Do We Want To Raise “Tough Guys”?

Do We Want To Raise “Tough Guys”?

By Aileen Jones-Monahan


I wondered if part of my fear of the “tough guy” son came from a fear of this very disapproval—that a “tough guy” son, when he got old enough to really think it over, would be mad about having two moms.


The first time my son put on a tutu, he was almost four. We stopped in at a coffee shop, and while I lingered at the counter to rifle through the sugar packets, Matthew wandered over to check out the bin of gnawed-up kid’s books. The tutu was in a heap next to two sparkly pink shoes, as if shucked in a hurry. Matthew’s eyes lit up. He’d seen little girls in tutus zipping around the playground, but hadn’t mustered the nerve to ask for a turn. Now he hastened to pull the tutu up over his jeans, looking down at himself in delight.       

A part of me instantly relaxed. And I realize it was because I don’t find a child in a tutu the tiniest bit alarming. What I find alarming, is a child jabbing a plastic sword into another kid’s fleshy belly, shouting “Die! Die! Die!” Or a teenager lost in the folds of a dingy sweatshirt, only the tip of his oily nose visible when he slumps past you on his way to his den in the basement. Maybe tough guys in general.    

But when my partner and I were trying to get pregnant, I didn’t think about a full grown man—a potential “tough guy”—living in my house. I thought about, I don’t know, pajama bottoms with little ducks on them.  

But now the kid is real. If he draws a picture of half a bloody antelope—because the other part has already been eaten—we hang it up. If he grows up to play that game at the kitchen table where you jab a switchblade between your fingers super-fast, then I’ll have marks in my table. And maybe part of a finger. The point is, we’re stuck with him. And I hope he turns out to be gentle.

Sometimes I wonder—quietly, to myself—if not having a father in the house is the magic needed to avoid “the tough guy.” Maybe, because we spend so much time building fairy houses in the woods behind our house, it will never occur to my child to stomp up the stairs, yell at me to mind my own business, and kick his little brother. It’s not going to be from me that he gets the idea to plot the purchase of a motorcycle.

But then I think of my brother, and the hole he punched through his bedroom wall, and how he certainly didn’t “get” this from my father, who wasn’t even there, and I realize I’m not on the right track.

I sit down by the bookshelf, take a sip of my coffee, and settle my foot on my knee. “Does the tutu make you magic?” I ask, leaning forward, my face alight with wonder.

“Nope,” Matthew says. “It just makes me fancy.” He flounces up the sides and grins.

I allow myself, for a moment, to fantasize that he will always be this way. A little boy sitting on the carpet brushing the mane of his plastic horse, humming to himself, sounded nice. If no one ever told him ponies were supposed to be dinosaur meat, maybe he’d never figure it out.

But what was I trying to do here? Raise a wimp? At a birthday party earlier in the summer, Matthew had been quietly swinging on a tire swing when three boys his age came up and started spinning him. It didn’t seem mean-spirited, exactly, but when he started calling “Mommy! Mommy! Help me!” like a child being lifted off from the ground in the talons of a dragon, the boys tightened their circle—a little hungrily, I thought—and it occurred to me that maybe this was why parents tried to toughen their kids up. What would have happened next if I hadn’t been there to pull him off?

In my cousin’s family, she is the one who meets her son’s eyes in the rearview mirror and snaps “Stop crying,” and it is her husband who catches her sleeve and says, “Can you be more gentle?” It is good for me to remember the two of them. Because I think it is this very gender-expectation switcheroo that gives me the answer I’m looking for. Or, makes me understand that I’ve been asking the wrong question. I want to be thoughtful about how much aggressive behavior I expose my son to, not how much maleness.

Because of course there is my friend Debbie, who is married to a woman and cheers her son on when he torments snakes in the yard. We don’t play at their house anymore.

I set my empty coffee cup on the floor by my chair and watch Matthew plop down on a bean bag chair, the tutu bunched up around his tiny waist. “Do you want to make those felt finger puppets when we get home?” I ask. He sits up to grab one of the sparkly shoes and struggles to fit his foot under the strap. “Yeah.”

We recently found a book in the library with color illustrations of outfits worn by Victorian women, and we’d agreed it would be cool to glue together little puppets, so we could make them do things.

When we got home, Matthew ran upstairs to get the library book, and I pulled the art bin down onto the rug so we could get to work.

“This lady is going to sit and write some poetry later,” Matthew explained, rubbing his glue stick along the hem of the skirt he’d made, so he could press on a little strip of lace.

“Neat!” I exclaimed, feeling somewhat smug. If snake torture was in our future, it wasn’t here yet.

But as I watched him carefully trim the yarn glued to the puppet’s head, holding her at arm’s length to see that her hair was even on both sides, I caught my breath—because I suddenly realized I was enjoying this for an altogether different reason, and I instantly felt ashamed of myself. If Matthew kept this up: kept wearing tutus and making his dolls exclaim “These flowers smell wonderful!” then he would be…a bit of a gender variant. Just like dear old Mommy, who never giggled coyly when the boys talked about bikinis or minded holding frogs. We’d be up to the same tricks, and he could never turn to me as a teenager and say, “You’re not normal.” He couldn’t decide it was selfish of me to marry a woman, or wish I’d been straight, so he could have had both a mom and a dad.

I wondered then if part of my fear of the “tough guy” son came from a fear of this very disapproval—maybe it seemed more likely to me that a “tough guy” son, when he got old enough to really think it over, would be mad about having two moms.  

It’s not that I’m worried he’ll conclude not having a Dad failed to teach him something—shaving? Modulating a deep voice? No, what I worry is that he’ll get it all wrong and decide that I kept an entire person from him—a person who would have loved him, and knelt down to look in his eye, and explained things to him, putting a hand on his shoulder. Growing up thinking your mom knowingly kept such an important person out of your life—a person that kids all around you are running to catch up with—is awful to consider. Because of course that’s not what happened—he got that whole person, his other mom has been there every day of his life, kneeling down and looking him in the eye. He got his two parents, and I consider that lucky. I hope he will too. And I hope that when he’s a man, he’s not too much of a tough guy to hang out with his mother.

Aileen Jones-Monahan lives with her family in Western Massachusetts. For weeks now she’s been allowing her children to do things she herself was never permitted to do: take bed pillows into the backyard, plug-in extension cords, and draw on each other’s arms with “body markers” before school. Everybody seems fine.


On Infertility and Magical Thinking

On Infertility and Magical Thinking

By Jennifer Berney


Infertility is a solitary pain. The body, alone, remains alone.


When I first began trying to conceive, I believed that I’d be pregnant within a month. For one thing I was only twenty-eight years old. Because I’m a lesbian, I had already worked out all of the logistics: I knew when I ovulated, and I knew that the donor sperm we had purchased was viable—our doctor had watched them swim beneath a microscope. Of the millions of sperm that would be delivered directly to my uterus, only one of them had to find my egg. What could go wrong?

Besides these clinical facts, I had stories I told myself around conception. I had already spent years of my adult life pining for a child. Surely this desire would inform my body’s ability to conceive. Though I understood that conception took an average of three to six months, I knew plenty of women who had conceived on their first try. I held their stories close to me like talismans. The first time I lay on the exam table for an insemination—my feet in stirrups, my partner holding my hand—I summoned a feeling of openness and joy. Of course this would work. Of course it would.

It didn’t. Months later, when I still wasn’t pregnant, my stories about conception changed. I no longer daydreamed about the women I knew who had conceived immediately. Instead, I imagined I was waiting for the right child to choose me. I pictured little baby-spirits, hovering, taking stock of all the candidates. Sympathetic friends tried to console me with their own magical thinking. “It will happen when it’s meant to happen,” some of them told me. “It will happen when you finally stop worrying about it,” others said.

The stories I told myself and the ones my friends told me had this in common: they imposed order on a process beyond our control.

Story 1: If a child-spirit chose me, then I would be a parent.

Story 2: A force called destiny would choose when I got pregnant.

Story 3: My thoughts controlled my womb.

I didn’t know what to think of any of these stories, these tropes of magical thinking, including my own. I didn’t quite believe them, and yet they haunted me. The third story was the least comforting of all. Surely my attitude was within my realm of control and yet, the more I tried not to worry, the more I worried, and the more I worried the more I blamed myself for worrying.

