Call Me Mama, MaybeL.A. Pintea
Tuesday afternoon, I pick up my son from his preschool on the Yale University campus. All the kids are out on the playground. A little girl in his group runs up to the fence to me and with a big, earnest smile on her face, yells, “Meme’s here!!! Finn’s Meme’s here!!” I worked hard to get a spot at this coveted preschool (since I’m not affiliated with Yale) by sending imploring emails to the program director for two years. The school is well-known for its progressive and inclusive philosophy. On our pre-registration tour, we happened to walk into the Twos class just as a few of the boys were putting on sparkly purple sequin shoes.
For me, that was one of the decision-makers. Above anything else, I wanted my child’s first experience away from home to encourage him to figure out his own boundaries. It’s not that I want my boy to explore traditionally feminine play in particular. I simply want him to feel like he can draw the lines of his world and define it in a way that feels right, and that the only thing he needs to be, at two-and-a-half, is a kid.
In 2009, when my partner got pregnant through IVF with our boy, we dreamed, like lots of future parents, about what he would call us. Because we are a gay couple that includes two moms, we thought we needed to have a good, definitive answer before he came — the right answer. We weren’t sure what we should call each other before our child could give us names, but we had an intuition that what we would call each other in front of him would end up being his names for us. So we wanted to think well about it.
In families with a single parent, this decision might be easier: the parent is called one or all of the mom or dad names, without any confusion, because there’s only one parent. In households with two straight parents, the parents might pick between Dad and Papa, or Mommy and Mama, but the names will still convey gender distinction, at least to adult ears. But since we had two moms in our family, how would he differentiate between us?
In the 40 weeks of pregnancy, my partner and I spent many hours daydreaming about him and considering different names for us. Neither one of us wanted to be Mommy, because we couldn’t imagine what our future 14-year-old would call us after the “Mommy years” were over. Neither one of us wanted to be “Mom” because what would our baby call us before the very serious “Mooom [eyeroll] years” would begin? It was still just the two of us. Making the decision of what our names should be, before night feedings, before rushes to the emergency room for colds and flus, before preschool payments are as large as our rent, before saying, “Say thank you” for the eightieth time in one day, before knowing our child, felt very, very important.
What ended up happening was that our son was born before we could agree on our names. And once he was here, we realized how much time we actually had before he could understand words. Then how little it seemed to matter to him who was who, and how his little face lit up when either of us picked him up. The child we had in reality was preoccupied with just being an infant and he didn’t seem to think much about what our names were. So we let it go and we thought we’d just let him pick when he could. We’d call each other Mom and Mommy and Mama and Mother in front of him (as in, “Show mommy your toy!” or “Is mama making you laugh?”) and let him pick whatever he wanted.
To be truthful, a part of me wanted to see for myself if a child of gay parents would be, in fact, confused, about having two moms. Would he think one of us was dad? Would he demand to know just what kind of relationship these two women he lived with had?
Around five months, our son started asking specifically for help if he was wet, or hungry, or wanted to be picked up: “Memeeee!” he would sometimes cry, sometimes wail, sometimes whisper quietly. In the middle of the night, if he couldn’t find his monkey toy: “Meeemeee!” In his stroller, if the sun was in his eyes: “Memeee!” At the doctor’s office, as I held him on my knees, kissing his warm temple: “Meme…” After “book,” “Meme” was one of his first words. It meant, “Help me.”
As he grew older, he began to be more specific in calling only me Meme. If his other mother walked into his room in the morning, he would say, “Meme?!” until he saw me. He’d point at me and smile, “Meme,” or, furiously, if he didn’t get attention within an satisfactory time-frame: “MEY-MEY!!!!”
One day, my partner laughed, “You know you’re Meme, right?” I didn’t want to be Meme. Isn’t meme a name for grandmother? Especially since I wasn’t the biological mother, I wanted to be called something that sounded exactly and precisely like mother. I wanted there to be no question about it. But, when it’s 3:30 in the morning and you’re up with your little boy who has a fever, and you try to hold him up and cool him down with compresses, and you try to show him everything is okay, that he’ll be fine, and he looks up and smiles a tiny smile and says, “Oh, Meme,” you become Meme. To be honest, he could’ve called me “dumdum” and I would’ve loved it. It was his name for me. Soon after, he started calling my partner Mama. It was decided, by no choice of our own: we were Mama and Meme.
My child is now two-and-a-half and he is, as far as I know, the only child in his preschool with same-sex parents. His classmates know me as Meme and my partner as Mama. I don’t know if they have questions about why Finn has two moms, but when they see me, they point to me like they point to other parents and let everyone know: “Finn’s Meme’s here!”
And at home, Meme no longer means “help.” After its many early applications, Meme has been distilled to just mean me, specifically. It’s my name. So far, my son’s had the freedom to draw some of the lines of his little world, and I like the name he drew up for me. Of course, had I decided on my own name, he would’ve adopted it unknowingly and no one would’ve been the wiser. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think that it really matters who gets called what — and I’ve learned it’s not always the parents who make that decision.
The name my son gave me is my most precious identity. My question about whether our baby would be confused about having two moms has been answered: he doesn’t know he has two moms yet. “Mom” is not a concept, and the names he has for us mean us, exactly, not the idea of parents. I’m not his mom yet, I’m just his Meme. Once in a while, as we lay on the floor with wooden trains and plastic cars between us, I will check in with him softly:
“Finny, how many mommies do you have?”
“Ummmm, one Mama!” he invariably says, his little face round and sweet, “And one Meme.”