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 http://goodnightalready.com/.

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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.

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