Part five 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.]
The birth of our child was a lot easier than I thought it would be. On me, that is. It helped a great deal that the birth went fast and without real complication, aided in no small part by Jennifer’s tremendous focus and breath capacity (figures: she’s an opera singer). Lindy, our midwife, quipped, “It looked like you were giving birth to a stick of warm butter.” I had been bracing for anything, since of course that’s what always can happen.
Birth stories are like coming out stories: if you’ve got a vested interest (going to give or have given birth; came out at any point in the past), you’ll always be riveted, and even when the stories end up happy, they can include a lot of hardship amidst the joy. And we’d heard about plenty of hardship. These tales of woe entailed a lot of tribulation for the birth partner, too. You see, the more I had begun to contemplate being a lesbian dad, the more I had taken up and considered — considered, mind you, not uncritically adopted — the various foundational mythologies of fatherhood. The earliest are the ordeals of birth — fears of fainting, of blood hither and yon; the excruciation of seeing your beloved in mortal pain and there’s nothing you can do about it — horrors of this nature. But birth was just the first of many parental moments that separated the dykes from the boys, as it were. Blood? Pshaw! We’ve seen it coming out of our bodies for years! And how could one even consider fainting when there was so much work to do?
From the moment we entered the hospital, my experiences were at the same time traditionally fatherly and anciently female. When we checked in, before I even realized it someone had cuffed my wrist with a little band that bore our identifying number and the word: Father. This moment, which could feel odd, or maybe even disrespectful for gals who feel motherly, was not a contradiction for me; in fact it was a comforting affirmation. As soon as we were past the guard at the elevator outside the child-birthing floor, it was an essentially all-women’s world; we had staggered in with our female doula, and inside met our female midwife and the hospital’s female nurse. All fine for a father like me; in this company, I was no odd man out.
Just as we had practiced in our (lesbian couples’) childbirth education class, I gently narrated Jennifer through wave after mounting wave of contractions and held fast to her body as she held fast to mine, all as our daughter nudged and undulated her way into the world. Fathers do this hand-holding, certainly, but then again so, through the millennia, have groups of women. Again, for me, a double confirmation: there I am, being both. Did I start being a parent when I “caught” my daughter, or when I cut her umbilical cord? I don’t know. For the previous nine months I had been tending Jennifer’s pregnant body and psyche with as much care as I could: that was parenthood. I had been speaking to this little being nightly, back when she was both he and she, back before she had ears. I sang to her. I read to her. That was parenthood. All that was so, even though she wouldn’t emerge having shared my body as she had Jennifer’s, she would still begin her time outside knowing my sound. When I had to take her from Jennifer’s chest for the first time, to be weighed a little less than an hour after she was born, I felt the first test: just her and me. Away from her body-home, I held her close, and leaned in and spoke gently to her the whole way. And, God love her, she was comforted by my voice.
In the hours and days it takes for the birth mother to resurface up out of the primordial estrogen bath she swam in during gestation, and plunged deep into for the birth, we who love and are committed but did not give birth watch over her. As she slowly begins the healing process, there we are in a vigil over both her body and that of the teeny newborn. In the days and weeks to follow the birth, though we shared an experience, the birthparent and non-birthparent recover from and adapt to very different facets of it: the birth mother bore the child; we bore witness. The experience is etched into our psyches, but not written on the inside of our bodies. It’s not continuing to ooze out our nether parts for weeks and months, certainly doesn’t drip out of our breasts when we begin to feel longing for the baby. That different embodiment continues to differentiate our parenthoods, at least through breastfeeding. I expect these kinds of contrasts to shift and mellow over the years. Jennifer’s mother birthed two children and adopted one, and maintains that, over time, the differences between biological and non-biological parenthood become imperceptible. Motherhood — parenthood, babahood — is the sum total of dozens of skinned knees tended, hundreds of runny noses wiped, thousands of hurt feelings loved away. After all, one does this with, and to, both body and soul.
In the surreal suspension of those first days following birth, I got to start gingerly introducing myself as Baba. Though the birth was a healthy one for both mother and child, we stayed in the hospital as long as we could. That was an easy decision. Trained professionals waited on you hand and foot. Someone always at the other end of an intercom, ready to answer pressing questions like, “What the Sam Hill is that asphalty-looking stuff doing coming out of her hind end?” Or, “Are all white babies this splotchy?” Or, “If her eyes are shut, and her chest is slowly going up and down, does that mean that she’s asleep?” And then the voice on the other end of the intercom would calmly reassure us, or dispatch the proper gal to come do so in person.?When the staff hung around and talked to us, after having finished whatever business brought them to the room, they would usually refer to me (respectfully, inclusively) as a Mama/Mother/Mommy. To which I would — whenever there seemed to be time and space enough — smile broadly, puff out my chest, and proudly announce that I was going to be called Baba. No questions, no problems. This is what these lesbians do. There are two of them, and they get to choose what to call themselves, and so here’s this one calling herself this name.
