Becoming “Mama”: Nurturing Identity Through Gender-­Diverse Parenting

What does it mean to be a mother? Exploring the experiences of a daughter raised by a single mother, a new mother whose life is unexpectedly transformed by the birth of her child, and a gender-neutral parent raising children in a non-binary environment, the reflections in this series are as insightful as they are personal, offering a powerful look at the meaning of motherhood. Edited by Irene Huhulea

Becoming “Mama”: Nurturing Identity Through Gender-­Diverse Parenting

By Coco C. Lam

Alot of things have changed throughout my life, but one thing that has always been constant is my desire to be a parent. When I met my wife, I was excited that she had children. Though it wasn’t simple or easy, I gladly took on a parenting role. I became pregnant with our third child just over three years ago. Our kids are now 17, 13, and 2 and a half.

I have never identified with being a woman, but I do identify with the name, Mama. That is what my youngest calls me. Since she was born, I have come out as a non-binary trans person, and ask to be referred to with they/them pronouns. I am not a mother; or not solely a mother. I am a parent, and my parent name is “Mama.”

Coming out as non-binary and being more open and honest about my gender, and honoring that by asking people to use gender neutral pronouns and language, has made me even more keenly aware of how unnecessarily gendered our language and our world is. My wife and I decided to call our youngest by assigned pronouns, but otherwise often avoid gendered language. More importantly, we are doing our best to show her that gender is very diverse, and that she has the right and freedom to self-determine every facet of her gender.

Our society genders colors, toys, activities, bath products, clothing, books, and TV shows. It seems a growing number of parents are realizing this and fighting against it. There are many ways to do this. We model gender diverse awareness and inclusiveness by using gender-neutral language when speaking in general (“kids” instead of “girls and boys”), and when speaking of someone whose gender we don’t know (teaching that we shouldn’t assume anyone’s gender). Another aspect of language is what descriptive words, compliments, and encouragement we give—she is brave, creative, strong, hilarious!

We get a variety of books, toys, and clothing, regardless of whether it is marketed towards boys or girls, and then follow our child’s lead as to what she enjoys and is interested in. We find books with gender-diverse characters and are sure to include them in our little library. Sometimes we edit books to make them more inclusive. We love Mo Willems’ books, but in “Time to Pee,” we change the words from “Boys can stand. Girls should sit,” to “Some kids can stand, some kids should sit.” We teach our kids that sex organs don’t define gender. Our children will not be boxed in. Not by us.

I hope that someday, society will be accepting of all gender identities and allow everyone to self-identify. In truth, it seems we are a long way away from that. But there is progress. I can contribute to that by raising my kids not only with the freedom to self-determine, but also with an awareness of and respect for gender diversity, so that they can do the same for others.

This essay originally appeared in the Mothers & Grandmothers issue. For more inspiring stories about dealing with mothers and grandmothers, check out The Only Child Box and My Legacy as a Moroccan Woman.

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