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.

Explaining Gay Marriage to the Boy with Two Moms

Explaining Gay Marriage to the Boy with Two Moms

By Jennifer Berney

square wedding

“Ralph says that boys can’t marry boys,” my son said to me as I drove him home from preschool.

Ralph, who sported a buzz cut and freckles, was a longtime friend of my son’s. More than once I’d heard him voicing his mother’s opinions to an audience of four-year-olds, like the time he explained that babies took too much work and cost too much money. He delivered this news as I held my newborn infant.

“Well Ralph is confused,” I replied, glancing in the rearview mirror.

“He’s not confused; he’s wrong,” my son corrected.

It was July of 2013, just months after our own state had voted to allow same-sex marriages, and weeks after the Defense of Marriage Act was repealed. If Ralph or his sources hadn’t yet woken up to the reality of gay marriage in our state, they weren’t alone. I, too, hesitated to believe it. For straight people, a wedding was usually an event confined to a single day. But for my partner and me the process of getting married had been ongoing, continual, endless. Were we finally, really real?

When Kellie and I exchanged vows in 2003, there was nothing legal about our wedding. Neither of us dreamed we’d live to see the end of DOMA or—even more surprisingly—marriage equality in all fifty states, but that didn’t stop us from wanting to declare our love. And so, on a Sunday in August, we gathered friends and family in a circle on a friend’s green lawn. Our friend Queen, who wore a blue dress and red lipstick, opened the ceremony by informing our friends that they were a part of this commitment too. “By standing here today,” she told them, “you agree to be available to Kellie and Jenn, three months from now, ten years from now, anytime their marriage needs support.”

In that moment, more than any other, I reckoned with what it meant to be married: it was more than a private promise between myself and my partner; it was an intention declared, witnessed, and affirmed by those who loved us. Still, it felt significant that this affirmation did not extend into the world at large. On paper, as far as any lawyer was concerned, Kellie and I were simply roommates. I didn’t want this to matter, but it did. Any time I referred to my marriage, I was tempted to use air quotes.

Four years later, our state passed a bill allowing State Registered Domestic Partnerships to same-sex couples. It was a compromise of sorts, an option that was like marriage but with the most unromantic possible name. The legal rights that SRDPs conferred were significant: if Kellie landed in the hospital I could visit her; I could now get health insurance through Kellie’s employer. But there were also limitations: we couldn’t file our taxes jointly; I still couldn’t use the word “married” in the legal sense, and when we welcomed our first son into the world the following year, we’d have to spend over ten thousand dollars in legal fees to add Kellie’s name to the birth certificate.

Some of our friends who registered for SRDP status treated it like a wedding. They dressed up and threw grand parties. But Kellie and I were tentative. Hadn’t we already done the thing that mattered? When we went to the courthouse we treated it like an errand. Afterwards we went out for a glass of wine, but weren’t sure what to toast—bureaucracy? Separate-but-not-quite-equal rights?

I was seven months pregnant with our second child when our state passed a bill allowing same-sex marriages. I’d spent my pregnancy rooting for this bill for reasons that were largely practical. If the bill passed, and if Kellie and I could wed before the baby arrived, we could easily (and cheaply) add her name to the birth certificate. Instead of hiring a lawyer, we could simply fill out a few forms.

What I thought was our final act of marriage took place on our living room couch on January 6, 2013. Some friends were disappointed that we weren’t having a big party. “But we had our real wedding ten years ago,” I told them. “Remember? You were there.” Our friend Queen, who married us initially sat between us, and we re-read the vows we’d exchanged nearly a decade before. Two close friends had come to bear witness. They brought flowers and chocolate, and sat cross-legged on our floor. The baby, who would arrive two weeks later, turned and kicked me from the inside. Our first son was four and he kept interrupting. “Can’t we build a puzzle?” he kept asking our friends. “Can we watch a movie?”

Ten minutes later, we all crouched around the coffee table to sign the marriage license. In doing so, we finally completed the ceremony we’d begun ten years earlier.