All the hospital staff was great with us. This may be because they simply are great, period, or it could be that probably more lesbians give birth in this hospital in any given week than women, period, give birth in many rural hospitals in a month. I mean really. This was on the Oakland/Berkeley border, dyke epicenter of the Bay Area, queer epicenter of the nation. Still, I was relieved at how absolutely I was regarded as the parent of our wee girlie. It helped that you couldn’t peel me from Jennifer’s and the baby’s side with a spatula and a can of WD-40. It helped that I had that little wrist cuff on with a matching number. Still, I credit the staff with a great deal of professionalism and compassion.
One nurse who was there to administer the diabetes test came out to us within about three minutes. Something about our room just got her to want to open up. Could have been that we let the natural light in and kept the TV off — evidently that’s unusual. Whatever the reason, people kept wanting to repeatedly check in on us. They said we were the calm, peaceful room. (My own theory: our baby was hecka cute.) So the diabetes test nurse had entered the room while I was exiting its bathroom, jeans slumping low on my hips, baby in the crook of one arm like a football, having managed (with no small amount of pride) to pee while Jennifer was sleeping. She smiled at having caught me dishabille, and in a few minutes was telling us that when she saw me coming out of the bathroom, “All looking like Big Daddy,” she just knew. When I told her about actually being Big Baba, and why, she was all smiles. “Well alright. Well alright then.” Baba’s first trial run at the hospital and it’s all systems go.
We even had a good experience with the woman who comes to draw up the birth certificate. Granted, we’d gone on the hospital tour some weeks back, and prepared ourselves for everything. But she was so friendly and matter-of-fact. When she asked us what we’d be putting on the line where it says “Father,” I was ready. “We’re going with ‘Decline to State.'” I felt like I was on Jeopardy or Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. If next she asked, “Is that your final answer?” I was going to muster all my self-confidence not to cave. Was it the right answer? With the right amount of paranoia, any potential statement on that “Father” line could spell doom, mostly for me. But we figured all this out ahead of time. I was ready to hold firm. “Great,” she said. Great! The only thing that would have made that step any the more painless would have been our having given birth just a few months later. In California, thanks to recent expansions in Registered Domestic Partner benefits, as of January 2005 I would have been able to sign my own name on that “Father” line before we left the hospital. I look forward to the day, should we be so fortunate as to take this ride a second time around.
We drove home from the hospital through a Maxfield Parrish-tinted dusk, and it felt as if we were piloting a bathysphere through an undersea wonderland. All our senses were acutely heightened. We rolled down the windows to smell the jasmine blooms as we drove by, only to have to roll them back up again; the sounds of the traffic were too intense. It was with great effort that I brought the car up to the minimum speed limit, and I did that only to avoid our getting rear-ended. There was our beautiful, splotchy little newborn, snoozing upright in the car seat. Even her being upright in a seat all by herself, rather than reclined in our arms, took effort to cope with.
When we got home, we stayed on our bed together for days, as if it were a little raft and all around it was inky ocean. I only darted into other rooms to fetch some vital product, and then back I’d come to our little bed-craft. I was their baba: their protector, their guard. Friends and family brought us home-cooked meals for a full fortnight. It took a week before I ventured so far as the front of the house with the baby in my arms. And it should be noted that we have a really small house.
But as the weeks began to pass, we were ready to rove farther and farther afield, and began to present our (lesbian-headed) family to the public sphere. First we moved within insulated family spaces, where we were greeted with love, and where we were already presumptive parents. Even so, my role and title needed frequent review (depending on the family member). It’s just too hard to see a female parent, and not think: Mama. And why not? I’m trying to be a new species of parent here, but it’s not like people have watched a lot of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom specials on my kind.
I also get it that I’m at the outset here of a long process of establishing my sense of parental authority. I don’t mean the authority I have has as a parent, in the eyes of my child. For an atypical parent like me, at the dawn of parenthood, establishing parental authority has as much or more to do with establishing authority to be a parent in the first place, in the eyes of other people. I expect that this will be something, like the starkly different ways that Jennifer and I embody our parenthoods, that will soften for me over time. But meanwhile, it matters.
I expect that wrestling with authority will just be part of my early babahood, along with a frequent self-awareness in public. I know for all parents it seems impossible not to do parenting work inside a fishbowl; that one’s raising of one’s kids is ever subject to public scrutiny and comment, that there will always be someone who both disapproves of what one’s doing and has no compunction sharing that disapproval. But this scrutiny feels especially keen to me, who is, at least gender-wise, such a non-normative parent. When out of a context in which my kind of parent establishes the norm–which would be most of the time, other than at queer family events, or at the strategically located kiddie playgrounds on Pride weekend–I can’t help but be a walking Wild Kingdom episode about the wily and elusive butch mother (also known as lesbian father), unfolding live and unedited for whoever cares to watch. It’s the ordinary, workaday plight of any under-represented minority. Are the viewers well-informed, or ignorant about my kind? Admiring or judgmental? Friendly or cranky? Curious or repulsed? Or simply blasÃ© about all of the above? Who knows? But for my kids’ sake, I’m going to make darn sure that at the least, the viewers (whenever there are any paying attention) come to understand and respect my kind. And at the most, I wouldn’t mind it if some that had them secretly wished their husbands were more like lesbian dads. With metrosexuality so rampant, maybe it’s not that far away.
On Friday, Part six: “Other than Mother”