When my mother sheepishly pulled me away from my Common App and painstakingly enunciated every letter, syllable, and sound of, “I’m three months along,” I didn’t have much of a reaction. I congratulated her (that was courtesy), disclosed to her that I’ve always wanted a sibling (that was a long held secret), and told her that I actually really needed to get back to my essay (that was the truth).
When my mother asked that I call her boyfriend of four years, the father of her newborn son, “Dad,” I yelled, “What?”
Like all good stories, theirs started with a meet cute. It was my freshmen year of high school when he, who subsequently came to be known as The Boyfriend, came to fix the computers in my mom’s office. Funny how it is that even at their age, without the use of dating apps, they still met with the help of technology, literally because of an overheated hard drive. And like all typical romantic tropes, they became attached at the hip. Inseparable. They were thought of as a unit, not one or the other, but together.
To fill in the blanks between then and now, the relationship progressed in the way that constants in your life usually do: you don’t even notice something or someone’s larger and larger presence until they’re fully part of your existence for the long run. There’s no chance or window of opportunity at all to take a step back and to dissect what exactly happened, when, how, why. The Boyfriend moved in my sophomore year. That was that.
I was completely neutral to the fact that an almost stranger had moved in after a year and a half of knowing him. I was also completely neutral to the fact that the not-quite-stranger anymore was now raising the product of their love, a child, their child, with my mother now. But to refer to him as anything other than “Jason”? “Dad”? That hesitation was a reflection of my own fear. I knew calling him by that title was the right, or rather, sentimental thing to do. Was my hesitation actually unwillingness? A fear of commitment?
We’ve evolved past the consensus that the modern family has to be a nuclear family because the only family I’ve ever known, through thick and thin, has been my mother. But don’t get me wrong: there have been many men in my life, just not in the way that saying implies. My father’s father stuck around a little while after the separation for reasons unknown. I suspect it was some kind of misplaced guilt from letting a newly divorced and recent immigrant woman with no relatives try to hold a job and raise a child by herself. I’m eternally grateful that the stigma surrounding divorce had somewhat faded away when my mom got hers. This is not to say that divorced women, especially divorced Chinese women, did not raise eyebrows and questions from outsiders. Society whispered to her that she would never succeed without a husband by her side. Chinese culture told her, straight to her face, that she had halved her family and it would never become whole again. She’s my mother before any other title but I will always know her as a survivor.
Next came her big break when my mother took over the position of spa manager at the place where she still works today. She had her first boyfriend after the split and the years they stayed together were some pretty good years. I had someone to call “Daddy” because it took no effort at all to persuade six-year-old me that this man was going to be with and for us, forever. I like to think that she enjoyed those years too because she had someone, a partner, to share her life with, instead of having it be controlled by one. Forever never lasts as long as we want it to, however. Because time is the ultimate test of relationships and I’ve never been brave enough to ask the most compelling questions, why and how, but eight years later, we, my mother and I as it has always been, were back where we started. “Daddy” had lost what little substance it had. We were abandoned by yet another male figure.
Without names or labels, concepts take lives of their own. They grow and transcend the usual boundaries that confine them to a particular meaning. Because labeling something, especially a relationship, is a form of confrontation. Faced with reality, faced with a relationship that was tangible in its love, care, and support, for both my mom and me, empowered her but scared the hell out of me. She calls The Boyfriend “honey” and “her spouse” and those labels reflect how she’s embodied strength and resilience for the sake of herself and for me and for so long…and now, finally, she’s found someone who she really deserves. She’s made her present, The Boyfriend and their shared son, her future. She’s confronted that truth.
But for me, a person who avoids conflict and confrontation at all costs, the act of calling someone by what they deserved to be called, because of the roles they played and the behaviors they exhibited, was a realization about what I’d been missing the whole time. Having never known a father but having formulated all these ideas of what one should be and then having these ideas personified and solidified into a real human being shook me to my core. Jason had been standing in front of me this entire time. I had projected all my past experiences with father figures onto him when all this while, he had been deconstructing what bad associations I had and fixing what a true dad acted like into place. The Boyfriend was present for all nine months of pregnancy, ten hours of labor, the countless minutes it takes to soothe my crying baby brother every day. Jason brought his professional camera to my high school graduation and filled up two SD cards worth of pictures. He drove me to college. He helped me move in. Dad picks Mom up from work every night and takes her home. Dad brings Mom to her favorite restaurants and records her shows on DVR for her. Dad keeps her warm and he makes her happy.
So. This was it. In fact, in retrospect, I hadn’t even been missing anything at all. There was no gaping hole for where a dad should be. Jason had made my already whole life with Mom (my everything) even fuller. This was truly it.
My brother and I are the lucky ones. Part of my mom’s reasoning to convince me to call Jason “Dad” was so that Adler wouldn’t grow up confused as to why his biological sister doesn’t call his biological dad “Dad.” I’d selfishly wanted a sibling for as long as I can remember to share no one to call father and to appreciate the spirit of my mother with. We get to have more than we could have ever asked for. I got to have everything I was too scared to ask for in the form of two new loved ones.
My mom, my dad, my brother, and I, we have a mix-and-match of last names (this is our joy and reality).