By Ashley Davis
“Are you helping mama with her errands today?” the grocery clerk asked my son at the check stand.
“Mommy, not mama,” Nate corrected, emphasizing the last syllable of each word. At three and a half, he is quite the helper. He continued to transfer containers of Greek yogurt from our cart to the conveyer belt. Mommy and Mama are not interchangeable terms in our house. He has one of each, and it was plainly obvious—to him—that he was shopping with his Mommy, not his Mama.
“I see,” said the clerk. She seemed amused by his precision. Nate was actually making a few distinctions about our family: the title of the parent he was with, and the fact that he had another female parent at home. Matter-of-factly, he was coming out as having a same-sex headed family.
Even before Nate could call us by name, my partner Jamie and I wanted titles that would differentiate us from one another. “Mommy A” and “Mommy J” were our first attempt, but they felt too cumbersome and too similar. Surely in the middle of the night, we would both insist that the other was being requested by the little voice calling out from down the hall. So, we did what any egalitarian couple would do: we flipped a coin and assigned titles. The nickel landed heads up. I became Mommy and Jamie, Mama.
It wasn’t the first time Jamie and I faced a naming dilemma. When we got married, there were no etiquette manuals to suggest what to do—not that we necessarily would have listened to the advice anyway. We both had last names that were mispronounced more often than they were said correctly. Together, the names would have been a hyphenated disaster. We opted for neither name and became the Davis family, in honor of my great-grandmother, a loving matriarch with a name no one else was carrying on. At 99, she died the year we got engaged.
Through our intentional choices about names, we defined ourselves, both within our family as parents and beyond our home as a family. Nate’s clarification at the grocery store pleased me. He wanted us to be seen and known accurately. I share his wish and often feel dismayed that it doesn’t come easily.
Earlier this year Jamie and I welcomed a second child—a daughter—into our family. I had given birth to Nate and, using the same sperm donor, Jamie carried Charlotte. Jamie opted to have her prenatal care, labor, and delivery at a birth center with an adjacent hospital. After meeting several midwives, we followed their recommendation of “primary midwifery” and selected one midwife to see throughout the pregnancy. Our midwife’s knowledge, candor, and irreverent humor made her a great fit for us.
In other encounters, we were not so lucky. As we prepared to become a family of four, we felt unseen yet again. It was beginning to feel like a rite of passage with each major event in our lives. One of the first slights came from our health insurance. A couple months into the pregnancy, a bill came in the mail for all of the prenatal visits to date. How could this be? We had a great policy with 100% coverage for maternity care. Their explanation: maternity care is not covered for males. Huh? As it turns out, only subscribers check a box to indicate their gender on the enrollment form. Since I was the subscriber and checked off female, my spouse was assumed to be male, and hence, “his” maternity care was not covered. It was quite a mess of needless paperwork to straighten out (no pun intended).
Human interactions were not much better. As we tried to book a series of prenatal appointments, the administrative assistant referred to me as Jamie’s “friend.” If I were a man trying to arrange my schedule to be present for prenatal visits, surely I would have been assumed to be the husband or boyfriend, or at least the baby’s father. As a woman, I wasn’t even seen as family.
Jamie and Nate went to a few appointments without me. As much as I hate to admit it, I experienced some relief in not being an extraneous person to whom providers did not know how to refer to or include in the appointments. But even at the visits without me, Jamie encountered narrow-minded thinking. While escorting Jamie and Nate to an exam room, a medical assistant commented that Nate doesn’t bear much of a resemblance to her. She wondered if he looked more like his dad. Jamie informed her that actually, he looks a lot like his biological mom.
“Oh, he’s not yours?” she said, within earshot of Nate.
“He most certainly is,” replied Jamie, noting that she may need to revisit this interaction with Nate later.
At another visit without me, Jamie attended to Nate’s needs while raising her own questions with a provider who was filling in for our midwife who was out for the day. Towards the end of the appointment, the provider asked, “Are you watching him? You’re his sitter?” Jamie couldn’t figure out what she meant or how she came to that conclusion, especially because Nate referred to her as “Mama” incessantly throughout the visit.
“Mama, what snacks do you have for me?”
“Mama, can you read this book?”
“Mama, take my shoes off.”
Jamie answered the midwife’s question. “No, he’s my son.”
