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My immediate reaction after reading Confessions of the Other Mother was to describe it as a type of Chicken Soup for the Soul for lesbian mothers. It was only after re-reading it that I realize that such a description would do this book a disservice. The Chicken Soup books are described by the editors as stories that would "re-kindle" the spirit. This implies that this sprit was antecedently present. But this book is the first of its kind; the first book that provides the reader with a perspective, sometimes funny, sometimes melancholic, but always reflective, of the emotional rollercoaster ride that nonbiological lesbian mothers are subjected to in a society that still frowns upon same-sex unions and may consider these mothers expendable. Thus, the book "re-kindles" nothing; rather it allows this kindling to occur for the first time when it comes to this group of women.
I know that when I have my own child, my family, friends, and the rest of society will have no doubts as to the role I will play in my baby's life. My husband, also, will have a socially-sanctioned position. Our parents and siblings will have their place. We all know where we will belong in reference to this new child. It has barely registered in my mind, thus, that there is a subset of the population just as involved in the rearing of children, but whom have no socially sanctioned role: nonbiological gay parents (both male and female). These are individuals who perform every job that parents do, but that have neither biological ties to their children, nor, in some states, legal ties. This creates a sense of desperation in these parents, for what is to keep anyone from challenging their role in the lives of their children? This book helps the reader to understand this desperation and the utter frustration that these women feel. They experience an identity crisis at times; even they question what their proper role is in the life of their children. But the more fundamental issues in this book are ones that touch all current and prospective parents: what does it mean to be a parent, and why it is not simply reducible to genetics or a piece of paper that grants one the legal status of a parent. Confessions of the Other Mother deals with all of these questions and more. The book consists of many first-hand personal stories of women who find themselves in the position of being nonbiological lesbian mothers. I will focus on a few of the stories that made a particular impact on me, although I am sure that other stories will impact other readers in different and personal ways.
My husband and I have considered adopting a child in the future, and I was partially raised by my stepmother (as well as my father and mother). One question that has always interested me is the difference in phenomenology between gestating and birthing a child that is genetically one's own, and adopting or caring for a child not genetically one's own. Are the children loved in the same way; is there something special about the former method of becoming a parent? One story that deals honestly with these questions is Casandra McIntyre's "Two Übermoms Are Better Than One." McIntyre begins by reflecting, much to her dismay, that it was only after her son, Harry, was four-months-old that she really showered him with an abundance of affection. She admits that it has taken more time to bond with Harry, who is not her birthchild, than it did with her daughter Lillian, who is her birthchild. She describes her love for her daughter as instinctual, as an instance of "pure love", whereas, although she always loved Harry, she needed to work harder at experiencing this pure love with him. Moreover, she recounts how the people that surrounded her and her family treated her relationship with Harry almost as an afterthought, while she was treated radically different when it came to Lillian. While she was primarily in charge of making decisions for Lillian while she was an infant, her partner, Amy, was primarily in charge of making decisions for Harry. One of the major bonding barriers that she experienced with her son was that she did not breastfeed him, while she did breastfeed her daughter. Indeed, the subject of the phenomenology of breastfeeding is taken up in many of the stories in this book; in almost all cases the importance of the experience for bonding between a mother and child is stressed, as well as the unfortunate byproduct of leaving the "other mother" alienated (for a great story in the book concerning this, there is Faith Soloway's "Betsy Loves Bobbies"). McIntyre's story is a brave one to tell; she is honest about her experiences of being a birthmother to her daughter versus being a nonbiological mother to her son, and the differences between the two. I found myself blaming McIntyre's comparative distance from Harry more on a society that has preconceived notions about what it means to be a parent; a society that tends to value genetic relations over and above the simple virtues of loving and caring for a child -- even a child that is not genetically one's own. We live in a society where many people rather spend thousands of dollars on IVF treatment than adopt a child in need; of course McIntyre is going to feel that there is a difference between Harry and Lillian. She even mentions how true legitimacy from her and her partners' respective families was not bestowed upon them until they had each given birth to a biological child. McIntyre, however, makes it quite clear that she loves both of her children equally, even if their respective relationships flourished in different ways. She is a brave woman for admitting her fears and her obstacles with Harry, and her admittance leads the reader to question even more the true meaning of parenthood.
Other stories in this wonderful book pose similar issues. Another example is Hillary Goodridge's story "And You Are?", which recounts the desperate moments of her daughter's tumultuous birth, where both the baby and her partner experienced difficulties which required Goodridge's presence and support. Initially, Goodridge is denied access to see her partner and daughter; she is not the baby's mother (not biologically nor legally) and she is not a member of her partner's immediate family, at least not in the eyes of the hospital. For a few moments, she is denied access to the most important people in her life; she stands in limbo between her perception of herself as a mother and a partner, and society's perception of her as dispensable. These moments are absolutely heart-wrenching for any reader with compassion toward her situation. I was particularly indignant when she was reduced to lying, telling the hospital staff that she was her partner's sister, in order to gain easy access to her partner's room. I could never imagine the utter desperation Goodridge felt at this time -- in my eyes, she was as much a mother as her partner was. This story only served to solidify my conviction that as a society that purports to support family values, homosexual couples need to be granted marriage rights in order to protect these families in situations such as these, amongst others.