Or at least I thought we were finished. Two and a half years later, on a Friday I would open my computer to see that the equal marriage map had gone green, that the Supreme Court had declared marriage equality a constitutional right. My breath would catch in my throat. I would try to call out to Kellie in the next room to share the news but discover that I was speechless. Our marriage would now be recognized in every U.S. state.

In the car that day, as I merged on the freeway, I continued to explain why Ralph might think that “boys can’t marry other boys.”

“There are still lots of places where men can’t marry men, and women can’t marry women. Some people just like to make rules about things that don’t matter.”

My son remained quiet, and I assumed he’d lost interest.

“Don’t you remember our wedding?” I asked him. “You were there. It was right before your brother was born.”

I thought that he might find some small joy in this, but instead a note of distress entered his voice. “You mean you weren’t married when I was born?”

“It’s complicated,” I told him. I kept talking on and on, trying to explain the logistics. But instead I should have told him what I, too, most needed to hear: It’s okay. It’s real. All of it. Our marriage, our family, our love.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. 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.

Do Bully Prevention Programs Actually Stop Bullying?

Do Bully Prevention Programs Actually Stop Bullying?

By Susan Buttenwieser

canstockphoto19166591I can still picture it vividly, like it was yesterday. The fifth grade recess routine. Watching the same group of boys pummel the same kid. None of us did anything, didn’t tell a teacher or help him in anyway. Not even when they smashed his head against a radiator.

It was the 1970s, but my experience is still a common occurrence in schoolyards, hallways, bathrooms, cafeterias and classrooms today. Bullying is a serious issue in schools across the country. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls it a public health problem, with one in three students being bullied. Boys are more likely to be physically bullied while girls face emotional bullying.

Students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are particularly susceptible to bullying. According to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) 2013 National School Climate Survey, three-quarters of LGBT students are verbally harassed and over one third are physically harassed because of their sexual orientation; 30% missed at least one day of school in the past month because of feeling uncomfortable or unsafe. Grade point averages for these students are between nine and 15 percent lower than for others.

The negative effects from bullying can last after the taunting, shoving and wedgies have ended, well into adulthood, and even a whole lifetime. Victims are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and suicidal feelings. Childhood bullying is linked to lower educational levels, increased chance of being unemployed and having a lower salary at age 50. And the bullies themselves are at increased risk for substance abuse, academic problems, and violence later in adolescence and adulthood.

But coming up with solutions to this age-old problem has proven to be elusive. Almost every state has a safe school law but very few, if any, are funded. This means schools receive little support on how to implement laws, or the necessary training needed to reduce and prevent bullying. Many of the widely used bullying prevention programs and practices have shown little evidence of effectiveness, and lack substance. Merely putting up posters in school hallways is not nearly enough.

Lack of involvement and support from teachers, school staff and parents adds to the risk of bullying. But sometimes they don’t realize what is going on, even when it’s happening right in front of them. “School personnel often do not fully appreciate how unsafe students feel,” says Jonathan Cohen, president of the National School Climate Center. “In fact, in our assessment of schools nationwide, the single most consistent finding is that the adults in the community—parents and school personnel—view students’ social-emotional safety as much less of an issue than the students themselves report. There are several factors that contribute to this: too often adults label mean, cruel and/or bullying behaviors as normal or kids being kids. Due to this, students vastly under-report instances of bullying to adults, because they do not believe adults will help the situation; and, a significant amount of mean, cruel and bullying behaviors are subtle, and therefore harder to track from an adult perspective.”

But when adults do get involved, it is not always in a helpful way. Many programs are focused on identifying and punishing the bully, and some states mandate that school administrators report bullying to the police. But researchers have found that these “zero-tolerance” programs, where schools rely on law enforcement, suspensions, expulsions, metal detectors and other overly aggressive tactics, don’t work either.

“There are over 15 years of empirical research that underscores the fact that zero tolerance policies hurt. They do not help,” says Cohen. “In fact, we know that restorative practices can have a much more profound effect on student behavior and success over the long-term than punitive-based policies that merely address the instance but not the underlying causes for the behavior.”

