The author with his son. (Photo: Courtesy of Gerald Olson)
Dear Parents: Teachers will be working on Mother’s Day activities this week and next — they will not be posting updates or photos because we don’t want to ruin the surprise!!!!
This email from my son’s preschool popped up in my feed a few weeks ago. It’s innocent enough. The surprise is probably a handmade card and crafty gift ― maybe a paper birdhouse or popsicle picture frame with “momma” scrawled on it in brightly colored paint.
But it caught me off guard and raised a few questions: How are they talking about mothers in the classroom? What about the kids with nontraditional mother stories? And most importantly, What will they say if my son asks why he doesn’t have a mother?
I am a solo dad of a 3 1/2-year-old, and as routine as it is to make cute gifts for Mom, in today’s world ― and in our little world ― it requires a little more thoughtfulness.
When it comes to someone else defining our family, I don’t want any surprises.
My son goes to a Catholic preschool in the heart of Boys Town in West Hollywood. Though it is part of the big, bad Church, it is an open-minded community. (The school director is young, hip and impressively all tatted up.)
I don’t mind a little Jesus talk ― and my son is more than a little obsessed with the Mother of God (he calls her “Princess Mary”). But after the email came in, I called the director. I wanted to remind her that I’m queer and my son doesn’t have a mom.
Her pregnant pause told me the school hadn’t considered this and had no clue how to navigate these waters. “We will absolutely take your lead on this,” she said, trying to reassure me.
Then it hit me: I had no idea what my lead was going to be?
So, I embarked on a little kitchen-sink research. We have a pretty unconventional social circle that includes a throuple with an adopted daughter, a mom raising three kids without a dad, and two gay dads with a toddler they welcomed through surrogacy.
One friend told me their school hosted a “mothers only” party that they hadn’t been invited to. This reminded me of the book “Stella Brings the Family,” which is about a little girl with two dads. Spoiler alert: Both daddies end up crashing the Mother’s Day party at her school.
It’s a cute story, but it didn’t really answer my question.
I really love the way my friend and his two male partners talk about it to their 7-year-old daughter: “Families come in lots of different ways ― some have one dad, some have two moms, some have two dads and some have a mom and a dad. Mother’s Day celebrates all the moms, Father’s Day celebrates all the dads. It’s imperfect because it has genders (and not everyone has a gender) but it’s the way it is.”
Then I got the best advice: “Follow his lead. He’s still young, so I’d let him ask questions instead of trying to introduce the concept of mommyness.”
I was reminded that no matter how much mothering I have done or will do ― society will never see me as his “mother.”
noun: female parent
verb: to give birth to
verb: to give rise to
Sure enough, according to Merriam-Webster, I am not and will never be his mother. And despite all the motherly women in our life, he does not have a noun: female parent.
In our home, I try to focus on what we have instead of dwelling on what we don’t. It’s not just a parenting choice, it’s actually a spiritual principle. When I live in gratitude, I feel abundant; when I live in lack, I feel lost.
We are abundant.
The author and his son. (Photo: Courtesy of Gerald Olson)
One of his (and my) favorite photos is from his adoption day. I am holding him, and we are surrounded by a cadre of beautiful women who showed up to witness us ― to mother over us.
The other night at bedtime, I decided to ask him about the whole Mother’s Day thing. I asked if he was learning about it at school. He nodded. When I asked him how he felt about it, his face lit up. He grinned as if he had the world’s best secret and could barely contain it. He waved his hands as if conducting an orchestra. “I am making something special for someone special. It’s a surprise,” he told me.
“Who are you making it for?” I asked.
He looked at me as if I had just asked the stupidest question.
“YOU, POPPA. YOU!”
“Am I your mother?”I asked him.
He burst out in laughter. This was the silliest thing he had ever heard.
“Noooo! You’re not my mommy, you’re my daddy.”
He then started in on a litany of his favorite people.
“I have a Poppa and a Nana and a Papi, and a Dee (his nanny) and a Mason (our dog and his best friend) and Rio and...”
This was his lead. This is where he is in the mother conversation right now. I reminded him that he can ask me anything. “All questions are good questions,” I told him. “I may not have the answer right away, but you can’t find the answer until you have discovered the question.”
Later that night, he put my face in his hands and whispered in my ear, “It’s a butterfly. I’m making you a butterfly. Shhhh.”
As he drifted off, he opened his eyes and said, “ROCK ME, POPPA.”
No matter how tired I am, this is a request I never refuse. He told Alexa to play “Rock A Bye Baby,”and I rocked him to sleep. As he slept in my arms, I thought about labels and how the world tries to define us. But in rare, holy moments like this, there is no label, and none would ever suffice.
I often think about the woman who brought him into the world ― verb: to give birth to. Mother’s Day will always be a time that connects us.
He was only 30 hours old when I brought him home; his umbilical cord still intact. He also had a small band wrapped about his ankle with a number on it, matching the band she had on her wrist when she delivered him.
In those precious early days, when I held him, fed him, rocked him, got to know him, I also held a space for her. I still do. She gave us the greatest gift ― each other.
Over the last three and a half years, he has taught me that being a parent defies labels. It is so much more expansive than words “mother” or “father.” It is not a role we step into ― it’s a relationship we create. And at the end of the day, the definition of mother that resonates the most with me is verb: to give rise to.
As for his preschool, when the director said she would take my lead on it, she really just wanted to know one thing ― who gets the cards and gifts that he makes. When it comes to handmade crafts, I want to be clear:
I get the damn butterfly, no matter what you want to call me.
Gerald Olson is a writer based in Los Angeles. He works in film and television and is currently writing a book about his journey as a solo parent. He is the founder of POPPA SOLO (www.poppasolo.com) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal website is www.geraldolson.com.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.