Wednesday, October 8, 2008

What we did right without knowing it Part III: Our Names

(See also Part I and Part II)

When I was pregnant with Leigh, Lyn and I had many many many conversations about how we would structure our family. Naturally, the ever-popular subject of names came up. In a family with two moms, who gets called what? Do you both go with "Mommy?" Does one person get the Mom/Mommy moniker and the other person get a made-up name? In establishing our names, we both wanted to take names that meant "Mom."

In the end, we decided that I would be "Ima," which means "Mother" in Hebrew, and that Lyn would be "Mama." One reason that made sense at the time was that I was Jewish and Lyn was not (she has since converted). We also liked that neither of us was "Mommy" which, to us, felt like it more strongly implied "one."

We started to use our names with Leigh very early, and often felt silly doing so. "Mama" was pretty easy for her to say, but it took her a long time to get "Ima" down. She said "Ahh-ma" instead of "Ima" for what seemed like forever (it was frustrating at the time, but of course now it seems sweet). Now she uses our names, sometimes saying "my Mama" or "my Ima," and sometimes saying "ImaMama" or "MamaIma" as a generic term.

In hindsight, I realize that we didn't really know what we were doing when we picked names. "Ima" isn't a name for mom that everyone readily recognizes, and I when I chose that name, I didn't think about the fact that it wouldn't instantly peg me as a mother. When I am out with Leigh and she calls me "Ima," I wonder if the people around us think I am an aunt or a nanny, especially if we are alone together and talking about how Mama woke her up this morning or how she misses Mama. We have to make sure that her daycare and other care providers know that Leigh calls me "Ima" so that they'll recognize and respond when Leigh says it. Daycare is actually pretty good overall, but it still does happen that someone will say "Leigh, your Mama is here," when really, it's her Ima that has arrived.

So you may be thinking, Why does this fit into "What we did right without knowing it?" Isn't this something they did wrong without knowing it? It's true that I did not anticipate the consequences of having a non-standard name, and that sometimes it makes me feel uncomfortable. The good consequence is that I am shouldering some of the burdens that come along with creating a non-standard family structure.

In many lesbian families, it's the non-bio-mom who takes the more non-standard name, but in our family, the non-bio-mom has a very easily recognizable name -- Lyn's name declares her relationship to our daughter to anyone who hears Leigh holler "Mama!" Her name helps to establish societal and community support for the relationship. Because Lyn and Leigh don't have a biological bond, that relationship might be fragile, either because Lyn and Leigh don't have a strong tie (which they do, so no problems there) or because people outside of our family don't recognize the relationship. Having a standard name helps to shore up this support from outside the family.

That tells us why it's important that Lyn (as a non-bio-mom) took on an instantly-identifiable parental name. But was it really a good thing that I didn't? We could have both gone with "Mama" (and then we likely would have become "Mama Lyn" and "Mama Gail" eventually). I think it has been good for all of us that I sometimes experience the world as a "second" or "non-standard" mom. Whenever I talk about nursing or pregnancy or childbirth, I'm effectively declaring that Leigh is mine. It's easy to lose sight of what I might call "bio-mom privilege." My relationship to Leigh was never in question. Lyn on the other hand has often felt questioned. She and Leigh are different enough in appearance that people wonder if she's Leigh's mother, whereas Leigh and I look like we are genetically related. Before Leigh was born, it was clear to anyone and everyone that I was becoming a mother, while people that Lyn worked with regularly forgot that she was becoming a mother. It has been very useful for me to be able to feel a little bit of the insecurity that can come with being a non-bio mom. It's not an internal insecurity -- within our family unit we all feel very secure and comfortable. But people outside of our family have to learn how to treat us all as a family unit, and I've been glad to have some experience of what it's like to worry that others don't see me as a real mom.

Of course, now the tables are turned and we're on our way toward having baby number two. I'm going to be a non-bio-mom with a non-standard name, and I don't think that's really a great place to be in. However, I am very comfortable in my role as mother, and our community, from family to friends to acquaintances to childcare providers, is used to seeing us as a family unit, and used to perceiving me as a mother. I think we ran a much bigger risk of our choice of names negatively influencing our roles and confidence the first time through.


N said...

I hadn't really thought before about the consequences of the non-bio mother having the non-traditionally recognizable name. Definitely something to think hard about. Thank you.