One day, after nearly a year of trying and failing, after having spent thousands of dollars on frozen sperm and monthly inseminations, I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store. She had dated a close friend of mine not long ago, and so she was privy to my situation. “What’s going on with the baby thing?” she asked me. We stood between shelves of toothpaste and shampoo. I looked at my shoes and then back at her. “It’s just not happening,” I confessed.

“Well,” she said, her voice strangely chipper, “maybe you just weren’t meant to be a parent. Did you ever think about that?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve thought about that.”

*   *   *

Now that I’m the parent of two young boys, there’s a mind game I like to play with myself sometimes. When my children are hugging each other on the couch or running ahead of me on a dirt road, I take a snapshot in my mind and offer it to my earlier self, the me of nine years ago. She is preparing to turn thirty and wondering what she will do if she’s not pregnant soon. Will she spend another small fortune on IVF? Will she apply for an open adoption and hope that someone will choose her? It is true that she has options; it is also true that none of them guarantee a child.

The me of nine years ago tries not to cry to her partner too often. Infertility is a solitary pain. The body, alone, remains alone. For two weeks of the month the mind hopes and imagines. With blood those hopes are dashed. Her partner, on the other side of things, continues in a body unchanged by the ritual of hope and disappointment. Her partner learns about the blood arriving, but is not the one checking her underwear every hour.

And so when I cried, my partner tried to comfort me by saying, “I’m not worried about it. I know that we’ll have a child. When it’s meant to happen it will happen.”

Destiny again. Magical thinking. These words didn’t help me nine years ago. The only thing that could have helped would have been a picture of my future life. With this evidence I might have waited calmly. But the snapshot of my children, handed through time, is a dream. In the real world no one can offer evidence. They can only offer hope disguised as certainty.

The longer I tried and failed to conceive, the more I saw that there were plenty of people around me who wanted children and would never have them. Some of them had never found the partner they were looking for, or they found that partner too late. Some of them conceived and lost a child and then couldn’t conceive again. Some of them pursued adoption but were never matched with a child.

This isn’t destiny, at least not in the benevolent sense of the word. It wasn’t the kind hand of the universe intervening for some unknown reason. Instead this was reality. Sometimes you want a thing very badly and still you don’t get it. When life presents challenges, when it drops bombs of longing and grief, we inevitably grow and gain depth. But this doesn’t mean that those challenges were pre-ordained.

I do believe that the stories we make of our lives are important. But they are just that: stories. We reach into the chaos of the universe and try to pull out some meaning and order. Because my story has a happy ending, I can pretend that it was destined after all, that I was meant to be a parent. But the true story is this: I got lucky.

The me of nine years ago reaches forward in time. She takes the snapshot from my hand and reminds me of how badly I wanted the life I have now. She reminds me to listen in the dark as my children breathe. She reminds me of how tenuous all of this is, our lives together on this earth. We are the products of a series of infinite chances, bound to each other by the near-impossibility of it all.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays can be found in The New York Times MotherlodeThe Washington PostThe Manifest-Station and in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Questions and Answers

Questions and Answers

By Margaret Elysia Garcia
questionsandanswersI grew up with a mother who answered all my questions before I’d even asked them—and gave explanations that could send most kids into a depression. At age six, when asked whether I could have ice cream before dinner, I got to hear about how my mother just read Diet for a New America and how ice cream might lead to my premature death.

When my mother came out as a lesbian, I was in junior high, and made the mistake of asking how long she’d known. I expected the answer to come in a sentence with perhaps a numeral in it. Instead I got a complete blow-by-blow description of the last 30 years of her life.

I fared no better with my father, a biologist, who couldn’t fathom that a child might ask a simple question like ‘what kind of bird is that?’ and not want to know the Latin name, all its classifications, its possible position on the endangered species list, its last known sighting, and whether ranchers were responsible for its demise. I vowed that when I had my own kids, I would give them straight and to-the-point answers.

But genetics are a tricky thing. My seven-year-old daughter has already had one or two existential crises in which she’s exclaimed, “Playing? Eating? Sleeping? School? Is that all there is?” My nine-year-old son was caught explaining the history of film to bewildered third graders on the playground.

We watched the original Godzilla together. Then came the questions. What’s radiation? What’s a Geiger counter? These were easy to field. Channel my dad, don’t channel my mother and tone it down. Next questions get harder. Why would people want to test bombs and blow them up in the ocean? Don’t they know there’s fish down there? Why do we have nuclear weapons if we know they could kill? Because we’re human. We can’t help it. I don’t have an answer. Okay. Too many questions. Too many answers. Mommy is tired now.

But for all their questions, the children never asked about the obvious—their surplus of grandmothers. Every Saturday morning their lesbian grandmothers pick them up and take them to their house for the day. But lately they’ve been making observations. “So Mommy, if Papa Dennis is our grandfather and Grandma Lydia is our grandmother how come they don’t live together? How could you be born if they don’t live together? How did they have you? Did they divorce? Where does Grandma Lynn fit in?”

My daughter has come home from school crying that she feels left out—all her other friends have stepmothers and stepfathers. When is she finally going to get some? Again, I have no answers. I think about exploiting my mother and saying, “Paloma, you guys are the only kids on the block with lesbian grandmothers—that’s way better than stepmothers—now go outside and play!”

In 2008, when gay marriage was legal in California, my mother and her partner of 20 years decided to get married. I still worried about fielding those questions. I figured we’d just never make anything a big deal and there’d be no questions. I sat them down and told them over after-school snacks.

“The grandmas can’t get married,” my daughter said. Oh no. All my liberal, progressive parenting out the window. Did I not answer questions correctly along the way? Should I have given more detailed answers she never asked for? Would that have transformed her into an accepting individual? I heard my mouth open and some sort of this-day-was-coming speech fell stumbling out of my mouth.

“Paloma, when two people love each other and are ready to make a commitment … commitment is when … you can marry a boy when you grow up or a girl … or no one … you can stay single …That might not be a bad thing for you, actually—.”

“Mom. I’m not asking for an explanation; I’m just telling you it’s impossible. I want them to get married, but they can’t.”

“Actually, in California, now they can…” I heard myself rattle on about court decisions, extremists, fascists, freedom, and the civil rights movement. A red light flashed above my eyes and I knew I’d done it! Information overload. I had become my parents.

“You don’t get it Mom,” she sighed. “They don’t have any dresses. Have you ever seen the grandmas in dresses? I help them clean their house and closets. I’ve never seen one. Weddings have to have dresses.”

She threw my resolve into a bit of a spiral. I had at least four paragraphs left of my speech about how you fall in love with the person and not the gender. But instead I was forced to explain that, despite having no fashion sense whatsoever, her grandmothers could and would get married.

The grandmas can’t help themselves, Paloma, they’ve bought stock in Land’s End and L.L. Bean.

“No turtlenecks, please!” My son laughed. Poor kid. My mom has been dressing him like a middle-aged lesbian for years now. My daughter asked if they’d at least wear dress shoes instead of sneakers.

“One can only hope,” I said. “But I wouldn’t hold out for it. You don’t need dresses or nice shoes though, you just need love.” Paloma shrugged.

“Okay, Mommy,” she said. “But they’re going to have a cake, right? Everyone? has cake at weddings.” She looked to me to confirm customs and for a second I thought about explaining veganism and a gluten-free diet but thought better of it.

“Yes on the cake,” I announced, happy to finally answer a simple, direct question.

Author’s Note: I knew I was going to write something like “Questions & Answers” for a while. It occurred to me that the fear of the general population towards gay and lesbian parents is always sexualized. I thought it would be fun and much more realistic to show what kids are really concerned about—dresses, for example. I submitted the story to Listen to Your Mother—a national spoken word Mother’s Day show and performed it onstage at Cowell Theater in San Francisco in May 2012.

Margaret Elysia Garcia writes poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and memoir. She was a Pushcart nominee in 2011 for an excerpt from Coming Out Too, her memoir in progress about growing up in a gay military household. She was also a Glimmer Train finalist in 2011, and her short story manuscript 605 Freeway Stories won second place in the 34th Annual Chicano/Latino Literary Award in fiction. She blogs at

Brain, Child (Winter 2013)


Learning to See All Families

Learning to See All Families

By Jennifer Berney


It surprised me that in this century, in a metropolitan area, a person who worked in the field of Prenatal Diagnosis would have no idea how two women could conceive a child.