And one study found that the students at schools with bullying prevention programs were actually more likely to be bullied than schools without these programs. Researchers posited that bullies were adopting the language from the anti-bullying programs.

A major roadblock is that many anti-bullying programs are centered around the bully and on short-term lessons. They don’t engage all members of the school community, both children and adults, and are not grounded in educational and developmental theory, say the authors of Rethinking Effective Bully and Violence Prevention Efforts.

Instead, positive development of the school community should be fostered rather than a focus on problem prevention. Everyone in that community, including the students, needs to work together to develop a shared vision of the kind of school they want to have. Having an inclusive curriculum is crucial. For example, GLSEN reports that students in schools with an LGBT-inclusive curriculum were less likely to feel unsafe. And a more diverse curriculum where everyone’s history is learned will have benefits that extend far beyond preventing bullying. The more students know about one another, the more cultures and difference are celebrated, the better.

And then of course, there are the witnesses. Bullies need an audience. Effective programs need to motivate them to step in and reach out to an adult. Empower the kids, like ten-year old me, with my jagged bowl haircut and unfashionable bulky parka, standing on the sidelines, trying to avoid making eye contact with anyone, just grateful not be on the receiving end of all those fists, all that hate, to do something.

Susan Buttenwieser’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Teachers & Writers magazine and other publications. She teaches creative writing in New York City public schools and with incarcerated women. 

Photo credit:

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)


Till Death Did They Part

Till Death Did They Part

By Molly Krause

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When my dad came back after two decades of divorce, I wondered if my mom had somehow been waiting for him.


My dad was a man who was careful with his words. He was bothered by the incorrect use of ‘excuse me’ when someone should have said ‘pardon me.’ And don’t even get him started on overusing the words ‘you know’ as I did in the 1980s as a teenager. He had the habit of introducing my mother as his ‘former wife’ never his ‘ex-wife.’ Given his precise use of language, his word choice seemed deliberate. It was as if he was saying, “In my former life, back when I was trying to be straight, this was the wife I chose.” When he moved back to Kansas to die, his former life and his current situation intersected.

When I asked my dad in the early 1990s what he thought about research to discover the ‘gay gene’ I’ll admit I was trying to probe into his inner dialogue about his own homosexuality. As usual, he didn’t give me much.

“We all make our choices, we just have to live with them,” he answered.

This was his answer after he came out during a therapy session so many years before, after he chose to leave his own marriage to my mother, after he left his three young daughters behind, after he lived his own life in the big city, after he contracted the HIV virus.

This was his answer before he lost his vision in one eye, before the lesions appeared first on his hands, before most of his friends died, before he started walking with a cane, before he returned to the landscape and family he had once left behind.

Love is a choice, a decision on some level, he was telling me. He didn’t choose to be gay, but he did choose to leave. And while the cultural tide of 1972 may have given my mom a nod to stay in a marriage with her gay husband, as he was willing to do, she wanted him to leave. She wanted to choose love, too.

He stayed away most of my childhood, leaving my mom to struggle with raising three daughters. She never remarried and my sisters and I managed to run off any of her serious boyfriends. My dad was spotty with child support, forgot birthdays and spent time in rehab. She had every reason to feel bitter and to pass that along to her children. She never did. And while my father was prone to being critical, the only judgment he had about her was that she failed to teach us how to make a bed properly. Taking my mom’s lead, I didn’t act angry about my dad’s lack of time and attention. I smiled and tried to be lovable, all the while nursing a hidden wound of abandonment.

As my dad’s health was failing in 1995, his relationship was too. He and his partner lived in Key West when, at age twenty-three, I flew down for an extended visit. I was hoping for a suntan, sleeping in and shooting pool at the neighborhood-drinking hole. What I walked into was not a respite; it was a war zone.

My dad and his partner hardly spoke to each other, and when they did, they screamed. His partner drank a half a bottle of Bombay gin nightly; my dad self medicated with his pain pills. “I can’t stay here,” my dad whimpered to me. “No,” I agreed. “I don’t want to die down here in Key West,” he confessed.

