UFAPs, UMAPs, and the Power of Language

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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!”

vs.

“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.

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About Author

Suzi Chase writes about transgender issues through both fiction and non-fiction. She has had careers in teaching and software engineering and has raised two children.

10 Comments

  1. Their is a name for that, which everyone has agreed on and people know what you mean right away.
    [/confetti]Step-Mother[confetti]!
    Or that’s what I thought reading the articular the first time, on reading it again if we are talking Biological children, I guess it’s a more personal issue. I would go with mother, just because non-carrying female genetic contributor and parent is a little bit of a mouthful. lol 🙂

  2. Whatever name is mutually comfortable is probably best. About any approach has a challenge. “Step-mother” implies a lack of biological connection. “Mother” has the potential to create confusion between bio-mom and TG bio-dad. “Father” is not likely to be comfortable for you and opens the whole gender discussion right off an intro.

    Coining you own term will require defining it. Though looking at the existing alternate options, any appear to require clarification anyway. Language changes when people create words, attribute meaning to them, and those words begin to get used consistently. Time to be a pioneer?

  3. Thought oh cool a new term but looked up UFAP and found Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution…. I guess we have to keep looking for a term. Sort of the kinds of things I am currently going through. I have a 29 year old son. I was not his Mother but also have a 6 year old and 4 year old. I am mom to them. So what am I to my new grand daughter? Who knows but my son refuses to call me any thing but first name and family. So wrong doesn’t feel right. It hurts. How do we fix this? I do not know

  4. I’m just Mum or if the kids want to distinguish us their birth mother is Mum 1 and I’m Mum 2 lol
    The numbering is rare but it’s there if it’s needed.

    For the most part if one of the kids calls for Mum (or any related names) in the house we usually know who they are talking to. None of it is on a conscious level it’s instinct and it works. Sometimes we’ll both answer but better 2 than none.

    The kids simply tell other people they have 2 mums. My 12 yo DD is particularly proud and loves meeting new people and watching them figure it out. Is she adopted? Mum leave Dad for a girl? Some kind of IVF? If they can’t work it out they can give up and ask her and she’s more than happy to educate them which usually just ends with them going “Cool!” as they’d never have guessed then get back to whatever they were doing without a second thought.

    My SO was understandably firmly against it at first but I had to remind her it’s not about me or her it has to be about the kids. Their minds and the world is pretty simple parent+female=Mum and the kids would just call me Mum without thinking but then realise their birth Mum was upset so they would then feel bad about it which isn’t fair for them.

    I believe that kids should be able to follow their instincts and their hearts whenever possible.
    There was no need for me to seek a name; my children gave me the title of Mum and Mum 1 is almost ok with it now (a wee grumble on occasion but in fairness it is still new to all of us).

    They are my children and I am their Mum as to the future I have faith in my children that they will know what to do before I do.

    When my kids look into my eyes and hug me saying “I love you Mum!” I know I’m the luckiest girl in the world.

  5. In the case of my 43 yo daughter and my 4 yo transition, she calls me Dad and, a nickname of self deprecation I coined, Dadalonia;) I am full of it and come from a long line of family story tellers, so shading for dramatic intent is allowed. It can be interesting for other people listening to us who may have assumed I am cis. Of course there is the possibility of this unintended “outing” being a problem but frankly I own my roles and it has not been an issue yet.

    Thank you for another thought provoking essay Suzie Chase! And beyond the seasonal obligation, I remain thankful for simply who you are and the gifts you share.

  6. I asked my adult kids as to what they wanted to use. They said “parent.” It’s okay, but not perfect. It kind of leaves an awkward taste in the mouth, doesn’t it? The other option is that they call me by my first name, but that doesn’t explain the relationship between us. I kind of like ” Younger Mom,” but I am trying to keep my SO talking to me, so no. “Situational Mom?” Not very glamorous! Well Suzi, it looks like you nailed it. It ain’t easy!
    Moni

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