A Dad By Any Other Name

…would still smell just as sweaty after karate class.

What’s in a name? In a way, not that much. Whatever I’m called, it doesn’t change the fact that I hug my kid before she gets on the school bus each morning, that I read her bedtime stories while she snuggles up to me, that I take her to the playground and the library, I bandage her boo-boos and make sure she brushes her teeth and eats her vegetables, I go watch her dance recital and I go with her to “Daddy and Me” karate class the day before Fathers’ Day.

Wait, what?

Yes, I went to Daddy and Me class with my daughter.

And at least once during class, she called me “Mommy.”

Names mattered a whole lot at that moment.

I had ended up there kind of by surprise, or accident. When “Mommy and Me” classes happened back in May, I thought regretfully that I probably wouldn’t be able to attend the dads’ version this year. I’d be too obviously trans, or more likely, be perceived as a butch woman. I wouldn’t fit in. I’d get weird looks and embarrassing questions. It would have to wait, I thought, till next year, when I’m much more likely to be perceived as male.

And then when the date of the Daddy and Me classes was announced, I realized it was the same day as a wedding we were to attend, and I’d have to work that day as well, so we wouldn’t be able to make it anyway. I was simultaneously disappointed and relieved.

But as it turned out, the end of the week arrived and Iz had only gone to class once (she is supposed to go twice a week). So my mom and I arranged that I would take Iz to class, and my mom would pick her up so that I could go straight to work from there.

And as we were going out the door, I remembered that it was day of the Daddy and Me classes.

So knowing full well what Iz would say, I asked her if she wanted me to join her for class. After all, I started her in karate so that we could bond, and that was just what this class was for.

Her eyes lit up.

Anyway, if I could play it off as my kid’s idea, that gave me an excuse. “I know, i don’t look like most people’s idea of a daddy yet, but my kid really wanted me to take class with her, so what could I do?” *shrug, smile, keep doing what I’m doing*

As it turned out, no one said anything, not even when Iz called me mommy. Well, one of the other dads did say, “Looks like you’re experienced at this,” when I did some super fast blocking during one drill. But nothing about gender. Nothing implying  I shouldn’t be there.

I started out class a nervous wreck. And I was relieved when it was over – as much for getting through class in somewhat restrictive pants as for not getting any flak for being in the “wrong place.” But I also felt accomplished. I had made it clear – to that small group of parents and students in the dojo that morning, anyway – that I was dad, that I was male. Even though some people still look at me and think I’m Iz’s mom. Even though Iz still calls me “Mom” a lot of the time.

When it’s just between her and me, it really doesn’t matter a bit what she calls me. I am myself; I am not the label. How I treat her doesn’t change, other than that I’m embracing my masculine style of parenting more now, but that’s a result of accepting myself and my identity, and not of the label itself. I don’t even receive the right label that often when it comes to parenting, and in fact haven’t even settled on one yet. I just do my thing.

But parenting is a very gendered sport, and nothing makes this clearer than the Hallmark holidays we have for binary gendered parents. Mothers’ Day is only for female parental figures, and Fathers’ Day is one for male ones. For transgender parents, it’s a territory fraught with the mines of potential questioning and rejection or even derision or harassment, and the anxiety and dysphoria that can bring on. And for parents who identify outside the binary, neither holiday may feel right, as I brought up last month.

Ideas of who can raise children have expanded remarkably in recent years, as the awesome book Families, Families, Families! goes to show. It isn’t until page 16 of this picture book that the example “Some kids have a mom and a dad,” is given, after two dads, just mom, grandparents, and so on. But even so, the labels stay the same. Moms. Dads. You’re one or the other. There’s no allowance for being in between, whether it’s because you’re in transit from one or the other, or camping out there indefinitely.

I’m not saying we should deny mothers and fathers and refuse those names. But some flexibility would be nice. I haven’t yet figured out whether “Dad” is a name that fits, and I can’t seem to get Iz to call me anything other than “Mommy” for very long. (Yesterday she called me “Fa-fa” – short for “Father” – for a little while, but then switched back to Mommy later.) I know that some trans people make up their own parental titles (and I’ve tried that), and some feel fine sticking with the title of their previous gender (but I don’t think I like that, at least not in public, at least not at this time).

I was lucky, though. In spite of my own uncertainty, my non-cis-male appearance, and my daughter’s flagrant, public misgendering, I was able to take that karate class with my kid without any negative response, and on Fathers’ Day itself, my amazing girlfriend took me out to brunch, and I got Fathers’ Day wishes from my kid’s aunt and supportive friends. I got to have my day, even if I was among those doubting whether it really was mine.

