The trouble with Mother’s Day (or, Why I’m glad to be a Lesbian Dad)

I want to begin here by relaying two different scenes, each of which illustrates, in a different way, the emotional complexities underneath Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and everything in between. I also need to concede that, due to a very rough night of feverishness on the part of our lil’ peanut, the time I have to render all this is yet shorter than it usually is, and so what follows is more a series of scenes and rough notes. I hope it launches a fertile conversation, though and I promise to egg it on, and add more to it over time.

The first scene is a brief one. The beloved and I are at one of the many boffo events put on and/or collaborated upon by Our Family Coalition: a Family Day at the Oakland Museum of California. Milling about there, we bump into some new friends, a two-gal couple with a daughter right in between our lil’monkey’s and our lil’ peanut’s ages. Of significance here is that they are a self-identified femme/butch couple. Which, for those uninitiated in the Ways of the Lesbian, is not something that all of us Sapphites are, just many of us. To one degree or another, with varying degrees of self-identification. And when we are (self-identified thusly), trust that there’s a whole hell of a lot of self-awareness and introspection and creative redefinitions of “traditional” masculinity and femininity. Oh, here, just go read for yourselves (for advanced students, here– SS is all about finesse — plus she’s done us the additional favor of posting S. Bear Bergman reading “What Butch Is,” here). Now back to the story.

The beloved blurts out, “Happy Mother’s Day!” Which it was (Mother’s Day). But she said this first and more primarily to the femme gal of the two. And then as a half afterthought, “To you both. I mean, if you both celebrate it,” in the general direction of the butch gal. The gals both said that on that day they celebrate the both of them (and their mums, being blessed with living ones, and local ones). Having now fairly decisively wedged her platformed sandal into her mouth, she began to attempt a light-hearted explanation of what we do and why. “I mean of course there are lots of ways to do Mother’s Day. This just works for us,” she hastily noted, not wanting to wedge any more body parts into her mouth than were necessary.

I was uncharacteristically quiet throughout the whole exchange, though I did note the tone of wistfulness in the butch mama’s voice when she said something to the effect of, “Gosh, I wish I could have a whole day.”

Now let’s hop up a week later, to a gathering of the beloved’s and my lesbian parents group. This tight group of friends initially met in a childbirth education class, and have met monthly, with little interruption, ever since. That Sunday we were all shocked and elated at the recent news that the California Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the constitutionality of same-sex marriages. The hostesses with the mostesses were forward thinking enough to gather bubbly and sparkling apple cider for a toast to justice. We even toasted one of the (it must be said: Republican) justices, for whom one of the group works.

We splintered into a half-dozen various conversations, punctuated in the usual way by the requisite calls to one or another childcare interventions. One friend pulled me over to the couch and buttonholed me for a passionate conversation about her troubles with Mother’s Day. There was much to her story, but the jist is this: she is happy to cede the day to her partner (more femme to her more butch). But she was facing the argument, from someone in her life, that she was somehow adbicating her motherright, in a way, by doing so. That she had to “claim” her motherhood; that she had not just a right to, but an obligation to. Whatever the case, there was no alternative to mother.

No alternative to mother. That’s one problem. And the either/or binary: that’s the other.

To my new friend at the museum, and to my old friend on the couch, I want to say: there is another way! Even if it’s hard to see, through the fog of convention. It entails the brave work of making culture. Rolling one’s sleeves up and just plain making it. Rather than be battered about by the limited options currently available in our cultural imagination.

Over and over again, it feels like BOTH/AND is the only reasonable response to the edict that we choose between EITHER/OR. The solitary, singular status of “the” mother. Not “a” mother, but “the” mother. We lesbian parents confront this every day in our parenthood (to one degree or another, resolved early on, or bubbling up periodically, what have you). But step-mothers face this too; so do adoptive ones and “first” ones. There are many more, too, I’m sure. Many, many women share the work of loving young people into adulthood, alongside some other woman (or her ghost) who’s also seen as “the” one about the business of that task.

On Mother’s Day, quite obviously, the issue comes to the fore for many of us. With more time I’d include copious links to great illustrations of this. (Perhaps in the commentary trailing at the end of this post, over the next few days.) The issue, at least for lesbian parents, often dies down following Mother’s Day, though I hope that Dana Rudolph’s Blogging for LGBT Families Day on June 1 begins to make the case that queer families at least can lay claim to the day equidistant from Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

In our family, we get around the musical chairs-like struggle for that one seat, the throne of Mama on Mother’s day, by turning around and hi-jacking Papa and Father’s Day for my exclusive use. It works for us for many reasons, which I have noted in previous Father’s Day-themed posts (here, in 2006, and here, in 2007). Clearly it also works for us because I have spent decades upon decades, really my whole life, laying claim to one aspect or another of what’s commonly considered the exclusive domain of men (clothes, gals, what have you). So what’s a commercialized, national holiday, after I’ve poached so much?

