There’s no name for what I am, and that’s a problem.
I am a female parent, but I am not my children’s mother. They have a mother, someone they have known as Mom from their birth. I cannot claim to be their mother or ask them to refer to me that way.
But that leaves my role without a name. I am an unnamed female auxiliary parent or UFAP, an easy to understand concept that is apparently impossible to come up with a word for. Likewise, there are thousands of male parents who are not fathers, similarly title-less, caring for their families as unnamed male auxiliary parents. UMAPs.
When I point this out to people, they’re always quick to propose a term, or suggest that I choose one. That’s not how language works. A word is only meaningful if we all agree on its usage. I could unilaterally decide that I shall heretofore be known as an unbenanntehilfsmutter. But telling people so would elicit blank stares unless they also were familiar with the term. We could sit and brainstorm names all night, but that doesn’t bring about their adoption into the language. I also resent the requirement that I have to embark on linguistic invention and promotion while my straight cisgender counterparts can claim any number of monikers (mother/father, mom/pop, ma/pa, mama/papa, mum/dad) without lifting a finger.
Why does it matter?
Language is powerful. It becomes very difficult to discuss a concept without being able to name it. I’m fond of the comparison between these two rallying cries:
“End racism now!”
“End that thing where people of one race feel superior to people of another race now!”
Which statement has more impact?
The power of words is undeniable. Language can bring reality to concepts that don’t actually exist. We talk about “penis envy” and “the ether” — the imaginary medium that fills a vacuum — even though truth of their existence has been debunked. We avoid referring to concepts we’d like to go away. I know trans women who refuse to use the word “passing” in hopes that it will somehow erase the pressure for an appearance that is indistinguishable from a cis person’s. Language has been used many times to change the way we look at people. When I was young, you referred to someone as “crippled”, until activists encouraged us to use other terms. “Disabled” gave way to someone “with a disability”, reminding us that it is only one facet of their being. Now there is a movement afoot to say “differently abled” to further remove the stigma.
What does it say about our language that there is no word for UMAPs or UFAPs? It’s an oversight not a slight. I don’t think our culture is trying to erase our existence (though clearly some folks believe strongly that we shouldn’t exist). I think it’s a phenomenon that people just don’t come across often. Unless you happen to have friends or relatives whose family consists of a clearly identified father or mother and an additional parent of the same gender, it’s not something you speak about frequently, so the lack of a word is untroubling to most.
For those of us who live the reality of being a UMAP or UFAP, however, our need to speak of ourselves is ever present. When I visit my daughter at college, how does she introduce me? “This is my … “ What?
When well meaning people begin firing off possible terms or encouraging me to create my own term, the are glossing over the difficult part of the process. Finding a word is easy. There are any number of possible ways to refer to UMAPs and UFAPs that a single person or small group could agree on. However, as I point out above, simply picking a word is useless unless it is added to the language and universally understood.
Every year there are numerous words, terms, and expressions that enter the language. I confess, though, that I’m uncertain how that happens. It seems a very steep mountain to climb for a single individual to coin a term that becomes viral. A journalist, perhaps, or an author, a screenwriter, or a national politician might have a better chance. The Seinfeld show gave us the “double dip” for the famous hors d’oeuvre faux pas. J.K. Rowling gave us “muggles.” But both Seinfeld and Rowling have a visibility that approaches universal. A major push by a civil rights organization can have an impact as well, as women’s groups did for terms like spokesperson and chairperson to replace earlier terms that made assumptions about gender. Alas this does not appear to be on the radar of major LGBT organizations. They have bigger fish to fry, like allowing us to walk out our front doors without worrying about being killed.
Until all that changes, I’m fated to remain a caregiver without a name.