“I thought you were the sitter. Your record says you’re here for supervision of a first pregnancy,” the midwife explained, unapologetically.
Perhaps, in caring for biological mothers and their pregnant bellies all day, the midwife lost sight of the myriad ways that families come to be. The medical record did not tell the whole story for this second-time mom with a first-time pregnancy. It also made me wonder if she would consider the baby growing in Jamie’s belly to be mine.
We became accustomed to not being seen as partners or as mothers to both of our children. We chose when to provide a correction and when to let it slide. Sometimes I wondered if the thought ever crossed others’ minds that we might be spouses. Perhaps they feared that we might be offended if their assumptions were wrong, so the “safer” bet would be to use seemingly benign language like “friend” or “sister.”
As a healthcare provider myself, I know it takes little effort to use inclusive terminology with all clients and then follow their lead by listening for their preferred language. Even when a client turns out to fit “the norm,” I have conveyed an important message about my values. And when I flub up—as we all do—I hope to have the humility to take responsibility for the effect of my words.
As our baby’s due date approached, Jamie and I braced ourselves for others’ assumptions. We brought in copies of legal documents so there would be no question about who was next-of-kin in an emergency. We fortified ourselves by hiring a doula who could support and advocate for us during labor, should the need arise.
Charlotte was born at the birth center after a long labor during a wintertime heat wave. Due to complications for Jamie, we had an unexpected stay on the maternity ward in the hospital. The morning after Charlotte’s birth, I awoke with a migraine. Several days of sleep deprivation, caffeine withdrawal, and dehydration had caught up with me. I vomited and nearly fainted before the nurses rushed in and wheeled me to the ER. An IV pumped Zofran, Toradol, and fluids into my system, while the attending doctor reviewed what had happened.
“Congratulations!” he said, upon hearing that I had come from the maternity ward.
“No, my partner gave birth,” I said. I must have been delirious to imagine he thought the maternity ward had sent a post-partum patient to the ER for care.
“Right,” he said. “Congratulations.”
It took me a minute to register that I was being celebrated for my one-day-old daughter’s birth. It was utterly refreshing. How ironic that a doctor in the ER got it immediately, whereas some of the birth center’s staff and clinicians did not.
I’ve reflected a lot about how it feels and what it means to have to correct, define, or explain our relationship or our parental roles, in both the mundane and the extraordinary moments of family life. As we awaited Charlotte’s arrival, these moments were frustrating and exhausting, but not egregious by any stretch, especially compared with true acts of homophobia. I know we are fortunate to have family and friends who support us wholly, and to live in a state that recognizes us as legal spouses and as parents to both children born within our marriage.
In many ways, our stories are typical and predictable. Many lesbian-headed households could insert themselves into our stories, save the personal details. These micro-aggressions were not intentional; no one sought to hurt or invalidate us, even though that was the effect. They likely stem from assumptions about who a married couple is or what a family looks like. What people see depends on their experience, exposure, and frame of reference. Perhaps that’s what is important about telling stories that aren’t new: as far as we’ve come with awareness and appreciation of diversity, we have a long way to go.
My children’s identities will be shaped, in part, by what is reflected back to them about who they are. As much as I’d like to, I can’t control the content of those messages. To an extent, I can shield my children in these early years. Regardless of how others see us, Jamie, Nate, Charlotte, and I know who we are to each other. On one hand, that’s all that matters. And at the same time, Jamie and I are faced with a new parenting challenge of helping our children process our complex social world—a world that we are still learning to navigate ourselves.
Author’s Note: I have always been aware of and sensitive to language. You know that childhood rhyme: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” I don’t buy it. Words are powerful. hey can hurt, minimize, and invalidate. They reflect and affect our thinking about others and ourselves. They are also dynamic and evolve as we do. Jamie and I met as students at Wellesley College. From the moment I stepped on campus, I learned to refer to myself as a woman, not a girl. At 18, I began to carry myself differently as a woman. That distinction was empowering. Now as a partner and mom in a lesbian-headed family, I continue to notice and take charge of the language used about me, especially in the presence of my kids. It is a political act to reject invisibility and insist on being fully and authentically seen.
About the Author: Ashley Davis is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Wheelock College, where she teaches students to think expansively and speak inclusively in their practice with diverse families. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.