Only, as with so many either/or dichotemies, I’ve weasled my way out of it by charting a both/and middle path. Baba is a little Mama and a little Papa. And dadgum it I believe there are a lot of us out there, in spirit if not in name; hetero women as well as lesbians; men both gay and straight. In commandeering Father’s Day — which our family dubs “Baba’s Day” — my beloved and I have opened ourselves up a little breathing room. I know it wouldn’t work the same way for the many lesbian parents who feel thoroughly, unmitigatedly motherly, and want a piece of the Mama’s Day action. For these sisters, I don’t have as simple a solution. Many gals come up with many creative re-makings of the day. I just tend to suspect that the answer to that musical chairs game will be found, somewhere, in the carving of a new set of chairs, with the word parent on them.

Our understanding of gender and gender roles is ever-evolving. Our understanding of family and who’s in it is ever-changing. Always has been. It’s time for as many Parents Days as any given family needs. Meanwhile, I’ll push back my Barcalounger and await my tie and my pipe this Sunday.

7 Responses to The trouble with Mother’s Day (or, Why I’m glad to be a Lesbian Dad)

  1. sussabmax June 14, 2008 at #

    Once I start commenting, I don’t seem to be able to stop! Great post again here.

    I wanted to respond to this:

    “And dadgum it I believe there are a lot of us out there, in spirit if not in name; hetero women as well as lesbians; men both gay and straight.”

    I totally agree with you, as a hetero woman. I don’t like the cultural definitions of what it means to be masculine or feminine, and I often find myself on the masculine side of that definition. What is interesting about that is how disorienting other people find that. When I was telling a male co-worker a story about how incredibly irritating I found it when my ex-husband couldn’t answer a simple question like what did you have for lunch? without a 10 minute dissertation on his thought process in getting to what he chose, he looked at me very oddly. Clearly, the conversation wasn’t what he was having trouble with, it was the role that I took in it.

    I often find that I need to consciously modify my manner at work to fit others expectations of how I should act. Not that I care what they think of me, but it makes it easier to get things done if I try to be a bit more norm-conforming. I work as a project manager, which is, in large part, a job about forming relationships with people, so I have to do things that make it easier for others to get along with me, and feel comfortable with me. I find it very strange that I have to pretend to be more womanly, though.

    Because everthing reminds me of a book, or I’ve read a book about every topic that interests me, I thought right away of Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man. She talks quite a bit in there about how deeply gender is entrenched in our world views and self views. Very interesting stuff.

    I am so glad you are back from your hiatus, I missed you! That must be what’s spurring me on to all this commenting, lol.

  2. porschay June 16, 2008 at #

    This is the problem with living by socially constructed rules – they ruin relationships between people, who have limitless possibility (wow does that sound new agey – and dare I say, a bit hokey?). Sorry about that, I’m usually such a pragmatist.

    Props for makin’ it – it ain’t easy.

  3. Shereen June 16, 2008 at #

    My wife and daughter and I spent part of Father’s Day yesterday baking, part of it doing the littlun’s hair, sweeping and gardening, and part of it demolishing an old picnic table. Cries of “smash it again, Mom!”, “Mama’s so strong!” and “Look at my big muscles!” punctuated the activity with glee and joy. Clearly, her instruction in the validity of genderized turf is moving right along. Her Fathers Day card from school was addressed to her favourite granddad, and we talked about all the men in her life that she could honour with further attention, should she wish to at any time. Funnily enough, for a first Father’s Day, it passed without a twinge, as did the Mother’s Day before it. Under our tutelage, she’ll learn to heft a sledgehammer, bake a cookie, care for a garden, and generally take care of herself in the world. And we both get to claim all the turf as ours (we’ve dubbed them both Parents’ Day), which felt like a lot of breathing room this year.
    We do have the benefit of having the bio connection removed from the equation, though. It makes us equal in all ways, and unequal in all ways, in a way that’s very… I don’t know – leveling of the playing field? Nobody looks at us as a family unit and asks who the real mom is. It’s clear from looking at us that the answer is both/and. Adoption has been a blessing in unlooked for ways.
    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to think about, and elucidate, that thought. We keep feeling like we need a lesbian parent group where we live, and that we’d love to start one, but currently all our energy is going to keeping our familial heads above water. But you, and all the rest of the Lesbian Family, remind me daily that we’re not alone.