I was four months pregnant when a colleague sat next to a close friend of mine at a dinner party. Apparently, the colleague knew about my sexual orientation, but hadn’t heard my news, and so when my friend informed her that I was expecting my first child, she looked startled. “How in the world do two women make a baby?” she asked, making no effort to disguise her dismay.

Around the same time in my pregnancy, I sat in an office with a genetic counselor. She was in her mid-twenties with long red hair and an eager attitude. The purpose of the visit was to sleuth out any diseases my unborn child might be at risk for, and so she asked me dozens of questions about my family’s medical history. I answered them without incident, until she turned a page on her clipboard and looked up.

Early in the appointment she had made reference to my husband. “My partner,” I corrected, and assumed she caught the hint. “So your partner,” she began now, “does he have any health issues?”

“Well my partner is female,” I told her. “We used sperm from a donor.”

“Oh my god. I’m so sorry,” she said. Her face turned red and she returned her gaze to the clipboard. She fumbled with her papers, looking through them as if she had lost something between the pages. “Do we have to start all over now? I mean, was it even your egg?”

It surprised me that in this century, in a metropolitan area, a person who worked in the field of Prenatal Diagnosis would have no idea how two women could conceive a child.

These were just two of many times during my pregnancy when I seemed to be a walking contradiction: a pregnant lesbian. As my belly grew, I felt acquaintances assess me with a look of concern. It seemed they were worried that something had happened. Had I left my partner? Had I taken a lover? Or maybe I was just gaining weight?  I’m sure that all of these people had heard of sperm banks, and yet they seemed unable to comprehend my pregnancy.

My own uncle’s reaction helped me understand this phenomenon. Towards the end of my first trimester, he and his wife were passing through town and so I took them out to lunch. My uncle, a soft-spoken smart aleck, relies on a cochlear implant to hear, and my voice, which is quiet, often misses his limited range. Once we’d settled into our seats and exchanged pleasantries, I shared my news. “I’m pregnant,” I told them. “Kellie and I are expecting a baby in October.”

My uncle cupped his hand around his ear and said, “I didn’t catch that.” My aunt leaned toward him and enunciated in his ear: “She’s expecting a baby.”

“Oh,” he replied casually. “No wonder I didn’t hear.”

I didn’t ask him to clarify. I knew exactly what he meant. The possibility that I, his thirty-year-old niece in a committed relationship, might be pregnant was nowhere on his radar. Though I said I was pregnant, he couldn’t hear it. This was similar to the acquaintances who could see that I was pregnant, but couldn’t believe it. A pregnant woman was a straight woman; lesbians were either infertile or uninterested in children.

The assumptions that we make about pregnancy—that there are two parents actively involved, that one is a man and the other a woman—reveal our unconscious ordering of the world. When people defy our expectations, we have choice: to slip into denial, or adjust the barriers that confine our thinking. We can refuse or we can choose to see.

Of course, I continue to greet these assumptions in my daily life as a mother. Often, when filling out paperwork, I must cross out the box that says “Father” and hand-write the word “Mother.”  My son has learned to correct people when they ask him about his “Daddy.” “I have two Mommies,” he replies. I don’t yet detect a trace of shame in the statement, though I’m worried that someday I will.

When he was one, and before he could make such corrections I brought him to a children’s salon for his first haircut. “Is Dad going to freak out?” the stylist asked as she clipped the first lock of hair.

“Nah,” I answered. The question had caught me off guard. I know, of course, that she meant nothing by it, but I felt the same sense of bewilderment that I did when the genetic counselor asked, “Are they even your eggs?” Here was a woman who dealt with families every day. If she didn’t meet many queer families, didn’t she meet plenty of single mothers, or single fathers, or kids being raised by grandparents, or stepparents, or foster parents?

Learning to see queer families, to know that they exist beyond the world of television and tabloids, is just one part of learning to see the whole range of families that exist in our communities. Not assuming that any given child has one father and one mother may seem like a small courtesy we can offer each other, but I think it goes beyond that. Taking for granted that families can take infinite forms helps us to remember that love itself is boundless, an answer that can’t be confined by a single equation.

Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, Mutha, The Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes.  She lives in Olympia, Washington and blogs at

To read more Brain, Child essays on same sex parenting, purchase our themed bundle.




By Andrea Askowitz

10561821_10152551027024831_7837742621201540040_nI’m going on two hours in the waiting room at the pediatrician’s office when I send my wife an angry text, “Waiting for the pediatrician is NOT what I envisioned for my life.”

Victoria is at work. She’s a financial advisor at a prominent firm. She texts me back, “You are the most beautiful and sexy mommy.” Feels good for a second. Then I think: That’s like saying, “You look hot doing the dishes.”

I look up at the other mothers diddling on their cell phones; at the sick kids crawling all over the floor; at our two-year-old, Sebastian, putting a filthy toy in his mouth.

I write my cell number on a sticky note and ask the receptionist to call when it’s our turn. “You guys need pagers,” I say, “like at restaurants.”

I take Sebastian outside and call my mom to bitch. She says, “Tree…apple.  Tree…apple. You have a boy and a girl and a big dog. You don’t have a traditional job. You’re the one who takes the kids to the doctor. You’re just like me.”

I get off the phone feeling very afraid. Am I turning into my mother?

Last weekend my mom and her boyfriend Bob were over, hanging out with the kids. Sebastian was tugging on Bob’s mountain-man beard. My mom tugged on Bob’s beard. She said, “If I didn’t take my estrogen, I’d have the same face.”

My mom has Chaetophobia—fear of hair. She has it, I know, I looked it up on the Internet. She’s obsessed with sprouting. On women.

My mom’s so afraid of hair, she gets her legs waxed, the first of every month. I’ve seen the hair growth between waxings. She has four hairs on each leg, and they’re blond.

My hair is much thicker and darker than my mom’s. When I shave, I get a five o’clock shadow by noon. The day I turned 16, my mom took me for my first waxing. I thought it was a thoughtful gift, until the wax lady pulled off the first strip.

Once during a hippie phase, I let all my body hair grow out as a way of honoring my body in its natural state. Coincidentally, during that phase, my aunt was taking a photography class and needed a nude model.

My aunt and I met at my mom’s house. I took off my shirt and my mom must have caught a glimpse of my armpits. Before I could step out of my childhood bedroom, she rushed at me with a razor.

To cure her Chaetophobia, I tried to get my mom to go to MitchFest. At MitchFest, five thousand women converge on a plot of land in the woods of Michigan to play or listen to music, sleep in tents, sweat in lodges, and make paper mache casts of their breasts.

At MichFest it’s clothing optional. You see bushes as wide as the grasslands. You also see more mustaches than you’d see at a Mariachi convention. If you’ve shaved your armpits, which I made the mistake of doing the first time I went, you are out of style. You walk around with your arms pressed down against your sides.

If you have a fear of hair, that place is exposure therapy. But, I couldn’t get my mom to go.

She said, “I’m too old to be sleeping in a tent.” And that got me thinking. Maybe my mom’s Cheatophobia is really a mask for Gerascophobia—fear of aging.

She’s always talking about how she doesn’t have enough time to do all the things she wants to do, like finding the time to buy green bananas. She also complains about how her knees don’t work without glucosamine. And that she misses the days when my brother and I were kids. “How did the time go so fast?” she says and gets a little tear in one eye.

When I asked her about Gerascophobia, she said she fears getting older less than she fears the alternative, which means she has Thanatophobia—fear of death.

“I’m just afraid,” she said, “if I’m ever mugged, the newspaper headline will read, ‘Elderly Woman Gets Mugged.’  I’m not so much afraid of getting mugged. Just afraid they’ll call me ‘elderly.'”

I knew it. She’s afraid of looking old. She has Rhytiphobia—fear of getting wrinkles.

My cell phone rings. I walk back into the waiting room. Sebastian and I are escorted past the sick kids to one of the tiny offices with the chair for the mom and the paper-sheet covered bed for the child. I sit in the mom chair, just like my mom always did.