Whose idea was it for him to move back to Kansas with me? Did I suggest it, the grown woman still searching for her father’s affection yet half hoping he would never do it? Did he bring it up as an option, trying to feel me out for how it would be received by my mom and sisters? Or did he just ask me directly, desperate to escape his unhappy situation?

When we decided he would come back with me, I felt full of purpose and determination. This would be the situation where we would finally get close, the barriers removed, a satisfying closure to the buried pain of years of distance.

My focus didn’t last long. Quickly overwhelmed sharing the same house with him for the first time since I was a toddler, I disappointed him by staying away. Away from the Vantage cigarette-tinged fog of the house, away from his moaning that could not be alleviated, away from his biting sarcasm and sharp tongue. My hidden resentments began to bubble to the surface—he feels bitter, does he? I stepped away; my mom showed up.

She drove him in her Volvo to his many medical appointments, singing the lyrics from their favorite musicals together. They huddled over the Sunday crossword puzzle. He defended the use of a pencil in all forms of writing, preferring the textured feel of its scrawl; she tried to convert him to the fountain pen, with its smooth delivery. Bickering over what was correct grammar, she inevitably ended the conversation with an eye roll and “Honestly, John, you can be insufferable.” She emptied his overflowing ashtrays, picked up his prescriptions and bottles of Insure, found someone to come over to cut his hair. They were competitive over Wheel of Fortune, my dad holding his magnifying glass up to see the TV. Yelling out the answer, their voices on top each other, they looked to me to make the call. “Marie Antoinette! Marie Antoinette! Molly, you know I said it first!” my mom shrieked. I raised my hands in surrender and walked out of the room.

I found a photograph as a small child, loose in a box among other forgotten objects. A black and white image showed my parents gazing at each other on a boat, a strand of my mom’s hair loose on her cheek, my dad holding a smoke between his thumb and forefinger. They were laughing as if a joke had just been told. Although I imagined an exotic far-away island, it was likely a mud-bottomed, coffee-colored lake. They looked like a couple in love. I clutched at it, unable to stop looking at them. Evidence, the only I had really, of my parents’ one time love for each other. The sadness I felt for my mom after spending time with the photo caused me to bury it back in that box.

I had never seen my parents fight, but I had never witnessed this new, almost domestic scene, after he returned, either. I always knew they liked each other, but as he lay dying, this affection was amplified. When my dad came back after two decades of divorce, I wondered if my mom had somehow been waiting for him.

The last person my dad reached out to was his former wife. He called her; his voice filled with panic in the middle of the night, and told her he didn’t know what happening. His last moments of lucidity were spent with her, but there was no singing together on that car ride. That was the last time he entered the hospital. It was my mother who called me and my sisters to come quickly. We all arrived in time as he continued to make his gasping breaths, clawing at his oxygen mask. His three daughters and his former wife surrounded him in his hospital bed after the mask was removed and he was allowed his peace.

As my mom reassured him, stroking his hair, remarking how little grey he had, I realized for the first time that us girls were not the only ones losing someone that day. We were losing our dad, but my mom, such as he was, was losing the only husband she ever had. The family that they had created together was all he had left at his end. And when that time came and his suffering was over, none of us cared, my mom included, that he preferred men over women.

When I thought about that picture later, it no longer made me feel sad for my mom. Seeing her stringless love made me aware of my own tethers I held to my dad—unmet expectations, unsaid words, unrealized intimacy. Unclenching my fingers and releasing them expanded my view of love. It is bigger than I had thought, too big to be contained to a greeting card, Hollywood movie or perhaps even a marriage. It is big enough to see someone for who they are, who they want to be and forgive them the difference.

We all make our choices; we just have to live with them.

Molly Krause is a writer and restaurateur living in Lawrence, Kansas with her husband and two daughters.

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Child of Mine

Child of Mine

By Jamie Johnson


They say there’s nothing like a mother’s love. But, just how far can it be pushed?

I wondered how to tell my 81-year-old, very religious mother, our family secret. It had taken me so long to get through the tough initial stages of adjustment. But, my mom, well, she thought in very straight, defined lines.

I had pictured myself going to visit her, talking distractedly about the weather and then, with a burst of courage, handing her the family letter Julia had written to explain her private suffering—and then I’d run.

