I had the great good fortune of chatting yesterday afternoon with Amie Klemplnauer Miller, author of She Looks Just Like You: A Memoir of (Nonbiological Lesbian) Motherhood, published this spring by Beacon (and reviewed last month by Dana at Mombian). It is the first full-length memoir about non-bio lesbian motherhood. Amie will be doing three readings in the Bay Area this week:
- Books, Inc.
- 2275 Market St., San Francisco
- Tuesday, June 15 at 7:30pm
- Laurel Bookstore
- 4100 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland
- Wednesday, June 16 at 7:00pm
- Youth Radio
- 1701 Broadway, Oakland
- Friday, June 18 at 7:00pm
I met her several years back when we both did a Twin Cities reading from our essays in Harlyn Aizleyâ€™s Confessions of the Other Mother: Nonbiological Lesbian Moms Tell All. Back then, over a gracious home-cooked dinner for me and mine at her home, she said she was at work on a book. And dadgum it she wasnâ€™t kidding!
This afternoon, over a measly chocolate chip cookie, not at all baked by me and served up in a cafÃ© all the way across the bay from my home, we chatted for over an hour. Iâ€™m so loathe to edit it down that Iâ€™m serving it up in two parts. Hereâ€™s the first:
LD: Youâ€™re very frank, emotionally (in the book). How did you negotiate what things to write about and not write about? Given that the story begins with the pain (of your conceding that you wouldnâ€™t conceive)?
AKM: Some of it is the way it was written I wrote it as I experienced it, for the most part. So I was not coming back three years later and reconstructing. I started writing it as a journal when I was trying to get pregnant. And that kept growing, and I realized it turned into an essay. And then I realized it was becoming a chapter. So it kept going.
My goal was really to just write. Just write it as true as I could. There were things I didnâ€™t put in. Not anything really big, but some things about other people. Otherwise I just wanted to tell it as truthfully as I could. There are some things that people would perceive or experience differently. But I donâ€™t think thereâ€™s anything that is a falsehood.
LD: Thereâ€™s more than your narrative in this book. Thereâ€™s subtly woven in expositions; factoids regarding conditions that affect LGBT families. On the one hand, relatively less well or even hyper-informed queer families could learn stuff, and on the other hand, allies who are likewise under-informed who want to learn more would get stuff. How did you make the decision how to balance memoir and exposition?
AKM: Some of that was added in later. In some cases some of that was clarification for the reader. The book was meant to be one for a broad audience to read. And understand. So I didnâ€™t want to be too â€œinside baseball.â€ Itâ€™s an interesting question, because I think thatâ€™s just how you experience things. Youâ€™re going through life, and I honestly think that, being a nonbio lesbian mom, things are 70 to 80% the same as everybody else, but the other 20-30% is different. And itâ€™s continually different, for a variety of reasons. One of them is that you have to pay attention to the fact that your legal status is different. Or that youâ€™re more vulnerable.
LD: Hereâ€™s a two part question. One a writerly question, one a parent question. The writerly one: given that you wrote it in real time initially as an evolving journal, but edited it years later, how do you sift out your insights regarding the emotional conditions â€“ the retroactively gained wisdom â€“ how do you keep that from the prose, and let the reader experience those things as theyâ€™re happening to you? And the parental one: what things are no longer issues now, a number of years later?
AKM: To the writerly question: itâ€™s a hard one. But you know, I didnâ€™t write 40 drafts of it â€“ I didnâ€™t do it that way. I do a lot of tweaking as I go along. And then it kind of evolves slowly. There are things I rearranged, so it works better. Like thatâ€™s why I put Janeâ€™s finding out sheâ€™s pregnant at the beginning, rather than starting out strictly chronologically. But the other thing I find is that once it was written, and once itâ€™s published, I feel like itâ€™s more separate from me. I feel like itâ€™s more characters that Iâ€™ve written about. And I know them. Really well. But I feel thereâ€™s a level of emotional distance.
The parenting question: so what things have changed?
LD: Yeah. Iâ€™ll just say that I had so many similar concerns to those youâ€™ve described. And that as the years have gone by, theyâ€™ve evolved. Itâ€™s interesting to see which have remained constant, and which have evaporated over time. And I donâ€™t know how universal that is. Part of whatâ€™s so great about people reading this and having the conversation widen is that weâ€™ll start to map the landscape that weâ€™ve all been living for a long time anyway. Like, which things are really common, that we all do.