Am I that apple that doesn’t fall far from the tree? Do I have all the same fears?

I do get my legs waxed, and I am always on the lookout for stray eyebrows—the ones that show up on the chin. But fear of hair? No. Just a healthy concern. And I don’t fear appearing old. Every time my mom greets me she says, “Would you dye that mop already? You look like an aging hippie.”

“Thanks,” I say. “That’s the look I’m going for.”

But actually aging, that scares me. The other day I was at the dermatologist getting some spots looked at. Spots I’m sure I didn’t have five years ago. The nurse and I discovered we both went to Palmetto High. I said, “I graduated in 1986.”

She said, “I was born in 1986.”

I sucked in my breath and my gut. That was my reaction, like I was on an airplane that did a nosedive.

I had a similar reaction the other night when I was lying on my back reading with my daughter and she pulled and stretched out the skin on my neck. She said, “Mommy, why is your neck like a lizard?”

Fear of aging? For sure. I’m getting old, and fast. I have a lot left to do. And I fear death too. I could die before it’s all done.

It has been two hours and forty-two minutes. I am still waiting for the doctor. Sebastian has ripped the sheet into strips. I know the doctor is meticulous about his room, but I don’t care. I yank the sheet all the way off, crumple it into a ball, and throw it onto the floor as hard as I can. It bounces. I put Sebastian on the floor with the paper ball and two tongue depressors. “Play ball,” I say.

I pull out a pad and paper to tally my mom’s phobias against mine:

PHOBIA                              MOM                                   ME

Cheatophobia (hair)             yes                                     no  (healthy concern)

Gerascophobia (aging)        no                                       yes

Thanatophobia (death)        yes                                      yes

Rhytiphobia (looking old)     yes                                      no


We only have one phobia in common—fear of death. I am not becoming my mother. I am not becoming my mother! I sing that the second time, even though that’s not what I’m afraid of.

What I’m really afraid of becoming is just a mother. I know motherhood is the most important job in the world. I was hoping for motherhood and…well, more.

I’m a mother but I’m also a writer. I’ve written one book and now I’m working on another one. I want to be recognized as a great talent. But how will I become a great talent if I spend my entire life at the pediatrician’s office?

When the kids are asleep, I sneak out once a week to teach a writing class. I tell my students never to mention they’re writers in their stories. “Don’t do it,” I say, “unless you’re Joyce Carol Oats or Steven King. Yes, own it in the universe, tell all your friends, make it real. But when you write that you’re a writer, if the reader has never heard of you, he or she will just feel sorry for you.”

The only time it might work to mention you’re a writer, I say, if you’re not Joyce Carol Oats or Steven King, is if your point is, you’re just a mother.

I have Justamotherphobia.

The pediatrician comes in. I have been waiting two hours and fifty-nine minutes. I have gotten old in his office. I hand him my list of phobias. He looks at my list. He looks up and wrinkles his forehead. He is a doctor with a flourishing practice. He’s at the top of his game. He doesn’t understand.

Andrea Askowitz is the author of the memoir, My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy. Her stories have appeared or been heard in places like the New York TimesSalon.comJewcy.comSliver of StoneFourTwoNineNPR, and PBS. Follow her on Twitter @andreaaskowitz



Conversations with my Son About Gender

Conversations with my Son About Gender

By Jennifer Berney


When my son was three, as he sat at the kitchen table playing with his Etch-a-Sketch, he offhandedly asked me the following question:

“When Mommy Kellie was a little boy, did she have an Etch-a-Sketch too?”

The wording of this question reveals a lot about our family. To begin with, of course, my son has two moms. I am his birth mother, and so far have played the traditional role of “Mommy”: I’ve been the breast-feeder, the diaper-changer, the lunch-packer, the medicine-giver. But my partner Kellie goes by “Mommy” too. She’s the one he runs to when one of the handles has fallen off of his dresser; she’s the one who brings him to the dump and stops for hot chocolate along the way. My son has never attempted to call my partner “Daddy” and has never stumbled over gender pronouns. And yet, apparently his understanding of gender categories had some room for variation.

“She probably did have an Etch-a-Sketch,” I answered, “but did you know that Mommy Kellie was actually a little girl and not a little boy?”

My son gave me a puzzled look. “When did she change?” he asked me.

“Well,” I answered, “what is she now? Is she a woman or a man?”

He thought for a good while. “She’s a mommy,” he concluded, apparently giving up on the categories I had offered.

Gender was confusing to me too. Before our son was born, I had ideas about raising him gender neutral, not constraining him to our cultural mandates on what colors he could wear or what toys he could play with.  I didn’t plan to put him in dresses, but I happily bought a pink onesie and enjoyed imagining him in that. Once he was born, I dressed him in it a number of times. He wore it well. But as he grew older I found I had no desire to replace it with pink t-shirts or lavender sweaters.

I did continue to think about gender and explore this through his wardrobe. I bought a yellow girl’s t-shirt that featured a kitten; I cut off the puffed sleeves and replaced them with straight navy blue ones.  On the one hand, it was an act of rebellion: my son liked kittens. Why shouldn’t he be able to wear one on a shirt? On the other hand, it was an act of conformity: I clearly did not want to dress my son in girls’ clothes.

My son is five now, and gender informs our conversations in ways that reveal the values of our culture at large. Recently, after my son had just lost a race to a friend, I tried to explain that winners aren’t by their nature better than losers. I ran this scenario by him: “Mommy Kellie can build a house better than I could ever build a house, but that doesn’t make her better than me, right?”

“No, it just means that she has better skills than you,” he said.

That stung. My partner, an electrician by trade and builder by hobby, offers him a great example of how women can excel at “men’s work.” This is great, but I still worry that our culture has taught him to value her skills above more traditionally feminine pursuits. I tried to explain to him that my skills are pretty awesome too, that making dinner is important, as is teaching grown-ups how to write papers for college (both are things that I do), but I’m not sure he bought it.

In the end, there seems to be no escaping this gender conundrum—no easy way to keep every door open, to convince him that hemming a pair of jeans and installing a dryer vent are both valuable skills and both within his range.

Now that my son is old enough to dress himself, his drawers are filled with Spiderman shirts, Star Wars pajamas, and Transformers underwear. It seems the best that I can do is just embrace and love his boy-identity while trying to make room for balance. Right now balance means that we snuggle in Star Wars pajamas, encourage him to cry when he is sad, and have a “yes” answer on the ready if he ever asks for a pink bike or a Barbie—two things that I’m pretty sure will never happen.

Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, The Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes.  She lives in Olympia, Washington and blogs at

When Little Things Take Root

When Little Things Take Root

By Heal McKnight

WO Little Things Take Root ArtIt’s early summer 1990, and Shelley’s kneeling among the carrot tops, running her hands through the dirt while I watch from the kitchen window. She looks to me like another organic shape out there, surrounded by soil and new green leaves and small staked tomatoes. Later, when the plants grow higher, I don’t always know at first glance which one’s her. She’s brown all over, her curly hair red and brown and gold all at the same time. I think our vegetables grow because they want to see her better, because she slowly and daily becomes the color of their dirt and they’ve come to trust her.

I know the mechanics of it all, the planting, the watering, the weeding, because I do that, too. But Shelley’s the one who notices the incremental, minuscule changes: the first flowers on the thick itchy squash vine, the first yellow-green shoots of leek. She brings me the first bright cherry tomato and slices it in half. We eat it together, sweet and warm, a perfect red-orange dome on my tongue before I bite down. By late August there’s salsa, armloads of tomatoes and peppers and onions all ready at the same time. Shelley brings them inside to me and I start chopping, hustle everything together into a bright bowl, then let it salsafy. I get out the chips. It’s what we’ll eat before dinner, what’ll fill us up so much we don’t really need dinner. This is how it is.

Shelley wants to be pregnant—we talked about that before we started dating, when we were just friends, when she was with a man and it seemed like they’d marry. “I wonder what it’s like to feel somebody growing inside your body,” she’d said one morning at an old diner over breakfast. “I wonder what it’s like to feel that kind of connection. I wonder what it’s like to give birth, and then have all those years with somebody. I think I’d be really good at it.” She’s a zoologist. She knows the science of breeding and the gestation behaviors and little pink babies. It makes sense to her and it also still seems like magic, and that’s what drew me in. And a few months later, when we started kissing, the fact that we were both women did not change her dreams of a baby. “Why should it?” she said. “Love is love—and love with you feels so much more real and exciting to me.” And that’s what drew me in deeper.

