The Other Mother
Not the mom. Not the dad. Who the heck am I?
Because my partner and I are both women, most people assume our 3-month-old son has two moms. Most people are wrong. Or so Ann-Elise informed me the other day, as we discussed our plans for this weekend. "Are we celebrating Mother's Day for you?" she asked, a hint of possessiveness creeping into her voice. "I think you should have a different day. I mean, I'm the mom."
Whoa, mama! I hadn't thought of it until then, but maybe she's right. She is Graham's biological mother, and he's going to call her "mom" -- though I prefer the superhero-esque term from the contract we signed with our sperm donor prior to conception; it identifies Ann-Elise as "Bio-Mom."
Bio-Mom has earned her title. She read books on fertility, faithfully charted her temperature, gulped prenatal vitamins for months, and incubated our son for 41 increasingly uncomfortable weeks. Then she gave birth in a mostly graceful, albeit vomit-spattered, 14-hour labor.
Since Graham's arrival, Ann-Elise has been largely responsible for his care; I returned to work full-time shortly after his birth so we can pay our bills. Consequently, Ann-Elise has logged far more diaper changes than I, in addition to breastfeeding every few hours.
During her maternity leave, she's also been grocery shopping, cooking, and doing all the laundry. This week, she reluctantly went back to work, but only part-time, so she can continue to do more of the child care and household chores, which she's discovered she actually enjoys.
"Those are all things I associate with moms," Bio-mom explained to me matter-of-factly last week.
I stared at her incredulously. That's a weirdly conventional view of motherhood, coming from a formerly radical lesbian feminist. This is a woman who started a gay student group in high school. While attending the University of Vermont, she once dressed the school's iconic statue of Ira Allen in a dress and a feather boa. Her bookshelves still hold innumerable treatises on feminism, genderbending and eco-terrorism.
Why has she suddenly gone all Stepford? And why do I find myself agreeing with her?
Lest I offend other nontraditional moms, I should point out that of course we know these are not mandatory motherly requirements. Not all moms give birth. Not all moms cook. Not all moms put their careers on hold to stay home with the kids -- mine didn't. But in our family, "mom" does all these things.
And then there's me. I'm clearly Graham's parent; thanks to our civil union, I'm even on his birth certificate. And I'm a woman, which means I'm not his dad. But does it also mean that I have to be his mom?
Mother's Day is a time to recognize the many unique and invaluable contributions mothers make to our lives. Does my gender automatically give me the right to muscle in on Bio-Mom's big day?
Honestly, I don't think I want to. Though our donor contract IDs me as "Co-Mom," and we occasionally dress our son in a T-shirt from his baby shower that reads, "I love my two mommies," I'm uncomfortable with the M-word. I don't really feel like a mom. I feel like an Aimo.
Aimo -- pronounced "eye-mo" -- is what we're teaching Graham to call me. Of course, he will call me whatever he wants once he's able to talk, and we'll adjust, but I'm trying my best to condition him. "Who's Aimo's big boy?" I ask him, and, "Did you hear your Aimo burp?"
We thought about what I'd be called for months -- years, even, ever since we decided to have a family. Mom was taken, and Dad was definitely out. I liked "Oma," but Ann-Elise's Dad and step-mom claimed "Opa" and "Oma" early on. Friends suggested "Ima," (ee-ma) but it sounded too cute.
Ann-Elise was nearly due when we finally arrived at my moniker. One night over dinner, Bio-Mom told me about the thoughtful janitor at work who regularly emptied her recycling bin. His name is Aimo.
I said the name out loud a few times, let it hang in the air. I imagined hearing it shouted across a crowded park or through the darkened house at 3 a.m. I liked the declarativeness of it, the subtle suggestion of motion. "That's it," I said. "That's what I want the baby to call me."
Ann-Elise asked the janitor about his name. Turns out it's Finnish. He said it means "friend." I looked it up online using a couple Finnish translation sites. One didn't list "aimo." The other said it means "round, thorough."
Whatever. I don't care what it means in Finnish. In my world, it means "the other parent, who works all day, changes diapers in the mornings and evenings, and takes Graham for walks on Saturday mornings to give Mom more time to sleep."
Not everyone is so fond of "Aimo." When I introduced the name to my friends and family, it generated a surprising number of cautionary emails. "Sounds a lot like Elmo," wrote one friend.
"I think Apple is launching a mega iMo that you don't want to compete with," warned another.
Several friends sent lists of other names I might use. A friend from high school wrote, "I like the idea of using another language, but why not 'mom' in another language?"
I read the list she attached, but none of the names appealed to me as much as Aimo. Perhaps that's because I think of myself as Graham's janitor. Or perhaps it's because I just don't think of myself as his mother.
Unlike Bio-Mom, I never had baby fever. I never played with dolls growing up -- I tinkered with my Erector Set and pretended to be Luke Skywalker. The only dolls that caught my eye belonged to my sister. I once performed "surgery" on a Baby Feels So Real, and cut open its arm to see what was inside. Too bad her skin wouldn't hold stitches.
I ruined a talking doll once by pulling the cord on her back and cutting off the plastic ring on the end. When I released the cord, it wound up deep inside the doll's torso; she never spoke again.
An aunt recalled my youthful indiscretions when we talked shortly after Graham's birth. She admitted she was a little surprised I'd chosen to have children. "You were never exactly maternal," she observed delicately.
Of course, things have changed since Graham was born. Like most new parents, I think my kid is adorable. I take an embarrassing number of digital photos of him and post them on his photosharing website. I make up goofy songs about him that I sing and play for him on my accordion. And I can't wait to teach him to fish.
But are these maternal instincts? A longhaired male friend whose wife recently had a baby explained that it was possible for non-bio-moms to breastfeed. Was I breastfeeding Graham? he asked.
I made a face before I could stop myself. "No way," I said. I confess I felt repulsed. I love giving Graham a bottle, but I have no interest in him latching onto my breasts.
I instantly regretted my reaction, though -- my friend seemed genuinely sorry that he couldn't feed his daughter. He was out-maternaling me.
Bio-Mom and I are not alone in dealing with this "other mother" issue -- the Family Pride Coalition estimates between six and 10 million children in the U.S. are being raised by queer parents. Plenty of those kids are being raised by two women, but as far as I can tell, most of those women are content to share the mater-centric May day. There's no grassroots movement of female parents who want to opt out of Mother's Day.
And I'm not saying I want to start one. There are other, far more important issues for queer parents to tackle -- such as the right to be a parent. Queer people still can't adopt their foster kids in Florida, for example.
But this year, my family will start a new tradition. We'll honor Bio-Mom on Mother's Day, and we'll honor Aimo on Aimo Day. We're still not sure when Aimo Day will fall, or what exactly we'll do, but we're pretty sure I deserve my own special day.
Maybe Graham and I will do something out of the ordinary. Maybe we'll pack a big diaper bag, and go off without Ann-Elise for a hike around a pond, or spend the morning at Dick's Sporting Goods pricing fishing tackle.
Funny, that's what Bio-Mom wants us to do on Mother's Day.