Family / Kids / Parenting

When you have two moms, what’s in a name?

I wrote this post nearly six years ago, when my now eight-year-old was just a toddler and my five-year-old was still in utero. Today, our kids tend to call me and my partner both “Mom” or “Mama” interchangeably. When they want a specific mother, or when they’re talking about one of us to the other, they use our first names.

So, what do your kids call you? Did you nicknames advance, or did the process happen organically? Are you happy with your choices? And do or did your kids have a favorite parent? How did that play out?

* * *

In December, I took a business trip. And when I came back, my toddler son, Rowan, liked my partner, Rachel, better than he liked me.

At first, I enjoyed the shift. As the birth- and breast-feeding mom, I’d had 25 months of milky baby love, toddler devotion. When Rowan was hurt, he wanted me. When he was sleepy, he wanted me.

He brought me his toys and books. He climbed into on my lap while we sat at the table, and held onto my leg when he wasn’t sure about a new situation. As for Rachel, well, she was great, too, but, she just wasn’t me.

But now, I could sit quietly and read the newspaper on a Saturday morning while Rowan insisted that Rachel read stacks of books to him, that Rachel play trains, that Rachel change his diaper, carry him upstairs, bathe him, put him to bed. “Night night!” he’d say cheerily, literally pushing me away and turning to Rachel. I could eat my dinner in peace without a two-year-old climbing into my lap or trying to pull me out of my chair — “Mommy get up!” I could wander around by myself at the weekly farmer’s market, sampling Gouda and local elk sausage, without hefting around 35 pounds of clingy toddler. I was freer than I had been in two years, and I welcomed the space.

Becoming second-best also meant that I had the profound pleasure of watching Rachel and Rowan together, the two of them cuddling on the couch, rolling out Play-Doh at the dining room table, snuggled up reading stories in bed. I was used to only fleeting glimpses of these tableaux, spoiled by my entering the room, drawing Rowan to me like baby moth to Mama flame, leaving Rachel in the shadows. Their beauty was, and is, astonishing, and I savoured it.

Ironically — or not — it was around this time that Rowan’s names for us finally solidified. Unlike many of the other lesbian parents we knew, we had never sorted out whether one of us would be “Mama” and the other “Mommy.” We never made up cute nicknames for ourselves, like “Mama S” and “Mommy R.” Some women we knew had opted for cultural or linguistic variations on the word “mother,” like the Hebrew “Imah” or the Spanish “Mami,” but none of those felt right. We didn’t worry about it. Instead, we figured that Rowan would come up with his own names for his moms. “Kids are smart,” we said. “He’ll figure it out.”

And he did. After hearing his whole life us saying versions of, “This mommy is cooking — ask other mommy to put your shoes on,” or, “This mommy will read you one more book, and then your other mommy will take you upstairs for bed,” he now calls us — quite sensibly — “This Mommy” and “Other Mommy.”

Guess who’s Other Mommy?

At least, mercifully, he eventually shortened it to “Uh-Mommy,” or “Uh-mum,” which actually sounds quite sweet — if you don’t know what it means.

But I know what it means. And while being Mama non Grata has its perks, especially now that I am 37 weeks pregnant with baby number two and can use all the breaks I can get, little stings quite as much as my crying toddler pushing me away because he wants his This Mommy. Suddenly, I’m on the outside, the fifth wheel at the playdate.

I know: it’s what Rachel put up with for two years with barely a complaint. I know it’s what she’ll put up with again, in all likelihood, with the second one. I know I’ll have my hands full what with nursing and sleep deprivation and the like, and that when this new baby arrives it will be even more important for Rowan to have a healthy attachment to his other parent. And I know that it’s all just a phase — Rowan has already shifted to a more neutral ground, and he will shift again and again.

But I guess, somehow, I never really imagined that this “phase” would last more than a few days, or that Rowan would ever really reject me, for Rachel or anyone else. Even when it’s tiring, and overwhelming, there’s something immensely gratifying about being the centre of a child’s life. I was ready for a break, but I wasn’t ready to give up that privilege in its entirety.

It was bound to happen eventually, I keep telling myself. And it will only, properly, continue. But for now I am revelling in every walk where Rowan holds my hand, every morning-time cuddle, my nights to sing him to sleep. Maybe the fact that it’s not a sure thing is what makes his pure affection that much sweeter.

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  1. My wife is also “This Mommy,” with similar confusion for other people, since, like you, the kids came out of my body. I am “That Mommy.” We also figured that kids were smart, they would find a way to distinguish us. But given the names that emerged, if I had it to do over, I might have insisted on Mommy/Mama or some such more traditional-sounding distinction.

  2. My wife and I are Mama and Mommy, names we chose ourselves. To our kids, now ages 6 and 8, these are not general parental titles, though. They are more like proper names. If we’re at a park and a stranger asks my son, “Where is your mommy?” My wife could be standing right beside him, but he’d say, “She’s not here,” because my wife is Mama, not Mommy.

  3. We discussed names prior to birth. I got “mom/mommy” because that’s what my older two call me. My partner is “mama”. We referred to ourselves, and eachother, as such from day one.

    Our toddler just turned two. She is still nursing, but the balance of preferred mom is shifting from me to my partner, as our daughter grows (I’m bio/nursing mom.) I’m still the go to mom when she is tired, sick, hungry, etc. but Mama is the preferred play, carry, rough house mom.

  4. Loved this piece. We also opted to let our daughter work it out. We ended up with ‘Ama’ which was, like in your case, our daughter’s shortening of ‘other mummy’ for my partner – the nonbiological mum – and our daughter has ended up calling me – bio mum- by my first name. She’s 3 and these names are pretty stuck. She always refers to us as her mummys when talking about us to others, but when she’s talking to us it’s Ama and Claire.

  5. We don’t have a munchkin yet (still TTC, as fun as all that is), but I just thought we’d let the kid sort out our titles. But if that leaves me open to my child calling me by my 1st name, I guess we’ll have to provide a little more direction. Thanks for the Cautionary Tale, Claire.

  6. My partner and I have the same name, so it wasn’t really an option for our girls to call us “Mama B” and Mama B” 🙂 Instead, we divided up the sounds of “Mom-my” – BH is Mama and I’m Mimi.

    The kids have also created their own variations, similar to This Mommy/Other Mommy. BH is often called the “In Charge Mama”, whereupon I then become “Not the In Charge Mama”! BH lives up to her name by running the household but our littlest (now 7) does still prefer “Mimi” in the middle of the night.

  7. We had a difference of preference before kids. My partner wanted to go by first names (though her first name is also her last, which is another story) and I wanted to be a “Mama.”

    We compromised, each using both, in reverse order so that I’m Mama Shannon and my partner is Cole-Mom.

    They use the full title-names combos every time they address us still, at 5 and 7. But Mama Shannon came out more like “Ma-Sanna” for a long time and I know when strangers overhear references to my partner, they hear “Co-mom.”

    We are definitely not reversible in the kids’ minds, being a butch-femme couple as well as dividing and conquering the labor of life. I am Homemaker Extraordinaire (now with 200% more home schooling!) and my partner brings home the bacon (which, yes, I fry up in the pan).

    So the kids love us both, but no doubt in different ways for different reasons. At this age, they tend to prefer whoever is around the least (usually Cole-mom, who I sometimes call “DisneyLand Mom”) but such are the fleeting affections of children. I’m an old shoe, but you can’t live without your old shoes, can you?

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