“He doesn’t have a mom… because she’s dead.”

July 16, 2014 | By Brent Almond | DAD STUFF, LESSONS LEARNED

Mommy's Dead
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HOW IT HAPPENED

So here I was, my not-small frame perched on the teeniest of tiny wooden chairs, clad in a retina-searing-orange t-shirt emblazoned with my son’s preschool logo, waiting for the class to be corralled before we headed to the petting zoo for a field trip. All of these kids knew me as “Jon’s Daddy,” the one who picks up — as opposed to “Jon’s Papa,” the one who drops off. There are other quite noticeable differences, but I can imagine that from a 4-year old’s perspective, we’re both just gigantic, bespectacled, goateed man-parents.

Yet it still came as bit of a surprise when I overheard my son’s classmate say, “Jon, your Papa’s here!” As expected, my son quickly corrected his chum, and things seem to be right with the world.

There was a lot going on, kids hopping up and down, excited about the field trip, distracted by the several parents scattered and squatting around the room. But amidst the melee, I hear mention of “mommy” something. I turned back toward my son and his posse, and the same friend exclaimed to all who would listen, “Jon doesn’t have a mommy… because she’s dead.”

My hackles were immediately raised and my inner Daddy Bear started to growl, yet I only managed a semi-audible “No… that’s not true.”

Semi-audible because at the same moment the teacher began the pre-field trip bathroom break process, which sent the kids into an even louder buzz of activity and noise.

Jon didn’t seem to notice the remark, and I quickly got swept into the fun and responsibility of the day, so it slipped to the back of my mind. Only later, as we were riding the bus home after a long, exhausting day of animal petting did I remember the “dead mommy” comment. I wondered if my son had heard it, and how it made him feel. I wondered how many other times he’d heard this or other things from this or other kids. And I wondered what I could do to fix it. To protect him. To keep him from the feeling of “otherness” I’d worried about since before he was born.
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WHAT I WANTED TO DO

My initial reaction was to talk to the parents. Not to scold them, but to make them aware, teach them the correct things to say and hope it trickled down. Papa was on board with that, so I figured I’d call this boy’s Mom the next afternoon.

The next morning, I presented the situation to a group of gay dads I chat with online. I did it more as a topic of conversation, out of curiosity of shared experiences — certainly not to have my mind changed. The responses were quite varied — more so than I had expected — and taking them in as a whole, I pondered a different approach.
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WHAT I DID DO

I decided to talk to my son’s teacher. I relayed what I’d overheard (and that I didn’t think Jon seemed bothered by it), and that if it should happen again to remind the class that Jon just doesn’t have a Mommy. He has a Daddy and a Papa. Jon knows he came from another woman’s belly, but for the sake of preschool conversations and understanding, I figured simpler is better. The teacher was wonderfully accommodating, reminding me she had used the books I lent her when they talked about family earlier in the year, and that she reminds the children whenever it comes up that every family is different. She in fact was raised by just her mother, and she tells the children so.

And I decided to talk to Jon. On the ride home, I asked him what he tells kids when they ask why he doesn’t have a mom. “I have a daddy and a papa,” was his reply. I asked him if he felt okay about that, considering most of his friends have a mom and a dad. “A daddy and a papa are better than a mom!” was his fervent response. I started to correct him, but I just smiled and let it go for now. If that’s what he needs in order to feel empowered, that’s his story and I’m sticking to it.
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WHAT I LEARNED

My instinct was to defend and protect my cub, to nip the lies in the bud and reinforce them with truth. However, I realized that I’d been granted a rare glimpse into my child’s daily life — and that 99% of these situations will take place when I’m not around. Which TOTALLY sucks. I envision standing over this kid and booming in my best Beanstalk Giant voice “SHUT IT, BOY! I’M THE DADDY! THERE’S THE PAPA! THERE IS NO MOMMY AND THAT’S EQUALLY AS AWESOME (IF NOT MORE) THAN YOUR BORING FAMILY!” (Or maybe something more rhyme-y.)

But I’d probably get in trouble for that. Instead, I want to teach my son to defend himself. To reinforce and retell his story so he can hold it close, find comfort from it, and share it with others when it’s warranted.

I know this little boy’s comments weren’t malicious. He wasn’t teasing Jon. He was merely filling in a blank that he found confusing with something he likely saw on a superhero cartoon or in a Disney movie. Yet I know the malicious comments and teasing will come. And very likely when Daddy and Papa Bear aren’t around to bare their claws at the offenders. Until then, I’ll continue to tell our Baby Big Boy Bear his story, doing my part to ensure him a confident, secure and happily ever after.
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WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE?