I couldn’t do it. We had to tell her in person. Though imagining the look of confusion she would wear as we tried to explain this haunted my thoughts.

When Julia and I headed to her seniors’ home, I wished the corridor leading to my mom’s room was longer that day, so I would have more time to somehow come up with just the right thing to say.

There have been times when being Julia’s mom has been challenging. During her youth, we’d meet people I knew, and they’d say, “This must be Joey?” Joey was her brother. I’d search Julia’s face, but she looked… well, content. It bothered me, especially when it still happened at sixteen. Her butch look suggested she would eventually announce she was gay.

The truth was much more complicated.

I couldn’t imagine how complex that truth would seem to a reserved, small-town grandma, one who had lovingly taken her granddaughter to church every Sunday for years.

*   *   * 

My mom greeted us with a loving smile. I hated having to take her happy look away.

I stalled with idle chatter, but it couldn’t wait any longer.

Timidly, I began, “Mom, we have something difficult to tell you about Jul.” I had done it: I had replaced her contented look with fear. I quickly continued, “She isn’t terminally ill or anything, but it might be something you’re not going to be happy about.”

I took the letter out of the safety of my handbag. She lowered her eyebrows suspiciously, glancing quickly at Jul to see if this news was something she could recognize from across the room. I softly said, “This is a letter Jul wrote for our family.”

The day my daughter had told me, in 2003, I had come home to find her watching Oprah. Jul hates talk shows, I thought. Must be pretty interesting. Maybe I’ll watch a little.

All of Oprah’s guests were transgenders. They were born with reproductive organs that didn’t match how they felt in their hearts and souls. Each guest had been bruised by judgment. Some had been disowned by their families, lost friendships, or had experienced trouble finding love.

Jul had decided this was the time. She looked at me apprehensively and quietly said, “Mom, I think that is what I am.”

My initial shock went almost straight to denial. “Oh no, honey, you’re not. You’re gay. Not this.” Fortunately, after several months, I finally arrived at acceptance and support.

I held my breath. And hoped Jul’s letter would be a much gentler way of sharing.

*   *   * 

As my mom opened the letter and began to read, I looked at Julia, or Kip, which was my new son’s chosen male name. Kip appeared as frightened as I felt. No matter what happened, though, I would be there for my child.

My eyes returned to my mom. She was reading with intense concentration. Then it happened—our worst nightmare. She glared a fierce look I can only describe as “how dare you” straight at Kip.

I didn’t have to look at my son to know his horror; I could feel it. My mom’s piercing stare emitted raw anger.

She looked back down to the page. Then time stopped.

It couldn’t have taken her more than a few minutes to finish reading, but those few minutes seemed to last a lifetime.

Finally, she slowly stood up. God, what is she doing now? She took a few awkward steps toward Kip, then put her arms around him. She quietly said, “Honey, I hope you don’t think we would ever stop loving you?”

Those words will be ingrained in my memory for life. Big, heavy tears rolled down my cheeks. I had worried for months about this moment.

It’s estimated that as many as a third of people who want to transition, like my child, end their lives, or attempt to. The anguish of trying to live the role of the wrong gender is excruciating. And many have said that telling their family is the hardest part in the whole process. Kip had expressed his worst fear in his letter—that he would lose the people he loved so dearly. Those words must have connected with my mom.

As we explained, my mom’s eyebrows softened. She told us she had always thought this sort of thing was a choice, maybe she’d been wrong. After a temporary moment of passion, my mom had received this difficult information with grace and an open heart. I learned that she could have a mind much more open than I had given her credit for.

Kip and I left my mother’s room feeling half like we were in shock, barely able to believe my mom’s reaction, and half like we had been injected with pure love.

A mother’s love can certainly surprise you—if given a chance.


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.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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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

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Things We Cannot Know

Things We Cannot Know

By Vikki Reich


When I watch her play the piano and the guitar, when I hear her singing in her room, I know some of that comes from me yet we know the donor was in a choir and I find myself wondering about the sound of his voice.


