A whole heck of a lot.
Names form the very foundation of our identity. Our given (birth) name, our family name/surname, the names we give ourselves (or given to us by others) as nicknames, our legally-changed names such as through marriage or by other choice. Like names, labels are also used to identify portions of ourselves: our race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, etc. Society’s purpose for labels, like names, is so we can make a generalized assumption (whether correct or not) about what to expect from someone, or something, simply based on the label we (or society) have applied to it. And also like names, our labels are often chosen for us, but we are able to redefine and change those labels and sometimes choose new ones for ourselves. One would be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t understand or feel the ways in which a label (either self-owned or society-applied) had affected them (inclusion into a group, exclusion from a group, stigmatized, marginalized, discriminated against, experienced prejudice, etc.), and I’d like to make a case for why we should recognize the same can result from the names we choose to represent ourselves and the groups to which we belong.
Of all the names and labels I would give myself, my primary identity (these days) is as a father. I have been transitioning as part of my female-to-male transition for almost a decade so my identity as a man of transsexual experience is still prominent, but primarily I am a father. Additionally, I am a father to twins, and there is a very specific difference between the identity of “father” and the identity of “father to twins” as I feel the latter more accurately reflects the tremendous (twice as much!) joy as well as the incredible (twice as many!) challenges inherent in raising twins. When Molly and I do one-on-one time with the girls each weekend (so both Molly and I each get one-on-one time with both children at least once per week), and someone makes a comment to me while I have just one of the girls (usually while I’m doing something completely mundane like picking up toilet paper at Target and someone says something to the effect of “what a great father,” but don’t get me started on the double-standard expectations on fathers versus mothers…), sometimes I feel like my full identity isn’t being seen – they see I am a “father,” but the “father of twins” part is invisible in that moment. This is also especially prominent when during one-on-one time I see another person/couple with their twins; the shared experience of raising multiples is invisible, and thus part of my identity feels invisible, too.
The point is that being a father, and specifically a father of twins, means a whole heck of a lot to me. And as a man of transsexual experience, there is a monthly group I attend that is primarily for peer-to-peer support around everyday female-to-male (FTM) trans* issues; this group explicitly includes “FTM” in its name, which defines the intended members of the group. Ironically, there is not a peer-to-peer support group (in our geographical area) where I am explicitly included in its membership as a father of twins. This is a problem.
OK, perhaps I should be completely transparent. There is a local “Mothers of Multiples” (MOMs) group with 100+ members that Molly found while she was pregnant with the girls, by way of two other (unrelated) people we met who were also pregnant with twins at the time. Throughout pregnancy, having newborns, and now raising toddlers, Molly has found the club to be a very useful resource for all things multiples in the form of peer-to-peer advice about daily routines, feeding challenges, traveling strategies, and pretty much anything else related to parenting multiples. There is an associated “Dads of Multiples” (DOMs) off-shoot, but the DOMs group has mostly been a social outlet, not a support-type group. I’ve done a couple of fun things with the DOMs; they are a great bunch of guys, but it’s more of a group to have “guy time” (whatever that is), not for getting together and talking about the challenges we’re having with our multiples. For me, I haven’t gotten super involved with the DOMs, because for the past, oh you know 22 months, I’ve been just a little busy dealing with newborn-to-toddler twins, for which I haven’t had – but at times desperately needed – the type of support outlet that the MOMs group provides.
I remember the moment I learned about the MOMs group – Molly was about half-way through the pregnancy – and I (perhaps wrongly) assumed that I would be welcome as a member. If you’ve followed this blog at all, you know that I experienced quite a bit of anxiety during the pregnancy, and the group instantly sounded like a place I may meet other folks with a shared experience; if not the anxiety about expecting multiples, at least other folks who were doing it…and surviving. But the group’s name was (is) “Mothers of Multiples,” it was (is) a “moms” group, so it was disappointing that it didn’t sound like a place for me. I was happy that Molly had found two other expecting-twins moms-to-be that she could attend the meetings with and that she would likely find support through the group, but admittedly I felt lost and somewhat alone in my processing of what was to come.
