Two Lesbians and a Eunuch

Two Lesbians and a Eunuch

By Adrienne DeAngelo

TWOLesbiansWe had our son circumcised when he was five weeks old. It wasn’t what we’d planned.

My partner, Colleen, and I waited to find out the sex of our baby until the day he was born. But I can’t say I was surprised when I got my first glimpse of that tiny, finger-like appendage. I’d been secretly convinced all along that we were having a boy. Lesbians just had boys. I thought it was an order-of-the-universe kind of thing.

Not that I didn’t wish for a girl. After all, I understood girls. We were a household of girls. Even our cats are girls.

Our friends with children assured us that there’s little difference between the sexes for the first year or so, so we took some solace in the fact that we’d have time to adjust to having a penis in the house. For the moment, all we needed to decide was whether or not to circumcise.

But circumcision is a controversial topic, and the stakes were high for us. As a lesbian couple, we felt like people would judge us no matter what we decided. There was no dad for our son to look like. No religious custom to fall back on. We didn’t want to make the wrong choice. I mean, what did we know about the penis?

So I did some research. I read baby books; I conducted an extensive web search; I polled friends and neighbors. I found out that, while still a common practice, there’s no medical reason for circumcision. In fact, circumcision rates have fallen dramatically from the 1970s, when circumcision was the norm. One straight woman friend went so far as to tell us, “Sex is much better with the penis intact because of the friction.” (This was more than two lesbians needed to know.)

Other friends—gay and straight, men and women—told us they preferred the look of the circumcised penis to the uncircumcised penis. Colleen’s sister-in- law, a nurse (and someone we trusted implicitly), told us that if she had a boy she would circumcise.

In the course of our deliberations, Colleen and I talked about penises more than we had in the entire ten years we’d been together—possibly our entire lives.

Despite the overwhelming number of opinions, for us it came down to this: If there were a female equivalent of circumcision in the United States, would we perform it on our daughter? No, we decided. So why would we do it to a boy when it’s not medically necessary?

And that’s the last we thought we’d have to think about the penis for a while.

Thirteen days after Emmett was born, he developed a fever and had to be hospitalized. Other than the 101-degree fever, there was nothing obviously wrong with him. But because of the risk of meningitis, the hospital conducted every test imaginable, including a spinal tap. They gave him an IV drip and checked his vitals every four hours.

On our third day in the hospital, the doctors found the culprit: a urinary tract infection. Who knew infants could get urinary tract infections? As we found out, UTIs occur in less than five percent of all uncircumcised boys. A small enough percentage for doctors to conclude than circumcision is not medically necessary. And yet almost no circumcised boys get UTIs. Just our luck.

I could almost hear the collective chorus from my family: I don’t know why you didn’t have him circumcised in the first place.

We left the hospital after five long days, armed with a month’s worth of antibiotics and instructions to schedule an appointment with the urologist. If the infection happened again, it could cause kidney damage. We would need to have some tests done to see whether our son was predisposed to UTIs.

Back to the research. More often than not, I wound up at anti-circumcision websites that railed against the evils of circumcision and the medical establishment at large.

When we met with the urologist two weeks later, he recommended—can you guess?—circumcision. I felt the blood rush to my head. This is just what the alarmist websites warn you about. Sensing my discomfort, the urologist defended himself. “Believe me, I don’t routinely recommend a circumcision,” he said, “but given your son’s history and his tight foreskin”—I hadn’t read about tight foreskins—”I think it’s the best option.” He explained that the test our son needed to rule out an anatomical abnormality could even cause a UTI if he were to remain uncircumcised.

“But you need to get done it now,” he said. “I need to know by Monday morning at the latest.”

Emmett was already nearly five weeks old—late for a newborn circumcision. If we were to delay by a week—or even a few days—he would have to undergo risky general anesthesia. Or we’d have to wait until he was older.

It was a Friday afternoon. If we decided to proceed, our HMO could do the circumcision, the doctor said, but he’d have to pull some strings and we’d have to hope they could schedule us as soon as possible.

So here we were: Two lesbians who had decided to leave their son’s penis well enough alone now having to turn their attention back to what was quickly becoming a lesson in Murphy’s Law.

My overriding fear was not about the circumcision itself, but what people would think. It felt like our first real parenting decision was on trial for all to see. We were sitting in the car after our appointment, not thinking of our son but of how we would feel if we decided to circumcise.

I didn’t trust my own instincts, so I called two, three, four urologists’ offices for a second opinion. All the doctors had left for the weekend.

