The New Lesbian Dad

How some women are reinventing what it means to be a parent.

BY Abby Dorsey

April 08 2013 3:00 AM ET

When Polly Pagenhart’s partner, Jennifer, became pregnant with their first child, the couple began a process that is as common to most same-sex parents as painting the nursery or packing the hospital bag: deciding what their child would call each of them. For Pagenhart, now 50, who describes herself as butch and gender-nonconforming, this was not an easy task.

“I was stumped,” she explains. “I felt like I couldn’t be a parent if I had to be a conventionally feminine mother. I couldn’t even accept a variation on the word ‘mother’ for my title.”

After exploring various parental titles, Pagenhart decided on the title “baba,” the diminutive for “father” in Frankfurter, a German dialect. The more she researched the term, the more she discovered that it had meanings in many cultures denoting a warm, loving caregiver or protector. She claimed the title and never looked back. Now, eight years later, she is the proud “baba” of two children as well as the author of Lesbian Dad, a parenting blog about her experiences navigating the murky territory between motherhood and fatherhood.

“What I think is most important is that there is cultural space for gender-nonconforming people to be parents and still be who they are on the spectrum of gender,” explains Pagenhart. “For some women, myself included, the word ‘mother’ just couldn’t ever fit comfortably, even with a modifier. ‘Parent’ is what I am most unequivocally.”

Pagenhart, as it turns out, is not alone in her decision to carve out a space for herself within the traditional turf of fatherhood. As more gay and lesbian couples become parents, nontraditional families and lesbian dads along with them are more visible in society than ever before.

“This phenomenon exists,” explains Abbie Goldberg, author of Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children: Research on the Family Life Cycle and one of the nation’s leading researchers on LGBT parenting. “I’m sure that each lesbian dad might define their role and identity somewhat differently, but my sense of the term is that it is used to describe lesbian parents who feel like the culturally accepted identity and role of father is more in line with her own parental identity and role than the culturally accepted identity and role of mother. From researching lesbian and gay parents who vary to some degree in their own gender identity and gender expression, I’d say that lesbian dads typically are more male-identified, in the sense that they present and identify with a more masculine or gender-neutral/ambiguous/queer role than a feminine role.”

Although the realm of lesbian fatherhood is still being pioneered, lesbian dads most often identify as butch or genderqueer and are usually the nonbiological parent in their partnership. While some stick to being called “mom” or “mama,” many embrace alternative titles ranging from “baba” to “papa” to the old standards “dad” or “daddy.”

For Jess Burgan, 30, who identifies as queer, the title of “dad” seemed the obvious choice. Uncomfortable with “mom” or “mommy” and equally ill at ease with the idea of claiming a name with a cultural root that was not relevant to her background, Burgan credits her partner, Sandra, with giving her the support she needed to claim the title of “dad.”

“The biggest factor was hands down Sandra’s support,” says Burgan, who is currently raising two children with her partner in the Philadelphia area. “When I sheepishly threw out the idea of ‘just being a dad,’ her immediate response was ‘of course.’ The fact that it clicked so immediately and Sandra embraced it so naturally made me wonder why we had spent time thinking about anything else.”

Kris Quinones, 47, a fire captain in San Diego and parent to 6-year-old twin boys, is a self-identified lesbian dad who decided to stick with the title “mama.”

“I never really considered any other kind of names,” comments Quinones. “It’s funny, though, in my travels, most of the ‘daddy mamas’ are named ‘mama’ and the more feminine women are ‘mommy.’ In my [circle of] friends, the parents that are a little bit more ‘on the floor with the kids’ tend to be ‘mama,’ and I find that very interesting.”

Goldberg understands why some lesbian couples place such importance on finding a parental moniker that feels right to them.

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