I am typing this while our little dude naps in my arms. I know, I know, there are probably a dozen reasons why that will cause detrimental habits with his sleeping or may cause him not to go to college. But, for now, I am not worried about that. I just picked him up from daycare, and those cheeks burrowed on my chest are exactly what the end of the day calls for. One thing I have learned in eight months as a new parent is that there is an abundance of information, personal opinions, and stories about how things used to be in terms of raising a child that inundate us (and feed our anxiety) every day. However, with the abundance of information available about parenthood, there is a major gap in information and resources available for same-sex parents. I have thought about writing up a bit about our experience and chickened out a few times, but I struggled a lot with becoming a mom (by way of my wife), and I am hoping to give voice to the growing complexity and great diversity in what constitutes a family.
My wife and I have experienced some level of privilege in our relationship, especially prior to deciding to try to become parents. We are cisgender women, who on most days do not experience harassment or discrimination based on our sexual orientation. Our sporty-yet-feminine style leads most people we casually interact with on a daily basis to assume we are gal pals or sisters. When someone asks if we are sisters, my favorite response from my wife is, “I hope not!” I mention all of that to say that, for the most part, we were not forced to think about our sexual orientation or how it is perceived on a consistent basis, especially living in a somewhat “progressive” city. Having a kid has changed that; people are curious it seems, more than anything else, but having to explain our family dynamic regularly was not something I anticipated.
When we found out that Hillary was pregnant, we were in shock—not that it was a surprise; two ladies having a baby does take some extreme steps of intentionality, after all—but shock that it actually worked. We shared the great news with our family and a few close friends. Instead of the walking on clouds imagery I imagined, I quickly felt a lot of different feelings that I wasn’t anticipating. Seemingly innocent questions about who the “real” mom or dad was sent me into a tailspin of doubt and frankly, a season of depression. Everything I found online in terms of resources and stories from other women who were the non-biological mother to their child made me feel worse. It seemed as though no story aligned with our path or the type of relationship we have, and that made me feel even more alone. Luckily, I got connected with a friend’s partner who had a similar story, and she was helpful, which is another reason I am sharing a bit of my story—so that other folks in a similar situation will know that they aren’t the only person in the world working through this pathway to parenthood. So, here it is: a few nuggets of advice for the non-biological parent of a two-mom family.
1. Who will carry the baby?
Really talk about and consider multiple perspectives in deciding who will carry the baby. For us, my partner is a little older than me (sorry for outing your geriatric womb) and knew for sure that she wanted to carry a baby. Me? I’m not totally opposed, but I am in a doctoral program and was okay with (and grateful for) the fact that she wanted to take one for the team. And that was really it. However, during the pregnancy, it was difficult for me to feel connected to the experience. The nice and polite platitudes that are often addressed to pregnant women will not directed at you. It wasn’t necessarily the lack of attention that was difficult, but rather when we were out, and she was visibly pregnant, people would often ask a series of questions, which I think made it more real for her. Meanwhile, I am awkwardly in the corner shouting on the inside, “hey, I am going to be a mom, too!” No one in public ever spoke to us as if we were a couple having a baby together. Do I really want to constantly out myself and explain our family dynamic? No, definitely not. But it was wonderful when folks included me in the process.
2. Prepare for questions
Give yourself some time before sharing the news with others. For us, I think we were so excited that we quickly shared the news with our family and a few supportive friends. Although we are extremely fortunate with our village, I think we needed some more time to sit with the new development and to prepare ourselves for how we were going to handle the inevitable barrage of questions.
3. Don't believe everything on the internet
If you do seek out online resources, remember that the stories of horrible experiences of the relationship breaking down or not connecting to the child do not represent the universal experience. Also, remember that many resources were published prior to the passage of marriage equality in June 2015. I am not saying that LGBTQ folks don’t still have a lot of hurdles to pass in the pursuit of equality, but there has been tremendous progress. I read resources from women who became parents when they couldn’t have the same last name as their child, when they couldn’t adopt a child that was mutually pursued by two people, and when they couldn’t take their kid to the doctor’s office or to daycare. Those stories only compounded my sense of fear that my family would be considered less than, or not valid, in the eyes of others, as well as the law.
4. Don't deny your feelings
Feel what you need to feel. Can you tell that I am married to a psychologist? But seriously, becoming a parent is a major life change regardless of your family dynamic or sexual orientation. However, queer folks have to manage additional challenges that the engrained mom-dad combo simply do not have to consider. Language is important. Be prepared to answer the question, “Who is the dad?” This has been a question that has been worth it for me to educate others on over and over. Other things, I let slide, because it becomes too much, and it's really not people’s business unless we choose to share. However, I don’t want there to be any room for misunderstanding that our kid has two moms and that this was intentional. He doesn’t have a dad; he has two moms and a very gracious donor that has helped make our little crew possible. I am certain that our kid will face questions about his mom and dad throughout growing up, but I hope to equip at least our circle and our kid with the understanding of his family unit. He isn’t lacking because he doesn’t have a dad—don’t get it twisted.
5. Talk to a third party
Talk with your partner, but talk to someone else, too. I didn’t anticipate having to work through so many things throughout Hillary’s pregnancy. I didn’t anticipate feeling like I was losing everything, when in fact, I was about to gain the most beautiful gift. I didn’t anticipate fearing that my kid wouldn’t know me or would think of me as something less than a parent. But I did, and I think it took away some of the “joy” of being pregnant from my partner. She is handling enough growing limbs and things like that. Of course, share openly your own thoughts with your partner, but it is important to find connection with others who are in a similar situation as you, as well.
6. Get creative with connection
Figure out ways for you to connect to your new little nugget. For me, the idea of breastfeeding was difficult. To be honest, it was one of the issues that made me fearful that our child wouldn’t connect with me or would not know me as a parent. The whole image of easy breastfeeding without issues didn’t happen for my wife. She made the decision to exclusively pump (she has been a champ!), which made it easier for us to divide and conquer with frequent feedings and helped me to feel like I could actually be alone with our son without fear that he was going to lose it because he needed to eat. Now selfishly sometimes at 2AM, I wish that she was the only one who had to get up to take care of that pesky feeding task. Other things that were helpful for me included: going on walks, wearing him, and taking care of some of the baby-things that don’t revolve around feeding. Especially at the beginning, when we were figuring out everything together, it was important for us to find ways to individually connect. And one note of encouragement: all of that mess and fear about your kid not connecting with you because you didn’t actually give birth to them? That goes away in a hot minute after they arrive, truly.
After the baby arrives and you begin to establish the new normal for your family, get ready for many conversations, some failings, and mostly, remember to have fun when you can. There isn’t a guidebook for same-sex parents on how to negotiate roles and to figure out queer parenting. Parents (no matter their sexual orientation) benefit from intentional conversations about what works for their family. Be patient with each other and yourself, and get ready for your next big adventure!
Ashley Jones is a Ph.D. student at UT-Austin and works in higher education. She enjoys outdoor adventures with her wife, son, and pup. She hopes that sharing a bit of her journey to parenthood connects with other same-sex couples. Find her on Twitter @jonesap15