Colleen was sure we should schedule a circumcision. But she was tired of the hospital; she wanted it done at home. I abandoned my quest for more information and started to look for mohels. Some of our Jewish friends had their sons circumcised at home. One mom even had an older baby circumcised at home. Colleen decided that mohels had more experience than our HMO would.

I found a woman—technically, a mohelette—who was also a pediatrician. Her website,, was reassuring. I called and explained my son’s health history and age, and she agreed to do an at-home circumcision the very next day.

This would be her first non-ceremonial lesbian at-home non-bris bris.

In the hour leading up to the circumcision, we debated whether we should mark the occasion. Should we say something? Do we take photos? We considered purchasing a bottle of Manischewitz. In the end, we did nothing but watch: Colleen, her brother, her sister-in-law, and her mom gathered around the dining room table as the doctor pulled out a restraint board, a circumcision clamp, a surgical knife, gauze, and some other supplies. We watched as she numbed our son’s tiny penis with anesthesia. Colleen held his arms. Emmett didn’t cry, and it was all far easier than I imagined it would be.

Yet I am horrified by what appears to me to be a mutilation. If we had circumcised him from the beginning—before we decided it was medically necessary—I’d have believed we’d made a mistake.

A few hours after the circumcision we were resting comfortably on the sofa watching a movie. Emmett had been sleeping blissfully for several hours when the mohel called to check on him.

“Has there been any bleeding?” she asked.

“He’s been asleep since you left. Should we wake him up to check?” I said.

“Just take a peek in his diaper,” she said.

I slowly unwrapped Emmett’s diaper. It was clean. Then I saw fresh blood emerging from his gauze-covered penis. Then more. Colleen put the movie on pause.

Blood started to leak through the diaper and onto my hands. I picked our little boy up and moved from the sofa to the table where the doctor had done the circumcision. Blood oozed onto the table. I cradled the phone between my neck and my ear as I gingerly tried to apply pressure to the bottom of the penis and upwards, as the doctor instructed.

Emmett was now crying hysterically. “Take off your shirt,” I told Colleen, who was looking a little faint. “The doctor said to try to breastfeed him to calm him down.”

“Do you think you can rebandage the area?” the doctor asked. “No,” I said as calmly as I could, with blood spilling out over my hands and soaking the bottom edge of Emmett’s snap T- shirt. “Don’t worry,” she assured me, “it looks like more blood than it is. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” And she hung up.

Colleen was standing over the table—topless—with her breasts dangling over our son’s head, trying in vain to feed a beet-faced, loudly protesting baby. It would have been comical had it not be so frightening.

Not getting anywhere with a breast, Colleen decided to give Emmett a bottle. I was still applying pressure to his injured, exposed penis but I could not stanch the bleeding.

A few minutes later, with a bottle in Emmett’s mouth, relative calm was restored. He was still bleeding as I lamely continued to apply pressure to what was clearly the wrong part of the penis.

As I gazed down at my beautiful, bloodied son, I thought, “Oh, my God. He’s going to have to have his penis amputated and he’s going to hate us.” I now felt we had compounded a bad decision with an even worse decision. Our son would be the poster child for the anti-circumcision movement. Even worse, religious fundamentalists would turn it into a cautionary tale: Lesbians Castrate Own Son.

“Oh, that is a lot of blood,” said the mohel when she arrived, congratulating me on having been so calm on the phone. “When you opened the diaper, it must have pulled off the scab,” she said as she deftly applied pressure to the penis and immediately stopped the bleeding.

She stayed with us for nearly an hour, reassuring us and checking to make sure the bandage looked clean. Emmett fell asleep before she left, but I was plagued all night by fears of a bloody recurrence.

The bandage fell off on its own accord the next morning, and the incision looked fine. At last, the trial was over.

Two days later, the foreskin swelled. I snapped a picture and emailed it to the doctor. “Great shot!” she said. (It was her first penis photo by e-mail.) She told us not to worry, the swelling would go down in a few days.

She was right. A few weeks later, Emmett passed the urologist’s test with flying colors. He’s been fine ever since.

At last, Colleen and I could stop worrying that we’d made a bad decision about circumcision. Now we’re busy wondering if we can be arrested for e-mailing photos of a baby’s genitalia.

Author’s Note: I’ve spent the last thirty-six years of my life trying to make the “right” decisions. Being a parent has taught me that no one can make your decisions for you. If there’s a lesson our son can take from our experience, it’s to be conscious, considerate, and confident in his choices. I only hope that I can do the same.

