I want to begin here by relaying two different scenes, each of which illustrates, in a different way, the emotional complexities underneath Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and everything in between. I also need to concede that, due to a very rough night of feverishness on the part of our lil’ peanut, the time I have to render all this is yet shorter than it usually is, and so what follows is more a series of scenes and rough notes. I hope it launches a fertile conversation, though and I promise to egg it on, and add more to it over time.
The first scene is a brief one. The beloved and I are at one of the many boffo events put on and/or collaborated upon by Our Family Coalition: a Family Day at the Oakland Museum of California. Milling about there, we bump into some new friends, a two-gal couple with a daughter right in between our kids’ ages. Of significance here is that they are a self-identified femme/butch couple. Which, for those uninitiated in the Ways of the Lesbian, is not something that all of us Sapphites are, just many of us. To one degree or another, with varying degrees of self-identification. And when we are (self-identified thusly), trust that there’s a whole hell of a lot of self-awareness and introspection and creative redefinitions of “traditional” masculinity and femininity. Oh, here, just go read for yourselves (for advanced students, here— SS is all about finesse — plus she’s done us the additional favor of posting S. Bear Bergman reading “What Butch Is,” here). Now back to the story.
The beloved blurts out, “Happy Mother’s Day!” Which it was (Mother’s Day). But she said this first and more primarily to the femme gal of the two. And then as a half afterthought, “To you both. I mean, if you both celebrate it,” in the general direction of the butch gal. The gals both said that on that day they celebrate the both of them (and their mums, being blessed with living ones, and local ones). Having now fairly decisively wedged her platformed sandal into her mouth, she began to attempt a light-hearted explanation of what we do and why. “I mean of course there are lots of ways to do Mother’s Day. This just works for us,” she hastily noted, not wanting to wedge any more body parts into her mouth than were necessary.
I was uncharacteristically quiet throughout the whole exchange, though I did note the tone of wistfulness in the butch mama’s voice when she said something to the effect of, “Gosh, I wish I could have a whole day.”
Now let’s hop up a week later, to a gathering of the beloved’s and my lesbian parents group. This tight group of friends initially met in a childbirth education class, and have met monthly, with little interruption, ever since. That Sunday we were all shocked and elated at the recent news that the California Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the constitutionality of same-sex marriages. The hostesses with the mostesses were forward thinking enough to gather bubbly and sparkling apple cider for a toast to justice. We even toasted one of the (it must be said: Republican) justices, for whom one of the group works.
We splintered into a half-dozen various conversations, punctuated in the usual way by the requisite calls to one or another childcare interventions. One friend pulled me over to the couch and buttonholed me for a passionate conversation about her troubles with Mother’s Day. There was much to her story, but the jist is this: she is happy to cede the day to her partner (more femme to her more butch). But she was facing the argument, from someone in her life, that she was somehow adbicating her motherright, in a way, by doing so. That she had to “claim” her motherhood; that she had not just a right to, but an obligation to. Whatever the case, there was no alternative to mother.
No alternative to mother. That’s one problem. And the either/or binary: that’s the other.
To my new friend at the museum, and to my old friend on the couch, I want to say: there is another way! Even if it’s hard to see, through the fog of convention. It entails the brave work of making culture. Rolling one’s sleeves up and just plain making it. Rather than be battered about by the limited options currently available in our cultural imagination.
Over and over again, it feels like BOTH/AND is the only reasonable response to the edict that we choose between EITHER/OR. The solitary, singular status of “the” mother. Not “a” mother, but “the” mother. We lesbian parents confront this every day in our parenthood (to one degree or another, resolved early on, or bubbling up periodically, what have you). But step-mothers face this too; so do adoptive ones and “first” ones. There are many more, too, I’m sure. Many, many women share the work of loving young people into adulthood, alongside some other woman (or her ghost) who’s also seen as “the” one about the business of that task.
On Mother’s Day, quite obviously, the issue comes to the fore for many of us. With more time I’d include copious links to great illustrations of this. (Perhaps in the commentary trailing at the end of this post, over the next few days.) The issue, at least for lesbian parents, often dies down following Mother’s Day, though I hope that Dana Rudolph’s Blogging for LGBT Families Day on June 1 begins to make the case that queer families at least can lay claim to the day equidistant from Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
In our family, we get around the musical chairs-like struggle for that one seat, the throne of Mama on Mother’s day, by turning around and hi-jacking Papa and Father’s Day for my exclusive use. It works for us for many reasons, which I have noted in previous Father’s Day-themed posts (here, in 2006, and here, in 2007). Clearly it also works for us because I have spent decades upon decades, really my whole life, laying claim to one aspect or another of what’s commonly considered the exclusive domain of men (clothes, gals, what have you). So what’s a commercialized, national holiday, after I’ve poached so much?
Only, as with so many either/or dichotemies, I’ve weasled my way out of it by charting a both/and middle path. Baba is a little Mama and a little Papa. And dadgum it I believe there are a lot of us out there, in spirit if not in name; hetero women as well as lesbians; men both gay and straight. In commandeering Father’s Day — which our family dubs “Baba’s Day” — my beloved and I have opened ourselves up a little breathing room. I know it wouldn’t work the same way for the many lesbian parents who feel thoroughly, unmitigatedly motherly, and want a piece of the Mama’s Day action. For these sisters, I don’t have as simple a solution. Many gals come up with many creative re-makings of the day. I just tend to suspect that the answer to that musical chairs game will be found, somewhere, in the carving of a new set of chairs, with the word parent on them.
Our understanding of gender and gender roles is ever-evolving. Our understanding of family and who’s in it is ever-changing. Always has been. It’s time for as many Parents Days as any given family needs. Meanwhile, I’ll push back my Barcalounger and await my tie and my pipe this Sunday.