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What Came of a Conversation about Queering Mothering

A black and white furry cat with its kitten.

There is something incommensurable about the phrase ‘queering mothering’ – the two words put together, ‘queer’ and ‘mother’. We think of motherhood as a relationship between a ‘woman’ (the biological mother) and her child. Nevertheless, there are a number of people who form bonds with a growing child. For instance, the caretaker (or aayahs, as they are commonly called in India) in middle-class Indian contexts, or sensitive and kind school teachers who treat their students much like they’d treat their own children. Then we have relatives: aunts, uncles, grandparents and close cousins in joint families and nuclear families alike. Often there are absent biological parents in these cases, sometimes literally and often enough, emotionally.

I was close to my aayah when I was a toddler. I don’t recall this particular incident first hand but I’ve heard about how when I was little, on one occasion an acquaintance or family friend jauntily asked me whose child I was (you know, in the typical nonchalant manner, at least in the ’90s, when people would think it absolutely appropriate to ask children who their ‘favourite’ parent was – “Are you a momma’s boy or daddy’s girl?” and so on). I hear from sources that I exclaimed that my aayah was my mother!

I am fortunate enough to have had a mother present for most of my time growing up, and I rationalise in my head and with her that my mistaking my aayah for my mother was understandable at that time considering there were some dire familial circumstances that required my mother to be, well, not completely present for a few months.

This leads me to the story of Tenzin. Tenzin has been visiting someone she calls maasi (aunty) every weekend for a year and a half now. Tenzin and Ritu maasi play together, sleep together and have gotten very attached over this time. But who is Ritu to Tenzin in the eyes of the world? Where does Ritu figure in Tenzin’s life?

Ritu – Rituparna Borah – is a queer feminist activist currently based in New Delhi. She has loved children for as long as she can remember and is quite good with them too! During my conversation with a mutual friend of ours, Rituparna’s relationship with Tenzin came up and we thought it would be a good idea to talk about in In Plainspeak.

While Tenzin’s mother was away in the United Kingdom, Ritu helped take care of Tenzin. From interacting with crèche authorities and attending parent-teacher meetings to taking Tenzin to the doctor when it was required, she helped out with virtually everything. She passed as Tenzin’s maasi very easily, even at the parent-teacher meetings, she tells me with a laugh. “Because both of us look alike; we are from the North East so we look alike!”

Ritu describes how Tenzin would jump and dance at the sight of her. “She would get just too excited. And while her mother was away in the UK, she would come to me every weekend.” They would attend feminist meetings in Ritu’s social circles and even go for parties together, and by the end of the year-and-a-half that they spent weekends together, virtually everybody in Ritu’s life knew Tenzin. “Even when her father and I used to go to parties,” Ritu tells me, “she would sit only with me and want to be with me.”

“It’s good that she’s with her mother now, but I totally miss her because she used to accompany me everywhere. She knows all my friends, and all my friends know her.”

Tenzin was adopted by her father who identifies as a transman. Ritu tells us that both she and Tenzin’s father tried to socialise Tenzin in a relatively gender-neutral way. “And although she was exposed to a lot of gender-neutral things and feminist things through my social circles, there were some conflicts sometimes.

“I remember, once, her father told me how Tenzin’s teacher would teach the class about girls being ‘like this’ and girls being ‘like that’. Her father and I told her, ‘No, no, girls can do anything.’ When she was told that girls wear make-up and boys don’t, we told her, ‘No, some boys also wear make-up,’ and that that’s alright. So there were some conflicts between what she was being taught at school and what we were teaching her.

“And interestingly, Tenzin is very gender-specific. She did not like some of her father’s trans friends. She would say, ‘You know, maasi, the boys came and did this and did that, ladke yeh karte hain, ladke woh karte hain.’”

“I also really tried to make her wear gender-neutral clothes but she loves dresses! She would say, ‘Nahin (No), maasi, I want to wear dresses.’”

While Ritu’s parents knew about Tenzin’s role in their daughter’s life, it shocked them that a four-year-old often lived with her in her house. A few years ago, when Ritu wanted to adopt a child, her parents were not open to the idea. But she tells me that her father has become less opposed to it over the past few years.

While some recent studies have helped dismantle the popular and phobic belief that children of queer parents are not socialised ‘right’, queer parenting itself is not very visible, perhaps for understandable reasons. Moreover, as we see through Tenzin’s story, she seems to be getting fed with similar amounts of heteronormativity from her environment as would a child of straight, conventional parents her age! While I am not discounting her parents’ and guardians’ efforts to orient her, or even concluding that straight parents are always more heteronormative, stories like these need to be heard. And parents’ efforts need to be acknowledged; parents who try to bring up children who are sensitive to difference and try to show them the grey in the world that appears black and white.

Cover image courtesy of Theophilos Papadopoulos | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0