Adrienne DeAngelo is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mother based in Oakland, California.

Brain, Child (Fall 2007)

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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Loving Kip

Loving Kip

By Jamie Johnson

Transgender ArtWe’d been watching Oprah the day my 18-year-old daughter, Julia, shared her secret with me: a show featuring transgenders who were transitioning. Frankly, I was surprised. Julia never watched Oprah. Movies: yes. Sports: all the time. But talk shows: not a chance. I thought, It must be pretty interesting if she’s watching. Maybe I’ll watch, too.

All of Oprah’s guests were transgenders or transsexuals. They were born with reproductive organs that didn’t match how they felt in their hearts and souls. Doctors think this phenomenon happens in the first trimester of pregnancy. As the fetus develops, the brain forms as one gender, and the body the other. It is referred to as Gender Identity Disorder.

Each of Oprah’s guests had been bruised by judgment. Some had been disowned by their families, lost friendships, or had trouble finding love. Staying employed was a problem. Being brutally beaten was not uncommon in their stories.

Jul had decided this was the time.

She quietly turned towards me. With a surrendered look, she raised her fine eyebrows and in an almost whispered voice, she said, “Mom, I think that is what I am.”

I remember all the air leaving the room; thinking my lungs had decided that, nope, they weren’t going to cooperate any longer. I fought for air, but life had punched it out of me. Realizing Jul was watching me, I began my persuasion. “No honey … you’re not. You’re just uncomfortable being a lesbian. You’ll get used to the idea.”

With hurt in her eyes, my daughter’s chin quivered as she spoke. “I can’t stand the thought of a girl, or anyone, touching this body; it’s humiliating. It’s not a choice, Mom. I have the wrong body.”

I sat listening, trying not to hear.

Panic. That was the first feeling in a chain of emotions that now seem like some strange twelve-step program. Fear followed. They’re not the same: panic and fear. Panic grabs you, squeezes fiercely; it paralyzes you, the pressure leaving you unable to think. I wanted to hide.

The fear that followed was a different type of weight. It bore down gently, but continuously, dropping a thought into my head every now and then.

What would people say? What if she transitioned and still wasn’t happy? How would hormone therapy change the way she looked? All parents have to adjust to their child’s choices: piercings, tattoos, haircuts, clothing. Even the gradual, natural changes are an adjustment. But the process of seeing my daughter become a man seemed unthinkable.

The fear wore me down for a while. But slowly, very slowly, I made my way through those feelings, and acceptance followed. I felt like I’d just carted a canoe through the drizzling rain for miles, feet wet, finally reaching the river, the sun coming out as I set the canoe down. I felt the warmth. Acceptance has a wonderful warmth to it.

But there, in that feeling of surrender, where I knew it was the love for my child that mattered, I still felt a twinge of something uncertain. How would the hormone treatments change her? No, how would the hormone treatments change him? Would I recognize my child in the end?

I wanted my new son to have what we all take for granted: to feel natural in his body, in his face. I wanted him to no longer wonder whether people were looking at him because he looked androgynous, questioning his role and how he fit into society. At 21, it had been over a decade since he’d resembled someone who could even remotely be called girly, except of course on those dressy occasions when I’d forced it. Since before ten years of age, he’d had our hairdresser chop his hair short, wore a ball cap, and sported either a basketball or hockey jersey with jeans. The jeans were always over boxers. She had always been boyish. Most of her “look” wouldn’t change, but part of me was having a very tough time at the thought of losing Jul’s face.

Once the process of hormone therapy started, a manly stubble would rub against my cheek when we hugged. The hormones would change his bone structure just enough to make him look less like Jul, and more like “Kip.” His facial features and hairline would shift to give him the more masculine look he craved. But just how much would the hormones change the young adult version of the face I’d grown to cherish?

Baby Jul had a beautiful face. I’d peer down at her and love the sweet little thing peeking back up at me from her crib. Her perfect full lips. The Gerber Baby cheeks that were always chubbed up, rounding out her oval face in a big, eager grin. The little button nose. Her squeezable little chin. It was the face of my perfect little angel. How much would I miss it? I couldn’t imagine not seeing it anymore.

It wasn’t the first time I’d experienced the fear of losing her quiet, natural beauty, though. She had been five the first time. I was home, sick, when the shrill sound of the phone woke me. A car accident. A serious head injury. Danger of internal bleeding in the brain. I was needed at the children’s hospital immediately.

