2.14 What's In a Name?

To start Season 2 of Outspoken Voices, host Emily McGranachan talks with a parent about one of the first questions new LGBTQ parents hear – What will the kid call you?

Guest Info:

Tori Kaufmann-Paulman lives in Boston, Massachusetts with their wife Sunnie, and is a proud Baba of an amazing 7-year-old daughter, Anika, and her big (dog) sister, Alice. Tori and Sunnie met in San Francisco, where Anika was born, and made the move to Boston 3 years ago.

In the early 90’s, Tori began a lifelong practice of sharing their story transparently by participating in speak outs facilitated by the Rainbow Room, part of the Hartford Gay and Lesbian Health Collective and starting one of Connecticut’s first high school Gay-Straight Alliances at Conard High school. Today, Tori works in technology at Putnam Investments, serving on the firm’s Diversity Advisory Council, and chairing the Putnam Pride Alliance.

Tori is an actively involved supporter of the Family Equality Council and a proud sustaining contributor to the Protector's Circle.

Further Reading:

 Tori and daughter

Tori and daughter

Episode Transcription

Emily M: Welcome to Outspoken Voices, a podcast by and for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer parents, people with LGBTQ parents, future parents, and everyone else who is part of our family journeys. I'm your host, Emily McGranachan and I am the Director of Family Engagement with Family Equality Council. I'm really excited to be back for season two of Outspoken Voices. We're starting with one of the first questions that new or future parents often hear, "What are your kids going to call you?" So whether you're a same sex family, a poly family, nonbinary parent, foster parent, or older youth, LGBTQ parenting really often falls outside of that heteronormative socially determined mother - father naming rules. When my parents, for example, were trying to figure out what their future baby would call them, they really struggled. And I think it could have been not having a community. This was obviously many moons ago. There was nothing in popular culture, so they were really at a loss and their idea was to try to have me call one mom and the other aunt for a while because they just really didn't know how to do that in a way that would be both safe for the kid and also safe for them as adults.

Emily M: As I developed language, I made up my own name and I had a Mom and a Didi. So naming and the power of names really matters. There's a whole landscape of how queer families have created their names for themselves as parents and the different ways that people themselves with LGBTQ parents end up creating names for their families. So here with me today to talk about names and why all of this matters is Tori Kaufmann-Paulman. Tori lives in Massachusetts with their wife, Sunnie and is a proud parent of an amazing seven year old daughter, Anika. So Tori, to get us started, what is your Kiddo call you?

Tori K-P: My daughter Anika calls me Baba. So the origin of Baba in San Francisco is a combination of Butch Mama. By combining those two things together, it felt like a really great way to orient yourself as a butch parent. When Sunnie and I decided to have Anika, I remember we were taking a road trip up to my mother's house in Oregon. We had decided that we were going to try to get pregnant the following month and so we had this 12 hour drive to Oregon to kind of talk and in some ways to argue over what we were gonna call me. I really, I really wanted to be called Papa, that felt like a name that had meaning. And I had friends who had chosen Papa and as we continued to talk about it, we realized that Papa has a heteronormative meaning. And we just felt like it would put our future child at risk of bullying or, or safety issues, confusing issues.

Tori K-P: So we had chosen two names - Baba and Momo. I don't even remember why Momo, it was just like a sort of deviation of mommy that didn't feel like mom, which didn't feel good for me. Well, we got up to Oregon and my brother and my sister in law were there and we walked through the door and my nephew was there and he said, "I got a new kitten and my kitten's name is Momo Khumbulacha Khmumbulacha McPusPus." And I said, well that's out. So that made the decision right there. It was the two choices and Baba was it.

Tori K-P: There's this really great blog, Mombian. Dana who runs it, has been collecting parent names for years. So people can submit in what their parent names are and I kid you not, there are over 300 submissions of different combinations of names.

Emily M: It's just incredible to see that and that landscape of just so many different ways queer parents have gone about either being named by their kids, as I did to my parent, or as parents choosing those names. What are some of the other sort of names or things that you've seen?

Tori K-P: You know, I feel like the other names that are in my sphere of awareness are more parents who have chosen religious names. So I have some Abbas, some Jewish Abbas, both a butcher, gender nonconforming or trans or actual cis men. We have some Omies and some Ammas and things like that. So I feel like I haven't necessarily had much awareness beyond those religiously chosen names other than all of the variations of Mommy, Mama, Mama-T, Auntie.

Tori K-P: I didn't want my first name to be a part of my parent name. I wanted there to be the separation between me as a person and me as a parent to my child. I also felt like I didn't want my spouse to be Mama and me to be, you know, Tori or Mama Tori or anything like that. But I have seen variations of that.

