Lyla Cicero is all for equal parenting, but a part of her still wanted her kids to think of her as #1.
Only when my twins were 20 months old did they master the correct use of the words “mama” and “dada.” They took quite a long time to even say these words, despite beginning to talk about six months prior. Their first words were “uh oh,” “ba ba” (bottle), “nana” (banana), “hi,” “bye,” and “boon” (balloon). I figured, OK, as long as they are starting to say words, no problem. But on the inside I was wondering what was wrong. Was I, as Mama, not as important to them as I should be if they learned “boon” first? Had I been neglectful somehow? I couldn’t help measuring myself against other moms with kids younger than mine who were constantly saying “Mama.”
In the next few months, the twins started throwing around the words “Mama” and “Dada,” but they didn’t seem to be in reference to anyone. Sometimes they would point at the window or a light switch and shout “Mama.” Sometimes they were directed toward Seth or me, but also toward the babysitter, Grammy and Grampy, aunts and uncles, etc. What was this about? Wasn’t I supposed to be much more important than these other folks?
My anxiety only increased when their words started to get more complex. They started saying “window,” “shake it” (when we danced), and “okra.” My daughter started to refer to her Minnie Mouse doll as “Minya Minya Maow” and her stuffed kangaroo as “Kanga.” Really, I thought, you know Minnie and Kanga and Hippo and Poo Bear and not Mama? I was starting to feel peeved. Maybe even a little hurt.
Then something strange began to happen. One day my daughter looked right at me, and with a big smile, and great exuberance, as though she’d had a revelation, she shouted “Dada!” and pointed in my direction. Over the next couple weeks both babies began to refer to my husband and me as “Dada.”
Now I really started to wonder if I was doing something wrong. My brain was telling me that what my husband and I had planned had worked. Before we even conceived, we planned to be egalitarian parents and not privilege the role of mother over father or assign more responsibility to mother than father. Our children were truly being raised by a village, and that’s what they were responding to, I told myself.
But as much as my logical side believed that, there was a part of me that was still expecting to be the most important person to my babies, as if somehow they would just figure out that Mama’s are where it’s at for babies. I was proud that they called me Dada, that “okra” and “Poo Bear” stuck out to them more than the gender difference between their parents, but a part of me wondered if they really even understood who I was and how much I loved them. How would they know this if I was interchangeable with Dada?
Eventually “Dada” morphed into both twins using Mama and Dada interchangeably for Seth and me, and sometimes a full “Mamadada” or “Dadamama.” I took a step back and really watched my kids faces when they approached us. They have many caretakers, relatives, friends, and babysitters, but “Mamadada” is clearly in a different category for them.
Now I was convinced we had done what we’d set out to do. Babies aren’t born understanding cultural norms and expectations. While I may have internalized the idea that Mama is the one who really matters even if we give lip service to Dada, my babies didn’t know that. Despite my ambivalence and mixed emotions, my self-doubt and fear, they got it. They got that Mama and Dada are interchangeable, because we are.
Of course I don’t mean to imply we are truly the same, but as far as the level of nuance a 20-month-old can grasp, we are essentially the same. It wasn’t that my babies didn’t understand my level of love and devotion. To them, there was just a seamless web of love and devotion starting from DadaMama and extending out around them.
About two months later, my kids started to understand that Dada and Mama refer to different people, but even now, at almost 2, they mix us up sometimes. And why wouldn’t they? We play remarkably similar roles and both love them to death, more than anyone else could. Now I secretly pat myself on the back when a “Dadamama” slips out, and think equal parenting is real, and it can be done.
But I have to admit, there is also a part of me that secretly smiles when my kids are with Seth and call out for Mama, because there is a part of me that grieves not getting to be the privileged parent, like so many mothers are. I wonder to myself if this is what it’s like to mother with another mother—whether lesbian moms and gay dads struggle with being just one of an interchangeable pair.
We attach so much to labels. Just the simple word “mother” floods our minds with a title wave of images and ideas, expectations and feelings. But words don’t inherently possess these associations. To my 20-month-olds “mama” and “dada” bring about almost the very same set of associations, with the possible exception of blond versus brown hair and differing vocal intonations. As a member of a society fraught with contradictory messages of egalitarianism and an impossible standard of perfect, I’ve realized that privileged mothering cannot be erased overnight.
While my kids effortlessly mistake me for Seth, I will be struggling everyday, hour by hour to recognize that my kids aren’t that interested in Mama and Dada. I will be endlessly reminding myself that the path I’ve chosen means I won’t meet those motherhood ideals of self-sacrifice and martyrdom, and thus, won’t experience the privilege and curse of being the sun at the center of my kids’ universes.
Lyla Cicero has a doctorate in clinical psychology, and focuses on relationships, sexual minorities, and sex therapy. Lyla is a feminist, LGBTQIAPK-affirmative, sex-positive blogger at UnderCoverintheSuburbs.com, where she writes about expanding cultural notions of identity, especially those surrounding gender, sexual orientation, motherhood, and sexuality. Follow her on Twitter @UndrCvrNSuburbs.