Let me be clear: this is not intended to be a let-me-in-your-club whine-fest. This is not about me, personally, wanting to join the MOMs club, for a couple of reasons:
- My twins are almost 2 years old, and things are getting – I hesitate to say “easier” as each age comes with its own set of challenges – but definitely less difficult these days, perhaps partly because they are older but also because our life circumstances have changed such that I am (partly sadly, partly happily) not their primary caregiver anymore. So I do not feel like I need the type of peer-to-peer support one would receive from the club, or at least I don’t feel the need for it as often as on a monthly basis. I see these as all positive changes, and so maybe I will have time – and energy – to hang out socially more with the fellow DOMs now
- Plainly and simply, I don’t get the feeling the MOMs group would be open to having me as a member. After all, I’m not a “mother,” and their club is named “Mothers of Multiples.”
Lets deconstruct the reasons for #2 a little more. As the husband of a mother who is heavily involved in the MOMs group, I happen to know that some members of the club claim they would never turn anyone away, regardless of the prospective member’s gender, sex, or sexual orientation. Whether that remains true in practice is hard to say because prospective members who may potentially feel excluded by the club’s name alone are not likely to show up or stick around. How would things have been different if the name of the group was, for example, “Parents of Multiples,” as so many other similar groups have progressed to? I can say for sure I would have attended the meetings and most likely have found the support I was looking for…as an expectant parent of multiples. I would likely have had a better understanding of exactly what I was going to face and probably would have been more prepared all around for entering parenthood. I would have built a support network to help answer the multitude of questions that come up when you are a full- or part-time stay-at-home parent, as I was. These things are not specific to being a mother; they are specific to being a parent. But the name of the group is “Mothers of Multiples,” and I’m just not one of those.
The fact that I was not raised/socialized as male is relevant here. I may not have been born one, but I know that men are less socialized to ask for help or support when they need it. If I didn’t stand up and request to be part of the group when I needed it most, how are we to expect other men, who have received messages their whole lives about “taking it like a man,” to stand up and ask to be included, too? Men do not need any more barriers to being active and involved fathers, and of all people, mothers – especially mothers with two or more children – should know that.
With a name like “Mothers of Multiples,” the name’s explicit message is about who the intended members are = moms. But the implicit message is about who the intended members are not = everyone else. And implicit messages can be just as harmful, if not more at times, than explicit messages, especially for any group that has experienced marginalization or stigmatization in any way. So, besides dads, I also wonder what other groups of people are not accessing the well-developed resources aimed at parenting multiples because they don’t feel welcome simply due to the name of the club? The easiest group of people to identify that are specifically excluded by this language is gay dads of multiples. Do you really think they are going to feel included and welcome into a club of “moms,” as the name implies. I’m willing to bet many gay dads have been asked which one “plays the mom role,” (please don’t ask them this, BTW) and I doubt seriously they will want to voluntarily enter a space that virtually requires one, or both, of them to “play” any kind of role that isn’t theirs. “Parents of Multiples” club, on the other hand, sounds much more inviting. Yes, it is easy to pin this on the “gays” and the “gays” wanting to be included in something they’re currently excluded from – this is not a new phenomenon (Google “Prop 8” and “DOMA” for examples you should probably be aware of). And whether or not you agree that LGBT folks should have the same access as everyone else to things – and this is so critical – the issue with the club’s current name it not just about the gay dads who may or may not want to join. It’s about sending the message, through conscious and purposeful use of a specific name, that reflects the club’s official, intended purpose:
To broaden the understanding of those aspects of child development and parenting which relate especially to multiples, through the interchange of information between parents, educators, doctors and others with a direct interest and appropriate experience in dealing with multiples.
Understanding aspects of child development and talking to my child’s educators and doctors, within the context of having multiples, is not a mother’s issue; it is a parent’s issue, and I hope all mothers would agree with that.