Share your thoughts, reactions and your own stories in the comments. You never know who may benefit from you sharing your story.

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14 responses to ““He doesn’t have a mom… because she’s dead.””

  1. Lisa irvine says:

    I think you totally did the right thing. Kids at this age don’t understand and often make up an ending to something if they don’t know the real reality. This kiddo may have just figured well I’ve never seen him mom so she must be dead which is the final result to kids this age. The fact that it didn’t bother JJ is far more important. Kids don’t truly understand family dynamics at this age. I had a preschooler who’s parents were divorcing and no matter how we explained it at least one kid thought it meant one of his parents must be dead. Good job daddy you are doing a great job handling things 🙂

  2. Such a tough situation. I’m a fan of normalizing the things that kids find odd. They latch onto response and reaction – so if it’s not present, kids have nothing to reward them. For example, while out to dinner one night, my son saw a woman with a mustache. Now, when I see that, I think a million things – “does she have a hormonal imbalance? Does she feel more at home with facial hair? Is it intentional? Is it not? Is it empowering? Embarrassing?” My son just thinks one thing: “women don’t usually have mustaches.” So, he smiled at me, and in a low enough tone (thank god) and at a distance far enough for us to address this, he asked, smiling “can ladies have mustaches?” My answer: “Sure they can.”

    That instantly diffused it. My wife hid her face because she laughed, but I tried to get the attention off of her. My son wanted us to laugh and say “NO! OMG! LET’S POINT AND LAUGH!” But simply saying “Sure they can” immediately took the wind out of his sails. If it’s possible, and clearly it is since this lady had a mustache, then it’s not weird to him anymore.

    So…as you know, Jon will hear this sort of thing again. Someone will postulate about WHY there’s no mom around. And that’s okay. But I’d urge you to find non-competitive ways for him to answer. Of course, the proud, gay dad in you wants to say (and should want to say) “you’ve got two dads and that’s better than one!” I think it’ll lead to comparisons, and unfortunately, more “otherness” when the no-doubt-majority of kids with a mom and dad ask “well if it’s better to have two dads, why don’t ALL OF US have that?” Or worse – the kid that goes home and tells his bigot parents that Jon’s got two dads and one of them pops off something intolerant and stupid that gets repeated to Jon later.

    This is all tough. And really, I don’t know how to deal with it. But I’d say that coming up with some baseline, diffusing responses will go a long way. Let the other kids hang themselves on their own ropes. If Jon’s not bothered or doesn’t react, the other kids have nothing to respond to. But, of course, kids are kids and we can’t predict it all even if we think we can. In the meantime, you’re doing a great job handling it regardless.

    • Brent Almond says:

      That’s honestly the first time I can remember him saying “Two dads are better than a mom.” It’s not something we teach OR believe. And I haven’t played him my hit country song in a long time. 😉

      His go-to answer is still “I have a daddy and a papa.” And if the discussion goes further, “I came out of (birthmom’s name’s) tummy.” He’s equipped to his level of understanding.

      The thing is, I have no idea if it’s bothering him or not. The kid has the (selective) memory of an elephant. I don’t want to hover or wrap him in bubble wrap, but reinforcing his story with him and his teacher so he’s well-equipped for the next time is, I think, a reasonable amount of prevention. I hope.

      And if that doesn’t work, I think he’s memorized quite a few Ninja Turtle moves.

      Thanks for you 2 cents as always.

  3. Rob Watson says:

    There is a label that our kids will have to deal with besides “kids of gay dads”, and that one is “adopted”. When people see our families, they see that fact right off the bat. My sons had to deal with that a few weeks ago not because of who their dad is, but because one is olive skinned of Mexican heritage and one is blond, blue eyed and of German heritage. They introduced themselves as brothers and then had to endure a barrage of questions. They found it incredibly irritating.

    I have taught them their own truth about our family and themselves and give them the bandwidth, and support to express it. That has, on occasion, disturbed some adults. My one son explained that he was adopted because his birth parents were too drunk to take care of him. They were heroin addicts, and his statement was essentially true. He needed to know those facts, and to understand the nature of addiction, that he too could be biologically susceptible to it and that he did not come to us because he was unwanted somewhere else. A teacher overheard his explanation and called me to tell me that he was saying “inappropriate” things. I let her know that I found her reaction more of a concern than what he had said, but that I would discuss ways with him where he could be a bit more diplomatic in his explanation.

    • Brent Almond says:

      Thanks for sharing your story, Rob. I get that it’s going to be a lifetime of educating — my son, myself, and others included.

