By David Valdes Greenwood
My husband wasn't really thinking when he dispatched our six year-old to cruise the sample bar at Trader Joe's. He knows that the store policy is that every kid is supposed to have a parent in tow in order to try the latest cracker or chowder variant, a prohibition meant to avoid things like lawsuits and anaphylaxis. But since he was just a few feet away and she was in her famished cranky pants mode, the presence of an edible distraction seemed ideal to him. Not so for the wary sample lady. She saw only a small child before her and asked, loudly enough to be heard across several aisles, "Where's your mother?"
My daughter could have answered just about anything, I suppose. She is quite capable, for instance, of naming the Midwestern state in which her birth mother lives, and if a friend asked this question, she probably would have. She could also have explained the entire story of her adoption at 12 days old and detailed the composition of her family, including the dog. Or she could have made up something wild, say that her mother had choked to death on Trader Joe's gazpacho in a store just like this one. That would have been an interesting moment -- and fair enough, since the sample lady had left herself wide open.
Instead, already sophisticated enough to know that "mom" in this case really meant "parent," my gal just pointed at the bald guy with the walrus mustache who was hurrying their way. Something tells me that my husband is not what sample lady envisioned when casting about for "mother." Nor did she expect him to growl, "She has two dads, thanks."
Now, it's no skin off my nose if someone sees the ring on my finger and asks me about the wife they envision me having. I'm a grown-up and I can handle that scenario without anxiety or defensiveness. But it's a drag for a six year-old to feel like she has to answer questions about her family unit for strangers, not only because she knows full well that the very question invokes her difference, but because, honestly, it's a personal subject. She herself might like to have this query answered, seeing as it's been four years since we've heard a word from her birth mom. So thanks, complete stranger dolling out tortellini, for wading into those waters.
Let me stipulate that I know that sample lady's question was entirely innocent; obviously, the woman meant no offense. But guess what: She needs to glance at the calendar and stop making assumptions that worked better in 1911 than in 2011. Not only are there many thousands of kids like mine being raised by two dads today, but the most recent Census numbers also reveal 2.5 million kids whose households contain single fathers and zero moms.
The issue isn't really gender-based either. If sample lady had said, "Where's your dad?" instead, she would have been barking up the wrong family tree for more than 17 million children raised by single mothers and lesbian couples. The real problem here is starting with the premise that all kids live with mom and dad period. 1.6 million children under the age of 18 are growing up in their grandparents' households, a number that has risen steadily in recent years. And I haven't even mentioned children raised by other relatives, foster children, and children in group homes.
Between the categories above, we're talking about well over 20 million children -- more than one out of four kids in the entire nation. This means that if you press a child you don't know about his or her imagined parents, you risk opening a Pandora's box of scenarios, some of them incredibly painful. Are you up for answers like, "Mom is dead because Dad killed her" or "Dad is in jail for molesting me"? How about, "I'm in my third foster home while my parents are in recovery"? No? Then stop assuming that every kid lives within the confines of the simplest nuclear trio, the family unit in which mom, dad, and child are all present and accounted for.
In 25 years as an educator in classrooms, summer camps, and youth programs, and now as a parent on the play date circuit, I've known hundreds of kids who live outside nuclear trios. And I've noticed how often they answer questions about parentage the way my daughter did: quietly correcting the wrong impression or impatiently filling in the blanks so that they can just move on. Too often, they display a kind of world-weariness in their responses, the fatigue that comes from always having to explain (or even defend) their household situations.
The solution is simple enough, but only if we choose for it to be. All of us, especially those who do not live in non-nuclear trios like mine, need to acknowledge family diversity, not just in our hearts and minds, but in our very language. From playgrounds to classrooms and onward to the aisles of Trader Joe's, we have to stop making verbal assumptions that every caretaking parent is a mother, or that every caretaker is a parent at all. It is not physically hard to say, "Do you have a grown-up with you?" or "Who are you here with?" It is only mentally hard, the challenge of unlearning old phrases, of re-educating the tongue to reflect the less-limited realities of the day.
It can be done. In fact, you make these sorts of language readjustments constantly. When was the last time you asked anyone to "Xerox" something? How long has it been since you needed to "flip the tape" to finish an album? Preferred language ebbs and flows with the tides of time, and the motion of change is insistent. Keeping up requires you to be mindful of your speech, to choose not to be the person who puts the thoughtless in thoughtless comment.
Yes, most kids you meet will respond just fine to talk of mom and dad, but if you risk wounding one of every four, isn't that enough to make you measure your words carefully until the new language becomes the old habit? The effort will be worth it, a way of valuing all our children -- whoever is raising them, wherever they call home.
David Valdes Greenwood has written about same-sex marriage and parenting for the Boston Globe and AOL, as well as in his book Homo Domesticus: Notes from a Same-Sex Marriage, the first memoir of legal same-sex marriage in the United States. His other nonfiction books include The Rhinestone Sisterhood and A Little Fruitcake, a Today Show Top 10 Holiday Books pick. With an MFA from Emerson College, David has been teaching writing to students of all ages for 20 years; currently, he is a Lecturer in English at Tufts University. But his own education continues at home, where his daughter keeps her two dads on their toes. To find out more about David's work, visit him at www.davidvaldesgreenwood.com and read his blog on Red Room.