Conversations with my Son About Gender

Conversations with my Son About Gender

By Jennifer Berney


When my son was three, as he sat at the kitchen table playing with his Etch-a-Sketch, he offhandedly asked me the following question:

“When Mommy Kellie was a little boy, did she have an Etch-a-Sketch too?”

The wording of this question reveals a lot about our family. To begin with, of course, my son has two moms. I am his birth mother, and so far have played the traditional role of “Mommy”: I’ve been the breast-feeder, the diaper-changer, the lunch-packer, the medicine-giver. But my partner Kellie goes by “Mommy” too. She’s the one he runs to when one of the handles has fallen off of his dresser; she’s the one who brings him to the dump and stops for hot chocolate along the way. My son has never attempted to call my partner “Daddy” and has never stumbled over gender pronouns. And yet, apparently his understanding of gender categories had some room for variation.

“She probably did have an Etch-a-Sketch,” I answered, “but did you know that Mommy Kellie was actually a little girl and not a little boy?”

My son gave me a puzzled look. “When did she change?” he asked me.

“Well,” I answered, “what is she now? Is she a woman or a man?”

He thought for a good while. “She’s a mommy,” he concluded, apparently giving up on the categories I had offered.

Gender was confusing to me too. Before our son was born, I had ideas about raising him gender neutral, not constraining him to our cultural mandates on what colors he could wear or what toys he could play with.  I didn’t plan to put him in dresses, but I happily bought a pink onesie and enjoyed imagining him in that. Once he was born, I dressed him in it a number of times. He wore it well. But as he grew older I found I had no desire to replace it with pink t-shirts or lavender sweaters.

I did continue to think about gender and explore this through his wardrobe. I bought a yellow girl’s t-shirt that featured a kitten; I cut off the puffed sleeves and replaced them with straight navy blue ones.  On the one hand, it was an act of rebellion: my son liked kittens. Why shouldn’t he be able to wear one on a shirt? On the other hand, it was an act of conformity: I clearly did not want to dress my son in girls’ clothes.

My son is five now, and gender informs our conversations in ways that reveal the values of our culture at large. Recently, after my son had just lost a race to a friend, I tried to explain that winners aren’t by their nature better than losers. I ran this scenario by him: “Mommy Kellie can build a house better than I could ever build a house, but that doesn’t make her better than me, right?”

“No, it just means that she has better skills than you,” he said.

That stung. My partner, an electrician by trade and builder by hobby, offers him a great example of how women can excel at “men’s work.” This is great, but I still worry that our culture has taught him to value her skills above more traditionally feminine pursuits. I tried to explain to him that my skills are pretty awesome too, that making dinner is important, as is teaching grown-ups how to write papers for college (both are things that I do), but I’m not sure he bought it.

In the end, there seems to be no escaping this gender conundrum—no easy way to keep every door open, to convince him that hemming a pair of jeans and installing a dryer vent are both valuable skills and both within his range.

Now that my son is old enough to dress himself, his drawers are filled with Spiderman shirts, Star Wars pajamas, and Transformers underwear. It seems the best that I can do is just embrace and love his boy-identity while trying to make room for balance. Right now balance means that we snuggle in Star Wars pajamas, encourage him to cry when he is sad, and have a “yes” answer on the ready if he ever asks for a pink bike or a Barbie—two things that I’m pretty sure will never happen.

Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, The Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes.  She lives in Olympia, Washington and blogs at

Not a Mommy, Yet Not a Dad

Not a Mommy, Yet Not a Dad

By Amie Klempnauer Miller
mommyHannah and I have come to our first baby story time at our suburban library. The reading room is full of children and mommies and the occasional nanny. Most of the twenty or so babies are crawling or walking, which seems to be a revelation to six-month-old Hannah. I should take her out more.

The librarian leading the half-hour session is a middle-aged woman named Barbara. She looks and acts like my fantasy of the perfect kindergarten teacher. Barbara is plump, with her hair cut into a practical bob. She wears not only sensible shoes but sensible clothes. She is expressive and enthusiastic and eager to dance. Each of us is wearing a nametag with our name and the name of our child. Barbara, who holds a fluffy white bear instead of a baby, wears a nametag that reads Barbara and Bear.

Barbara opens with a song: The more we get together, together, together / The more we get together, the happier we’ll be. I realize that I am one of only a few newcomers to this group, since most people here obviously know the words to the song and are used to getting together and being happy. But it’s a simple song and Barbara is easy to follow. Hannah stares at her with round eyes and gaping mouth.

We sing more songs and listen to three short books that sneak in like interlopers. Hannah loves the books, but mainly as chew toys. We sing about two little blackbirds sitting on a hill, one named Jack and the other named Jill. And about shaking out our wiggles and our ten little fingers and the wheels on the bus that obsessively drives all over town. Hannah spills out of my lap and lies on her stomach on the floor, trying to gnaw the books. When I move them she wriggles over to the next baby’s books, mouth open.

At the end of the session, I introduce myself to a couple of the women, using the usual opener: How old is your little one? The conversations never seem to get past the exchange of ages. I try to leech onto a conversation that two women sitting near the toy tub are having but they are both pregnant and busy discussing ultrasounds. I have little to add. I have no ultrasound pictures because I had no ultrasounds because I never got pregnant, despite a year and a half of trying. My partner, Jane, did all that. She’s the birth mom. I’m the other mom. My attempts at friendly eye contact get me nowhere.

