The “other” mother


When you’re a two-mom family, and your daughter’s school has a Mother’s Day event and a Father’s Day event, what do you do? Should both moms go to the Mother’s Day event? Should one go to the Mother’s Day event, and the other go to the Father’s Day event, so they each get their own special day? Should they stage a protest, recruit all of the families that are something other than one mom/one dad, and demand that the school adopt an all-inclusive “Parent’s Day”?

This is exactly the dilemma my family has been talking about this week. The Mother’s Day tea is this Friday. The Father’s Day breakfast is in early June. And all week, we’ve been discussing how to handle this. What’s interesting is that, for me, there is no dilemma. I’m the birth mom, and I’m planning to go to the Mother’s Day tea. Amy, on the other hand, feels quite conflicted. Because she’s The Other Mother. It sounds so Newhart-esque: “Hi. This is my mother. And this is my other mother.”

I joke about this, but it’s actually a source of mild stress in our family. As the non-birth parent, Amy tends to be perceived – and treated – differently than I am. Lots of times, we’ve been in situations where I’m clearly seen as “the mom,” but it’s not entirely clear where Amy fits into the puzzle until we explain it. Even when I was pregnant, Amy and I had lots of conversations about what our child would call her. It was clear that I’d be “Mommy” or “Mama,” but it wasn’t clear what Amy would be. (She came up with “Maddy” – a mash-up between “Mommy” and “Daddy.”) She has a different relationship with our daughter than I do - largely, I think, because of her non-biological status. In fact, from an institutional standpoint, because we had our daughter before same-sex marriage was legal in California, there was a short period of time where Amy had no legal tie to our daughter. That’s an incredibly othering experience – and it’s hard not to internalize that.

I have had lots of conversations with other two-mom families about these issues. We talk, for example, about the cultural script that exists for families who consist of The Mommy and The Daddy. Mommies do certain things, and Daddies do certain things. In the days of traditional gender roles, those scripts were more constricted, at least among middle-class families. Now that strides have been made towards gender equity, you’d think that those scripts in heterosexual couples would have evaporated – but they haven’t. Even researchers who talk about “modern marriage” note that gender roles still persist in even the most progressive heterosexual relationships. Mothers tend to do more housework than fathers – even when both spouses work full-time. Mothers are more likely than fathers to manage their children’s social lives – driving to sports practices, scheduling playdates, and taking children to birthday parties, for example. Even for heterosexual couples who are non-traditional and believe in equality, the tendency is, at least to some degree, to fall into these roles.

For us two-mommy families, however, those scripts just fly out the window, because gender doesn’t anchor us into specific roles. Because of that, same-sex parents (both two-mommy and two-daddy) are more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to have egalitarian relationships. In our house, for example, both of us alternate taking our daughter to school and picking her up. We take turns doing the food shopping and cooking. Amy cleans the house. (She’s better at it than I am.) I do the finances. (I’m better at that than she is.) Amy does most of the handyperson stuff, although I’m no stranger to DIY home improvement projects. I do most of our daughter’s social scheduling (it’s amazing how crowded a six-year-old’s social calendar can get!). Amy is usually the one to read stories to our daughter at night and put her to bed. We do what we do not because our culture provides a handy script for us. It’s just how we’ve figured out how to do things.

I’ve had many conversations with queer families about family roles and household tasks. And I’ve seen quite a few studies that focus on household and parenting roles among same-sex couples. However, there are almost no studies focusing on the ways The Other Mother – the non-birth parent – feels, well, “othered.” The thing we talk about the most is the issue that has been studied the least.

There is one study, by Kira Abelsohn and her colleagues at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Ontario. Using qualitative data, she and her colleagues identified a range of factors affecting the mental health and well-being of non-birth moms. These include the following:

Having a biological tie. Many two-mom families find a way for the non-birth mom to have a biological relationship to their child. I know several couples, for example, where the birth mom was inseminated with the sperm of a male relative of her partner. In one case, it was a brother; in another, it was a cousin. The presence of a biological connection, according to Abelsohn’s findings, increased the non-birth mom’s sense of connectedness and relatedness, which, in turn, was associated with better mental health and well-being.

Social recognition. For non-birth moms, being seen as a legitimate parent is associated with higher well-being and mental health. If, on the other hand, one is seen as “The Mom,” and the other is seen as “something else,” that tends to undermine the non-birth mom’s sense of well-being. This social recognition is important on an interpersonal level, but it’s particularly important on an institutional level. Many states, even today, prohibit same-sex couples from adopting children – and many lack second-parent adoption processes. Having those protections in place, in addition to providing a legal tie, offers significant mental health benefits to the non-birth parent.

Social support. Having a community of people who support and validate your role as a mom helps tremendously in terms of positive well-being. That community could be anyone – family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors – but it’s especially helpful to have a network of n0n-birth moms who might share similar experiences.