I want to parent. But I don’t want to give birth. I imagine myself a very bad pregnant person, nine months of dreading what’s coming next, the stretching and tearing and bearing down. Pretty easy decision, we tell people later when they ask why Shelley was the birth mom, my knees clamping together even as we explain.

We’ve talked to other lesbian moms so we know about Teri, the nurse-practitioner downtown. She treats us as an infertile couple. “You’ve been having unprotected sex for years, right? Still not pregnant? That’s infertility.” Shelley’s insurance covers that.

“So,” Teri says, settling into the chair next to us. Her office is decorated with pictures of speed skaters and rock climbers and people’s babies, plus one enormous jade plant. “How long have you been together?”

“Two and a half years,” Shelley tells her. “And we were friends before that. Part of why we’re together is that we both wanted kids.”

“And because she cracks me up,” I say. “Because she paddles a canoe beautifully, and she does these hilarious impressions of rodents.” Teri laughs and makes a few notes. I wonder what she thinks of us. I wonder if we look like we’ll make good moms.

We’ve done these things to get ready, we tell her: bought a two-flat near a great elementary school. Renting out the apartment upstairs pays most of our mortgage, so our money has gone into repairs and improvements: insulation, siding, better windows, warm wood floors. Shelley’s had the same job for eleven years, using animal models to research cancer cells. She’s got great insurance and a boss who knows she wants to get pregnant. As of last month, her car’s paid off. It’s a four-door, much easier when it comes to carseat installation. Also, for the last year we’ve been providing child care for two neighbor kids—practicing. We’ve held Meg through long afternoons of teething, learned to make the mushy beige cereal she likes. We’ve taken dry clothes to her brother Michael’s kindergarten in the middle of the day, after he’s fallen in a puddle again—the same puddle, many days in a row. Thursday afternoons we have both kids, and we take them on small adventures, visiting barnfuls of cows or pounding nails into wood scraps or making our own frozen yogurt. Last week we went to a playground by the lake and took windy pictures of each other, Shelley wearing Meg in a backpack, Michael floppy and disorganized and laughing hysterically with his hair blowing all over. Thursdays are my favorite day.

These are the early years of the lesbian baby boom, when two-mom families aren’t impossible but still aren’t common. We’ve become practiced at reciting our Why We Are Doing This resumé, assembling it dozens of times in our own heads and together, asking quiet questions late at night: What are we after here? Is there something we’re trying to prove? Are we made of strong enough material to be parents at all, let alone lesbian parents? What are we asking of a child, born into a family that needs explaining, patiently, more than once? Is this really okay?

In Teri’s office, Shelley’s holding my hand tight. “Can’t think of anyone I’d rather do this with,” she’d told me in a cave of covers one unexpectedly chilly June night, and right then something new had begun growing between us. “We’re really sure of this,” she says to Teri. “We’re ready.”

“I wish other couples were this prepared.” Teri’s stacking up paperwork for us. “The list of donor sperm is on this sheet.” She starts drawing on it with a green Hi-Liter. “With anonymous donors you get basic information: race and ethnicity, occupation, blood type, height. Not much else. You can get anyone on this list, if you’re willing to wait a few weeks. But if you really want to do it in the next week or two, the ones I’m highlighting are in stock.” She hands us the sheet with thirteen choices beaming at us, thirteen bright green possibilities.

We leave the office laughing, my arm around Shelley’s shoulders so hard she has to walk a little sideways. We know it’ll be soon-Shelley’s charted her temperature every morning for months, and it peaks and drops on graph paper like a drawing of the same mountain range over and over and over. Teri sends us to the pharmacy for an ovulation test kit, but we know it will likely be Thursday. We know that one of those hi-lit guys is our guy. I think we know we’re on our way to making something beautiful.

I hadn’t wanted to be a mom until after I came out; before I accepted my own queerness I’d imagined myself always alone, somehow avoiding the uncomfortable fact that I loved women. But once I did come out, in the first month of college to a sweet girl who liked me back, something new sent out tentative roots and began unfurling tiny green leaves and buds. My heart grew sweeter with each passing season, a little awkward and embarrassed with each new flower, but I secretly loved the smell. I started leaning in toward other people’s babies, toward other people.

In the end, the story was that simple, that old, that familiar: we love each other. We like kids. We’re ready.


We’re looking at a little paper strip, trying to determine “twice as blue.” The ovulation indicator measures levels of lutenizing hormone, which Shelley describes to me as the hormonal trumpet blast that comes just before the egg’s released. When the strip turns twice as blue as it was the day before, we should fertilize. Yesterday’s test is a gentle blue, robin’s-egg. Today’s is slightly bluer than a bleached sky on a really hot day.

“Is that twice as blue?” Shelley’s looking over the top of her glasses. We’re sitting on the foot of the bed, the wrought iron one she’s had since third grade. She holds the test strip near the window, then under the reading lamp by my head.

“It’s darker under the lightbulb,” she says. “Definitely darker than yesterday. I don’t know.” She stacks the strips on the dresser and slides back under the comforter with me. Her hair, a wild explosion of corkscrews when I first met her, has been cut short. I put my arms around her. She scootches down, fits her face into the bay of my neck and shoulder. She reaches across me, hands me the strips. “What do you think?”

I’m a little intimidated, frankly. Today, I don’t feel quite ready. She’s 32 and stable. I turn 25 this month. I’m working a hippie job that pays hippie wages. I don’t have health insurance, or even a doctor—just the bald guy at the pharmacy by the train tracks. Articles about saving for retirement now mention people in my age bracket, and I am not contributing to a savvy investment account. I still dress like an adolescent boy, still skateboard, still want to take drum lessons someday. Today I don’t feel like parent material. I’m okay about trying now because it almost never happens the first time-fourth, fifth, sixth try is the average, Shelley tells me, because she’s researched the stats. And those stats are for straight people getting pregnant in more traditional ways, which they can practice several times each month. Somehow by the time I’m twenty-five and a half, I can imagine being ready. But not today. Because today I can’t even responsibly form an opinion on shades of blue.

“I don’t know,” I tell her. “Today’s is definitely more blue. What’s your chart say?”

“I think I’m ovulating today or tomorrow,” she says. That’s what the chart predicts. And she’s been practicing feeling it happen, trying to feel the little pop of an ovary firing an egg. “I can’t tell exactly,” she’s saying now. “But I know we’re close.”

She looks so serious when she talks, but even then she’s got those eyes: light gray, small and intense but looking at me so softly and holding on. “Should we just try today?” I ask. “Just to get that first try out of the way?” I hug her closer—I’m still scared but I feel a little squish of excitement, too. I think about how happy Michael sounds when he laughs, how much I love it when he draws Shelley with a crayon, and I know how quickly I could get all the way ready.

We’ve already chosen our donor—he’s white, German and French, has wavy brown hair. He probably doesn’t look that different from both of us. He’s an occupational therapist, which we hope means compassionate. He has a medium-size frame, which we hope means a nice size to push out of a birth canal.

“I’m free after lunch,” Shelley says. “I’m taking the afternoon off.”

“I can leave work,” I tell her. “I’d have to go back, but I can miss part of the afternoon.”

She calls for an appointment.

*   *   *

Insemination doesn’t take long. I hold Shelley’s hand, our palms sweating together, as Teri slides in the speculum. “I’m putting the sperm right by the cervix,” she says, “so it might be uncomfortable.” It’s uncomfortable for me-I feel my own body folding itself tighter, notice my own knees mash together harder as I see Shelley’s face squinch up for a minute. “And that,” Teri says, “is all there is to it. Lie on the table for ten minutes or so. Let ’em swim. We’ll do this tomorrow, too—same time.” She clicks off the overhead fluorescent on her way out, and the room goes all soft, sweet late-September light filtering in through the blinds, and we’re both a little teary. I lean down to kiss her. “I love you,” I tell her. She wipes her eyes and nods.

