Category Archives: mental health

The power of silence

Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented. – Elie Wiesel

Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly. – Mahatma Gandhi

Your silence will not protect you. – Audre Lorde

To be an activist is to use your voice. To speak up. To take action. Silence, for an activist, is a death knell. It signals complicity with the aggressor. Silence equals death.


These last few weeks, I haven’t posted any blog articles, which marks the longest stretch of inactivity since I started blogging at The Active  Voice. I can cite lots of reasons for this. I’ve been incredibly busy at work. My daughter’s school and social calendar has taken on a life of its own. And lately, I’ve been driving all over the place – Fresno, San Francisco, Silicon Valley – for book signings and presentations. My gas tank was running on empty – and for weeks, when blog-writing time rolled around, I chose instead to rest, regroup, and refuel. I wanted to be still and quiet. And I wasn’t feeling good about it. You’ve got a blog article to write, the nagging voice said. Don’t slack off.

And then, last week, a friend sent me an article that changed my perspective.

That article was titled “10 Important Reasons to Start Making Time for Silence, Rest, and Solitude.” Oh great, I thought to myself. Another fluffy self-help piece. But the article resonated with me, on several levels – and I found myself realizing that silence is not only personally healing, it can be a powerful tool in a social justice activist’s toolkit. In fact, I probably need to utilize silence much more frequently than I do. I won’t talk about all ten reasons outlined in the article, but I’ll focus on a few.

Silence strengthens intention and action. Most of us think of “silence” and “action” as mutually exclusive and incompatible concepts. However, Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University, says this in the article: “During silence, the mind is best able to cultivate a form of mindful intention that later motivates us to take action.” I might, for example, be dissatisfied with my job, to the point where it affects my work performance. However,  if I’m constantly in a flutter of activity, I’m not creating any space to process what that dissatisfaction is about – and that step needs to happen before I can identify what actions to take.

Here’s an example: Recently, my daughter came home from school singing a song that I thought had lyrics that were sexist. “Who taught you that song?” I asked her.

“My teacher,” she answered brightly, and then went back to singing it.

My initial reaction was anger. RAGE, really. I was ready to pick up my phone and fire off an e-mail to the teacher. Then I thought, No, it’s better to tell her my concerns after school. I started to write down what I wanted to say to her. Maybe I’ll text one of the other parents and see what they think, I thought. And then, somewhere in the depths of my soul, a tiny voice said, Wait.

I listened. And I’m glad I did. Later that day, after she had some after-school “quiet time,” my daughter was singing that song again. When she got to the offending lyric, she said, “I don’t like that part. I’m going to change it.” And she did – she created a totally different line that was positive and non-sexist. “From now on, I’m going to sing it this way at school,” she announced.

Had my daughter not been quiet, the idea might not have come to her. Had I not been quiet, I would have charged like a bull towards the teacher – and I would have denied my daughter the opportunity to take action. In hindsight, her way was far better than mine.

Silence gives us “a-ha” moments. In his memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King talks about how he gets his ideas: “Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.” But in order to recognize them, you need to slow down, be quiet, and pay attention. Jonathan Schooler and Jonathan Smallwood, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have studied this very phenomenon. When we’re quiet, they say, we’re more likely to daydream, to let our minds wander. Mind-wandering and daydreaming give us what they call an “incubation period,” where we digest our thoughts and let our ideas percolate – and this is where we’re most likely to have that “eureka!” moment. Interestingly, studies indicate that people who are more prone to daydreaming are more likely to score higher on tests of creativity – an essential skill for an activist navigating the rocky terrain of social justice work.

Silence increases our tolerance for discomfort. Try this: Find a comfortable place to sit. Set a timer for five minutes. Close your eyes, sit, and do nothing until the alarm rings.

How was it?

If you’ve never meditated before, I bet it felt like the longest five minutes of your life.

So many people HATE silence. They’ll chatter incessantly just to fill space. They’ll crack a joke after a period of uncomfortable silence in order to break the tension. Even texting or Facebooking on our phones is a way to prevent silence. If I’m in the waiting room, or on the bus, or in line, just sitting quietly might be too much to bear  – so it’s iPhone to the rescue, to keep the mental chatter going.