And now, for 364 more days, I’ll continue doing my parenting thing regardless of what I’m called, sweating through summer days at the playground and Saturday morning karate classes, reading bedtime stories and bandaging boo-boos. Maybe next June it’ll be a little clearer – to me, to Iz, to the world – whether or not I’m “Dad.” For now, though, I’m just going to be me, cause as far as Iz is concerned, that’s perfect.


Manly Mom

This post was originally written on Sept. 2, 2014, although I think the events described actually took place on Labor Day (the 2nd was a Tuesday). Besides some editing for style and typos, I haven’t changed anything. This post doesn’t reflect how I think of myself and my relationship to my daughter now, but it does explain where this blog came from, and maybe kind of has a point.

Today, my kid broke a board and had her first tiny moment of pedaling a two-wheeled bike on her own.

my kid on her bike

And today, I realized it’s time to embrace being a manly mom.

A few days ago, I was playing with my daughter, Iz (for short). I was supposed to babysit two baby dolls. Even though I raised this little girl from birth to her current age of six years, I still feel awkward holding a baby doll and can’t really think what to do with it. As a kid, I did play with dolls, but for the whole span of my childhood, I can recall exactly one time when the toys in question were babies – and those weren’t even dolls, they were stuffed animals. Most of the time, the dolls and stuffed animals were school aged kids who had awesome adventures fighting off gangs of bullies and sticking it to the mean teachers at their boarding school. So, Iz had to give me constant instructions on what to do with the babies. Time to feed them. Time to change them. They’re crying because they’re jealous of the new baby. And so on.

I realized that I’m the same awkward “manly mom” with these toy babies as I am with Iz. I love her, and I feel proud when she does well and feel pain when she’s sad. But I’m not motherly. I don’t exude warmth and comfort. I think I come off as aloof and distant. Having suffered through post-partum depression when she was young has something to do with it, but I think my gender has as well. I’m not female, so I’m not cut out to be a mom. Years of trying have shown I just don’t have it in me.

So perhaps it’s time to try being Mr. Mom instead. A dash of home cooking and bedtime stories, and also of outdoor romps and epic stuffed animal battles.

And that brings us to today.

Early this year, I signed both Iz and myself up for karate classes, at a branch of the same dojo where I trained as a teenager, and which happens to be run by the same master instructor who taught me at that dojo. I hoped it’d be a way for us to bond, something we were struggling with after some alienating experiences.

Iz has taken to karate amazingly. She has some of the best kicking technique in her class – better even than some of the older, higher ranking little kids. She took part in a demonstration today for the school’s Labor Day open house, and my little yellow belt blew away the little blue belt and brown belt that were in the group with her. Not only that, but she broke a board with a jump ax kick, on the first try. Not an easy kick. Especially not when you’re the first kid in the group to go. Yeah, the instructor was bending the board pretty hard. But it still takes some force to smash your foot through it, and some guts to run and jump and take that risk in front of a crowd of people, and my little yellow belt sailed through it with flying colors. I was so damn proud of her.

After an awesome karate class and demonstration, we went out for Peruvian chicken and then returned home for some playtime outside. We started out drawing My Little Ponies on the driveway in sidewalk chalk (yeah, I admit, I’m a bit of a Bronie..friendship is manly, ok?). Then Iz wanted to ride her bike. I hadn’t seen her on it in quite a long time. At some point, my dad took the training wheels off and helped her ride it a little, but she hadn’t learned to ride on her own yet. I held onto the handlebars while she pedaled up and down the driveway a couple times, swaying heavily. Not sure that this was helping her any, I let go and told her to kick herself along with her feet. She wasn’t too happy about that – it is after all a good bit harder than just pedaling along while someone else holds the bike up. But eventually she tried it. And then she tried getting her feet up onto the pedals. And then all of a sudden she had her feet on the pedals and was pedaling and balancing – just for a second or two, but she did it. I clapped and cheered.

And started to cry.

It figures. It’s lucky I didn’t cry at the karate school, cause I really do cry at the drop of a hat. For all my outward manliness, feminine emotionality still roils beneath. (Don’t tell me I’m being sexist – emotionality really is heavily tied to estrogen and testosterone levels.) But you know what, screw it. What with PPD having destroyed my feelings when Iz was small, it’s nice to feel a bond so strong that I cry with pride when my little girl rides her bike all on her own for the first time. It’s nice to know I have feelings. It’s nice to know I can bond with my girl my way – bikes and not baby dolls, karate and not kitchens. It’s nice to know I have a connection with my kid that brings tears of joy to my eyes.