I just read She Looks Just Like You, the funny, provocative and satisfying memoir of a lesbian mom welcoming her first child. The twist here is that Amie Klempnauer Miller, the author and protagonist, is not her daughter’s birth mom, although that was Plan A when she and long-time partner Jane Miller decided they wanted to become parents. Amie was meant to be the pregnant, then stay-at-home mom for the child she and Jane would raise together. After two years of trying to become pregnant, Amie came to the heartbreaking realization that it was not possible. Plan B followed. Jane, who initially did not want the pregnancy experience, conceived on her first try.
In her reflections on the pregnancy, birth and first two years of life with their daughter Hannah, Miller describes the unraveling of this and other carefully laid plans. The book is no simple dip into the sleep-deprived life of parents of firstborns, though there is plenty of that. Rather, as the non-biological, stay-at-home mom in this “Hannah has two mommies” household, Miller is pressed into addressing questions that occur only to parents who find themselves pushing gender roles because they are raising children.
Her explorations generated unusual responses from her primarily straight counterparts. Eager to help her categorize her parenting experience, some of Miller’s friends invited her to join a stepmothers’ group. The stepmom persona was clearly a misfit, as was that of the adoptive mother. Unlike the traditional stepmother and most adoptive moms, she was part of the planning for Hannah, from conception through pregnancy and birth.
Her experience was further complicated by being the stay-at-home mama and primary caregiver while her partner was the biological parent. As she puts it, “I am speaking the same language as biological and straight mothers, but in a different dialect.” This makes for a very thought-provoking take on motherhood.
Miller was surprised to find that her best allies were stay-at-home dads. Recounting an early visit to a bookstore, she says, “There was nothing in the bookstore that treated my specific experience, so I ended up looking at stay-at-home dads because they are also pushing at the gender categories themselves and changing the way men and women relate in a family.”
Books for expectant fathers dwelt on topics that she already understood (the mysteries of the pregnant body) or was not interested in understanding (how to remain a dude and be a dad). Stay-at-home dads, however, were dealing with issues that upset traditional gender roles in the family. By their very existence as primary caregivers, stay-at-home dads provoke the same relational questions as non-biological lesbian moms, such as “How will I fit into this family dynamic?” and “How will my role be viewed outside of our family?”
The confusion regarding family roles is echoed by other gay and lesbian parents. My friend Sue Richards, a Seattle native and non-biological mom, found herself in sympathy with male dads. “During the pregnancy I did feel a bit like the “dad” who had no clue about what E (her partner) was going through physically or emotionally,” she says. “It actually made me more forgiving of my clueless men friends around pregnancy and childbirth because, in fact, I felt clueless much of the time.”
In Miller’s book, this play on relational roles hits several notes. Having known each other as lovers for 18 years didn't necessarily mean that Miller and her partner would know how they would relate to each other as parents. The strong foundation of their relationship did not prevent them from experiencing the effects of fatigue from the delightful, yet demanding presence of their much-hoped for daughter who, come to find out, didn't sleep very well. The usual anxiety and self-doubt of first-time parenting seem rawer, lacking the comfort of traditional parenting roles to fall back on in a pinch. The effect was, as Miller puts it, “bone-rattling.”
“There is a lack of language to describe our role as non-biological moms,” she says from her home in St. Paul, Minn. “It’s unclear who I am in the family unit. Some women identify themselves as the lesbian father, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be a real mom, so sometimes I am a mom and sometimes I am a bit more.” Defining who she is in their new family of three is explored again and again in the book.
Richards finds that gay people are constantly defining and redefining relationships with each other, with children and with their friends of the same or different gender. “There’s no road map. I say this because all my relationships are constantly evolving, including mine with my children. The more attention I pay to our relationship, disregarding my need or others’ needs to assign a label or role, the happier and healthier our family becomes.”
The good news for alternative families like the Millers and Richards is that their children were born into a “gayby” boom which started in the late 1990s. Miller notes, “If I were 10 years older, I assume that I would not have had a child because I am a lesbian. Jane and I are at the edge of the movement for gay and lesbian parents. There are now gay and lesbian parents all over the country.”
Now that Hannah is seven, the Millers’ biggest concern is about her being exclusively exposed to mommy/daddy roles outside of their home. This requires another layer of awareness for lesbian mothers when choosing day care, schools and activities.
“Eighty percent of gay and lesbian parents worry about their kids facing discrimination, and 20 percent of kids face homophobia by their peers and/or teachers by the age of five,” Miller observes.
And there is no hiding in a closet for the sake of the children. Her warning to all lesbian/gay couples considering children: “If you have a kid, you are out. You are OOOUUUUTTTTTT. If you have any reservations about being out, do not have a child.”
The 2000 census revealed that one in three lesbian couples, and one in five gay couples, have one or more children, and fortunately this makes it much easier to be out and to find the kinds of community experiences that support alternative family dynamics. This allows kids like Hannah the opportunity to attend schools with rainbow flag stickers on the classroom doors and Gay and Straight Alliance bulletin boards in the halls. Hannah immediately reported to her moms that her first-grade teacher refers to ‘parents’ rather than ‘moms and dads.’ These are details that build community for all families, regardless of their makeup.
Richards, who with her partner adopted a son from Cambodia, says that this second child has rounded out their experience as parents. “It has brought some new issues to the table. What makes a family? We had this very discussion at dinner the other night. (L) asks about his ‘birth parents’ all the time.”
“A family is made of people who love and take care of each other,” reminds Richards. “They look out for each other and share their dreams. Most families can rest on convention, but a lot of families, including gay families, have to make it up as they go. As if parenting wasn’t hard enough.”
So signs of progress, even small ones, are significant. When Hannah recently announced to her class at school that she has two mommies, another little girl asked, with a tinge of jealousy, “How come you get two?!”
If this is what success looks like, Miller will take it every time.
©Copyright 2010, Caliope Publishing Company
©Seattle Woman Magazine | All Rights Reserved | 206-784-5556