Several years ago, I participated in the Day of Silence, an annual day of action organized by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network). Participants take a day-long vow of silence as a symbolic representation of the silencing of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It’s a powerful experience, and for me, it was profoundly uncomfortable. Every time I nonverbally asserted my right to silence, I felt uncomfortable. Every time I watched other people’s uncomfortable reactions, I felt uncomfortable. The whole thing was just . . . uncomfortable. And that, actually, was the most illuminating part of the whole experience for me. I tolerated a tremendous amount of discomfort throughout the day, and to cope with it, I drew on internal resources I didn’t know I had. At the same time, I witnessed discomfort in others – lots of it. For me, it was an exercise that created a boundary between my discomfort and theirs – and that it’s not my job to rescue people from their feelings. Because the only way to do that, of course, would have been for me to break my silence.

Silence as a regular practice. Think about it.

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Filed under activism, mental health, psychological research, sexism

An attitude of gratitude

Several of my friends are going through a rough time right now. One is reeling from the breakup of a long-term relationship. Another is grieving the loss of both of his parents. Still another has had trouble finding a stable housing situation. And one friend was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. That’s just skimming the surface of the troubles I hear about. I don’t know if something is in the air or water or what, but a lot of people I’m close to are dealing with seriously heavy-duty stuff.

So how are they handling it, you might ask? Overwhelmingly, they’re going into gratitude. On a daily basis on Facebook, through personal e-mails, or in face-to-face conversations, they’re talking about what they’re grateful for. Several friends have been making gratitude lists and posting them on social media. As cliché as it sounds, they’re focusing on the fullness of the glass, rather than the emptiness. And what do you know – it helps them feel better. A LOT better.

Gratitude lists are nothing new – for decades, they’ve been the stuff of 12-step programs and Christianity. When sponsors tell their newly-sober protegeés to write a gratitude list, they’re trying to get them out of their negativity (“Now that I’m not drinking, life is dull and boring!”). When pastors talk from the pulpit about gratitude, they want to help people get in line with “God’s will” – an article in Christianity Today, for example, uses the story of Jesus traveling between Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem to illustrate the dangers of being ungrateful. From the Bible to The Secret (which, as an aside, is a book that I find to be dishonest and manipulative – but that’s for another post), gratitude has been a centuries-old antidepressant. It was Prozac before we had Prozac.

Given its Prozac-before-Prozac status, I’m struck by two things:

Thing 1:  The field of psychology is just beginning to pick up on the power of gratitude. Which is odd, considering that cognitive psychology (and understanding the connection between thoughts and mood), isn’t a new field. For whatever reason, gratitude is a subject that’s only now starting to appear in the research literature.

Thing 2: Gratitude is spreading through the queer community like wildfire. At least, in my circle of friends it is. What has traditionally been a cornerstone of Christian faith is gaining traction in the LGBTQ community – which I find to be deliciously ironic.

Let me expand a bit on Thing 1. Robert Emmons, a research psychologist at the University of California at Davis (right in my backyard!) is the first strong scientific voice to emerge on the subject of gratitude. He’s written scores of research articles, a handful of books (including The Psychology of Gratitude, written for an academic audience, and Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier and Gratitude Works! A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity, both written for the general public). Although Emmons is a scientist, Christianity appears to have a strong influence on his work. (I don’t know how Christianity has influenced his views on LGBTQ people.)

Whatever his bias, his studies of gratitude have yielded compelling results. His experimental research shows that keeping a regular gratitude journal causes people to exercise more, to feel better physically, to feel better about their lives, to have higher levels of optimism, and to move forward in attaining personal goals. They’re also more likely to feel alert, enthusiastic, determined, attentive, and energetic – the opposite of “depressed,” really. This is true even for people who are going through “heavy-duty stuff” – in one study of adults with neuromuscular disease, keeping a gratitude journal was associated with better moods, a stronger sense of connection to others, higher levels of optimism, and better sleep. Even children benefit from gratitude – according to one study, children who practice gratitude have more positive attitudes toward their families and toward school. It’s proof-positive: Gratitude is Prozac.

Now, to Thing 2. So far, no one has studied how gratitude affects LGBTQ people (or people from marginalized communities, as far as I can tell). However, I think people who engage in political activism are potentially high on the list of skeptics. (At least, I’ll cop to that.) Here’s how, at times, my thinking has gone:

Gratitude is naive, pie-in-the-sky, and unrealistic.

Gratitude will lead you down a slippery slope to complacency and indifference.

I’m suffering too much – how can I POSSIBLY be grateful?  