The person on the other end of the phone cautioned me not to drive; she said I might be in shock.

I was.

The scene I arrived to at the hospital instantly slapped me out of my numbed state. First I heard her voice. It was aggressive, tortured, demanding, loud enough for me to hear before I even entered the busy emergency room. “I want my mom. I WANT MY MOM!”

If that familiar voice hadn’t been coming from the little thing stretched out on the gurney, I wouldn’t have had my heart shredded to a million bits when my eyes rested on her. I wouldn’t have known my little kindergartener. Her face was swollen and horribly flat. Tiny little fragments of glass, and some not so tiny, were embedded everywhere. As I walked toward her, I watched as the hospital staff bent her arms, her wrists, and her fingers, in an attempt to locate broken bones, Jul fighting every second of it, her panic increasing. At the top of her lungs, she chanted, “I WANT MY MOM! I WANT MY MOM!”

I stood over her in disbelief. She didn’t know I was there. Her eyes were swollen shut. I took her little hand in mine and cooed, “Mommy’s here, honey. It’s okay, Mommy’s here.”

I only have fragments of memories about that first day, the first out of a week I spent sleeping in a chair beside her hospital bed. But I do remember one question that, somewhere during the craziness of that first day, selfishly passed through my mind. Oh, her beautiful little face. What’s it going to look like when it heals?

What a trivial, stupid thing to worry about then. My daughter had survived a massive head trauma. I still had my child; that was the important part. But as parents, we get so attached to the face we’ve looked at and loved.

Maybe that car accident was a lesson given to me years before, in preparation for the loss of my daughter’s face. I had been a kindergartener then too, I guess; a beginner in the years of parenting classes ahead. I didn’t know then that the body was merely the packaging of the soul I loved.

As I waited for the call to confirm that the first shot of testosterone had been scheduled, marking the beginning of my daughter’s transition, I began my goodbye to Jul’s face. I was grateful that I was at least learning to be a little less absorbed with outside appearances. I might still feel a little twinge when the time came and the changes started, but I was ready to confront letting go. I will admit I was worried, but I would try to love the new face as it came.

To Kip, however, the day of that first shot of testosterone could not come soon enough. Once started, his facial characteristics did transform. His forehead worked its way backward, as the hairline framing it receded, and took on squarer, sharper lines. I noticed something else about his forehead. The bone structure just underneath his eyebrows seemed to change. I could see something that sort of reminded me of a Neanderthal. Now, I’m not saying that the more male hormones kip received, the more Neanderthal-like he became, but really, don’t laugh, it was there. It wasn’t a pronounced thing; it was subtle, but his forehead was different, and in a very distinctive male way.

The other changes in his face were subtle, too. There was definitely something about his cheekbones. They appeared to recede a bit or shift position. His jaw seemed to change, as well. It took on a more squared look. Actually, his whole face seemed somehow squarer than before. He even developed a new, unfamiliar space between his two front teeth—something he did not appreciate; his teeth had been one of the only things he had liked about himself— but it was a small price to pay to feel at home in his body.

The changes didn’t happen overnight, however. In fact, they were so gradual that I didn’t even notice them at first. It wasn’t until I compared a year-old photo to a recent one that I could see the full effect of the injections. His bearded image had become handsome.

It seemed strange. I’d been so worried about how much I’d miss Jul’s face. But I’d grown to love my new son’s face as it emerged, without even realizing it.

It’s because Kip isn’t a face, or a name, or a gender. Kip is a person. And it’s Kip, not the “he” or “she” that I love to death. His soul is still the same. His face wasn’t really a loss.

I think about the parents who don’t learn to accept. How can they let their relationship with their children die? Or worse yet, how do they survive the tragedy of suicide that sometimes lands on families who can’t open their hearts to the transition? How do those families carry on? That is loss.

Now, ten years later, I still have my first-born child sitting with us at family dinners. From across the table, I see the same smiling hazel eyes. Framing those eyes is a new man. A man who wears a strip of short stubble from one sideburn to the other, the way his wife loves it so much. I look at him now and smile. This mom has no regrets.

Author’s Note: Seeing a person with our eyes brings such limited results. When we see with our hearts, looking inside, past the surface, underneath what society dwells on, we see so much more. What we are isn’t the most important thing: it’s who we are. My son helped me learn that lesson. The physical changes were not important. My son’s spirit and courage are going strong. That makes this mother proud.

