“He keeps doing this,” our friend lamented, and we four moms wondered aloud whether this behavior meant anything. My son runs around the house pretending to put out fires and roar like a T. rex, and I’m not worried he’s a pyromaniac or has an unhealthy obsession with the Cretaceous age. So why should pretend daddies be different? I suspect it’s because we are ascribing significance where there isn’t any.
Becoming a parent doesn’t erase personhood — though our children may disagree — and our own insecurities follow us into the role. Women whose mothers pressured them to diet self-consciously communicate with their own children about food. Children whose parents fought constantly may work to avoid the same fate when they have kids, and same-sex parents might be on high alert for behavior suggesting our kids are missing out on heteronormative familial experiences. Most of us want our children to have it even better than we did, but we don’t always know how to achieve that, or what that looks like, and it feels like a universal parenting challenge not to project our own fears onto our kids.
This theory is based only on my own experience as a mom, so I reached out to psychologist Susan Bodnar. “There’s a lot of vulnerability and fear, and every family has that adjustment to the world they create inside their home and the world that exists ‘out there,’” she said. “Same-sex couples have built into their relationship a thing that needs to be confronted. It’s never easy.”
I immediately understood that “thing.” As same-sex parents, my wife and I want to shape our at-home world to be more compassionate than the one “out there.” In our home, we cultivate kindness and creativity, but we think about safety, a word we define in relation to our children’s immediate well-being. “There’s no place that’s 100 percent safe,” Bodnar said, “but that can be true for all kinds of families. We all have different things that we’re afraid of exposing our kids to outside of the family culture.”
I think this is why my friend worried when our little boys were playing daddy — that creeping concern that perhaps the boys were expressing complicated feelings over not having dads of their own. But there isn’t always a deeper meaning in everything a toddler does, and it’s healthy for them to incorporate into playtime concepts and relationships they may not fully grasp. Ever hear a girl declare that her teddy bear has died? How about a preschool boy announcing he wants someday to have a baby in his belly? Playtime is a chance to explore and make sense of both their world at home and the one away from the security of family.
I asked my friend if she agreed with this. “It feels like the whole world is about mom and dad,” she said. “My son’s home is about mamas.” She said she and her wife crossed out daddy from all of their son’s books. I understood the impulse. My son has a book about bedtime for trains — steam trains and monorails and passenger trains — and when he was starting to talk I found myself swapping out daddies for mommies. As much as LGBTQ parents like me want to be represented in places like children’s literature, it’s imperative that our kids get the full scope of family life, including books with conventional family structures.
“Every family struggles with this,” Bodnar said, adding that same-sex parents have a special struggle because prejudice exists. “You can deal with it by pretending that ‘our world is the world,’ but that may not be particularly healthy. My leanings as a psychologist are towards exposure. Set down a framework for how they can think about this stuff later.”
Sometimes I feel like being a two-mom family makes for defensive parenting. It’s one thing for my wife and me to understand how and why our family is different, but our oldest son is approaching an age where prejudice might impact him, so while we’re making our home safe and supportive, it’s also our responsibility to prepare him for the world away from us, and for the questions and opinions he will face. Our kids will encounter situations we cannot control, so we have to prepare them.
Bodnar suggests following basic guidelines informed by the type of child you have. “If you have a sensitive kid, they might handle things a bit differently than a kid who’s more independent.” With young children in particular, she suggests keeping things simple and using their words. “Listen to your child, ask them questions, find out how much they want to know and how exposed they want to be.”
I want my son’s imaginary play to be limitless. I want to read him books with mommies and mamas, daddies and papas, grandmas and grandpas, and trains that can talk. His home should absolutely be a safe haven and a nurturing environment, but I also want nothing to be off-limits for him, including honest conversations about what makes his family different, how to talk about it “out there” and, of course, the word daddy.
Laura Leigh Abby is a writer, wife and mama living in New York’s Hudson Valley. She is the author of “2Brides2Be: A Same Sex Guide for the Modern Bride” and “The Rush,” an Amazon Kindle Single.