Parenthood is a very gendered thing

images Part one of a six-part series of excerpts from “Confessions of a Lesbian Dad,” originally published in Confessions of the Other Mother: Non-biological Lesbian Moms Tell All (Ed. Harlyn Aizley. Boston: Beacon, 2006).

[Series intro and backstory here.]

I didn’t always know I would be a lesbian dad. Sure, I always knew I was a lesbian — knew it somewhere deep inside, back when I was a tyke, back when I didn’t have a language for it all, before I knew the difference between lesbian and thespian, say, or Lebanese. My predilection for Ken dolls over Barbies, and my dogged determination to cross-dress as a swashbuckler every Halloween made it clear that I wouldn’t be an ordinary girl, at the least. I also always knew I would be a parent: this was impressed upon me by my dad, despite the fact that my mom encouraged my sister and me to think that we could have fulfilled lives without becoming mothers. Both my parents were right, ultimately; I managed to become a parent without becoming a mother. It’s actually not as complicated as it sounds.

We all know there are mothers, and there are fathers. And there’s nothing in between, parentally speaking. Female parents are the mothers, male parents are the fathers. If there’s any modifying going on, it’s still given this fixed (and mutually exclusive) pairing: there can be step-moms and step-dads; adoptive moms and adoptive dads. Old or young ones; rich or poor ones; world’s best or deadbeat ones. But the either/or, male/female fixity of the basic roles pretty much goes without saying. Unless, of course, one’s gender itself lies somewhere betwixt and between the poles, as mine does. This queers the do, as they say, highlighting how parenthood is implicitly a gendered binary. And woe betide s/he who tries to plot a middle path. All of which became clear to me at a dinner party some years back, when my partner Jennifer and I were beginning to actively explore becoming parents.

We were at her brother’s house in Berkeley. At the table were his wife, their two young kids, my partner’s playwright/activist mother — whom, in reference to Jennifer’s and my extra-legal partnership, I have taken to calling my mother “out-law” (as vs. in-law), much to her delight — and her partner, a Buddhist scholar and writer (and also a lesbian). We gather every Sunday night for dinner, and this week, guests at the table were, an old friend of Jennifer’s brother’s, and two old friends of my mother out-law’s, from her hippie days on a Cape Cod theater artist’s commune, some thirty years back.

We were slowly finishing the meal and the dinner plates were being cleared for dessert. The old Cape Cod commune-istas had caught up enough with my mother out-law and were now asking after notable events in the lives of her offspring. Soon, the focus of all attention was Jennifer’s and my campaign to have a baby. The usual bevy of questions sprouted up.

Q: Which of us would bear the child?

A: My femme-bot sweetie, Jennifer; she’s always wanted to and I’ve always drawn a blank whenever I tried to imagine myself with child.

Q: Would we want a known or an anonymous donor?

A: We were gunning for a known donor, ideally a friend.

Q: Do we plan to include him in the child’s life?

A: We hoped to, if he was amenable, but it would be in a strictly avuncular fashion: we would be the only parents on the scene.)

Someone generously offered that even if I wouldn’t be bearing the child, I would make a great mother. To which I found myself objecting: I had every reason to expect I’d be a splendid parent, but whatever I would be to my child, I wouldn’t be a mother.

A mix of amazement and amusement ensued. Eyebrows arched. Jaws went slack. I may as well have just rhapsodized about the nuanced political wisdom of George W. Bush.

“What do you mean you won’t be a mother? Of course you’ll be a mother!”  This from one of the genial erstwhile hippies. I surmised that her line of reasoning here went: this nice young person doesn’t feel entitled to the title “mother,”  and deserves some encouragement.

“No,” I insisted. “The name just doesn’t feel right to me. I’ll be a parent, definitely. I’ll be a loving, caring parent. But I just don’t feel motherly.” The mood at the table slowly shifted from jovial to sober when it became clear that two equally passionately held beliefs were in complete opposition.

“But how can you not be a mother?” said my mother out-law’s sweetie. Who, by the way, wasn’t one herself. A mother, that is. Yet she seemed to be moving ahead of the pack to become the most flummoxed.

I felt the need to stand firm. “I can be something else. Something in between a mother and a father.”

I was half making this up as I went along, half giving voice to something I was now realizing I’d felt for a long time. I thought of My Lesbian Husband, the book by Barrie Jean Borrich about her relationship with her butch lover. As a graduate student I had been friends with this lesbian husband, and looked up to her as a mentor of sorts, a tour guide in the ways of the butch intellectual. The debonair ladies’ gal-about-town.

“Maybe I’ll be a lesbian father. A dyke daddy, of sorts.”

The old hippie commune-istas were eyeballing my George Clooney haircut and spiffy men’s duds with growing fascination and a glimmer of new insight. My brother out-law was smiling into his wine glass; for years he delighted me by calling me the brother he never had. He understood, and so, I sensed, did his friend; both were self-examined, pro-feminist men with whom I had spent a goodly amount of time perusing and debating the perimeters of masculinity. He was raised by a lesbian feminist, after all, and his friend had more lesbian friends than, well, most lesbians. If he didn’t have a beard and pee standing up most people would mistake him for one.

I found it challenging to be inventing and explaining at the same time, especially considering the table was collectively into its third or fourth bottle of wine by then. But, faced with a critical mass of sympathetic straight people, rapt with attention, plus two distinguished lesbian elders — neither of whom, it seemed, could intuitively make the leap from the leather-clad butch bar dykes they had known in their youth to the sweater-clad fatherly dyke I was proposing — I felt I had a responsibility to begin carving out a place for myself, linguistically, socially, emotionally. After all, if I couldn’t make sense to a table full of liquored-up leftie hippie Buddhist artists, who could I make sense to?

