the fommy's tale
Some time back, my 11-year-old impressed upon us, her father and mother, an intense desire that we watch a film she’d seen at her grandparents’. I’d heard of the title: A vehicle for a popular comedic actor based on a classic children’s book, the film did not appeal to me, but parental engagement with onscreen subject matter is hardly the point of family movie night, so we replied as we often do when the stakes are so low: “Sure, go ahead.”
I’m not here to review this movie. That’s not my job and, in all honesty, I didn’t watch it. But there was one moment that stuck with me, a scene where, while at a baby yoga class or something, the stay-at-home dad character was addressed by one of the other parents, all young mothers, as a “fommy,” quickly defined as a “father/mommy.” While I suspect unpacking this term would reveal a Pandora’s box of social and gender issues, what struck me most was the character’s affirming acceptance of the label: The redefinition of his identity from out-of-work dad to “fommy” was enough to spread a big, goofy smile across his face.
I’m a fommy. Or, more to the point, as a writer, I perform my work at our family home and...oh, whatever, I’m a fommy. I cook, I clean, I attend to soiled derrieres, I shuttle kids to programs at the gym, the library, downtown. I have bags in a variety of sizes that can fit everything from a pair of shorts to a three-course meal. I bake bread. I’m a good stay-at-home dad but, like the movie character, I benefit from labeling this aspect of my identity: “HELLO, I’m Fommy.”
Identity’s a tricky thing. Defined simply as “your story you tell yourself,” it’s a concept our culture places inordinate value upon without evidencing much understanding at all. We’re tolerant of some identity fluidity in the younger years—a four-year-old in specific headwear is totally a cowboy (though I recently heard a little boy publicly dressed down for wanting a pink room, so I suppose some have parameters), while teenage struggles with identity are more tenuous and, as a result, often bombastic—but by the time one makes way into the world, the resulting adult’s identity is expected to be fairly fixed: “Hi, I’m __. I go to work here and like doing these things when I’m awake but not working.”
I know that sounds simplistic and trite, but consider this: If you woke up tomorrow with a deep, unexplainable desire to wear a very floppy and overly colorful hat to the park, would you? Could you? My children could and would, but I’m fairly certain that’s not the case for me. Even when my actions deviate from cultural norms, I’m forced to admit these digressions fit neatly into the set of expectations I have of myself. They are very believably things I would do. But why? Why did I take comfort when, just the other day, a friend jokingly said to me, “You lead a conventionally rural life way out in the country, but you wear slim fit jeans and drive a hybrid car and read books. It’s weird.” He merely listed what was in front of him, but in doing so, he conjured up tension, and that tension (he well knew) was central to my identity.
“Nobody was talking about needing identity 50 years ago,” anthropologist Margaret Mead said in 1970, publicly conversing with writer James Baldwin. “We’ve started to worry about identity since people began losing it.” I suppose that makes sense. It’s only very recently that our culture has moved from titular identifiers like “cobbler” and “tinsmith,” skills once passed down generationally, to such adjectival logjams as “senior social media expert” and “chief digital prophet.” I once interviewed for a copywriting job that turned into a “national PR manager” by the time I was denied the role. If Mead’s right, we’re so overly concerned with identity because it’s increasingly difficult to know who or what the hell we are anymore—HR can rebrand us overnight.
As we’ve moved away from easy identifiers, we’ve had to reach for other aspects of self to discuss in our internal monologs. “In every age there have been people who considered that an individual had one overriding affiliation so much more important in every circumstance to all others that it might legitimately be called his ‘identity.’” That’s Amin Maalouf in his book In the Name of Identity, and in this, an election year, we have an excellent opportunity to watch this play out as people reduce existence to “one overriding affiliation.” Come November, I suspect a good many of us will display this reductionist tendency.
Floppy hats, pink rooms. A hybrid-driving, pig-farming fommy. What is one to make of all this? For me, I like to think of identity in terms of landforms: We can build/demolish/rebuild cities on top of the crust, but underneath a solid, stolid tectonic plate resists change. For me, I know my mantle identity is composed of words, written and read. Tomorrow I may drive a Tesla or a pickup truck over it, but that’s who I am beneath everything. And it’s this deeper, more stable piece of me that’s currently engaged in reading Samuel Beckett’s “Molloy,” in which the lanky Irishman says, “And even my sense of identity was wrapped in a namelessness often hard to penetrate…Yes, even then, when already all was fading, waves and particles, there could be no things but nameless things, no names but thingless names.”
Fommy: A nameless thing, a thingless name. What I am, but not really.
/ Rodney Wilson is either a pig farmer who writes or a writer who farms pigs. Either way, he’s got a freezer full of bacon and a finished manuscript, and he’s trying to sell both.