By now, many of the parents have moved out of the reading room to pick out books from the low, child-sized shelves. The sole dad who came to the reading group is standing by a bookshelf. I throw my line into the water once again: So, how old is your little one?

“Just turned one year,” he says. “And yours?”

“Six months,” I respond.

“Great,” he says. “We started coming here when my daughter was six months.” He’s talking! I feel like I have broken through the sound barrier.

“Yeah, I thought there were a lot of regulars here when we started singing and everyone knew the words,” I say. We chat for a few more minutes. He tells me that he sings Ten Little Fingers to his daughter when she gets fussy in the car. I make a mental note to try that one. Maybe it will work. We say goodbye, see you next time.

I feel like I’ve found a friend, someone I can sit with in the lunch room. I don’t know why I often find it easier to talk to men than to women, but it has happened again. One man in the room, and he’s the one with whom I end up having more than a two-sentence conversation. I don’t know if this guy is gay or straight—he’s wearing a conventional wedding ring and chances are that he’s just a sensitive stay-at-home dad. Do I gravitate toward him just because he’s friendly? Or because I feel like an outsider among moms?

The truth is that even six months into this, I still feel like a dad in drag. I still feel that I need to explain the fact that I did not birth my baby. I still want to sit in the guys’ section. This is not because I am butch, that’s for sure. I’m not even remotely athletic. I am a disaster with power tools. I literally cannot hammer a nail straight. I scream when a mouse gets into the house. I am a disappointment to butch women everywhere. But I’m kind of inept on the femme side too. I rarely wear make-up. I have never known what to do with my hair. I don’t share my emotions easily. I certainly don’t put myself in the same category as heterosexual moms. I feel as awkward talking to most of these moms as I ever did talking to girls in junior high and high school.

In the world of moms, I still feel like I am passing. I am using Mommy English as a Second Language, always trying to think about what clause is supposed to come next and trying to remember my idioms. It’s a real bucket of monkeys.

Is this all in my head? In truth, no one has asked me who Hannah’s “real” mother is, nor has anyone suggested that my presence might be harmful to her. If anything, some straight women have vaguely indicated that having two mothers in the house must be nice because, presumably, there is more help. On one level, I know that I do in fact have a lot in common with other moms. I change diapers, clean up baby food, do dishes and sing songs to my baby just like they do. But I also continue to feel just a little apart, as though we live in two worlds that speak the same language but are divided by dialect.

I am somewhere in between, in a category still undefined but increasingly shared by second moms and second dads across the country. People who see me with Hannah assume that I am her birth mother and that her father is toiling away at the office while we sit at story time or buy lettuce at the grocery store. I know that I am Hannah’s mother and, because we live in a progressive county in a relatively progressive state, I have been able to legally adopt her. Yet I still feel that I am somehow concealing something if I don’t come out immediately, announcing my gayness in the produce section.

I am Hannah’s … what? I am her mother, but I am also different. I did not carry her inside of me, but I held the woman who did. I did not birth her, but I waited outside the operating room during the emergency C-section. I saw and touched Hannah first because Jane was still semi-conscious in the recovery room. I cannot nurse Hannah, but I feed her bottles. I sing her to sleep.

During Jane’s pregnancy, I was consistently surprised by how often I was asked by straight colleagues, friends, and even family members what Jane and I would call ourselves, as if having two parents of the same gender would present a naming problem so formidable that we might just have to give up the whole idea of parenthood. The most common choice among the lesbian couples we know is to use Mom and Mama. We know a few other couples who have been more creatively courageous, using Maya, Mimi, Mama Bear, and Mama Sue. We quickly ruled out any title that includes the name of an animal. We considered whether we might pick a name from another culture but our strongest connection is to Germany and I refused to spend the next twenty years of my life being called Mutti.

In the end, I decided to call myself Mama, while Jane is Mommy. It is a name I never used for my own mother so it feels less loaded with maternal expectation. I can invest it with my own meaning and, no doubt, my own baggage. I don’t know yet exactly what that meaning will be, and I’ll let Hannah sort out the baggage later, but I think what I am reaching for in calling myself Mama is to be wholly Hannah’s and yet true to myself. I am trying to find a space between the worlds of Mommy and Daddy where I can fit.

At night, Hannah lies curled in my arms as I rock and rock and rock in the glider. Her breathing warms my chest. In these moments, I don’t feel like someone different, a member of a new and emerging demographic. I feel like Hannah’s Mama. I hold her against me, hold her tightly to my chest, hold her so long that I can feel her small body in my arms even when she is not there. She is my child, my daughter, my own.

Author’s Note: Two years have passed since this story time and, happily, Hannah has stopped eating books. I am more comfortable in my role as her mama, but I still feel a step apart. There is something about the consciousness of difference that is especially sticky. Even in the absence of outward disapproval or simple curiosity about our family from straight people, I am always conscious of the fact that we are different—an awareness that really abates only when I am in a group of other gay families.

Is this “internalized homophobia”? Maybe, but that seems almost like a pathology or an accusation. The awareness of difference feels to me more nuanced, more like a sense that I am looking at the world from a slightly different angle and seeing slightly different refractions in the light.

Amie Klempnauer Miller is a freelance writer and fundraising consultant. She lives with her partner, Jane Miller, and their daughter, Hannah, in Golden Valley, Minnesota.

Brain, Child (Winter 2006)

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