Within a day, she says she feels a quick grab happening in her body, a sudden cramp, a minor wave of nausea. She’s sure, though nobody she calls has ever heard of somebody feeling implantation. But this time empirical evidence doesn’t matter as much—she knows what she felt, and what changed on her face stays changed.

We can’t use the home pregnancy test for two weeks. We plunge into our jobs, the sports we play, anything not about babies because we don’t want to mess it up. It starts getting cold out, and like every year we avoid turning on the furnace—just layer blankets on the bed, bundle ourselves in sweatshirts, wear stocking caps inside. We rake leaves, put away the hammock, and I suspect we’re both imagining springtime, wondering what will be ripening then in Shelley’s belly. We clean out gutters, tidy up, batten down, and when it’s time Shelley pours her first morning pee into the little test tube and squirts in chemicals. Clear means no. Pink means yes.

“At least there’s no twice as clear,” Shelley says, as soon as she mixes. The test tube sits in its own little holder in the bathroom. We’re huddled together watching it, waiting, bundled up and plump in layers of sweatshirts. The oven timer goes off. The mixture is still clear.

“But I felt something happen,” she says. “I know I’m pregnant.” She sounds frustrated, the way she sounds when she’s puzzling over experiments at work. She peers at the tube. “Let’s give it more time,” she says. I turn on the coffeemaker. We wait.  After breakfast the tube is still clear. We pack lunches and finish getting dressed. I hug her for a long time at the door. “It almost never happens the first time,” I say, though I can feel her thinking in my arms. “We’ll just keep trying,” I say. I’m not sure yet how I’m feeling, but I’ll sort that out while I bike to work. I suspect I’m disappointed.

“I think the test is wrong,” she says, checking it again—still clear. I can see her trying to pick apart its science. We kiss each other quickly and ride off in different directions.

When I get home she’s already there, grinning hard. “Room temperature,” she almost shouts. “I thought about it right before lunch. These things work at room temperature, and our house this morning was fifty-eight degrees.” She raced home right away, picked up the test tube, held it in her warm hand—and it pinked up almost instantly, she says. “Then I went in for blood tests just to be sure.” She’s thrusting a pamphlet at me. “You Are Going To Be A Parent,” it says.

We’re laughing so hard we can’t tell whose is whose. “I can’t believe you didn’t call me,” I’m saying into her neck, laughing and tasting her hair and feeling her whole body buzzing inside her skin. “I would’ve gone with you. I would’ve loved that.” She was too excited to wait, she tells me. Drove to the doctor like a banshee, wanted to get the blood test and know absolutely, wanted to say something to me only after she had proof. I can imagine her driving home slower, more carefully, auditioning ways to tell me.

“I was glad for the pamphlet,” she says. “I couldn’t wait to show you that.”

I’m looking at it now in my shaky hand: purple copy paper. A smiling heterosexual couple on the front, gazing at a sweet bundle of baby. I rearrange things in my head until it’s two women, maybe Shelley and me, holding the little person who’s maybe half the size of a poppyseed today, or even smaller. I can’t stop hugging Shelley and whoever’s inside. I can’t stop knowing that from here everything gets bigger.

Heal McKnight lives with her family in Arcata, California. Her work appears in Brevity, poemmemoirstory, and Teaching English in the Two-Year College.

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Not a Mommy, Yet Not a Dad

Not a Mommy, Yet Not a Dad

By Amie Klempnauer Miller
mommyHannah and I have come to our first baby story time at our suburban library. The reading room is full of children and mommies and the occasional nanny. Most of the twenty or so babies are crawling or walking, which seems to be a revelation to six-month-old Hannah. I should take her out more.

The librarian leading the half-hour session is a middle-aged woman named Barbara. She looks and acts like my fantasy of the perfect kindergarten teacher. Barbara is plump, with her hair cut into a practical bob. She wears not only sensible shoes but sensible clothes. She is expressive and enthusiastic and eager to dance. Each of us is wearing a nametag with our name and the name of our child. Barbara, who holds a fluffy white bear instead of a baby, wears a nametag that reads Barbara and Bear.

Barbara opens with a song: The more we get together, together, together / The more we get together, the happier we’ll be. I realize that I am one of only a few newcomers to this group, since most people here obviously know the words to the song and are used to getting together and being happy. But it’s a simple song and Barbara is easy to follow. Hannah stares at her with round eyes and gaping mouth.

We sing more songs and listen to three short books that sneak in like interlopers. Hannah loves the books, but mainly as chew toys. We sing about two little blackbirds sitting on a hill, one named Jack and the other named Jill. And about shaking out our wiggles and our ten little fingers and the wheels on the bus that obsessively drives all over town. Hannah spills out of my lap and lies on her stomach on the floor, trying to gnaw the books. When I move them she wriggles over to the next baby’s books, mouth open.

At the end of the session, I introduce myself to a couple of the women, using the usual opener: How old is your little one? The conversations never seem to get past the exchange of ages. I try to leech onto a conversation that two women sitting near the toy tub are having but they are both pregnant and busy discussing ultrasounds. I have little to add. I have no ultrasound pictures because I had no ultrasounds because I never got pregnant, despite a year and a half of trying. My partner, Jane, did all that. She’s the birth mom. I’m the other mom. My attempts at friendly eye contact get me nowhere.

By now, many of the parents have moved out of the reading room to pick out books from the low, child-sized shelves. The sole dad who came to the reading group is standing by a bookshelf. I throw my line into the water once again: So, how old is your little one?

“Just turned one year,” he says. “And yours?”

“Six months,” I respond.

“Great,” he says. “We started coming here when my daughter was six months.” He’s talking! I feel like I have broken through the sound barrier.

“Yeah, I thought there were a lot of regulars here when we started singing and everyone knew the words,” I say. We chat for a few more minutes. He tells me that he sings Ten Little Fingers to his daughter when she gets fussy in the car. I make a mental note to try that one. Maybe it will work. We say goodbye, see you next time.

I feel like I’ve found a friend, someone I can sit with in the lunch room. I don’t know why I often find it easier to talk to men than to women, but it has happened again. One man in the room, and he’s the one with whom I end up having more than a two-sentence conversation. I don’t know if this guy is gay or straight—he’s wearing a conventional wedding ring and chances are that he’s just a sensitive stay-at-home dad. Do I gravitate toward him just because he’s friendly? Or because I feel like an outsider among moms?

The truth is that even six months into this, I still feel like a dad in drag. I still feel that I need to explain the fact that I did not birth my baby. I still want to sit in the guys’ section. This is not because I am butch, that’s for sure. I’m not even remotely athletic. I am a disaster with power tools. I literally cannot hammer a nail straight. I scream when a mouse gets into the house. I am a disappointment to butch women everywhere. But I’m kind of inept on the femme side too. I rarely wear make-up. I have never known what to do with my hair. I don’t share my emotions easily. I certainly don’t put myself in the same category as heterosexual moms. I feel as awkward talking to most of these moms as I ever did talking to girls in junior high and high school.

In the world of moms, I still feel like I am passing. I am using Mommy English as a Second Language, always trying to think about what clause is supposed to come next and trying to remember my idioms. It’s a real bucket of monkeys.

Is this all in my head? In truth, no one has asked me who Hannah’s “real” mother is, nor has anyone suggested that my presence might be harmful to her. If anything, some straight women have vaguely indicated that having two mothers in the house must be nice because, presumably, there is more help. On one level, I know that I do in fact have a lot in common with other moms. I change diapers, clean up baby food, do dishes and sing songs to my baby just like they do. But I also continue to feel just a little apart, as though we live in two worlds that speak the same language but are divided by dialect.

I am somewhere in between, in a category still undefined but increasingly shared by second moms and second dads across the country. People who see me with Hannah assume that I am her birth mother and that her father is toiling away at the office while we sit at story time or buy lettuce at the grocery store. I know that I am Hannah’s mother and, because we live in a progressive county in a relatively progressive state, I have been able to legally adopt her. Yet I still feel that I am somehow concealing something if I don’t come out immediately, announcing my gayness in the produce section.

I am Hannah’s … what? I am her mother, but I am also different. I did not carry her inside of me, but I held the woman who did. I did not birth her, but I waited outside the operating room during the emergency C-section. I saw and touched Hannah first because Jane was still semi-conscious in the recovery room. I cannot nurse Hannah, but I feed her bottles. I sing her to sleep.