AKM: Iâ€™ve heard from a lot of straight women who will say to me, over and over, â€œI was really surprised by how much this was so much like my own experience.â€ And Iâ€™d reply, â€œThatâ€™s because much of it is!â€
You know, there were some things that were clearly issues at the beginning. Like, I wasnâ€™t pregnant. But I was expecting a child. So Iâ€™m different from an adoptive mother, but I was different from a dad. I didnâ€™t feel like a dad. Also, it was obvious I wasnâ€™t pregnant. I wasnâ€™t going through that. So there was that sort of vicarious pregnancy thing. Another big obvious thing is you donâ€™t nurse.
The vulnerability issue was much better after I adopted Hannah. But there is that level of vulnerability (when you, or if you feel) â€“ â€œI donâ€™t have any legal connection to this child.â€
A big issue for me from the get-go was: What is my role? I could come up with a name â€“ I went with â€œMama,â€ so it was a pretty generic name. It was a nice name for me, since I didnâ€™t use it for my mother, so I didnâ€™t associate it in that way. But itâ€™s also recognized by the world as â€œmother,â€ which I wanted to be.
So: Whatâ€™s my role. I think it was a big part of the question for me, early on. On a daily basis now, I donâ€™t think about that, particularly. I think about things like: Why are all these socks on the floor? You know.
LD: Or like: How do I explain that thing we just walked by on the street? [Ed note: This in ref to an untoward chap we passed en route to our interview spot. Iâ€™ll spare you the details but he said some things, brandish something, and then begin to reach for something as we passed by. None of the above â€œsomethingsâ€ being very easy to explain to a first grader. Big city livinâ€™.]
AKM: Right! But my sense, is that being a nonbio lesbian mom is something different. Still. Iâ€™ve heard other nonbio moms say that, you know, once youâ€™re past babyhood, it really doesnâ€™t matter. It really just becomes, youâ€™re both mom. And I get what theyâ€™re saying. And to Hannah, thatâ€™s true. Weâ€™re both mom.
But my sense is, one, I donâ€™t want to be part of one big giant mom. You know? And personally, I donâ€™t feel like a father. I feel like Iâ€™m somewhere in between. And I think that in between thing is something unto itself. We experience it in different ways, but I think it is something different. You perceive the experience differently.
I would say that my relationship to Hannah â€“ its not all just a question of exclusion. I mean, obviously, when Jane says, â€œOh, I used to do that when I was young,â€ or when someone says [about daughter Hannah, to partner Jane] â€œShe looks just like youâ€ â€“ which she does â€“ is it just a question: Do I feel left out? Well, thatâ€™s part of it. But itâ€™s more that I really feel like not being related to her biologically, but being passionately her mother â€“ her parent â€“ her Mama â€“ is the special thing.
LD: Yes! There are some things about LGBT/queer peopleâ€™s family-making are really powerful. And that feels like thatâ€™s one of the biggest â€“
AKM: â€“ I agree.
LD: â€“ our lived experience proves the connectedness of human beings. Over and above the other bonds that, right now, given the social structure weâ€™re in, are the ones that are de facto privileged.
LD: Legal. And biological. And yet our experience â€“ itâ€™s wonderful and triumphant to experience that, the worrying state before becoming a parent, to the point of (knowing): Oh yeah! Wow! Itâ€™s really true! (the love is there).
AKM: Oh yeah. And Iâ€™m surprised at how many people, just on a daily, passing basis, will make comments or assumptions about biology trumping nonbiology. â€œYou canâ€™t love a nonbiological child as much as you love a biological child.â€ Yeah you can! I think â€“ I mean, Iâ€™ve not been on the other side…
LD: Well you know I had a chance to hear from a woman who had. I was at our parentsâ€™ group brunch and one of the couples had invited another lesbian-parented family. One of the women had given birth when she had been in a heterosexual marriage, some years before. And then now her partner had just given birth, just a few months earlier. And she basically said: â€œYeah. Absolutely the love is just as powerful, each time.â€ â€˜Cause you know, youâ€™re loving your (nonbiological) child, and you canâ€™t figure how much more you can love them. You know, itâ€™s maximal love [Ed: I give an accompanying hand gesture indicating way high level above head]. And this woman whoâ€™d been there said: â€œYouâ€™re right. There isnâ€™t. Itâ€™s maximal love, out to the edge of it. â€œ
So another question: for whom have you written this book? And/or who would you most like to read it?
