Trailblazing the Ordinary: A Review of Confessions of the Other Mother: Nonbiological Lesbian Moms Tell All!
Straight and biological mother that I am, I might not be the perfect person to review this exciting new collection of essays entitled Confessions of the Other Mother: Nonbiological Lesbian Moms Tell All. Though the title of the book does refer to its writers as “moms,” even a cursory glance at the essays reveals that this name generates much tension, confusion and anxiety in the parent-writers’ lives and essays. But on second thought, here is my connection to these essays: the word “mom” (or even worse, “mommy”) never fails to rub me the wrong way.
There’s nothing that expresses my deepest ambivalence about my own identity as a parent as when I arrive at five to pick my boys up from daycare. My younger son comes hurtling toward me, announcing to everyone within a three-block vicinity, “MY MOMMY’S HERE.” My joy at seeing him after a long day, and my happiness and pride at how happy and proud he is to see me, are always tinged with slight acrimony: “I am not your mommy,” I want to hiss as I scoop him up, “that’s simply not me: linguistically, culturally, or ideologically.” All of this is by way of explaining how thrilled I was to read this book. Like many of its writers, I am also constantly on the lookout for alternative parenting models, new ways of thinking about what I am, rather than what I am not.
In this respect, The Other Mother gives one much to think about. First and foremost, it is an important moment of good old-fashioned consciousness-raising. One can easily imagine these eighteen women sitting in a circle and relating their various conception, birth and adoption stories. And the essays magically do what participants in consciousness-raising groups are supposed to do — they seem to nod emphatically and say, “Yes! That’s the way it was for me too.” As readers, we too share in these moments. Together with the writers, we recognize the common insights and threads as they emerge from the repeated stories.
Many of the writers in the book lament the lack of role models, of road maps to guide them through this uncharted territory. As if in response, as we read through the book we begin to discern a pattern of shared experience, certain repeated focal points upon which these non-biological lesbian parents often center their narratives. Of these focal experiences, the most notable ones are falling deeply, immediately and irrevocably in love with their babies at birth; feeling jealousy and resentment of the biological mother-baby bond, especially as manifested in nursing; contending with the question — from without and from within — of who the real mommy is; and, inevitably perhaps, the stories of homophobia, expected and unexpected, official and unofficial (as well as the surprise at its absence, in some accounts.) Almost all of the essays deal with at least one if not all of these experiences and trace, through humor and pathos, sensibilities both new-age and old, celebration and indignation, this elusive road map in a variety of voices and tones.
However, and despite the variety of voices within the collection and their ostensible marginality in society at large, many of the themes and experiences in these essays are not only similar to each other, but to those in more mainstream writing about motherhood. Reporting “From the Outposts of Lesbian Parenting” Robin Reagler writes that she “could have used [her blog on lesbian parenting] to focus on the ‘otherness’ of motherhood, but instead I chose a more integrative approach: . . . My stories and questions about being a mom are not drastically different from others.” And indeed, many of the writers stress how “normal” or “ordinary” their experiences are. While the emphasis on ordinariness is crucial in the still homophobic context of contemporary society, it also creates an interesting rhetorical tension in the essays, one between the trailblazing I-have-no-roadmap uniqueness on the one hand and the I-am-a-mother-just-like-any-other ordinariness on the other. The best example of this tension is in the piece by Shira Spector, who as she puts it, is “struggling to define myself separately from the traditional framework of mothers and fathers.” Spector opens her essay with a ribald description of filming a “whacked-out dyke-produced porn film set in outer space starring [birth mother] Chris as the alien who fucked the world” the night before their daughter’s conception. Her story ends on a much more soothing and ordinary note, the author describing herself as, “A mother for sure, because I am typing this in the middle of the night, listening to the nursery monitor sing the steady breathing of my love and our baby.”