“Five Myths about Gratitude,” written by Robert Emmons, does a good job of addressing each of these statements. But since these arguments came from my head, I’ll share a little of my experience. Years ago, I was, well, going through some heavy-duty stuff. I spiraled downward towards the bottom of the drain. But before I got there, someone threw me a series of life preservers – one of which was The Gratitude List. I didn’t want to do it, but I did it anyway. (I was sane enough to know that you don’t have to like the lifeline that’s thrown to you, but taking it will save you.) And it worked. It allowed me to focus on the good things in my life (which are plentiful). It also shored up my resources to address the not-so-good things in my life (which are much less plentiful, but there). Gratitude isn’t ignorance – it’s fuel to help change things for the better, both internally and externally.

So what am I grateful for today?

I’m grateful that the sun came out today. (It’s been cold and foggy in Santa Cruz County – another thing I’m grateful for, given that it’s been f%$#ing hot in Sacramento.)

I’m grateful that I have friends and family who get me and my sense of humor.

I’m grateful that it rained recently. (For those of you who aren’t in California, rain is A BIG DEAL around here.)

I’m grateful that Stephen King didn’t die. (I just finished reading his memoir, and it gave me a deeper respect for him as a writer. If you read it, you’ll know what I’m talking about.)


I’m grateful that we have a run-down, falling-apart garage – because, when we save up enough money, we can turn it into an art and writing studio.

I could have mentioned the grand, sweeping things in my life. But the things I chose are honest. They ground me. They put a smile on my face. And they give me fuel to tackle the hard things.


Filed under children, gay suicides, health, mental health, psychological research, religion, Uncategorized

My queer feelings about Twitter

At a conference session that focused on book marketing, the presenter made the following point:

“If you want your book to succeed, you should get on Twitter.”

A colleague of mine, over lunch, recently said to me:

“You’ve got great ideas. You should get on Twitter.”

At the end of this past semester, the feedback one of my students gave me was this:

“Your class was great. But you should get on Twitter.”

All snarkiness aside, I will say this: I LOVE Pinterest – it dovetails well with my crafty/home-decorating/gardening/DIY/fun kid stuff interests. In contrast, I really have no idea what Tumblr really is. (I hear that’s a generational thing. And it bothers me that the word “Tumblr” is missing an “e.”) I do know what Twitter is – and a web article I came across captured my feelings about it exactly:

“Twitter promotes a culture of narcissism and attention-seeking. In combination with the 140 character limit it also promotes stupidity and dumbs down conversation.”

Needless to say, even though Twitter was developed during the first wave of social networking (along with Myspace and Facebook), I never bothered to join. On a gut level, I suspected that, in addition to enabling narcissism and dumbing down society, Twitter was creating a false sense of connection – a dangerous thing for people who are already socially isolated. (Like at-risk LGBTQ youth, for example.) At some point, however, I realized that my “promotes a culture of narcissism” attitude is contempt prior to investigation. And I began to consider the very real possibility that I could be missing out on something big. Plus I was feeling like a bit of a hypocrite, deriding Twitter but constantly losing myself in Facebook (a social network that probably promotes a culture of narcissism  – just in a different way).

So I bit the bullet, and I joined. I created a Twitter handle (@GaylePitman, if you’re interested). I started following people. I began to tweet (although I much prefer true birdsong). I learned what a hashtag is (the thing #thatlookslikethis), and I started to use them. I started GETTING followers.

And, because I’m an intellectual geek, I started reading about the psychology of Twitter. Would you believe that over 650 scholarly articles have been published about Twitter? Here’s a comparison: Use “gay African-American” as your search terms, and you get 502 articles. Search for “LGBT aging,” and you get 109 articles. More studies have been done on Twitter than on African American gay men and LGBT aging combined. The sheer amount of research that focuses on Twitter is mind-boggling, to say the least. And as I’ve been combing through this research, I can see the utility of Twitter, particularly for marketing purposes. However, I also think that Twitter can be dangerous. (Yes, I used the word dangerous.)  Especially for youth, including LGBTQ teens and young adults, who rely heavily on social networking platforms as a means of staying connected.

As I read through the research, three major concepts jumped out at me. The first, which emerged in many of the early studies of Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking platforms, involves what’s called “self-monitoring” and “impression management.” In a nutshell, these terms refer to the ways people self-police what they post. They want to look good, and they want people to like them, so people craft their posts (or tweets) in a way that will potentially be appealing to others. As a result, “friends” or “followers” aren’t necessarily getting a true or genuine picture of you – rather, they’re getting the cleaned-up, packaged version that you’re deliberately presenting.