During Jane’s pregnancy, I was consistently surprised by how often I was asked by straight colleagues, friends, and even family members what Jane and I would call ourselves, as if having two parents of the same gender would present a naming problem so formidable that we might just have to give up the whole idea of parenthood. The most common choice among the lesbian couples we know is to use Mom and Mama. We know a few other couples who have been more creatively courageous, using Maya, Mimi, Mama Bear, and Mama Sue. We quickly ruled out any title that includes the name of an animal. We considered whether we might pick a name from another culture but our strongest connection is to Germany and I refused to spend the next twenty years of my life being called Mutti.

In the end, I decided to call myself Mama, while Jane is Mommy. It is a name I never used for my own mother so it feels less loaded with maternal expectation. I can invest it with my own meaning and, no doubt, my own baggage. I don’t know yet exactly what that meaning will be, and I’ll let Hannah sort out the baggage later, but I think what I am reaching for in calling myself Mama is to be wholly Hannah’s and yet true to myself. I am trying to find a space between the worlds of Mommy and Daddy where I can fit.

At night, Hannah lies curled in my arms as I rock and rock and rock in the glider. Her breathing warms my chest. In these moments, I don’t feel like someone different, a member of a new and emerging demographic. I feel like Hannah’s Mama. I hold her against me, hold her tightly to my chest, hold her so long that I can feel her small body in my arms even when she is not there. She is my child, my daughter, my own.

Author’s Note: Two years have passed since this story time and, happily, Hannah has stopped eating books. I am more comfortable in my role as her mama, but I still feel a step apart. There is something about the consciousness of difference that is especially sticky. Even in the absence of outward disapproval or simple curiosity about our family from straight people, I am always conscious of the fact that we are different—an awareness that really abates only when I am in a group of other gay families.

Is this “internalized homophobia”? Maybe, but that seems almost like a pathology or an accusation. The awareness of difference feels to me more nuanced, more like a sense that I am looking at the world from a slightly different angle and seeing slightly different refractions in the light.

Amie Klempnauer Miller is a freelance writer and fundraising consultant. She lives with her partner, Jane Miller, and their daughter, Hannah, in Golden Valley, Minnesota.

Brain, Child (Winter 2006)

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Our Social Experiment

Our Social Experiment

By Paige Schilt

fall2010_schiltLast Christmas, we decided to splurge and spend a few nights at a fancy beach resort. From the moment the clerk ushered us into the “VIP check-in room,” I knew we were in for an adventure. Our five-year-old son, Waylon, plunged head first into a butter-colored club chair. “Honey, please keep your shoes off the furniture,” I said, feeling my class insecurities creep up like a slow and annoying blush.

“But, Mama, I’m a seal.” He rested his front flippers on the marble floor.

I scanned the clerk’s face, hoping for the knowing look that tells you you’re in the presence of Family. Nary a blip on the old gaydar. His eyes were resolutely glued to his computer screen.

My wife, Katy, was not helping. Early that morning, she’d loaded up our vacation baggage. Then she’d navigated the car through hectic holiday traffic. Now she slouched in the chair beside me, tattooed arms folded across her pecs, head tilted back in a caricature of repose. Mirrored sunglasses shielded her eyes. She was ready for a nap.

I gamely answered the check-in questions, keeping one eye on Waylon, who was maneuvering across the floor on his belly. Like his parents, he was clad in black. His t-shirt was emblazoned with an electric guitar and the words “Toxic Waste.” I wondered what the clerk made of our tousled entourage. Perhaps he thought that only the truly rich and famous would be bold enough to despoil the Sand Pearl Resort with such dishevelment. Did he think we might be rock stars?

Apparently, he sized us up and designated us “Mr. and Mrs. Schilt.”

As in, “Well, Mr. and Mrs. Schilt, we hope you enjoy your stay.”

“The bellman will get those bags, Mr. Schilt.”

“Can I get you some ice, Mrs. Schilt?”

Thus registered in the hotel’s central database, we seemed doomed to pass the remainder of our holiday as hapless characters in a comedy of errors.

*   *   *

When Waylon was three years old, we started trying to include him in the ritual of holiday gift giving. “Waylon,” I began, “what do you think Mommy would like for Christmas?”

“Trains,” he said, without missing a beat.

“What do you think Grandma would like?” I persisted.


“What do you think we should get for Auntie?” By this time I was just testing.


Waylon is a boy with a single-minded passion for wheeled vehicles. When he got his first train set, he didn’t sleep for three nights. Eventually, in the kind of problem-solving that emerges from intense sleep deprivation, I found myself napping on the couch at three a.m. while Waylon navigated Thomas the Tank Engine around the track.

By the next Christmas, Waylon’s allegiance had switched to cars, but gift-giving was still largely an exercise. With lots of not-so-subtle encouragement from his parents, Waylon strung some necklaces for friends and family, but he hadn’t really developed the capacity to imagine another person’s needs and desires. Most of his handiwork looked like a random aggregation of begrudgingly selected shapes and colors.

Ironically, the one bright glimmer of hope was the necklace Waylon made for my sister, an old-school goth with a penchant for black tights, ripped crinolines, and creepy Victorian bonnets. When he sat down to make Auntie’s necklace, Waylon carefully selected the darkest and most macabre beads in his little craft kit. Heartened, I consulted my childrearing bible, a tattered copy of Touchpoints, which reassured me that empathy—the capacity to imagine another person’s needs and feelings—develops along a slow and uneven trajectory.

*   *   *

One day, not long after Waylon made his aunt a gothic necklace, Katy and I were stretched out on the couch of our couples therapist’s beigely appointed office. (We jokingly refer to our therapist as Guru—partly because of her preference for New Age shawls, and partly because we truly believe that she is brilliant, compassionate, and wise.) On this particular day, we were talking about parenting (our favorite easy topic), and I happened to mention some of Waylon’s ideas about gender.

Guru’s normally unflappable exterior betrayed a hint of concern. As her eyebrow arched upward, I moved defensively to the edge of the couch. Guru asked a follow-up question. And then another.

“We’ve always talked about my surgery,” Katy explained. “He knows that I never felt completely like a girl and that I changed my chest to be more comfortable in my body.”

“He has his own vocabulary,” I added. “He calls Katy a ‘boy-girl.'”

Our therapist seemed most concerned about whether Waylon believed that his own gender and sex might be malleable. According to psychoanalytic timetables, core gender identity is supposed to be consolidated by two or three years of age. Were Guru’s pursed lips suggesting that we were in danger of derailing our child’s development?

Part of me felt defiant, wanting to challenge the whole notion of static gender identity. Another (irrational) part of me was sure she was going to call Child Protective Services the moment we left her office.

Queer people have been told for so long that we are not fit to be parents. It’s impossible not to internalize some of the shame that is projected onto us, especially when it comes to our culture’s most hallowed idol, the family. So I felt the sting of my therapist’s troubled look. But I also understood that her reaction was rooted in the assumption that what’s normal is natural and good.

As queer parents, our gift is to remember all the coaxing, coercion, and even outright violence it takes to make normal gender development seem inevitable and desirable. By the logic of that trajectory, we did not turn out okay—yet we that we turned out okay. If we can hold onto this contradiction, if we can resist the shame, we can forge new family values that affirm gender diversity as a precious blessing.

*   *   *

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson likes to refer to gay and lesbian families as an “untested and far-reaching social experiment.” For Dobson and his ilk, the essence of the good family is adherence to gender roles: Men and women have certain natural strengths, which are divinely ordained to complement each other. In this view of history, the blueprint for family gender roles was spelled out in Genesis and remained virtually unchanged until the lesbian baby boom.

But contrary to what the promoters of traditional family would have us believe, queer people are hardly the first to tinker in the laboratory of gender development. Back in 1962, Katy’s mother was determined to produce a baby girl. Donna and her husband, a small-town Texas football coach called Big Phil, already had two strapping young sons. But Donna yearned for a soul mate, a confidante, a fashion plate. In a word, she wanted a daughter.

This was before the advent of routine prenatal ultrasounds, but Donna was undaunted by the lack of reliable information about the sex of her fetus. A hardy optimist with a penchant for bullet bras and blond wiglets, Donna put her faith in the power of positive thinking. She taped a picture of a baby girl to the Frigidaire. She tied pink ribbons to lampshades and chairs, where she could see them as she dusted the end tables and vacuumed the dining room.

