Naming our families when there are no words

Friday, June 14, 2013

By Ethan

When I sat down to think about what I wanted to say in this piece, I felt a lot of insecurity. How do I talk about the challenges of parenting when I’m not a parent? I bathe, feed, cuddle, and play with a small person, but I’m not a parent. I buckle her into a car seat, bring her to the library, make sure the vegetables have been eaten, work through emotions, and pick her up from school—but I’m not her parent. Katie has two moms that are divorced and I am in a relationship with her Mama. Her other mom, Ima, also has a partner, and that person has a son a few years older than Katie. It’s a big queer configuration of family! Katie has two houses and one dog at each house. Her stuffed animals travel between homes in a special backpack called the Zoo Bag. After a few years of this arrangement, most of the kinks have been worked out and Katie knows the schedule and timing of each home.

Katie’s parents are a solid team, constantly communicating and staying on track with school homework, Girl Scout meetings, and wherever Katie left the latest pair of mittens. I recently moved in with Katie’s Mama, and I found myself unsure of what role I would have in Katie’s daily life. We have a great relationship; lots of silliness with a bit of snuggling. When she introduces me to people she’ll say “This is Ethan!” sometimes followed up with “He’s my mom’s boyfriend.” We are growing together as a family; Katie, her Mama, and me, and also Katie’s Ima and the family she has in that house. How do we name our families when there are no words?

There are many moments of caregiving, whether challenging or joyous, when I emotionally retreat a bit. It’s clear that the situation calls for a primary parent action. I readily acknowledge that I’m not (nor do I want to be) this person’s father, and the intensity of parenting that is needed is not within my ability. This is not a question of length of time as a caregiver; I’m simply never going to be this person’s father. The disconnect I experience between having parental-seeming duties while not being a parent is something that needs more reflection. I want words that say “This is who you are to me” without taking the place of “parent.” The other day, I was talking about my own mother. Katie asked “Is she a grandmother?” I answered yes, and Katie leaned forward a bit and touched her chest and said “Is it because of me?” She scrunched up her face as she thought and said “Is it because I’m sort of like your kid and you’re kind of like my almost Dad?” I smiled and said, “No, it’s because my sister has two kids that are close to your age!”

Not having a specific name in this kid’s life isn’t an issue in a day-to-day way. I am a constant presence. We have our disagreements and our cuddle times. I get annoyed with her behavior and love her creativity at the same time. She is excited to share things she’s learned at school, and I genuinely enjoy hanging out with her. We know who we are to each other, even if there is no other name for it.

Ethan is a white, able, trans, queer guy living in Minneapolis. He likes bikes, babies, and cats.

This blog post is part of the Strong Families' first Papa's Day celebration. You can read more posts in the series on the Strong Families blog. Strong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.

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