At this point one might wonder whether all this ordinariness is just a little too ordinary. Many of the essays seem to be a little too uniformly accepting of reigning contemporary middle-class parenting values and practices, subtly lacking in class and race consciousness, or too unquestioning of the centrality of biology (and the omnipresent breast) to parenting. While every one of these writers, and the existence of the collection as a whole, is a powerful testament to the fact that biology is not destiny, there is a slight but weird refutation of that in their stories. This is most prominent in a subtle taking for granted of the crucial importance (and superiority!) of breast-feeding as a privileged location of love, care, and closeness. This might be explained by the disproportionately large number of essays in the book that were written by expectant or recently-become mothers. These stories obviously tend to stress pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing, stages in which physical care is paramount. But still, does physical care and closeness always have to be so, well, biologically determined?
The collection does not include narratives by adopting lesbian couples — the stories of two non-biological mothers. In fact, Annie Klepnaur Miller insists that although she will legally adopt her child, her “experience has little or nothing in common with most adoptive parents.” This statement does not strike me as immediately convincing and is worth exploring further: how and why are her experiences different from those of other non-biological (including lesbian) mothers? What defines the singularity of a family that includes one bio and one non-bio mother? The effect of Miller’s statement and the editor’s decision to exclude adopting lesbian couples from the anthology is to focus the book not only on the non-biological mother’s relationship with her children but also on her position in the family relative to her partner, the biological mother. As Miller puts it, “There is no category, no name for what I will be. I am defined by what I am not: a non-biological parent, the non-birth-mother.”
Polly Pagenhart’s intelligent and provocative “Confessions of a Lesbian Dad” takes up this challenge by inventing a new name for her parental existence. “With a name I began to feel as if I were an actual thing. A somebody! Not a hyphenated mom, a kind-of mom, a non-bio mom, an also-ran. But an actual bona fide thing. My own turf. Some elbow room. The name Baba christened my earlier, inchoate musings about a lesbian fatherhood, and so doing helped me crystallize them.” For Pagenhart, Baba reflects and enables her in-between gendering, an open space for creative reconsideration of gender roles in the realm of parenting. To which this straight biological mother can only say, Amen.
The essays in this collection are highly readable, mostly written in a personal and conversational narrative voice. They are in fact personal stories and anecdotes, narratives whose prose style varies from wry to poignant to laugh-out-loud funny, reflecting a variety of approaches and experiences. In fact, this variety could have been emphasized more, especially in the essays by recently-become mothers. Tighter editing could have brought out the kernel of unique personal truth in each essay, emphasizing their richness and diversity.
Of the essays that stand out in their uniqueness are some of those written by mothers of older children, where, interestingly, the marked divide between biological and non-biological seems to blur. Over the years, the bio/non-bio issue just seems to matter less and less. For example, Dawn Beckman, mom to a sixteen-year-old and ten-year-old realizes that, “in recent years, I have rarely given a thought to being a non-biological mom,” although she does “have daily thoughts and feelings about being a parent.” Beckman’s essay “Parenting as a Subversive Activity” also reminds us of how the fairly recent advent of same-sex second-parent adoption has markedly changed the legal-political status of non-biological parents. This point is brought poignantly home by Nancy Abrams who, related to her daughter “by neither blood nor law” after the disintegration of her relationship with a partner with mental illness, expresses a hypothetical (and paradoxical) desire for the anonymous donor (who as a biological “father” would have had a standing in court) to have intervened on her and her daughter’s behalf.
Another advantage of those essays written from the perspective of long-time parents, released from the all-too physical world of infancy, is their ability to incorporate the larger political and social stakes in their stories. In the collection’s moving and thoughtful closing essay, “Family of the Heart,” Mary Cardaras superimposes the experience of being an adopted daughter onto that of being a lesbian “stepmom.” Cardaras makes use of her parenting anecdotes to articulate a positive theory of kinship that is as subversive as it is ordinary, as political as it is personal. And while all of the essays in this collection touch on the political, most stop short of addressing it explicitly. True, the basic idea of consciousness-raising is that the personal is the political. However, I personally would have liked to have seen the political spelled out more in the essays. What, in other words, is at stake in these narratives, not only for the essayist herself, but for larger lesbian and queer politics as well as for the gendered politics of parenting more generally?