Emily M: That's so interesting because I have a 'Mom' and 'Didi', and then my parents separated and then my Mom had another partner. I was five when I met Nancy and I was sort of at that age that I remember like joking around like, what kind of special name could I have for you? And at one point I I was going to call her 'Macaroni' and thankfully she was so patient. And so eventually I just called her by her first name. It is so interesting that even using first names can be confusing for others, just like non-heteronormative names. One of my favorites is MaToo - like also Ma. I've also met folks whose parents had transitioned later in life and so that was a whole new negotiation between child and parent of what they would call them.

Emily M: The documentary filmmaker Sharon Shattuck has this fantastic film, 'From This Day Forward' where she's documenting her family dynamics and her dad who is trans. She came out as trans to her and her sister when she was, I think, in elementary school. And so Sharon uses female pronouns and uses a her name but still says dad. So "she's my dad" is a totally natural sentence that comes into that family. It is really interesting that it is a discussion often, especially as folks get older.

Tori K-P: I have seen that speaking about older. The one thing that I feel a little bit trapped against with Baba, the chosen name, is I watched my nephew, who just turned 13, transition over the last two years from calling my brother Daddy to calling him Dad. There's this rite of passage, you know, and when he's 16, he'll probably call him Isaac for the first time and well, you know, it would be horrifying.

Tori K-P: But to some degree when you choose a name that doesn't have this maturity arc to it - we joke sometimes that Anika will just start calling me Bab at some point. But there isn't a maturity arc to it. And so I wonder what she'll be like at 13, but I also wonder what she'll call me and how her needs around that will change because Baba feels like a little kid. Mommy, Mama, Baba.

Emily M: Have you really talked with Annika about why you are Baba? Has that come up now that Anika is in school and meeting other kids with other types of families? Have you talked about names and what other kids call their parents?

Tori K-P: You know, we really haven't and it hasn't come up. She really hasn't had a ton of exposure to resistance to her family style. It's certainly come up more in preschool. But she also hasn't asked. And the other thing is, it's not present in pop culture for her. There's certainly a lot of presentation of queer families and pop culture at least more than there was when we were kids. But the different names tend to stay closer to the heteronormative names - Daddy, Papa, Mommy, Momma. So I think in those ways we've had really minute conversations with her around it. But she has never really asked.

Emily M: Well that is also so interesting for me and it's so true that, it's so hard to get out of the habit of only talking about two moms and two dad families, which obviously is not recognizing the many different types of families out there.

Tori K-P: Yeah. To your point around even being in queer spaces - if we're identified in a queer space, we are identified as, I'm using air quotes a "two mom family". And we're really not. We're a one mom and one Tori/Baba family and Anika understands that. I's slightly related, but we were just in Disney and there was this kid that was kind of stalking us in the pool and I got out of the pool and the kid just like instantly was by Anika's side. They had a conversation and then Anika got of the pool and she said, " I'm that child wanted to know if you were a boy or a girl." And I said, "Oh, well what did you say?"

Tori K-P: And she said, "I told her that you're mostly a girl", and then she said, "I didn't think you'd mind." And so I think for children that are coming up at this age, there's this sort of flexibility. If someone calls me mommy in a class, she doesn't say, "Oh, that's not my mommy, that's my Baba." She's just like, whatever, you don't get it. You're not educated And so I think that's really been our experiences is, depending on how we're identifying that day, we kind of just exist and she seems so flexible in that. Does that, does that make sense?

Emily M: Yeah. I remember having to answer some of those questions growing up because one of my parents was very butch and I called her Didi. Everyone thought that was just my special way of saying daddy. That's awesome that Anika can be like - that's fine, you don't get it. Have you seen any increase in representations of Baba or other names in media or books?

Tori K-P: Yeah, so definitely didn't expect to see it. And in fact, because she's at the age where she can read now, which is wonderful and kind of a bummer. So we would read tons of books to her in any character that looked sort of like me, you know, sort of tall and brown hair and slightly masculine, we would just say Baba. We just edited the books for her. Every book had a Baba. At a certain point she was a little skeptical that that existed. And so then she would ask, does that really say Baba? And it's pretty easy word to spell and so she would be able to identify that it didn't, so we had to stop. Then a friend of mine launched a book company and wrote a book called the Zero Dad's Club. And in that book there is a page that talks about a mama and a Baba and the Baba looks just like me.