AKM: While I was writing it, I was not writing it for an audience. What Iâ€™ve discovered subsequently, now that Iâ€™m thinking about audiences, is that you canâ€™t do that! [LD interjects with joke about some of the racier content, an image of the mother-in-law reading the book, etc.] Yeah, you go censor-censor-censor! But, who did I write it for? As I was writing it, I knew I was writing it for myself. And then I was writing it for Hannah. Once it was written, the audiences, from my point of view, are lesbian, and to some extent gay parents or people who are considering parenthood. And then the next audience after that is essentially progressive moms.
LD: What was the main question you had when you set out to write the book, and what response did you discover?
AKM: Can I be a mother? That was a big question for me, for a variety of reasons. Can I do it?
LD: Was that based on the ostensibly â€œnaturalâ€ barriers between nonbiological parents and their kids, or was it more based on something idiosyncratic to you?
AKM: Some of it probably was because I wasnâ€™t going through pregnancy, and I didnâ€™t have the bonding experience â€“ probably more like a dad â€“ I did not feel bonded to the baby until after she was born. I was excited. But Jane had the very early bonding experience that most pregnant women have. And I was like, â€œGood for you! Iâ€™m going to make more meatballs now!â€
LD: There are so many elements of the process of worrying about becoming a parent â€“ particularly the worries of nonbiological parents â€“ and thereâ€™s so much next to that and around that that you describe so well. Itâ€™s emotionally accurate, and compelling to many for whom that feels familiar. So I can see where the heterosexual women reading this would think yeah â€“ I mean a lot of people, irrespective of their biological relation to the kid would feel afraid: â€œWill I love the child enough?â€
AKM: Oh yeah. I would think so. And I never felt particularly material. I mean, some people do. I talk early on in the book about going to Chrysalis [a womenâ€™s resource center, for a â€œmaybe babyâ€ class], and there was one woman who said, â€œI feel like I knew I wanted to be a mother when I was four!â€ And I thought, (at that age) â€œI wanted to be an acrobat!â€ I was like, 34, and I wasnâ€™t sure. But I think a lot of women go through a struggle with ambivalence around it. And not knowing how itâ€™s going to change you. And what other people tell you doesnâ€™t help. And they canâ€™t tell you whatâ€™s going to happen to you anyway.
LD: Now you were the nonbiological parent not by choice. How has that flavor of your nonbiological parenthood changed over time?
AKM: I went through a period, when I was trying to get pregnant, and when Jane was pregnant, when I felt a sense of sorrow. A sense of â€“ I think I describe that I was not unhappy that she was pregnant. But I had a sense of missing what never happened. What never was. I have heard from some other women whoâ€™ve experienced this, that they really do feel bitter, at some level. Or resentful. That their partner was able to get pregnant when they werenâ€™t. Especially if theyâ€™ve gone through an extended period of trying to get pregnant.
I didnâ€™t feel â€“ it was painful, but it wasnâ€™t deep, intense grief. This may be just retrospect, but what may have been harder was the ambiguity. Because after a while, it was clear I wasnâ€™t going to get pregnant. And we didnâ€™t pursue fertility treatments. For a variety of reasons. One of which was that I was convinced I would have octuplets. But we went through a period of a year when we werenâ€™t sure what we were going to do. We looked at other ways to have kids in our lives.
In retrospect now I feel, well, if Iâ€™d gotten pregnant, we wouldnâ€™t have had Hannah. So how bad would that be? Thatâ€™d be terrible!
LD: Wow! Yes! The thing thatâ€™s so different about the â€œpre-/ post-â€œ thoughts is that, post-arrival of child â€“ however the child arrives â€“ once a human being is in front of you, thatâ€™s who they are, and everything else evaporates. I mean there are residual things that may float around, you know, dust motes of fear, but really, itâ€™s aboutÂ them.
AKM: Yep. And thatâ€™s who you want. Thatâ€™s who you want.
Next time: part two.