  4. LesbianDad June 16, 2008 at #

    You know, sussabmax, I see over and over again how my straight brothers and sisters feel as constrained by narrowly defined gender roles as I do, often even moreso, since their departures from the “norm” seem more unexpected (and thus more unallowed) than mine. SEXUAL ORIENTATION and GENDER IDENTITY are NOT AUTOMATICALLY LINKED! This is obvious to many, and news to many more, I think. Conventionally “Femmy” lesbians and masculine gay men are utterly familiar in LGBT culture, but still often not part of the characatures that, up until recently, predominated in straight culture at large (that is, pre “L-word.” Now us mannish gals have to hop up and down and wave our arms and say: Hey! It’s not like we don’t exist!)

    When I worked as a maintenance gardnener, after grad school (a natural employment progression), my two different bosses were straight gals who were of smaller stature than me. Both hauled wheelbarrows and slate stones and massive materiél many times their weight (they were ants, and one could not be kept from climbing up trees with a chainsaw (“Look out below!”) Me, I would simply gape at them in wonder.

    Porschay, here’s to limitless possibility, from new on into old agey!

    Shereen, I am so glad you point out the “blessing in unlooked for ways” that adoptive parenthood is: “equal in all ways, and unequal in all ways.” I think about that a lot, having many dear friends who are both (same sex) adoptive parents. Their struggles around roles, gendered and otherwise, are very different than mine and my partners’. The battle over who is the more “authentic” mother doesn’t emerge in the same ways, if at all. And the factors which have ultimately most influenced my kids’ relationship to me — essentially, who has been more the primary care-giver in the early months and years — have been recognized much earlier. These friends cleared the body-bound hurdles at the start, and saw that so much simply derives from the time you clock with the kids.

    I couldn’t be more happy to help spread around the opportunity for you (and any others) to think about and elucidate your family-shaping insights. Hell, even alongside a neighborhood lesbian parent group, this online family conversation is vital to me.

  5. Chumpy June 16, 2008 at #

    Glad to see you’re maintaining the tradition of artisitc inspiration through altered consciousness, whatever the means. Hope Peanut is back to health and strength with the rest of you also recovered.

    This post for me could be part of an answer to the questions posed in your post ‘Can a ‘hir’ talk at Blogher’.

    I just can’t keep up. I spent a week reflecting on whether the clutch of lesfam blogs I read (or my reading of them) are radical. I realised that I spend a lot of time not thinking about things, just being: or rather just doing something else. It feels like coming of age, coming ‘home’ even, the luxury of total absorbtion in the wonder of family life. Could the mundane somehow be the new radical?

    Then this post touched on so many mental dilemmas that I became aware of having in the run up to Father’s Day. In the midst of much doing, within a few keystrokes, my dilemmas were somehow teased apart and assuaged and I was off mulling over the wonders of our evolving family in new ways. And it seemed all of a sudden so terribly RADICAL!!

  6. mapa2three June 18, 2008 at #

    As a 40 year old single (sort of) mama to three children, I like to claim both mothers’ and fathers’ day for myself, but honestly cannot and do not feel absolutely comfortable claiming and/or possessing either day.

    I advise my children they are welcome to supply me with gifts and/or cards for either or both occasions, since, as I say to them around this time of the year, and generally at this Hallmark time only, “Since I am both mother and father to you.” And I feel like both. Or neither. I am perceived as The Mother, since I birthed and nursed these children. But I act more like The Father, having an easier time throwing a football around and letting the children eat ice cream than doing stuff like finding and applying bandaids to imagined owies.

    It is a strange place to be in. When asked, my children will reply in ways that suggest they certainly do not see me in any clearly defined gender (or gender particular parental) role. And as I get deeper into my own life and this parenting journey, I feel it is not all that easily defined for me either.

    So I’ll take both days. Thanks.

  7. sconniepops June 19, 2008 at #

    I have been lurking on your blog for the past eight months or so and finally got off my ass to post a comment. My partner and I have an adopted son–the amazing Miles–who is close to six months. I wanted to finally register my thanks for your blog. I get a lot out of your writing, your reflections, and the beautiful pics of your fam….I post my comments here because Father’s Day really caught me off guard. It’s still very weird to think of myself as a “father.” Family and friends kept asking how we were celebrating Father’s Day. I felt weird about it, and didn’t really know why. Your blog post helped me work through some of my thoughts–and some of my mixed feelings about the whole thing. My mom actually sent us cards not for Father’s Day but instead for Mother’s Day, which I really appreciated. I want to figure out a way to mix it all up, because that’s what feels right to me. Anyway, I loved this particular post…but mostly I wanted to just say thanks for blogging. You have big fans in Madison, Wi.

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