Jamie Johnson is an antique/gift show owner who enjoys writing about her fascinating children. Her full length memoir Secret Selves: How Their Changes Changed Me won an IP Book Award for Best Nonfiction in Eastern Canada and was a finalist in the Beverly Hills Book Awards. Her short pieces have appeared in The Globe & Mail, Homemakers Magazine, Families in TRANSition (a resource book for transgender families), and the anthology, Hidden Lives: Coming Out on Mental Illness.

Art by Michael Lombardo

Invisible Family

Invisible Family

By Ashley Davis

Art Invisible Family 2“Are you helping mama with her errands today?” the grocery clerk asked my son at the check stand.

“Mommy, not mama,” Nate corrected, emphasizing the last syllable of each word. At three and a half, he is quite the helper. He continued to transfer containers of Greek yogurt from our cart to the conveyer belt. Mommy and Mama are not interchangeable terms in our house. He has one of each, and it was plainly obvious—to him—that he was shopping with his Mommy, not his Mama.

“I see,” said the clerk. She seemed amused by his precision. Nate was actually making a few distinctions about our family: the title of the parent he was with, and the fact that he had another female parent at home. Matter-of-factly, he was coming out as having a same-sex headed family.

Even before Nate could call us by name, my partner Jamie and I wanted titles that would differentiate us from one another. “Mommy A” and “Mommy J” were our first attempt, but they felt too cumbersome and too similar. Surely in the middle of the night, we would both insist that the other was being requested by the little voice calling out from down the hall. So, we did what any egalitarian couple would do: we flipped a coin and assigned titles. The nickel landed heads up. I became Mommy and Jamie, Mama.

It wasn’t the first time Jamie and I faced a naming dilemma. When we got married, there were no etiquette manuals to suggest what to do—not that we necessarily would have listened to the advice anyway. We both had last names that were mispronounced more often than they were said correctly. Together, the names would have been a hyphenated disaster. We opted for neither name and became the Davis family, in honor of my great-grandmother, a loving matriarch with a name no one else was carrying on. At 99, she died the year we got engaged.

Through our intentional choices about names, we defined ourselves, both within our family as parents and beyond our home as a family. Nate’s clarification at the grocery store pleased me. He wanted us to be seen and known accurately. I share his wish and often feel dismayed that it doesn’t come easily.

Earlier this year Jamie and I welcomed a second child—a daughter—into our family. I had given birth to Nate and, using the same sperm donor, Jamie carried Charlotte. Jamie opted to have her prenatal care, labor, and delivery at a birth center with an adjacent hospital. After meeting several midwives, we followed their recommendation of “primary midwifery” and selected one midwife to see throughout the pregnancy. Our midwife’s knowledge, candor, and irreverent humor made her a great fit for us.

In other encounters, we were not so lucky. As we prepared to become a family of four, we felt unseen yet again. It was beginning to feel like a rite of passage with each major event in our lives. One of the first slights came from our health insurance. A couple months into the pregnancy, a bill came in the mail for all of the prenatal visits to date. How could this be? We had a great policy with 100% coverage for maternity care. Their explanation: maternity care is not covered for males. Huh? As it turns out, only subscribers check a box to indicate their gender on the enrollment form. Since I was the subscriber and checked off female, my spouse was assumed to be male, and hence, “his” maternity care was not covered. It was quite a mess of needless paperwork to straighten out (no pun intended).

Human interactions were not much better. As we tried to book a series of prenatal appointments, the administrative assistant referred to me as Jamie’s “friend.” If I were a man trying to arrange my schedule to be present for prenatal visits, surely I would have been assumed to be the husband or boyfriend, or at least the baby’s father. As a woman, I wasn’t even seen as family.

Jamie and Nate went to a few appointments without me. As much as I hate to admit it, I experienced some relief in not being an extraneous person to whom providers did not know how to refer to or include in the appointments. But even at the visits without me, Jamie encountered narrow-minded thinking. While escorting Jamie and Nate to an exam room, a medical assistant commented that Nate doesn’t bear much of a resemblance to her. She wondered if he looked more like his dad. Jamie informed her that actually, he looks a lot like his biological mom.

“Oh, he’s not yours?” she said, within earshot of Nate.

“He most certainly is,” replied Jamie, noting that she may need to revisit this interaction with Nate later.

At another visit without me, Jamie attended to Nate’s needs while raising her own questions with a provider who was filling in for our midwife who was out for the day. Towards the end of the appointment, the provider asked, “Are you watching him? You’re his sitter?” Jamie couldn’t figure out what she meant or how she came to that conclusion, especially because Nate referred to her as “Mama” incessantly throughout the visit.

