ex-wife’s support (sort of.) At first she really seemed happy that I was finally becoming myself, but lately she has been very difficult to get along with and I feel she is trying to take my kids from me. My son is 7 years old, and my daughter is 10, and they both “know” but I’m not sure they understand. Recently my ex yelled at me on the phone and told me the children could never call me “Mommy.” This hurt my feelings. What do you think the kids should call me? Daddy doesn’t really fit anymore, does it?
—Just sign me “Parent”

Dear Parent:

You are raising one of the most troubling issues I see in my work with transsexual people and their families. It is often difficult enough for family and friends to remember to use your new name, and to get the pronouns right. When it comes to parental role titles, there is usually an active resistance and confusion. Sometimes transsexual people themselves feel “strange” or uncomfortable switching titles. One transman said, “I’ve always been their mother. I birthed them. I just don’t feel right asking them to call me “Papa,” although I admit I love the sound of it.” I encouraged him to ask his children what they wanted, and surprisingly enough, the children felt perfectly comfortable calling him Papa. However, in this family there was no other Papa contending for the role.

If you children already have a Mommy, it might be very threatening to her that you would want the children to call you by the special name reserved for her. During the transition process, the outside world can be so harsh, so unforgiving, so unwelcoming and judgmental, that we sometimes assume all difficulties in our human interactions are related to our gender issues. It is easy to assume that your wife is rejecting your transition, when she may simply be unwilling to share what has always been her special and intimate name—“Mommy.” There is a strong sense of proprietary ownership about the terms Mommy and Daddy, even when nobody is “changing sex.” When children are adopted, there is often a discomfort on the part of the adoptive parents, if someone refers to the birthparents as the “Mother” and “Father.” They will emphasis the word “birthmother” and “birthfather,” not wanting to share their newly acquired parental status.

Perhaps it is best to find your own name, and not borrow one that is being used by another family member. I wonder if your ex would be open to another term for female parent?” Even in lesbian relationships where there are two moms from the beginning, one is often called “Mommy” and the other “Momma.” Rarely in two dad families are both dads called “Daddy,” but one uses “Papa” or “Pop.” Sometimes people borrow from other languages (i.e., “Ima” and “Abba” are Hebrew for mother and father). Sometimes people make up names or words that fit—words that sound like mommy-names (i.e., MeMe) or their own unique words, even nonsense words, that become endearing by their use (My son used to call me “Plum,” which I suppose rhymes with “Mum,” but is, well, juicier!) One family settled on “DeeDee,” which sounded enough like Daddy, but had a female lilt to it. Another family uses “BeDa” for “butch dad,” which honors the transitioning parent’s maleness, but also honors his history as a butch lesbian.

The important thing for you to look at is what matters to YOU. Do you want to remain “Daddy” even it raises eyebrows on the street? Or do you hate the reminder of your life as a male, and not want to bring anyone’s attention to you in this way? Do you want to share the word “Mommy” with you ex, or would you prefer to be called by your new female name? How about if you sat down with your family and discussed it with them? Maybe your ex just wants to be included in what can be an important and life-long decision –what your children call you is no small thing. Children often have the best and simplest solutions; maybe this is a decision that they can have an active part in sharing with you. Be aware that some children fear losing the parent that is transitioning and letting go of your title as Daddy or Mommy can be very hard for them.

Establishing a relationship with your children (and your ex) as a parent who was once a man (or at least looked like one) and is now a woman involves avoiding many potential land mines. In many ways the complications of “naming” is metaphor for these other issues. Children want to know if you will still watch monster trucks on television with them, and still go fishing with them. In our very gendered world, they cling to traditional sex role behaviors that have defined you as their “Daddy.” They want to know what to tell their friends about your transition. How do they explain who DeeDee is when you sign their permission slip for the class trip? Most children do not want your new title to bring excessive attention to your transsexual status, which is often exactly what you want! The question each family needs to ask is “How can we honor this major transition with an appropriate naming, and not have the name we chose continue to bring attention to anything unusual about our relationship?” Naming is a sacred act, an act of great courage that confirms an identity. The name you chose to have your children call you should honor this life transformation.