Deidre Olsen is a queer, non-binary writer and digital marketer based in Toronto. The opinions expressed here are their own.
Polly Pagenhart, an androgynous genderqueer parent, enters an airport bathroom with their wife and child, and is immediately snapped at by a stranger: “This is the women’s room!” This is nothing new to Pagenhart, who keeps their hair short and wears collared shirts and blazers, and says they’re mistakenly called “sir” several times a month. Pagenhart identifies as a “lesbian dad,” uses they/them pronouns as opposed to gendered ones, and argues that one needn’t be a man to be a father. Kind of like fitting into someone else’s definition of “a woman” shouldn’t determine which bathroom you use.
As we get more comfortable with the notion that gender is not binary, perhaps the way we look at families should change, too. Words like “mom” and “dad” are nothing more than gendered terms for people who raise children, after all, which means they’re restrictive. The ways that people enact these roles are evolving. Or, rather, the roles of “mom” and “dad” themselves are converging, and gender is becoming less of the point.
In 2015, women in the United States had their first child at the average age of 26.4, compared to 22.7 in 1980, nearing the average age for men, which is up to 30.9. According to 2016 Census data, 31% of women age 30 to 34 have never given birth to a child, which is 26% higher than it was one decade earlier. Women are delaying having children, and having fewer of them — if they have any at all. They are prioritizing professional pursuits that used to be an “either/or” with parenting, but never was for men; they are no longer beholden to or defined by the stereotypical definition of wife or mother.
Meanwhile, men are becoming stay-at-home parents and single parents. There were twice as many stay-at-home dads in the U.S. in 2010 (2.2 million) as there were in 1989, according to Pew statistics. Lack of work after the Great Recession sent many men back into the home, but many are simply choosing a lifestyle that allows them to be caregivers. And single fatherhood is also on the rise.
In 1960, there were fewer than 300,000 single dads, a number that had skyrocketed to more than 2.6 million in 2011. (There are an estimated 10 million single moms, still in a league of their own.) This tracks with an increase in nonmarital births, and changes in the legal system that make it more feasible for men to gain custody of their children after a separation or divorce.
Most shocking, perhaps, is that public opinion has pretty much kept up with these changes. A Pew survey from 2013 found that Americans expect a father to “be more of a moral teacher and emotional comforter than a breadwinner or disciplinarian.” In fact, respondents put strong values and emotional support at the top of their lists for what makes a good dad. Providing income was at the bottom — and a mom’s key responsibilities were ranked exactly the same. And so what, exactly, does it mean to be a mother, and does one have to be a woman to be it? Is a father always a man? As the roles of mom and dad have more in common than in contrast, gendered terminology no longer seems particularly apt or relevant.
This spring, Toronto Star columnist Emma Teitel wrote that Mother’s Day and Father’s Day should be retired and replaced with Guardian’s Day in order to be inclusive of the diversity of modern parents. Teitel wrote that a guardian can be “a mom, a dad, a non-binary parent, a grandparent, an aunt, an uncle, a pet owner, or why the heck not — somebody who takes really good care of his houseplants.” While anyone who’s attended to a screaming, pooping baby may take umbrage at the houseplant comparison, she makes a salient argument that what’s worth celebrating is the act of caregiving itself — not one of two gendered names for it.
The roles of mother and father are already the same in the eyes of family law. In a 1996 precedent-setting decision, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the majority rule stating that “overbroad generalizations about the different talents, capacities, or preferences of males and females” are unacceptable. It’s the presupposed definitions of these roles that somehow persist, the labels and expectations we project onto one another. And that’s what can get tricky when a family or individual doesn’t align with what’s traditional or expected.
According to the Williams Institute, which conducts research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy at UCLA, an estimated 111,000 same-gender couples are raising biological, step, or adoptive children in the United States. Individuals in same-gender relationships are often assigned the roles of “mom” and “dad” by society based on who is perceived as the more feminine and more masculine partner, according to a sex and gender study about the division of household labor. As well, lesbian couples are often stereotyped as having a “man” in the relationship. In turn, familial roles remain gendered, predicated on the flawed logic that in order for parents to be valid, they must mimic the standard man-and-woman makeup.
And then there are parents who may not identify with gendered language whatsoever. For them, non-binary terminology is a must, and a need that’s not always being met. Genderqueer parent B.A. Beasley writes that, even in a world where people are invested in egalitarian parenthood, the “social category of parent just doesn’t seem to exist,” and people cannot understand that Beasley’s child has a “mom” and a “parent.”
According to Pagenhart, who is the editor-in-chief of Lesbian Family and runs the blog Lesbian Dad, a “lesbian dad” is a lesbian or genderqueer parent who does not identify with the term “mother” and instead appropriates and redefines the term “dad” to suit their needs. As an alternative to “dad,” Pagenhart uses “baba,” a word meaning “father” in more than a dozen languages, and one they believe many other parents use.
Carlos A. Ball, a gay parent, argues that regardless of sexuality, men can be mothers, meaning they can be nurturing caregivers — qualities stereotypically associated with motherhood. Ball notes that some may argue that, since he is married to a man, the lack of a woman would force him and his partner to mother their children by default. However, this is not the case. Instead, Ball’s appropriation of the word “mother” is gender-neutral: He says any individual nurturing a child can use it.
It’s unlikely that the terms “mom” and “dad” will be retired altogether, nor is it necessary that they should. Instead, it’s important to recognize that these are not the only words that parents can identify with. Gendered language should not hinder parenthood as it once did but be allowed to become terms of endearment and pride. As we’ve done with pronouns or other gender- and sexual-identity symbols, we should continue making space for parents to redefine traditional language, or to use new language altogether.
Ultimately, each of these words is an individual choice. There’s nothing more personal than the way we describe who we are. And so, of course, it isn’t wrong to self-identify with a gendered parenting term. What’s wrong is attaching stereotypes and value judgments to these terms, expecting other people to always fulfill them, and vilifying those who don’t. With so much language at our disposal, we should at least be able to question what makes a mom a mom. It’s certainly not the word itself.
Gender and sexual orientation are both highly personal and constantly evolving. So, in honor of Transgender Awareness Week, we're talking about the importance of language and raising the voices of the LGBTQIA community. Welcome to Gender Nation, where gender is defined by the people who live it. Want to learn more? Check out our Gender Nation glossary. For more stories on our many paths to, through, or away from parenthood, check out Mothership.