      I liked this: “…he did not come to us because he was unwanted somewhere else.” That’s Jon’s story, too. He wasn’t unwanted, they were just unequipped. A phrase we learned early on in the adoption process is “made an adoption plan” to replace “gave up for adoption.” It may just seem like semantics, and may not make a difference to someone who sees our kids as different (regardless of how it came to be) but I like to think it makes a difference to our kids. How they view themselves, and how they know we view them.

  4. Phil says:

    As a single gay dad I must say that in time this will be common enough to be normalized and shrugged off. But at the moment, it’s in the air because it is unusual. Avoiding the recognition that it’s unusual, sort of denying the difference is obviously not helpful; celebrating the difference which is sort of my inclination is, on reflection also not quite right.

    What I do know from being involved in foster care as well as adoption is that in time kids will recognize that their experience is different. Usually kids form the system know they are going to be seen and treated differently and may be hurt or defensive, but always they know.

    I heartily agree with any suggestions that, while acknowledging that difference, leave the child knowing they are loved and didn’t do anything to create the difference.

    And if my son were young again I think I’d put it to him that way exactly, “everybody is different and there are a lot of different kinds of families [examples from his friends and neighbors]. They are all OK, what matters is you know I love you as much as any dad loves his child and you are OK, nothing you did made your family the way it is, any more than [name of friend] chose his family. When you grow up you can make your family any way that seems right for you. You’ll be a good parent and love your kids too.”

  5. […] sinister-sounding second question, you can read more about that exchange (and my processing of it) here. Suffice it to say it was a learning […]

  6. […] sinister-sounding second question, you can read more about that exchange (and my processing of it) here. Suffice it to say it was a learning […]

  7. […] sinister-sounding second question, you can read more about that exchange (and my processing of it) here. Suffice it to say it was a learning […]

  8. […] sinister-sounding second question, you can read more about that exchange (and my processing of it) here. Suffice it to say it was a learning […]

  9. Tammy says:

    I have worked in childcare for 25 years and have worked with thousands of children and families. One thing I have learned is that every family has strengths and every family has difficulties that they will face. As long as a child is being raised with love, nurturing and guidance they will have the tools they need to face whatever the world throws at them. It sounds like you are doing all of this with a sense of humor added in. That is a wonderful combination for any child to grow up with.

  10. Beau Hammonds says:

    Hi! I have SO enjoyed reading your posts! My husband and I are currently preparing ourselves to try surrogacy again. Our first try was very traumatic for us, as we lost our little boy to miscarriage at almost 6 months into the pregnancy. That was 1 and 1/2 years ago and I am still not sure if we (I) am really ready to put my heart in the line like that again, but we want a baby so badly…..well, we are going to try again.
    Reading your posts (and blogs, posts, and threads of other same-sex couples raising children) has really helped me to face my fears and try again.
    For that, I cannot thank you enough! Thank you, thank you, a million billion times -Thank You-!
    Beau

  11. […] sinister-sounding second question, you can read more about that exchange (and my processing of it) here. Suffice it to say it was a learning […]

  12. Alysia says:

    As a mother of 2 children with different dads, I can relate to many of the situations you talked about. The nuclear family has changed so much that most parents I know are faced with situations in which they constantly need to explain their family dynamic – kids from different relationships, half-brothers and half-sisters, brothers and sisters from their bio-parent’s partner (but not their step dad or step mom because they are not married), former step-brothers and step-sisters because that marriage ended… ok I could get winded from all the examples. I feel that in our society today we are really challenging the importance of biology when it comes to parenting. My 11 yo son has 2 dads – the once that has been there since birth and the one that has been there since he was 2. They are both his dads because both of them occupy that role in his life. The fact that his “bio” dad gets more credit for doing the same job bothers me. The parent doing the work needs to be recognized as being the parent, regardless of biology.

    That said, having to explain it constantly can be draining, even depressing. Explaining that I am not with my son’s bio dad reminds me of that failed relationship. Sometimes I feel like the only reason why I feel ok with my family situation is because and I still with my son’s 2nd father (we have a 5 yo daughter together). I have a neighbour who is a single mom with 2 kids from different fathers. There is a real stigma that this woman lives with, not the least her lower social class as a single parent. If ever I were to separate with my partner, I would also have to live with that stigma as well and it scares me.

    I have known many people with families outside of the “norm”: biracial, queer, trans. I know I don’t live the same reality as I don’t have to face the same struggles. I have a privilege that others don’t. I guess what I am trying to say is that even though I have these privileges, it’s not hard for me to relate and emphasize with your struggles.

    In solidarity – a mom with children from different dads.

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