The second concept involves what’s called “parasocial interaction,” a term coined in 1956 by sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl. When an interaction is parasocial, it’s imbalanced, one-sided, and non-reciprocated. Psychotherapy is an example of a type of parasocial interaction; ideally, the client is the one who’s revealing their innermost thoughts and feelings, and while the therapist is listening and responding, he or she isn’t reciprocating. If you love Prince William and Kate Middleton, you undoubtedly know a whole lot more about them than they do about you. Although you can have a conversation with someone on Twitter, typically a tweet is a type of parasocial interaction.

The last body of research involves what many researchers refer to as “herd behavior.” It’s certainly not a new phenomenon. Nietsche called it the “herd instinct.” Kierkegaard called it “the crowd.” Sigmund Freud developed what he called “crowd behavior theory” – and many people today on social media refer to it as the “hive mind.” All of these terms describe how people in large groups become deindividuated, losing their unique perspective and converging into uniformity. Some historians believe that Hitler capitalized on the herd phenomenon – it’s purported that, at his speeches, he planted German officers disguised as civilians within the crowd. These officers would then clap and cheer for Hitler, causing the rest of the crowd to follow suit. A related concept is what’s called the “spiral of silence theory,” which describes how people who hold a perceived minority opinion choose not to speak up, for fear of being criticized, threatened, or rejected.

OK, let’s recap. Social networking platforms (1) encourage the presentation of a false self, and discourage good-bad-and-ugly realness; (2) facilitate one-sided relationships, rather than exercising those give-and-take relationship muscles; and (3) trap you into the pit of the hive mind.

Let’s bring this back to LGBTQ issues. When I was coming out back in the mid-1990s, there was no Twitter. There was no Facebook. Hell, there was barely an Internet. (I know, I sound rigid and crotchety, but bear with me.) In many ways, this sounds like a terrible disadvantage, given the numerous information pathways that have opened up in the last 20 years. However, it forced me to get out of my house and meet real people. And I did. I met a lesbian woman who was an animation artist. I met a gay man who worked in the fab at Intel and wore one of those big bunny suits. I met a woman who danced at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco. I met a woman who had been exclusively attracted to women – and then was caught off-guard when she fell in love with a man. I watched people get into relationships, stay in relationships, and leave relationships. These were not stereotypes. These were not carefully crafted Twitter or Facebook profiles. These were real people, with all of their imperfections and vulnerabilities. And it was a true gift, because it allowed me to see that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of embracing your queer identity.

So I’m still on Twitter. It is actually a very useful marketing tool – if you have a need to market a product or an idea. It does get information out quickly – if you have information that’s useful to others. But for relationships, for connections, for community? I’d advise you to look elsewhere. Use Twitter for what it does well. Get out of your house and meet people if you’re looking to break isolation.


Filed under mental health, psychological research, relationships, stereotypes

Fighting a losing battle

As I’ve said repeatedly since I began blogging, we’re in the midst of rapid-fire change when it comes to LGBTQ rights. Sometimes I read the news headlines, or scan my Facebook news feed, and I feel like Billy Joel’s singing a contemporary version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” (Pennsylvania, Oregon, trans exclusions all gone! Football, RuPaul, Hedwig’s angry inch. Not bad, huh?) This week, three of those events caught my attention:

  • Last weekend, the Texas Republican Party adopted a party platform for 2014 that includes support of reparative therapy, a psychological approach that claims, despite being heavily discredited, to be able to change a person’s sexual orientation from gay to straight.
  • This past week, the Wall Street journal ran an opinion piece written by Dr. Paul McHugh, former chief psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. This piece was likely written in response to the Obama administration’s decision to reverse a 1981 policy that excluded gender reassignment surgery from coverage under Medicare. McHugh, in contrast, believes strongly that being transgender is “a mental disorder that deserves understanding, treatment and prevention.”  (A New York Times editorial, which ran a few days earlier, provided a much more pro-transgender perspective on this issue).
  • And last Thursday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. In that interview, when asked about her decision to include transgender rights along with lesbian, gay, and bisexual concerns, she said, “LBGT includes the “T,” and I wanted to stand up for the entire community. I don’t believe that people who are the L, the G, the B, or the T should be persecuted, assaulted, imprisoned, even killed for who they are.” (Full disclosure: She then, in a heated exchange with Gross, embarked on a clunky defense of her initial opposition to same-sex marriage.)

