At some point early on in our lives as gay dads, someone will ask something along the lines of “where’s mommy?” It could be the nice lady from across the street. It could be a not-so-nice boy or girl in your child’s class. It could be your own son or daughter. But whatever form they take, the mommy questions will come. And when one comes, you better be prepared.
One of our kids, soon after she started preschool, began to say “Mommy!” whenever she was unhappy about something. We soon realized that it was just something she had picked up from her classmates. It stopped after a week or so all by itself, without any mommy of any kind.
But there have been some awkward moments in the schoolyard. A while ago, Brian and I were both playing with our kids in the schoolyard after school.
One of our son’s classmates walked up to me and said, “I thought you were Levi’s dad.”
“I am,” I said.
“Then who’s that?” he replied, pointing to Brian who was standing a few feet away. A valid question.
“Oh, yes, he’s Levi’s dad too. Levi has two dads.”
That seemed to satisfy the boy’s curiosity.
A more painful incident happened when an inquisitive 10-year-old girl, the daughter of a family acquaintance, grilled us in front of our children. The girl’s mother, though nearby, didn’t seem to pay attention to her daughter.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I’m Levi’s papa, his dad,” I responded.
“And who’s that?” With her chin she pointed to Brian.
“He’s Levi’s dad too.”
She looked at me intently. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
Brian added, not very helpfully, “We’re married.”
“Well, that’s just weird.” And with that, she turned around and walked away.
As I said, a painful moment. I immediately got all my kids together and reassured them that we’re not weird. And that that girl had clearly never seen (or even heard of) a family with two dads.
At our son’s taekwondo training a mom suddenly walked up to us saying, “You’re gay dads? I’ve never seen one of those!”
She was honest, and eager to learn. We decided to consider her directness refreshing.
We answered all her questions, no matter how basic or, at times, accidentally insensitive. (“So, nobody is the mommy?!”)
And, as it often happens, we found some shared humanity. She and her husband had recently made the decision not to follow some of their Orthodox Jewish religion’s strict rules about female dress and mode of transportation: She had begun wearing pants outside of the house, and he now drove his family by car to synagogue on the Sabbath, for all to see. For them, after years of hiding, it had been a sort of “coming out.” We became friendly with them.
The insecurity of some gay dads – “Am I enough?”; “I don’t have breasts!” “Does she want a mommy?” – was humorously dissected in an episode of Modern Family, the hit ABC comedy, when Lily, the daughter of the gay couple Cameron and Mitchell, seemed to ask for her mommy.
Here’s how the recap on ABC put it:
Cameron invites Lily's pediatrician, Dr. Miura, over for dinner. The guys are devastated when Lily says her first word while in Dr. Miura's arms. It's "mommy." Such an utterance is every gay father's worst nightmare. Cameron believes this tragedy occurred because Dr. Miura is Asian and Lily was raised by Vietnamese nurses for six months. Mitchell feels that, in addition to her Asian-ness, the good doctor also has breasts. How can they possibly compete?
Dr. Miura tries to assure Cameron and Mitchell that it's not a big deal that Lily said the "M" word. In fact, it was probably just a couple of random syllables she stuck together. The guys seem convinced this is the case until Lily clearly says "mommy" one more time. Ever seen two grown daddies cry?
Dr. Miura finally convinces them that having two fathers who care about Lily as much as they do make her the luckiest little girl in the world. This truly does make Cameron and Mitchell feel better. But the icing on the cake comes when they discover that Lily's new doll says "mommy" when you squeeze the belly and that's where she learned the "M" word.
Adults in positions of authority can be brutally direct and directly brutal. When I’m with my kids, going through airport security, TSA people invariably ask unpleasant questions. Invariably. “Where’s the mommy? There has to be a mommy. Where’s the mommy?”
I always make sure we’re prepared, bringing all the necessary and unnecessary papers – passports, adoption orders, birth certificates – just to be sure.
And I prep myself extensively. I get centered. I go to my happy place. I align all my chakras. I tell myself, “Stay calm! Be nice to the man and lady in the uniform!”
And I explain patiently. “I’m gay. This is my husband. He’s very gay. These are our kids. Look at their crazy-long last names. See? They’re really ours.”
Don’t forget kids and their questions. Understandably curious, kids ask, “Who’s your mommy? You must have a mommy. Everybody has a mommy!” When I’m around when this line of questioning occurs, I let my kids take the lead, but make sure I’m there for backup. Levi, who was adopted at birth, says that his birth mother couldn’t take care of him; the girls, who were born via surrogacy, just say, “No, we don’t have a mommy. But a woman grew us in her tummy for our dads.” And that’s that.
What I’m trying to say is this. When someone asks a mommy question, answer it. Briefly. Clearly. Unapologetically. You’re a gay dad. You have kids. A mother is part of your kids' life, or not, or never was, or not anymore. In some (I hope rare) cases – when the question is hostile, rude, or otherwise inappropriate – you can say it’s none of their business. Your choice. But be truthful whenever possible. And stand by your kids, always. They should know that their dad has their backs.