I cleared my throat, and tried to sketch out the back-story I thought would help this lesbian dad thing make sense to them. I told about how I was always betwixt and between, gender-wise. I told of my happy life gamboling about unfettered as a tomboy. How tomboy works great as a between-genders way station when you’re a preadolescent girl, but your goose is cooked when you hit puberty. Or mine was. I told how, when I came out at nineteen, I finally found a way to be in my skin that felt right, and how I took the next ten years arriving at a sense of, well, arrival, regarding my gender. How, poignantly, it was only after my mother died (and I felt I could no longer let her down) that I was finally able to make the last leg of my gender journey and embrace the gentle-manly butch within.

But impending parenthood, when it appeared to me as Motherhood or zip, just took me back to my adolescence in the mid-1970s, that time in my life when I felt hostage to a monolithic model of my proper gender role. The commune-istas were passing a bong back in ’75, I’m sure; doing floor paintings with their long hair and swapping partners on low-slung mattresses behind beaded doorways and such. Meanwhile on the West Coast my mother out-law’s partner was busy ditching her husband and jump-starting a feminist lesbian collective. But gender and sexual liberation hadn’t made it to teen life in my California suburb in the mid-70s, at least not beyond Helen Reddy’s single “I Am Woman (Hear Me Roar),” and at that time I was tormented by what felt like an implicit societal ultimatum to decommission the Hot Wheels, pluck my eyebrows, and act like a proper young woman. There was no Kasey Kasem Top 40 hit “I Am, Well, Not All That Womanly (Hear Me Try On Your Brother’s Clothes).”

So here I was now, looking at parenthood, feeling adrift, no parental prototype to steer by that didn’t trigger some cognitive tension at this visceral, gendered level. My own mother, while a far from traditional woman, still always wore a dress. (A friend in high school nicknamed her “Mrs. Butterworth,”  after the maple syrup icon.) Generally speaking, images of motherhood overwhelmingly presuppose femininity. Not just femaleness, which I grant is reasonable, but femininity. Which for some of us gals is less- or even un-reasonable. So every time I conjured up images of parenthood (which I could only see through the lens of motherhood), I couldn’t help picturing traditional icons, June Cleavers and Laura Petries and Carol Bradys. Where were the butch moms, I wondered? Not so easy to find (or so I thought). Yet I was the very model of the mother who was masculine. Thwarted by the fact that in the collectivity of all my own experience and in popular culture, the only butch mother I could recall ever seeing was the character Marijo from a French film I had seen, French Twist, back in the mid-1990s.

That night at the dinner table I had, for the first time, begun to name (and defend) my parental self from a position slightly other than mother. Doing so helped me to realize how much my emotional access to parenthood was predicated on my feeling comfortable with the title mother. Which I hadn’t really felt able to do, exactly. Proposing an alternative to mother that evening had led me to the threshold of my parenthood. Lo and behold, it was language that opened the door.

On Monday, Part two: “Baba: a name I call myself.”

9 Responses to Parenthood is a very gendered thing

  1. Ampersandprime January 25, 2008 at #

    I’m soaking up every word of this, like they are rays of sun on my skin.

  2. FemiKnitMafia January 25, 2008 at #

    I have the book, so I’ve read this, but not in a long time. It’s nice to see an old friend again. This is my favorite line from Part One:

    “if I couldn’t make sense to a table full of liquored-up leftie hippie Buddhist artists, who could I make sense to?”

    Hilarious and poignant.

  3. Chumpy January 25, 2008 at #

    How cool is this? I’m well engrossed in a trimumvirate of books- this being one. I would say ”thank you but one of the others is ‘Unconditional Parenting’ by Alfie Kohn.

    Belated Get Well Wishes. Heres hoping your kids dont take lying down as a cue to bounce on sore bits.

  4. nightgigjo January 27, 2008 at #

    Thank you thank you thank you.

    I will be a parent in a few short months (I’m the with-child one) and I’m leery of being ‘just the mom’ because I’m a woman who identifies het female. There will be some traditionally ‘mother’ things that I do because of who I am, but there are some things I don’t want to be stuck with simply because “I’m the mother”.

    I’d rather be a parent, and the biological-contributor be a parent too. No gender roles, just being ourselves and raising the kid when it gets here. It will be a tough fight, but I have the feeling that reading this series of yours will help me articulate these desires, at least with the other parent.

    I look forward to the rest.

  5. LesbianDad January 28, 2008 at #

    Many thanks to you all. I should say, in all truthfulness, that sometimes I can’t even make sense to a table full of liquored-up leftie hippie Buddhist artists. Which may say more about me (or about the in vino not so veritas) than them.

    Chumpy, I’m honored one of the books is Confessions. And I hope you don’t want to toss the Kohn book at me after you read it. We loved it, but are now facing a periodically recalcitrant, parent-wacking three-year-old, and thumbing through our Kohn and coming up blank. The teaching rather than bribing/coercing route feels more right, but lordy lord it’s a long road to travel. Any & all hints are more than welcome.

    Nightgigjo: welcome! And thank you. I hope what’s to follow is some help. “No gender roles, just being ourselves and raising the kid” is just what we’re trying to do. A fascinating proposition when the kiddle begins to get interested in slotting us somewheres. Which slotting impulse will carry on, I’m sure, for another decade or two, ’til she realizes she really, truly, can think these things up for herself. Best wishes on your journey and I’ll be checking in to see how it goes.

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