Tori K-P: I remember reading the book to her, it was about two years ago and she said, does it really say that on the page? And I said, yeah. And I turned it to her and she could read the word and she was totally floored. And so it wasn't until then that I realized that she really needed to have that anchor of - my family isn't just totally making this up. I also have friends who have started doing Baba's Day - it's halfway between mother's Day and Father's Day. My mother sends me a card. I like smack dab in the middle and it's usually like one of those cars that has nothing in the inside because there's not the right card for it. I think that it's definitely growing in terms of a name. In fact, last year at, at Family Week, I remember there was another person Davis, that was a Baba. and um, I brought Anika over. I'm like, "Oh, Anika, this is a Baba and, and this is their child." And she's like, yeah, can I go in the pool? You know, I think it's, it's sometimes it's more about me than it is about her. Even though her reaction to that book and having the Baba there tells me that she needs it too. But I think it's growing, the presentation.

Emily M: Gendered and named spaces like Mother's Day, Father's Day or Daddy-Daughter dances made me so uncomfortable growing up. I found them like so stressful. Even if you have a family where one person identifies as male and female, but that's not your names or you're gender queer, it just pushes people out. All of these events were intended to bring together families, but we're just at the point that you don't see that anymore. The families look so different. They've got grandparents, they've got a parent who's a widow, you never know. I get the feeling that it no longer brings people in and by gendering events like that, you're only keeping people out.

Tori K-P: Yeah. It's funny that you mentioned that because Anika's in girl scouts and they have, a father-daughter dance, but they call it the 'family square dance'. Then an asterisks at the bottom it says like formally called the father-daughter dance. I asked her this year if she wanted to go and because I know that if we went, we would walk through the door and everyone that didn't know Anika would think that she came with her dad because of how I look, and I'm fine with that. But it would be a whole night of explaining and I knew it would be really the father- daughter dance that had been renamed. And so I explained how I thought it might evolve and asked her if she wanted to go and she didn't want to go. She didn't want to participate. Had really been a family dance, where she didn't feel like that extra edge, she probably would have wanted to go. You brought up a great point, just renaming something doesn't necessarily take away the meaning of it that everybody is secretly knows.

Emily M: Have you ever thought about what you could choose if you could pick a different name? Are you now just firmly rooted and loving your Baba identity or have you ever thought about changing it?

Tori K-P: If I could go by Papa and have it not mean dad, I would totally do that because I think it sounds cooler. I always thought it sounded cooler. I do feel I feel bad that by having a name like Baba and having a queer family, I put Anika in a position of having to have two things she has to be knowledgeable about and also explain to people who are inappropriately curious. I mean definitely, kids yell your name all the time. Right? So every time she yells my name, it's like joy and annoyance at the same time. So I would never want to change it because for the last almost eight years that's been my life. But I do wish that there would have been a better name, or not a better name, but a different name than I could have chosen that people would have knowledge of and that she wouldn't have to explain the name, but would also have aligned with me. I think that will just come with gender evolution. We've gotten to the point now where we have to move beyond the two genders and that will happen in her lifetime, but maybe not mine. I might be old by the time you know, she has a child and a name is available. And maybe by then it will be Baba because maybe a lot of people will choose it. I hope so.

Emily M: Yeah. So my last question is, for people with little ones who maybe don't call them anything yet, or people who are going to become parents are thinking about becoming parents someday, what advice do you have? What sort of advice would you have for folks through that journey?

Tori K-P: Anika never really got a choice. We didn't poll her for her opinion, but I think for me it is about listening to yourself. When in that car ride, I was feeling and continue to feel most aligned with Papa. I get why that would have caused a significant burden for Anika. And Baba felt right. But we also knew that it had regional ramifications. People around us were really called Baba. And Momo felt really wrong. But Baba felt like a compromise. I feel like I kind of dodged a bullet. Right? I don't know that nine years ago I would have had the confidence to stand up for myself. I'm relatively early in my relationship with Sunnie. Certainly before I had a child. And you sort of become better at standing up for yourself because you have to stand up for your kid. I don't know that I would have taken up the space that has allowed me to be happy every time she says my name. When she calls me Baba, I feel satisfied and heard and seen and acknowledged for the gender nonconforming person than I am. The only advice I would give is know that at some point you're going to feel, you're likely to feel like you maybe made a mistake or could have chosen something that was easier. But also know that it is what you are going to go by until the day you die. And you, you have to just take up the space that's required for you to feel happy when you hear that name. Every time I'm at I karate class or whatever and some woke straight person says, "Oh, your Mommy's here to pick you up." - it makes me sick to my stomach. It's not how I identify and it really feels like I'm not being seen even though they don't know that they're trying to see me. The only advice is really just listen to your heart to the best you can before you have a child or before they can speak.