Fish Out of Water
When any woman becomes a new parent, she realizes either immediately or gradually that she has taken on a new role, and that other people suddenly have a whole new set of expectations and ideas about who she is. One of the sometimes exciting and/or disconcerting phenomena of becoming a gay parent is that you become a sociological event as well — a subject for graduate theses and day time TV talk shows. It’s either “Redefining Family: The Impact of Alternative Parents on Gender Role Concepts” or “My Lesbo Mom’s on the PTA!: Next on Ricki Lake.”
The gay parenting group I was a part of in San Francisco e-mailed endless requests for interviews from grad students, surveys from research institutes, and calls from producers in New York or the local news media. I answered them all. As a former shy, geeky, unpopular teenager, the instant cachet of being a lesbian parent was intoxicating. When the group formed a Speaker’s Bureau, I immediately volunteered. The first request I got to speak was at a summer session freshman sociology class at UC Berkeley. I knew these gigs had an element of the side show, with the speaker being a specimen displayed to students for examination, but I made photocopies of our wedding pictures and baby photos. I was ready to win them over.
When I arrived for the 8:00 am class, with what had to be the youngest freshmen ever, I told all the funniest stories. The one about the liquid nitrogen tank on the bus, and the one about the nervous sperm-donating friend afraid he might accidentally arouse himself at the wrong time. The one about friends doing fake fertility dances in the living room, and the one about my partner running out of a city council meeting to meet me at a bus stop so I could give her a precisely timed hormone injection in the butt. I rolled my eyes, gestured and grimaced. They laughed and giggled. I felt great. I’d done it. I had gotten them to like me.
And then, in the last five minutes, one girl in the back asked, with a look of complete horror on her face, “Do you ever, like, let our kid SEE you kiss?”
“Oh.” I was surprised.
And suddenly, I realized I had played up the sensational aspects of our story.Those events that do stand out, the ones that stand us apart from every other heterosexual couple parenting children.
“Yes we show affection to each other the same way I think other parents do in front of their children” I said to the freshmen. “Like a kiss, or holding hands. To do otherwise would send a message to our daughter that we think there is something unwholesome about our relationship. And we don’t want to give our daughter that message. ”
“Hmm,” she snorted. She was obvious about the kind of message she would like to send.
I opened my mouth to say more, to talk about our day to day lives, the caring for our children, the negotiating with my partner, the love we feel. But the class was over. My experience as a mother was suddenly reduced to a series a funny, outrageous anecdotes about sperm, fertility drugs, and ill-timed erections.
I left feeling confused and devastated. I’d just made a joke of our family.
I told the same stories I entertained our friends with: the other gay parents, the inseminating couples, the close straight friends. Those who knew that the day-to-day life of a lesbian parent is so much the same as every other parent it hardly bears repeating. It’s tying the shoes, changing the diaper, washing the sippy cup, making the toast, settling the fight, washing the sippy cup, doing the laundry, getting the Cheerios, washing the sippy cup, ad infinitum. The heart of parenting young children is not in exciting dramatic events.
I was the a fish in a tank, not even thinking to describe the water I was swimming in. I thought everyone else understood the love and rightness we feel being together, caring for each other — being a family. How can mothers ever represent the good bits without sounding like a Hallmark card, complete with a hazy water color landscape and a cream colored envelope?
And now I am torn about what stories to tell, hilarious hijinx or saccharine platitudes, universal and bland. Can I talk about the things that make my family different while letting you know it’s all the same? The sperm stories are so much easier to relate: they have drama and comedy, they trace a series of actions with setback and pitfalls, like a children’s book or a Hollywood movie. As I sit telling you these tales, beaming with my two lovely daughters in my lap, you can be sure it all comes out right in the end.
Perhaps now it’s for the best that lesbian parenthood is really already passé in the world of high fashion lifestyles. When I was trying to get pregnant in the late nineties, I was thrilled to see Melissa Ethridge and Julie Cypher proclaiming their pregnancy on the cover of Newsweek. Only five years later, their breakup was covered in the way back of People magazine with as much fan fare as a Liz Taylor divorce (they got the mansions with adjoining back yards so the kids can just wander back and forth.) Maybe I can just try to tell my story, both the bizarre and the mundane.
So next time I’ll be telling the story about carrying the giant tank of liquid nitrogen and sperm home on the bus through downtown Oakland and what the guy next to me had to say. But I won’t forget to tell the rest of it, the quiet drama of piles of laundry, goodnight kisses, and the love that makes us a family.