Commentary Human Rights

Queer Parenting and Being a Baba in Appalachia

Elliot Long

The hardest thing about queer parenting has been helping my son navigate a culture that places supreme value on mommies and daddies and makes anything else invisible.

When I decided to become a parent, I knew that my transgender identity would create difficulties for my child. I knew my 80-year-old grandmother and other family members would struggle to respect my parental title of choice, “Baba” instead of “Mom,” especially since I carried and gave birth to my sonexperiences most people conflate with motherhood. “Baba”a title similar to “Mama” or “Dada”is sometimes used in the United States as a third gender parental title, a word that means “father” in some languages and “grandmother” in others.

I feared what would happen when my son became school-aged. I feared teachers wouldn’t use reading materials and lessons that featured queer families. I feared Mother’s Day rolling around each May. I expected confusion from other children, imagining questions from his future friends and classmates about whether I am a boy or a girlquestions small children already regularly ask me.

But the hardest thing about queer parenting has been helping my own son, now 2-and-a-half years old, navigate a culture that places supreme value on mommies and daddies and makes anything else, like babas, like me, invisible.

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Every time we read a book with a “mommy” and a “daddy,” I choose whether to make the mommy a “baba” or to read it as-is. So few books have families that look like ours that I latch onto the ones that do, like Lesléa Newman’s Daddy, Papa, and Me (which we read as “Daddy, Baba, and Me”). It helps that the characters in the book look like our family, too: a daddy with brown hair and glasses; a lighter, shorter haired Papa/Baba; and even a little kid with long, wavy blond hair who resembles my son. My son points to the illustrations, naming them as his daddy, his baba, as himself.

But one day, we were reading Jonathan Bean’s Big Snow. A few pages in, my son froze and twitched his mouth with that expression that told me he was thinking deeply about something. He looked hard at the illustration of the little boy with his mom.

“My mom,” he said and threw his arms around me in a big hug.

“Oh, honey,” I said, hugging him back. I bit my lip. “Some people have mommies, and some people have daddies. Some have babas, and some have aunts or uncles they live with. You have a baba and a daddy, and we love you very much.”

He wasn’t quite 2, but this was the first time I felt like I was taking something away from him, depriving him of the archetypal mother figure so glorified in the books and television shows he loves.

“Not everyone has a baba. That’s pretty special,” I said.

I wanted to believe it myself. Sometimes I tell him he has two daddies, but I don’t know that I really feel like a daddy, either. I chose to go by “Baba” because it was something else, a third option.

***

In rural Appalachia where we live, I struggle to find other families that look like our own—or look like anything except a mommy, a daddy, and a child. I fear my son will grow up feeling like he is missing out on something vital, especially if we stay somewhere like southeastern Ohio where our family is an anomaly. While we have many queer friends, we live in a college town in which few people in our queer community have children.

Because of the adults in his life, our son is drawn to effeminate men and butch women. When I took him to a friend’s wedding in Maine last year, he tackled and hugged friends I hadn’t seen in years as if he’d always known them. I looked around at my former life during the wedding reception, imagining what my son’s childhood would be like if I were raising him in this queer, gender variant community, where families come in so many shapes. He wobbled over to my old roommate, immediately giving her a big hug and open mouth kisses. He held hands with a friend’s daughter through the reception dinner. Another friend asked, “When are you moving back to Maine?” wanting to schedule play dates with their son around the same age. A few days later, as I drove south on I-95 into New Hampshire, I cried for the chosen family I had left. I longed to give my son a haven in which his family seems typical.

I don’t want to imply that there are no queer families in rural Appalachia. A visit to Queer Appalachia shows that queers are alive and thriving throughout the region. And my family is making a life here. Over a year ago, some other queer parents and I attempted to start up an LGBTQ parents and prospective parents group through a local collective, but attempts to hold social events fell flat. I know a handful of local lesbian couples with children, and I even know one other queer parent who goes by “baba” in my town.

Yet that doesn’t change the fact that we are the only queer family at my son’s day care, that I am constantly mistakenly called his “mommy” by strangers, or that I sometimes receive odd looks from parents and children on the playground. I fear what will happen if my son makes friends at school with conservative parents—with parents who punish our son for his parents’ identities and choices.

***

My son is puzzling out how gender works. Right now, he refers to everyone as “he” and “him.” In one sense, I find this liberating. There is no gender difference for him; all people are the same gender. He is just as likely to identify with female characters in books and shows as male characters (Owlette of PJ Masks, for example). However, the feminist in me balks at the erasure of the feminine, at the universality of masculinity. But when he lives in a house in which both parents, himself, and even the cat go by male pronouns, no wonder he defaults to “he” when talking about his grandma or about female teachers at his day care.

He does recognize that my body is different from his daddy’s body. He does recognize that my chest is like his grandma’s chest. As much as I want to believe that my gender identity frees him from the notion that only certain kinds of bodies express themselves certain ways, or identify as particular genders, I also feel shame, like my masculine identity is creating unnecessary confusion.

I feel guilt for taking away his mommy, no matter how proud I want to be of who I am.

***

Yet I am delighted that my son is the second generation in our family to grow up in a queer household. My partner was raised with two gay dads. His biological father passed away eight years ago, and his other dad has a new partner, so my son has a Papa Brad and Papa Chris who live together. As hard as we try to explain that some families have two daddies (like Daddy did!) and some have two mommies, and some have one mommy or one daddy, I don’t know that it relieves this cultural pressure, to say nothing of the desire, to have a mommy.

My partner grew up longing for his lost mother. He spent every birthday wish asking for her to come back. He met her for the first time when he was 7 and saw her three times before she disappeared again. When he was 14, he saw her twice, and didn’t see her again for five years. But an absent mother hurts less than a committed parent who might be different than what you’d want—I hope.

***

Recently, my son and I were reading a book about a mommy and a little boy as we cuddled in his bed at bedtime. “I don’t have a mommy,” he said.

“That’s right. You don’t have a mommy,” I said with a smile. “You have a daddy and a baba, and we love you very much.”

He nodded his head once as if to say, “That’s right” or “I know that.” He absently rubbed his hand against the stubble on my cheek, a remnant of the three years I took testosterone, and closed his eyes.

“I loves you, Baba,” he murmured.

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