Amy doesn’t have a biological tie to our child. She does have a lot of social support, and she does enjoy a good amount of social recognition (even with the differential treatment she sometimes gets). However, non-birth moms (and other parents who don’t fit neatly into the heterosexual template) will continue to feel “othered,” I’m sure, until our society moves beyond seeing the one-mom, one-dad family as “standard,” and everything else as “alternative,”

Regarding our Mother’s Day/Father’s Day dilemma: Last week, when Amy pulled one of our daughter’s teachers aside to talk about this, the teacher leaned over and whispered, “You could double-dip if you wanted to.” She may, in fact, do just that.

8 Comments

Filed under children, LGBT families, mental health, psychological research, relationships, Uncategorized

8 responses to “The “other” mother

  1. Emilia Marquez

    Loved reading this blog! I can’t imagine what it’s like being seen as “the other mother”. After reading this blog I think you and Amy have done a successful job raising your daughter. She has been blessed with two awesome mommies who love her with all their hearts. Both of you are amazing parents! Even though it’s not Mother’s Day yet I wish both you and Amy a Happy Mother’s Day!!!

  2. Wonderfully said, Gayle… truly one of the best pieces I’ve read about parents in LGBT families. Thanks for sharing this! And I’m all for double-dipping, too!

    • Thanks so much, Jan! I always appreciate your feedback. Honestly, I’m amazed that more people haven’t written about the experience of non-biological moms. I just picked up an anthology about this titled Confessions of the Other Mother: Non-Biological Lesbian Moms Tell All, but other than that I haven’t seen much on this issue.

  3. David

    The obvious solution, to me, would be for the school district to de-sexify the visitation days and make a Parents’ Day. Or Guardians’s Day. Or Caretakers’ Day. There’s no reason why you and Amy should have to stress out over who should attend, or when; the school should be all-accomodating. Have you approached the Board or Administration with your concerns?

    • We haven’t approached the school at that level, although we have spoken to the teachers, and they’re supportive of whatever we want to do. You make a good point, though, in that there are many families that would benefit from de-sexifying these days. A friend of mine, for example, shared with me how difficult it was for her son after her husband died, and there was no father to attend Father’s Day. Another friend, after reading this post, shared the experience of her gay male friends and their son – the experience in school of the kids making Mother’s Day cards/gifts was always difficult for him. I think most families end up finding some way to accommodate, but rarely do I hear about schools that have changed their traditions in order to be more inclusive.

  4. I have to confess as to some brief confusion, when you mentioned that Amy came up with “Maddy”. You see, “Maddy” is a term that has gained a certain amount of acceptance among trans women who are parents. It was most famously popularised by Jennifer Boylan, whose children decided on the term when she asked them what they thought they should call her after her transition. Your post is the first time I have ever seen the term used by a cis lesbian.

    As I’m sure you will understand, transition can be very contentious within marriages, particularly where children are involved. I, myself, am estranged from my daughter, and I recently discovered that a male friend of my ex-wife took my daughter to a “Daddy-Daughter Dance”. I have some feelings about this, as you might imagine, since my ex-wife has cut off my contact with my daughter for reasons she refuses to divulge, and I have not seen my daughter in over 2.5 years. My daughter is 9 years old.

    My ex has also refused to have any conversations with me about how to discussion my transition with our daughter, and my family is refusing to confront my ex, because they fear she will cut off their contact with my daughter, as well. I did receive a Christmas card from my daughter, written at my family’s Christmas Party, and in it, she is still addressing me as “Daddy”, over five years at the time since my transition.

    I use the term, “Other Mother” jokingly, in reference to the book and movie, “Coraline”. But in reality, this is an issue that causes me deep pain. I know that my ex-wife is the type who feels that my transition somehow impinges on her role as Mother to our daughter, and that my desire for our daughter to call me by a sex/gender-appropriate title is an invasion of her identity, rather than a simple acknowledgement of my sex/gender.

    Transition means that I had to make my peace with the idea that my ex may eventually re-marry and my daughter will begin to call a strange man, someone who I may not like—or worse, not trust—”Daddy”. I’ll never be entirely OK with that, but it’s a consequence that I have to accept. I will accept it gladly, if in return, my daughter will call me, “Mom”.

    • We started using the term “Maddy” long before I read Jennifer Finney Boylan’s parenting memoir. My partner is actually intersex, and the term “Maddy” felt a lot more comfortable to her than using one of the “mother/mama/mommy” variations. So many non-hetero and/or non-cis people feel challenged with existing terminology – hence the creative neologisms.

      You bring up a lot of issues regarding your experience of transition and parenting, and I can only imagine the pain you experience as a result. It’s so unfortunate that your ex is making your transition about her, when your transition in no way threatens or infringes upon her role. I also hope that your daughter continues on her journey as you have on yours, and that she will come to use a more gender-affirming term to describe her relationship with you.

      Thanks so much for your comment, Gemma. Peace be with you.

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