Lyn said...

Just a couple things to add on why we chose to use Ima at all in the first place. We knew a couple other Mama/Ima families in our synagogue, and also felt like it was a way to more solidly and publicly identify our family as Jewish. It does also help to some extent that Leigh has several peers with straight parents who also have Imas, so in one of our subcultures Ima does function as a generic mother reference. That doesn't necessarily help in terms of day to day interactions with the world, but does help a lot in terms of talking to Leigh about who is in her family.

nutella said...

Thank you for this entry, it's a very insightful look at what our futrue will be. I am pregnant with our baby and have choosen to be called Ima when the time comes. My wife, Strawberry, will be "Mommy". I have never liked the moniker "Mama" for myself, as that's what I call my grandmothers. When faced with the dilema of what names we wanted, I was happy to claim something that marks me as Jewish. And also happy to cede a name that is more widely identifiable to my wife. We do not plan to have more than 1 child.

Gail said...

Hi Nutella and n (and Lyn of course) -- The name thing really is a challenge and it reminds me that just forming a family in this way is a challenge. Our family is lucky in that we live in a state which supports us legally and in which gay families are fairly common. Sometimes I forget what a profound challenge our families can be. The name thing really brings it home for me. There's no easy way for same-gender parents to take names that make everything clear and simple for everyone.

The other thing I didn't say in this post that I think will be more important to us as Leigh grows older is how she will react to our names (and mine in particular). How will she explain her family and her relationships with her Ima and Mama?

Oh, and it is nice having a name that identifies me (at least) as a Jewish mother, and I am glad that we have other friends who have made the same choice so that I can emphasize to Leigh that I'm an Ima just like all of these other Ima's (in other words, it's not just a name, its also a title).

Lo said...

We went with Mommy and Mama, because as it turned out Co preferred Mommy and I preferred Mama. We are a Jewish family as well, but (in some ways unfortunately) my connection is more to the Yiddish Mama than the Hebrew Ima. It does take a lot of thought, this naming...

word to your mother(s) said...

Seriously, in all the spare time you have, you two should write a book. I had to review this post a couple of times, because it is so useful. Owing to the current stage of our conception plans, my girlfriend and I have not gotten to the stage where we are discussing the moniker of our choosing. However, you brought up some interesting consequences of your naming decisions, which are issues I often think about in an abstract manner. I hope this is not too personal, but this post brought forth a few questions for which I am curious of your response (please forgive me if they transgress your comfort area) –

Did the choosing of your child’s surname, if not mutually shared, also have such a weighty impact on how you wish to have your family identified?

Has your comfort level of being known as “Ima” and, in certain social situations, not being immediately identified as Leigh’s “mother” improved during the course of the last couple of years, as you have grown as a family unit? Does that instant recognition (or not) affect you as much now, as it did when your child was younger? I guess what I’m really asking is - has it gotten easier, as your own sense of self and family expands?

Gail said...

Thanks wtym!

We chose to go with a hyphenated last name when we got married, and part of the reason was that we wanted all family members to have the same name. (Unfortunately our last name is veeerrryyy long, so I've already made up a song to teach it to Leigh some day!) We also toyed with the idea of taking one or the other of our names as the last name for everyone or making up a name. In any case, it was very important to us that our last name identify all us as one unit.

And your question changes in how I handle the "Ima" thing is a really good one. When Leigh was born, I didn't even notice the problem because the name was really only being used within our family. So it got worse over time rather than better. It has started to get a little better recently though, and I think it will continue to feel better over time. For instance, the other day at daycare, one of the kids started yelling "Leigh your Ima is here!" because she had obviously picked up on the language. Then a second kid started yelling, "Leigh, your Ama is here!" and the first kid corrected the second -- "No, it's Ima, not Ama!"

I think that when Leigh and her friends are old enough to really understand that Ima is another word for Mom, then I'll feel a lot more comfortable because I'll feel confident that she understands and can communicate about our family relationships.

Of course, I didn't really even address in this post the impact on Leigh of having one mother with a nonstandard name. She'll also have to explain her name for me and explain our family relationships and I imagine that will cause some stress for her, just like it does for me. For her as well for me, I think it will continue to be helpful that there are other Ima's our life.

Thanks for the great questions (and no they weren't too nosy!) :)