Queer families are teaching us that there are many ways to be a mother

What does it mean to be a mother? I have been thinking about this question before I became one myself, not just writing but reading the work of others. I’ve read hundreds of thousands of words on the subject, from writers from a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds, and while it’s been hugely rewarding, the question still lingers.

Not long after giving birth, as I struggled to feed a premature baby with my body, I picked up a copy of Claire Lynch’s memoir Small: On Motherhoods. It is, among many other things, a tender and powerful reflection on homosexual motherhood and what it means to be a mother when you are not the partner giving birth to or nursing the baby, and what it feels like to push against those archetypes. It sheds some light on what it feels like to embark on parenting as an atypical family: the scenes set in prenatal classrooms, in which Lynch is grouped with dads, are ironically funny but make a serious point about gender-divided parenting culture. The part where a colleague says, “Here she is, the woman who doesn’t even bother to give birth to her own children” (Lynch had a miscarriage and they finally decided that his wife would carry the baby) made a start.

It has been decades since gay women have been able to create families with the help of fertility treatments, and even longer since they have done so without. With some unfair barriers to IVF for lesbian couples that have recently been removed, their numbers are likely to increase. Yet so many societal ideas about parenting remain rooted in traditional gender roles. Lynch’s use of the plural “motherhood” is in proud contrast to that, a quiet but firm statement that the idea of ​​a single “mother figure” need not be fixed; which may depend on us how to play the role.

Nell Stevens is the author of the novel Briefly, A Delicious Life and is pregnant with her second child. She along with her wife, Eley, she is the mother of a small child and she tells me that since she became a parent she has felt more conflicted about the term “motherhood”.

“So much [of parenting culture] it’s ‘mothers are like that, fathers are like that,’ “he says.” With the perceived strengths of motherhood defined because of the perceived failures of fatherhood. Which is obviously bullshit. I feel very strange about the word motherhood now. in ways I didn’t expect. “The huge change in identity she was taught to expect when she became a mother did not happen.” I wonder if much of this is due to the fact that, in heterosexual relationships, the differences between the partners become so obvious and this in turn shapes your idea of ​​yourself in a shocking way. “

I agree. I think that in heterosexual relationships, no matter how egalitarian you try to be, gender roles in society do intervene. When there are two mothers, perhaps there is more freedom to design their own roles. This is not to say that there are still no differences between the birthing parent and the non-birthing parent, which can make change difficult in all ways, but, as Stevens says: “it freed us to be more authentically parenting. , I think, instead of saying ‘I’m the dad, so I do this’. “

As is often the case, it’s the surrounding culture that posed challenges, from midwives assuming Eley was Nell’s mother (“She’s younger than me!” Nell says) to romantic ideas about fatherhood and dads fixing everything. “Parenting is the only space where I’ve been made to feel really weird,” she says. “It’s still a little shocking to a surprising amount of people.”

Speaking to reporter Sian Norris, who grew up in a gay family of two (her mother had a straight marriage with her father, then met her partner when Sian was a child), there is a sense that society has moved on. since the days of section 28 and the AIDS prejudice – but not as much as we could have done. “I wasn’t open to growing up in a gay family until my late teens, actually, because anything ‘gay’ was seen as bad, disgusting or sick when we were younger,” she says. “We were warned that we would be raised as ‘monsters’ and that we would become drug addicts or child abusers … this was the common narrative of the time.” The fact that there was no “male influence” in the house was something people couldn’t understand.

“I felt a lot of anger at Section 28 which made my family ‘false’ and unspeakable,” he tells me. “And for the past few years I’ve still experienced homophobia from co-workers, which was a shock after being open about it for so long.” That pernicious phrase that “a child needs a mother and a father” still persists today. According to a 2020 study, one in three lesbian mothers in Britain have experienced homophobia from other parents, while the same percentage have children who are bullied for having two moms.

That’s why it’s so radical and good to see so much writing about queer motherhood, from Booker-winning Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, to an upcoming memoir by Kirsty Logan, The Unfamiliar, to Lynch’s Small. The beauty of the latter is her calm affirmation that what a mother does is not biology but presence, those tender moments of care, hard engagement, fatigue, fear: sharing and guiding the journey of wonder and discovery. of that child as he grows up.

What’s working
Thanks to everyone who recommended Bonds Wondersuits as a solution to the cold hands of children. I was already a convert due to the time saved by their double zips, but they also come with cuffs and can be bought cheaply on eBay and Vinted. Scratch-resistant sleeves and well-tucked socks were also welcome suggestions. The baby’s extremities are now nice and toasty, and he’s back to sleep well.

What it is not
I had to dictate part of this column to my mother, as the baby started screaming when I leave the room. Welcome to the prison of separation anxiety.

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