It’s also important to recognize that only changing the culture of the club (ie. keeping the name of the club as “Mothers of Multiples” while simultaneously saying the club is open to non-mothers) is not enough. As mentioned previously, prospective members who may be turned off by name, the very foundation of the club’s identity, are not likely to even give it a try. So you can do all of the explicit messaging you want around claiming to be “open to all people” or saying you would “never turn anyone away,” but until the implicit messaging ceases, most of that time would be more effectively spent elsewhere. You do have multiples, after all, and as a parent (of multiples) myself, I do know all about the never-ending to-do list. The opportunity to change the name to “Parents of Multiples,” which does not carry the same exclusionary implicit messages, is an opportunity to provide all parents of multiples an environment where they can “broaden the understanding of those aspects…which relate especially to multiples.”
Of course, I recognize that changing the club’s name from “Mothers of Multiples” to “Parents of Multiples” may appear, or feel, like the loss of a women-only space. I also recognize the importance to certain women, at certain times, of the availability of those spaces, but providing women an opportunity for women-only space and providing all people an opportunity to receive support and friendship with the commonality of being parents of multiples do not have to mutually exclusive. When thinking about this issue, I asked myself (and women) what examples there were of issues that are specific to mothering, not of parenting: pregnancy support, breastfeeding, post partum depression, and healing from childbirth (of any type). These are certainly issues for many mothers, but does this mean fathers/partners don’t need support around these things as well? I can only speak for myself, but these are the very topics I needed support around as a partner and new father myself. What can I do to help my very pregnant partner feel as comfortable as possible with her rapidly-expanding belly? How can I best support my partner in breastfeeding two (or more) babies around the clock? If you are comfortable sharing, what did you feel like with post-partum depression, and what did you feel was the most sensitive way someone could bring up their concerns to you? So I ask: who better to answer these questions than a group of moms who have been through it; remember, my pregnant partner is new to this, too, so she may not know what to ask of me, because she won’t know what may or may not be potentially helpful. Would moms of multiples really say they don’t want to share this information with dads/partners? And I get that maybe some might feel uncomfortable actually breastfeeding in front of the male partner of a fellow MOM, but it’s important to also consider how other moms might feel in the presence of someone breastfeeding? Many moms are unable to breastfeed, through no fault of their own, and it may be triggering to them. But let’s not make this about the ability to breastfeed when there are tens of other MOMs who do attend, and many more partners who could attend, the meeting to get support around breastfeeding challenges.
The last aspect I wanted to touch on is that by having a “moms-only” space, this provides a place for folks to talk about these issues without their partner present. Changing the name to “Parents of Multiples” should not alter this, because the “designation” of MOMs as a space, free from partners, should not be determined by the club itself, whose purpose is to facilitate “the interchange of information between parents.” Rather, it should be between individuals and their partners. The mere exclusion of a partner (in this case, based on the partner’s sex) should not be a substitute for a member talking to their partner about how shared spaces are navigated. In reality, two-mom families already have to do this as the club currently stands so this is not a new negotiation, just one that would be now be common to all members.
Changing the name to “Parents of Multiples” could be seen as a motion towards universal design, or design for all, as originally emerged from the accessibility movement. Just as curb cuts and ramps provide the necessary accessibility for wheelchairs, they also provide us as parents a place to wheel our strollers from sidewalk to street (and as a parent of multiples, I fully embrace the stroller as a necessary containment strategy). Just as single-stall bathrooms provide a facility for those with assistance persons of a different gender, they also provide me and my fellow trans* folks a safe place to do what everyone else can do in almost any establishment without fear: use the restroom.
The simple change in club name could radically change the experience of individuals who currently feel explicitly and implicitly excluded by providing them with the support they are seeking as well as provide all parents of multiples the skills and resources to successfully navigate the multiples roller coaster. When I see that other person/couple with their twins in the store – whether I have one or both or my girls – I often have the urge to tell them about the “Mothers of Multiples” club in our area, but so far I have never followed through on that urge, because I am not a member. And I don’t want to be that creep that goes up to a new parent of multiples, especially when my identity as a father of twins isn’t immediately obvious (because I am engaged in one-on-one time with one of my girls), who tells her about a great group that she may enjoy/benefit from if I am not even a member myself. Overall, I’m just saying that being a parent to multiples means there are a whole lot of issues that come up – unique to being both a parent and to multiples – that one might need support around. And it would be nice, really nice, if everyone could feel welcome in learning about them and how to manage our multiple blessings in ways that promote happy, healthy kids.