In order to enlist the help of the community, Donna threw a “Think Pink” shower. Her friends served pink cake and adorned Donna with a pink corsage. They brought pink presents. Hand-smocked dresses with tiny petticoats were laid in the dresser in the nursery, which was (of course) pink.

When the due date finally arrived, Donna had a bad case of pneumonia. She arrived in the delivery room heavily drugged. The family doctor, an unassuming sadist named Grundy Cooper knew how badly Donna wanted a girl. “Oh, he looks real good, Donna,” Grundy teased from behind the modesty curtain that bisected her upper and lower halves.

“Shut up, Grundy, she is not a boy,” Donna growled.

After the final push, Donna shouted, “Let me see her genitals! Let me see her genitals!” Grundy took his sweet time, holding the baby upside down, delivering the breath-inducing spank, and finally placing the tiny body on the scale where Donna could see it. When the fluorescent lights reflected off the shiny steel cradle of the scale, Donna’s drug and hormone-addled eyes noted two things: a vulva and a hazy white halo.

“She’s an angel, Phillip,” she said to her husband, who had been hastily summoned from the waiting room. “She’s an angel.”

*   *   *

Nine years later, my own parents were speeding toward the hospital in their purple Volkswagen beetle. Mom was breathing “hee, hee, hoo” as the contractions came closer together. She’d planned a natural birth, without drugs or modesty curtains; she very nearly had a natural birth without a hospital. By the time the car pulled up at the emergency entrance, she was too far along to sit in a wheelchair. She had to waddle into the delivery room on her own. Nurses rushed my father into a gown so that he could fulfill his duties as labor coach.

Although my parents’ milieu of Lamaze exercises and hippie cars may seem worlds away from Donna’s East Texas, my mom and dad had at least one thing in common with Donna: a determination to shape their child’s gender identity and expression. But while Katy’s mother dreamed of birthing a tiny beauty queen, my parents aspired to raise the next Bella Abzug.

Instead of frilly dresses, my parents gave me a pink plaster plaque that said “Girls Can Do Anything!” They bade me goodnight with the affirmation, “You can grow up to be the first woman president.” And they bought me the Sunshine Family dolls as an antidote to the bimboesque influence of Barbie.

The Sunshine Family lived in a cardboard craft store, complete with a spinning wheel and pottery kiln. Sunshine Mama (whose name was “Steffie”) wore a calico maxi-dress and a baby on her hip. Her barefoot feet were realistically flat. But Steffie’s half-inch waist and candy floss hair were pure Mattel fantasy. In my imaginative play, her husband, Steve, worked the cash register, while she pricked her finger on the spinning wheel. Despite Steffie’s hippie accessories, the horizon of her liberation was circumscribed by marriage and motherhood. My parents’ good intentions were no match for the internal contradictions of mass culture.

Thus, although Free to Be You and Me was in heavy rotation on my plastic ladybug record player, I grew up convinced that marriage or the convent were my only possible destinies. By the time I was eight, I had already concluded that I was too brunette and substantial to inspire romance. I regret to say that I did not indulge in proto-lesbian fantasies about convent life, but rather viewed the nun’s habit as a badge of failure, a kind of scarlet V for unwanted virginity. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series consoled me with the thought that a strong work ethic might make me worthy to be some man’s wife.  My solitary twin bed was the site of vivid fantasies about scrubbing his shirts on a tin washboard.

*   *   *

On one of our first dates, my future wife brought a tape of her family’s home movies from the mid-’60s and a joint. I think Katy guessed that my feminist consciousness was going to need expanding if we were to swap childhood stories in the way that new lovers do. She’d dated enough women’s studies majors to guess that “the cultural construction of gender” would be my mantra, the magic words that were supposed to save me from the depressing determinism of biology as destiny and the one-size-fits-all essentialism of universal sisterhood.

Savvy as she was, she could hardly have anticipated the intensity of my views. I leaned fervently, incontrovertibly toward the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate. If anyone spoke to me of gender as something innate or remotely natural, I did the intellectual equivalent of covering my ears and shouting “la, la, la, I can’t hear you!”

In my heart, I believed that acknowledging a biological component to gender was a slippery slope that would land me right back in front of that washboard, scrubbing collars.

Now, in reel after reel, I discovered Katy at two, three, and four—already miraculously masculine, already chafing like a football player in frilly dresses, already looking dejected when she unwrapped yet another doll from underneath the Christmas tree.

Suddenly, the whole notion of nature vs. nurture ceased to make sense. Her pintsize Texas swagger was culturally correct—and a total violation of the prevailing gender system. It was incongruent with biology—and undeniably physical, emanating from every muscle and gesture.

The highlight of the home movie festival was the moment when Little Katy appeared in buckskin hunting jacket and coonskin cap. She posed next to the Christmas tree, clearly delighted by her freewheeling duds, but she was distracted by a large, rectangular package in the pile of presents. A second later, the wrapping paper was off, and she was jumping up and down, triumphantly brandishing a new BB gun.

Having grown up with the peaceful Sunshine Family, I was hardly used to celebrating childhood gun ownership … and yet, I found myself strangely un-horrified. There was something undeniably liberating in her joy, something that forced me to reach beyond my usual knee-jerk reactions. Maybe it was the pot. Or maybe I was falling in love.

“Dude,” I said, “this is blowing my mind.”

*   *   *

Just before our trip to the beach last December, we went to Target to find a gift for Waylon’s friend Laila, whom he’s known from infancy. As I was hefting Waylon into the cart, I asked him what he thought Laila would like, fully expecting him to list his latest vehicular obsessions.

“Umm, I think … Barbie.”

Has ever a parenting moment been more bittersweet? I hugged him and showered him with praise for thinking about someone else’s feelings.

Privately, I was imagining my white, blonde, blue-eyed son delivering a Barbie to his brown-skinned, black-haired girl friend. It looked like a tableau with the caption “Gender and Imperialism.”

Luckily, at that moment, Katy arrived from parking the car and settled the matter with a quick phone call to Laila’s aunt. It turned out that Waylon was right; Laila was expecting a Barbie Dream House from Santa. And she needed furniture. Relieved that we would not bear the responsibility of introducing our young friend to Barbie, I followed my family to the toy aisle, where we proceeded to ponder tiny pink bedroom sets.

*   *   *

A few days later, we were installed at the fancy beach resort. It was beginning to dawn on me that two hundred dollars a night buys an alarmingly frequent level of personal contact. The entire staff seemed to be connected by walkie-talkie; as we passed from reception to the lobby to our room, we were repeatedly greeted as “Mr. and Mrs. Schilt.”

Although her identity is somewhere between genders, Katy is quite content to pass as male in such situations. It’s her voice that usually gives her away. That evening, in the time it took for the waiter to unpack our room service order, she had gone from “Mr. Schilt” to “ma’am.” We joked about it on the way home, imagining a one-woman show called “From Mister to Ma’am.”

Not to be left out of the joke, Waylon said, “Yeah, he didn’t realize that you were a girl-boy,” in a tone of five-year-old comic exasperation.

“Wait, I thought you called Mommy a ‘boy-girl,'” I said.

“No, that was back when I was only thinking of myself, so I always put ‘boy’ first. But now I’m thinking of other people,” he explained.

Sitting in the front seat, I felt my heart swell.  It wasn’t just because Waylon was giving Katy a precious gift of recognition. It was because he was so proud of his ability to consider someone else’s feelings.  He is compassionate.  He is kind.  As far as I’m concerned, this social experiment is turning out just fine.

*   *   *

Author’s Note: This past Mother’s Day, Waylon made a homemade card for my mother. It read: “Dear Meemaw, when I am with you, a door in my heart opens like never before.”  I was a bit taken aback by the heightened diction, but I remembered that his first-grade class had just finished a unit on poetry.  “Did you hear those words in class?” I asked. “No,” he answered, “my heart told it to me.”

Brain, Child (Fall 2010)

Paige Schilt is a writer and activist from Austin, Texas. Her blog,, chronicles the adventures of a gay, transgender, rock-n-roll family raising a son in the South.

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