So hold on a minute. The Texas Republican party is supporting reparative therapy, even though a lot of highly respected professional organizations have issued public statements about how dangerous it is? A major news publication is running a piece declaring that transgender people are, by definition, mentally ill – even though the DSM-5 doesn’t include “transgender” as a mental disorder? Except for Hillary Clinton’s breath of fresh air (pun absolutely intended), these news articles seem like they could have been written 30 years ago.

Except they weren’t. This is happening today, in 2014. After the Supreme Court has overturned DOMA, and so many states have legalized same-sex marriage. After two states have banned reparative therapy for minors. After we’ve been closer than ever to passing an inclusive version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Of course, lots of people have continued to believe that being gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgender, or in any way gender nonconforming, is sinful, wrong, or sick, and that granting rights to LGBTQ people merely enables our “condition.” But coming out publicly, on large political and media stages, and stating these views is rising to new levels. It’s almost like the anti-LGBTQ rights folks are saying, This shit’s gotta stop. Time to end this nonsense. 

Some might say that this is a perfect example of a backlash – a powerful, almost violent, reaction against progressive change. Back in 1991, Susan Faludi wrote a bestselling book titled Backlash: The Undeclared War on American Women, in which she discusses the conservatism of the 1980s as a reactive response against the gains of various social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But I’m not sure “backlash” is the most accurate term. It’s more like a last, desperate gasp for air. These folks see that “one-man-one-woman” marriage statutes are tumbling down like dominoes. They see that ENDA now has bipartisan support in Congress. They see transgender rights gaining serious traction. And then they see Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine (oh, HELL no!), and seeing how close they are to the tug-of-war pit, they gather up every last bit of strength and start yanking on that rope as hard as they can.

What makes people dig their heels in so deeply, even though they know they’re fighting a losing battle? Why doesn’t someone like Paul McHugh budge – even just a little – on his beliefs, even when they conflict with the scientific consensus? Why does some factions of the Republican Party swing further to the right, even though they’re losing constituency groups? They’re on a sinking ship – why don’t they jump off?

I’ve scoured the psychological literature, in search of an answer to this question. And unfortunately, it hasn’t offered much. Some researchers point to personality characteristics, like the “authoritarian personality” – what psychologist Theodor Adorno thought reflected the “potentially fascistic individual.” From this standpoint, certain types of people are just more likely than others to dig in their heels and stay there. Other researchers view this stubbornness as a variation of the fight-or-flight response, a reaction to a perceived imminent threat. What that threat is certainly is up for debate; it could be a threat to one’s status and power, or it could be a more intrapsychic threat – a threat to one’s masculinity, for example, or a threat to one’s heterosexuality. Perhaps it’s a form of aggrieved entitlement, a variation of fight-or-flight and a concept I’ve written about in past blog posts – a feeling that one’s identity, status, and culture is being taken away from them, and a need to stand one’s ground against those changes.

Maybe it’s all of these. Or perhaps it’s none of these. Either way, research isn’t offering me great answers. At least, nothing that’s making me feel better.

When I’m surrounded by disturbing, uncomfortable, or distressing behavior, I tend to seek solace in the intellectual. If I can explain it, my reasoning goes, then perhaps I can have some control over it – and understanding is a form of control. Freud called this “intellectualization,” or “flight into reason.” (Freudian scholars, just to be clear, don’t see this as a particularly healthy form of coping.) To be honest, I’m distressed by the GOP’s party-line endorsement of reparative therapy. I’m distressed by Paul McHugh’s pathologizing statements about transgender people and surgery. And here I am, trying to explain their behavior, partly in an attempt to educate, but mostly in an attempt to just feel better. Because having large groups of people hating on you and wanting to fix you just feels yucky.

How did the song go? Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore! The Cola Wars may be over (or perhaps, in light of the New York City soda ban, we’re in a new Cola War), but I can absolutely relate to feeling overwhelmed by political attacks. Especially when those attacks my identity, and my family, and my community. Often, intellectualizing pulls me through. Direct action works wonders too. But sometimes, as odd as it sounds, giving myself the space to just feel yucky helps move me forward. Because really, the only way out of the yuckiness is through it. If I’m fighting a losing battle with my feelings, I’m being just as stubborn as the people that are causing me distress.




Filed under activism, gender nonconformity, homophobia, human rights, mental health, psychological research, reparative therapy, same-sex marriage, transphobia

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.


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