Rain splatters on my iPhone as I cross the Walmart parking lot to my car, juggling bundles and scanning my phone for new texts and emails. With each one that pops up, another raindrop slaps the protective screen.
I wipe the drops, and the messages, away with my finger. It’s 9pm on a Sunday, but my youngest just remembered a huge school project that’s due Monday.
I clutch the keys as I balanced a posterboard and plastic bag with of markers, stickers and a glue stick. My purse digs into my armpit as I hustle through the lot, avoiding puddles and skimming that bright screen for more messages. I know that waiting for me at home is a 1,200-word article to be edited, plus another 750-word one fluttering around my brain.
Every one of those stories is money in my pocketbook—another dollar to keep us afloat. But even before my seven part-time jobs, my children’s needs come first. Always. Even when I asked on Friday, and again Sunday morning “Are you sure you got all your homework done?” And heard back, “Yes, Dad! All done.”
That’s me: “Dad.”
It’s never been easy raising three children, even when they had a mom and a dad. For one parent—a widow? How about a mom whose kids call her “Dad?”
Although my kids long ago accepted me as a woman and respect my pronouns, I don’t push the “M” word on them. Their Mom is gone. These three amazing people lost the most important woman in their world. We lost the heart of our home, just as I lost the love of my life.
Before my wife passed last year, I felt strongly that title of “mom” should be hers alone. I even declared “Don’t wish me a ‘Happy Mother’s Day!” on social media. I’m a woman who feels fine being called “Dad,” honored even, despite the occasional odd looks. Sometimes well-meaning strangers address me as my children’s mom, and if the kids are by my side, I feel compelled to correct them. Or more accurately, apologize for myself.
“Sorry, I’m actually their dad. I’m transgender.”
Usually, I get a smile, or an unnecessary apology in return. Or that tilt-of-the-head stare a dog makes when it hears a strange sound. Many times, when I’m out of the kiddos’ earshot, I just let it go.
Because, as it turns out, I am a mom.
I prepare my kids’ meals, buy and mend their clothes, clean what no one else will clean, and I always make time for a hug. I enforce the rules—and bend them with alacrity. On my meager earnings, I provide my kids with the necessities for school, worship, and fun with their friends. I’m their taxi driver, their homework-checker, and their teacher-interrogator.
Sure, single dads do all those things, too. But being a woman as well as a dad, I’ve earned a title that, at first, seemed as farfetched to me as “widow.” (Another one I never sought.) I do the job of a mother. Am I my kids’ mom? Nope. But I’m still no less a mom.
At the other end of that parking lot, I fumble for the fob, pop open the trunk and plunk my soaked self into the driver’s seat. A new text chirps its demand for my immediate attention. Someone my wife and I asked long ago to be guardian to our firstborn if something happened, someone who’s turned into my inquisitor ever since my wife’s death, poses a question in a familiar, prosecutorial tone.
“What do you mean when you write that you’re a ‘mom?’” she asks. “I need clarification: are you now going by this title?” Clearly implied in that text was “How dare you?”
I can feel my heartbeat quicken, and sense what I think is my blood pressure rising. But I was ready. “Can’t respond right now,” I typed, “On deadlines with kids and work. Let’s have a conversation tomorrow?”
I hit send, put the iPhone away and drove off, confident it was best to avoid getting into a showdown, given everything on my plate.
“BUZZ BUZZ” comes the sound from my phone, before I even leave the lot. I pull into another space, and reluctantly decide to see what response awaited me. “No need for a conversation. I just believe that title should be reserved only for their mom.”
Since I don’t recall asking what she believed, I resolve to ignore her bait and press on. A lonely, rainy road separates her unsolicited judgment and a welcome hug from my son. Driving off, I think back to a few months ago when he and I sat in synagogue, listening to the new cantor sing “Oseh Shalom.”
This bright boy of mine turned to me, clasped my hand, and whispered: “I know Mom would love this. She was the best mom ever. But I want you to know, you’re doing a really good job as a mom, Dad.”
It’s from that, more than anything, that I draw the distinction of mom being my job and it being my name. And it is from my children that I draw my strength on this Mother’s Day. And everyday.