Another issue discussed in some of these stories had to do with a sort of identity confusion experienced by nonbiological lesbian mothers; they aren't traditionally, nor even legally, Mommies, and they aren't Daddies either. These women, although they perform all the functions of a parent, occupy a dimension of their own. What shall they call themselves? Never did I realize the symbolic importance of having a proper title, and what seems to be needed is a title in between 'Mom' and 'Dad'. As Polly Pagenhart notes in her article "Confessions of a Lesbian Dad", parenthood truly is a very gendered thing (p. 35). Pagenhart struggles to find her own title, and, by extension, her own identity. She decides on the name "Baba", a term that denotes "a kindly, loving, protective family figure who was not the bearer of the child" (p. 41). The effects of having her own title, and her own unique position in the child's life, help her to finally come to terms with her identity as a nonbiological mother: "I begin to feel as if I were an actual thing. A somebody! Not a hyphenated mom, a kind-of-mom, a nonbio mom... an actual bona fide thing" (p. 42). From my perspective, she was always a "bona fide thing," but, again, the consequences of living in a largely homophobic society made itself manifest. Once again, her story made me realize just how much struggle and alienation nonbiological gay parents experience and how the prospect of parenthood for them, while certainly as beautiful and exciting as it is for heterosexual couples, can be tainted with feelings of estrangement and confusion.
A common stereotype I have encountered against lesbian parents is that they want to leave the biological fathers of their children completely out of the picture. While this may be true for some lesbian couples, it is certainly not true for all. Nancy Abrams' story "Mr. Anonymous" presents an alternative view. Abrams, at first, wanted to know nothing of her daughter's biological father for fear that it would somehow demean her role in the child's life; a constant reminder that she was not really the child's parent. Yet later, after her partner, the girl's biological mom, and she separated because her partner suffered from metal illness, Abrams desperately wished that her daughter's father was part of their lives. After being denied visitation rights by her partner to the child she helped raise, Abrams had no legal recourse to turn to. Afterwards, once she was allowed to visit with her daughter once again, she is asked by the then teenaged girl who her father is. Her daughter is obviously affected by his absence. Abrams constantly wished that her daughter's father could take over the role that the courts refused to give her so that the child could be removed from her biological mother's home, given the mother's mental illness. It struck me as a sad testament of the legal system in this country that the courts would sooner give rights to an absent biological father than an involved nonbiological lesbian mother. Once again, the pain and struggle experienced by these women leaked through the pages.
Every story in this book achieves an emotional reaction in some way. It should be read by both homosexuals and heterosexuals. The former group will experience a book that contains stories that they may truly identify with. The latter group should read it in order to realize what should be obvious, but is absent from the consciousness of so many of us: that homosexuals are people, that their experiences and feelings upon the birth of a child is as joyous for them as it is for us, but unfortunately laden with unnecessary obstacles. I hope a similar book for homosexual men comes from this. Throughout all the sadness, laughter, and even anger that I experienced while reading this book, there were two emotions that really stood out for me.
The first was a sense of happiness and a feeling of justice being served upon reading the last story in the book entitled "Family of the Heart" by Mary Cardaras. Cardaras faced a two-fold struggle when she acquired a new family: she was not only the nonbiological lesbian mother, she was a stepmother, moving in after her partner ended her marriage to her sons' father, who turned out to be largely absent from the boys' lives. After recounting her struggle to gain acceptance, especially from her in-laws, Cardaras' story ends in a rather triumphant manner. She is asked to speak at her son's eighth grade graduation as a representative of the parents. At first, she thought that the phone call when such a request was made was directed to her partner, the boys' "real" mother. But the call was for her, and as she spoke as a representative for parenthood at the graduation, she recounts how she felt "acknowledged -- recognized -- by my community, our friends, and our family, for being precisely who I was and what I was to all of them" (p. 168). Cardaras captured the essence of what it means to truly be a parent, and how little it has to do with biology.
The second emotion I felt when I reached the end of this book was a sense of hope. All of the children in the book were portrayed as accepting and loving their nonbiological mothers. Cardaras' youngest son asked her to attend a Father's Day luncheon when his own father refused to do so, which she gladly accepted. Pagenhart recounts in her piece how two boys asked a simple question: whether she was going to be a mother or a father to her child. The adults around the boys shuffled nervously. Yet the children simply accepted her answer: she was a Baba; the best of both worlds. To them, this was no big deal; to the adults it was still a taboo topic. In C.J. Ward's piece "Trouble with Pink," she describes her encounter with a five-year-old girl who referred to the baby in her partner's womb as equally her's and her partners. She writes: "It struck me at that moment that if the world would just sit and listen to the wisdom of a five-year-old, who held no prejudices or preconceived notions about what makes a family, we could truly embrace the freedoms and liberties we so often speak of but seldom really practice. My being Abigail's parent or her being my child was as natural... as her having a daddy and a mommy. How would I ever be able to argue with that logic? Why can't the rest of the world see it the same way?" (p. 15). It is no surprise to me that it is young children who truly understand what it means to be a family. It fills me with hope that we don't start our lives as prejudiced or homophobic. Perhaps reading this book will aid some biased heterosexuals in taking that first step towards viewing homosexual unions as real families; perhaps we can re-learn to see the meaning of family from a child's perspective.
© 2007 Bertha Alvarez Manninen
Bertha Alvarez Manninen, Ph.D., Arizona State University at the West Campus