When my partner and I met our newly adopted daughter’s first mother, five days after she gave birth, we knew that she had already permanently signed away her claims to her baby. Still, we wanted her to like us. We wanted her to approve of the family who would raise her daughter. At one point, I nervously asked if she was comfortable with the idea of her daughter being raised by two mothers.
She dismissed my question with a wave of her hand. Her favorite uncle, for whom one of her sons was named, had been gay. Then she told us a funny story about how her older daughter had once called for “mama” and been answered by three women at once: herself, her mother, and her grandmother. These were the women she had lived with her whole life. In effect, she had been raised by two moms and her children now had three. Of much more interest to her were our descriptions of the Black adults that would be in our daughter’s life.
Race trumped gender and sexuality for her.
As I reflect on being a lesbian and a mother, I come back again and again to my position as the white mother of a Black daughter. While the legal concerns of queer parenting would be part of our lives regardless of how we came to parent, being part of an interracial family draws attention to me because it is written visibly on my body in a way that sexuality is not. If I looked like my daughter, no one would give us a second glance. Because I do not, we get a lot of stares and questions.
It’s common for conspicuously adoptive families to hear questions from strangers. That was well-covered in our transracial adoption training class. But for us, the answers are even more complicated than for heterosexual adoptive families. When a child asks, for example, “Why is your daughter Black?” and I answer “Because one of her mothers is Black” there is more than the usual — difficult as it already is — unpacking to do. I want the questioning child, who is Black herself, to know that I regard my daughter’s first mother as a moral, if not legal, equal to me.
But that conversation masks the further complexity that my daughter has yet a third mother — also white — who is my partner, another complicated issue that I’d like to represent positively and honestly to my small, curious interviewer.
The concept of “two mommies” is rare enough without adding a third mommy into the bargain, especially when all three mommies occupy a deeply contested position. My daughter’s first mother — the woman who gave her life — would be forgotten entirely if many people had their way. My partner and I would not be allowed to be parents if many other people had their way.
So I parent defensively, all the while trying to portray to my daughter the confident sense of self and entitlement to exist that I’d have her inherit and carry into her own adulthood as a Black woman in the United States. I have to consider the safety of where we live, weighing legal protection against social acceptance against racial demographics against our personal preferences. Even small decisions we make as a family — like where to stop for a meal on a road trip — have to consider not merely our queer status, but our interracial status as well. In the United States, this means slicing up our options into ever tinier pieces that wax and wane with national, state and local political seasons.
Despite the legal and social drawbacks, there are times that being a different kind of mother is an emotional plus. When I come up against the onslaught of motherhood ideology, being a queer mother — someone outside of patriarchal conventions and race codes — often gives me a critical wedge to spring the trap of more unpleasant motherhood myths. For instance, when women of my education, class position and political stripe are pondering whether to stay at home and let their careers slide or get out there and be good professional role models for their children, I can follow my own preference and stay at home, knowing my daughter’s other mother is a professional role model. I don’t have to worry that being a Housewife to Some Man compromises my feminism.
This doesn’t work for all lesbian mothers, but psychically, it works for me. And I am finding that more mothering happens on the psychic level than I ever thought possible in my pre-mothering days.
To myself, I feel like “simply” a mother to my daughter who is “simply” my child. But weekly, if not daily, someone from outside my family reminds me that there is nothing simple about my life. Most of the time, people are supportive, even enthusiastic or proud to have met us. But often enough, people make it clear that they do not believe our connections to each other are “real” whether they are legal or not. There are people who routinely use language like “your own child” to mean a biological child versus an adopted one. There are people who say, “I don’t agree with that” when I explain that I am parenting with another woman.
But for me, being a good mother of any description means being confident in your motherhood regardless of whether other people celebrate or denounce it. And that is where I think obviously queer families have something to offer the mothering world at large. If mothers are all-powerful for good or bad (as what some have called the “mommy myth” would have us believe), who has this iconic power when there is more than one mother? Who has it when there is no mother present, as in single father or two-dad families, or in families headed by grandparents? Queer families force questions like these into the lives of people who encounter us; some dismiss us entirely as “fictions” rather than families (in the terms of one conservative think-tank). But most, I believe, come away from meeting us asking questions that will ultimately help them out of their own mythical mommy traps.
It is difficult to be so far outside of mainstream assumptions about motherhood, the ones that say real mothers give birth, real mothers share their children’s race and that a child can have only one real mother. But it is gratifying too. My daughter and I aren’t just tokens of colorful “diversity.” We are a family, and ultimately I think that other mothers (and their children) will benefit from meeting families like mine on the playground.