Adele Levine is a writer who lives in Silver Spring.
I was walking across the street to collect my 3-year-old son, Hanno, when I overheard a neighbor boy taunt him for not having a father. I’d always wondered how I was going to broach this subject with Hanno. Suddenly it was floating at me in singsong across the sidewalk: “You don’t have a dad!”
I waited to see how Hanno would respond. He didn’t hesitate. “Yeah I do,” he said, motioning to me. “Hi, Dad.”
I’m not his dad, though. I’m his Mama. So I leaned down to him and whispered, “Don’t call me that.”
“Okay, Dad,” he replied loudly.
For two weeks, Hanno called me Dad. I decided it was probably best not to make a big deal out of it and, since I’m the parent who stays home with him, it was our little secret — until the night he referred to me as Dad in front of Mommy.
I was hoping Ashley didn’t catch it, but she responded immediately. “Did he just call you Dad?”
I waved her off. “Just ignore it. I don’t want to upset him.”
Eventually, Hanno stopped calling me Dad. Instead, he began referring to his friends’ fathers as their “Mamas.” Overnight, our neighbor Brian became Gavin’s Mama and our neighbor Bernie became Benjamin’s Mama; even the gruff guy down the street who never talks to us because we’re lesbians became a Mama. I wasn’t sure whether this was better, but I decided to let it go, too. I’m not into the butch-femme thing. In fact, I wasn’t really into any scene at all until Hanno came along.
That I am a part-time stay-at-home parent of two preschool boys remains a surprise to me. I wrote off having a family in my early 20s when I realized being gay wasn’t a phase I would outgrow. But in my late 30s, my longtime girlfriend decided she wanted to have a baby, and she gave me a choice: I could either go along with it or move out of the house. It turns out you really can order just about anything over the Internet. A year later, we were rushing a hugely pregnant Ashley to the hospital.
At a red light on the way, I told Ashley my deepest fear: “I can’t imagine us with a baby.” It was true. I’ve done a lot of triathlons and swim races, and before every one I can imagine the finish. I always know, before I even start, how I will feel at the end. But at the starting line of the biggest race of my life, I simply could not project myself forward.
Yet 33 hours later, when they placed a swaddled Hanno into my arms for the first time, I swooned. He fell immediately asleep, trusting me because he didn’t know any better. Instantly he became the most fascinating person I had ever encountered.
The first thing I did when we got home was run out to buy a video camera, which I used to take hundreds of movies of the first few months of Hanno’s life. Hanno, who wasn’t doing anything more interesting than lying on his back on various pieces of furniture, was according to me (the breathless narrator in the background) the most incredible human being in the world.
The fact that I suddenly had a baby without ever being pregnant came as a huge surprise to many people who thought they knew me — my boss, for example. This created some initial awkwardness, but nothing brings people together more than the shared experience of being a parent.
It wasn’t always easy. I was constantly running into the “two moms paradox.” I experienced this for the first time right after Hanno was born, when a nurse practically tried to tackle me in the hallway after I left our room with Hanno in my arms. She thought I was trying to steal a newborn. “I’m okay!” I said, flustered and brandishing the ID wristband they put on all new parents. “I’m the other mom!”
The same thing would happen in supermarkets, when blond Ashley would leave our blond toddler with black-haired me to get something from another aisle. As if on cue, Hanno would scream, “Mommy! Mommy! I want Mommy!” I didn’t have an ID band to show anyone. I was careful not to make any sudden moves as I tried to reassure the shoppers around us: “It’s okay. Everything’s okay. I’m the other mom.”
Now, after the addition of our second son, I embrace the confusion. When people compliment me on how good I look while pushing two young children in a double stroller, I just smile and say thank you. No one needs to know that I didn’t give birth to either of them — though Ashley, who has struggled to lose the last few pounds of baby weight, does not think it is okay that I parade around the playground lapping up the compliments.
But for me, the one who will always be the “non-biological mom,” I’ll take any praise I can get. Even if it happens to be a Father’s Day card.