One Sunday night, I was reading in bed when my daughter skipped into the room and asked to cuddle. I put my book aside, scooted down to lie on my back, stretched out my arm and waited for her to curl into my side and put her head on my shoulder as she usually did. But she didn’t move and I turned my head to see her lying on her side facing me with her hands together and tucked under her cheek, “I want to see your pretty face,” she said, and I laughed and I turned to face her.

We stared at each other and said nothing, one of those rare moments of reverence when you take the time to really see another person. I noticed the way the light hit her dark brown hair and gave it highlights that looked like fine copper threads, the smoothness of her olive skin so different than my own, her brown eyes that seem so much warmer than my pale blue ones, and her full lips just like mine.

“Now, I’m going to tell you everything I did this weekend,” she said and began to give me the rundown, the details of which are lost to me. Then, she inched just a tiny bit closer and said, “So we can never know our donor, Mama?”

She’d spent part of the day with our friends’ daughters, who have known donors, so I knew immediately why she was thinking about this. There was no way to soften the edges of my answer so I spoke after only a beat, “No, baby. We can’t.”

She looked back at me with those dark eyes, “Well that’s a little bit sad.”

I knew I had a choice in that moment. I could ask about the sadness and try to untangle it or I could sit with the truth of her statement and, in the end, I chose simplicity.

“Yes. It is.”

But that truth is not hers alone.

When I watch her play the piano and the guitar, when I hear her singing in her room, I know some of that comes from me yet we know the donor was in a choir and I find myself wondering about the sound of his voice.

When I watch my son draw with his left hand, I wonder if the donor liked to draw too and if his hand smudged the paper just like my son’s.

When I brush my daughter’s thick hair or run my hand through my son’s, I think (and often say), “You’re so lucky you got the donor’s hair,” because it’s so clearly nothing like mine. And then I wonder what he looked like, wishing we had a picture so that I could marvel at the unexpected ways our genes combined to make these beautiful children.

But these are things we cannot know.

And then she asked another question, “Why did you pick an unknown donor?”

I wanted to say that it was complicated which is my response when I think something is too complex for the kids to understand or, less nobly, when I don’t want to take the time to explain it. But I resisted because the truth isn’t very complex at all.

We chose an unknown donor from a sperm bank in Minnesota because there were laws in place to assure that the donor could not have any contact with our children, even after they were adults. We chose the most restrictive type of donor arrangement possible and we had our reasons.

I explained that we made the decision when gay people didn’t have any protections under the law, when children could be taken away from someone simply because he or she was gay, when we weren’t sure that both of us would be legally recognized as their parents.

We did it to protect ourselves.

We made that decision 14 years ago during a very uncertain time. We didn’t know then that judges would change and second-parent adoptions would become easier. We didn’t know that we would someday be able to legally marry.

And because there were things we could not have known then, there are these things we cannot know now. We will never know more about the donor than what is contained in the few pages of that profile we received all those years ago.

I reached out and took her hand in mine and told her that I could show her what we did know about him and she said, “Okay. I don’t really need to see it. Not now.”

I have no doubt that she will someday have more questions and we will tell her everything we know but that information is finite and there will always be questions we can’t answer.

Before I got pregnant, my mother asked, “What will you tell your child about the father?” She meant to unnerve me, to put me on the defensive. But our decision to have children using an unknown donor is not something I will ever feel the need to defend. We made a choice and I have no regrets though I do have this feeling that I can’t explain—not quite sadness but more complex than curiosity. I would love to meet the donor, to watch him in the world knowing that he is partly responsible for these children that have brought such beauty and chaos into our lives.

But he is only a myth, a story we create. He is the person about whom my partner and I both say when watching our children with amusement, “He must have been a piece of work.” And yet, we will never know for sure.

Vikki Reich writes about the intersection of contemporary lesbian life and parenthood at her personal blog Up Popped A Fox and publishes VillageQ, a site that gives voice to the experience of LGBTQ parents. She lives in Minneapolis with her partner and two kids who provide the soundtrack of her life, which involves more beatboxing and improvised pop songs than she ever could have imagined.

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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