“Mama, what snacks do you have for me?”

“Mama, can you read this book?”

“Mama, take my shoes off.”

Jamie answered the midwife’s question. “No, he’s my son.”

“I thought you were the sitter. Your record says you’re here for supervision of a first pregnancy,” the midwife explained, unapologetically.

Perhaps, in caring for biological mothers and their pregnant bellies all day, the midwife lost sight of the myriad ways that families come to be. The medical record did not tell the whole story for this second-time mom with a first-time pregnancy. It also made me wonder if she would consider the baby growing in Jamie’s belly to be mine.

We became accustomed to not being seen as partners or as mothers to both of our children. We chose when to provide a correction and when to let it slide. Sometimes I wondered if the thought ever crossed others’ minds that we might be spouses. Perhaps they feared that we might be offended if their assumptions were wrong, so the “safer” bet would be to use seemingly benign language like “friend” or “sister.”

As a healthcare provider myself, I know it takes little effort to use inclusive terminology with all clients and then follow their lead by listening for their preferred language. Even when a client turns out to fit “the norm,” I have conveyed an important message about my values. And when I flub up—as we all do—I hope to have the humility to take responsibility for the effect of my words.

As our baby’s due date approached, Jamie and I braced ourselves for others’ assumptions. We brought in copies of legal documents so there would be no question about who was next-of-kin in an emergency. We fortified ourselves by hiring a doula who could support and advocate for us during labor, should the need arise.

Charlotte was born at the birth center after a long labor during a wintertime heat wave. Due to complications for Jamie, we had an unexpected stay on the maternity ward in the hospital. The morning after Charlotte’s birth, I awoke with a migraine. Several days of sleep deprivation, caffeine withdrawal, and dehydration had caught up with me. I vomited and nearly fainted before the nurses rushed in and wheeled me to the ER. An IV pumped Zofran, Toradol, and fluids into my system, while the attending doctor reviewed what had happened.

“Congratulations!” he said, upon hearing that I had come from the maternity ward.

“No, my partner gave birth,” I said. I must have been delirious to imagine he thought the maternity ward had sent a post-partum patient to the ER for care.

“Right,” he said. “Congratulations.”

It took me a minute to register that I was being celebrated for my one-day-old daughter’s birth. It was utterly refreshing. How ironic that a doctor in the ER got it immediately, whereas some of the birth center’s staff and clinicians did not.

I’ve reflected a lot about how it feels and what it means to have to correct, define, or explain our relationship or our parental roles, in both the mundane and the extraordinary moments of family life. As we awaited Charlotte’s arrival, these moments were frustrating and exhausting, but not egregious by any stretch, especially compared with true acts of homophobia. I know we are fortunate to have family and friends who support us wholly, and to live in a state that recognizes us as legal spouses and as parents to both children born within our marriage.

In many ways, our stories are typical and predictable. Many lesbian-headed households could insert themselves into our stories, save the personal details. These micro-aggressions were not intentional; no one sought to hurt or invalidate us, even though that was the effect. They likely stem from assumptions about who a married couple is or what a family looks like. What people see depends on their experience, exposure, and frame of reference. Perhaps that’s what is important about telling stories that aren’t new: as far as we’ve come with awareness and appreciation of diversity, we have a long way to go.

My children’s identities will be shaped, in part, by what is reflected back to them about who they are. As much as I’d like to, I can’t control the content of those messages. To an extent, I can shield my children in these early years. Regardless of how others see us, Jamie, Nate, Charlotte, and I know who we are to each other. On one hand, that’s all that matters. And at the same time, Jamie and I are faced with a new parenting challenge of helping our children process our complex social world—a world that we are still learning to navigate ourselves.

Author’s Note: I have always been aware of and sensitive to language. You know that childhood rhyme: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?”  I don’t buy it. Words are powerful.  hey can hurt, minimize, and invalidate. They reflect and affect our thinking about others and ourselves. They are also dynamic and evolve as we do.  Jamie and I met as students at Wellesley College.  From the moment I stepped on campus, I learned to refer to myself as a woman, not a girl.  At 18, I began to carry myself differently as a woman. That distinction was empowering.  Now as a partner and mom in a lesbian-headed family, I continue to notice and take charge of the language used about me, especially in the presence of my kids.  It is a political act to reject invisibility and insist on being fully and authentically seen. 

About the Author: Ashley Davis is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Wheelock College, where she teaches students to think expansively and speak inclusively in their practice with diverse families. She can be reached at