It started with one of those Berenstain Bears books, The Bears’ Christmas – an old-school one from my own childhood in the early 70s, before the advent of feminism and the introduction of the young she-bears, Sister and Honey Bear. The Bear family in those days simply consisted of Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and their son Small Bear (who later became Brother Bear), all playing very traditional, gender-stereotyped roles. A family of three, like ours, right down to the young son, although the roles at our house are anything but traditional.
It’s Christmas morning, and Small Bear discovers a sled, skates, and skis from Santa under the tree. Papa Bear takes it upon himself to teach his son how to use the new gear – by demonstrating his own so-called prowess on snow and ice – with hilarious and disastrous results.
When I first introduced the story to my own son, he loved it so much I had to read it over and over. “Again, Mommy,” he’d plead when we’d finished the last page. “Again.”
Newly two, he’d point at a picture of Mama Bear (who, when not cooking dinner for her boys, always seemed to be tapping her foot disapprovingly at Papa Bear’s antics) and identify her as “Mommy Sara.”
“That’s right,” I’d confirm, inwardly cringing at the stereotype. Was I really so domestic and, well, uptight? “That’s the little bear’s mom, just like I’m your mom, and Mama Manda’s your mom.”
“No, that’s Mama Manda,” he’d correct me, pointing at Papa Bear, the hapless, spontaneous dad who was always landing himself into trouble in these early stories. Even though we always read the book as written, with Papa clearly being the little bear’s father/dad.
Same deal with a whole succession of books that we read over the next nine months – from my friend Paulette Bourgeois’ Franklin the Turtle series to Spot the dog to The Potty Book for Boys. He’d point at the dad figure and automatically adjust his title to “Mama,” so that the main character had two moms, just like him.
And before the Family Values crowd cries foul, let me stress that no, it’s not a case of gender confusion. My son will tell you quite clearly that his friend Madeleine has a mom and a papa, just like his cousins Lewis and Henry have a mom and a dad –while his friends Charles and Hannah have a mom and a mama, just like he does. Rather, my son simply equates the father’s role in these books with that of the co-parent, the “other mom.”
My son seems to know on some deep, innate level that I’m his birth mom, his “tummy mummy,” the one who carried him inside, right next to my heart, for nine long months. Although he loves his other mom more than words can say, when he’s hurt, sick, or overtired, sometimes only tummy mummy will do (which I’m sure is hard for Amanda at times). At the same time, he knows he can count on his other mom for everything from cuddles and kisses to goofy, over-the-top, rambunctious games with colourful, homegrown names like “Upside Down Baby” or the “Flying Garibaldi Brother’s Circus.” (The acrobatics inevitably end with a foot in Amanda’s face, or sore muscles the next day. “Maybe I’m not so unlike Papa Bear, after all,” Amanda admits, sheepishly.) Soon after he turned two, my son went through a period when he “discovered” his other mom and followed her around adoringly, like a puppy dog – it was all Mama Manda, all the time – in the same way children with straight parents go through a period after infancy where they bond with their dad.
In spite of the “tummy mummy”/”other mom” distinction, division of labour isn’t as clearly delineated at our house as at the Bears’. Amanda and I both cook, clean, and go to work. We both change diapers, wipe noses and kiss boo-boos. We’re both go-to people when my son wants to play with his trains or kick a ball around the back yard. Okay, so maybe I am a tad more uptight than easy-going, happy go-lucky Amanda – but any resemblance with the Berenstain family firmly ends there.
Which suggests to me that my son’s labelling in these books isn’t just about how he perceives our individual roles as his parents. Like all kids, he needs to see himself reflected back in the world that surrounds him – even if that means having to make adjustments to make the image fit. Being able to adapt like this isn’t a symptom of skewed perception or wishful thinking – it’s a real skill. My son’s not even three, and he’s already able to generalize that having two moms isn’t so different than having a mom and a dad. This ability to interpret what he sees and generalize to match his own experience will undoubtedly serve him well as he grows up with queer parents in a predominantly straight world. Now, if only the rest of the world could be as flexible and adaptable as my young son…