I've just read the Crib Sheet for LGBT parents of newborns by Dana of Mombian. As always, she provides spot-on advice and tips for LGBTQ+ families (and their allies). It's funny: now that I have “big kids” (ages eight and five), so much of what we do as queer parents just seems old hat. Our friends know us; our neighbours know us; the school knows us; the pharmacists and the waitresses at our local diner and the soccer coaches and even the bank tellers know us. So it’s rare that we have to explain ourselves to our larger world. But I remember a time when it felt like we were constantly explaining and how tiring and often frustrating that was.
Mombian makes a great point on her Crib Sheet about handling parenting conversations with other adults: "A little preparation can help you sound comfortable with yourself." I agree. My best advice (I hope) to aspiring or new queer parents is this: Think through your responses to questions in advance, so that you can be smoother than I was. And remember that sometimes even the insensitive questions are meant kindly.
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When my sons were babies, we used to spend most Saturday mornings at the local farmers market. It was a godsend for parents of little kids: open early (a bonus, since we tended to be awake by 6 AM most days and were desperate to be out of the house by eight); warm and dry even during the coldest winter months; and full of friendly people who didn’t bat an eye when our toddler, Rowan, monopolized the free samples of chorizo or locally made Gouda. Plus, they served coffee and a great breakfast.
During one such morning, my partner and I had snagged one of the coveted breakfast tables and were waiting for our food. Despite my four-months-pregnant belly, there was still room on my lap for Rowan, and he climbed onto it. A woman we knew in passing asked if she could join us, and we said, "Yes, of course," because that's the etiquette of the farmers market: You make room. You share. We made a bit of small talk, and then she turned to me and gestured toward Rowan, who was plowing his way through a pile of cheese curds.
“Is he yours?” she asked.
I wasn’t ready for the question. The sheer wrongness of it spiraled in so many different directions that I felt scattered, unable to even begin to answer her. I mean, it’s not the kind of thing that straight women sitting next to their male partners get asked about the toddlers in their laps: “Is he yours?”
Of course, Rowan was mine; to the extent that any adult could lay claim to a child, this child belonged to me. But he also belonged equally and passionately to Rachel, his other mother, the woman who had, with me, planned for him and cared about and for him since his conception, who loved him fiercely and protectively, and to whom he was equally passionately attached. And that question, those three words, negated the value of all of that.
Of course, what the woman at our table had actually meant was, “Did you give birth to him?”
But again, wording it like that would scarcely have made a difference. You may find that people will randomly, casually, ask you which -- if either -- of you gave birth to your own children. Often, "Who gave birth?" is code for "Who’s the real mother (and, by process of elimination, the illegitimate one)?" or "I’m uncomfortable with how your family works and need to understand it according to my own terms." Decide beforehand how much of that information you want to share and when you want to share it.
Of course, one question often leads to another, and we also received questions about the "father." Be prepared. "Do you know the father?" or "Is the father involved?" or "Does he have a dad?"
Be prepared to be asked about your kids’ father, even when they have two mothers, sitting right there. Clearly, we must have done a certain amount of important work to have got to the place we were at right then: at the farmers market with our toddler on a cold Saturday morning. Clearly, we had put a lot of effort into this situation, to have figured out how to procure a real live tiny human in a relationship where ovaries tend to dominate. It was frustrating, then, when we'd been up every morning at 6 AM for the past year and a half and our kid only started sleeping through the night three months earlier, and we spent our days cutting grapes in half and following babies up and down flights of stairs so that they wouldn't bash their skulls in, to have people just so interested in the “father.”
For some lesbian moms, that “father” is a scant teaspoonful of genetic material, no name or face attached. For some families, that genetic material came from someone they know: a friend or relative or acquaintance who donated said material, and who in the grand scheme of things has very little to do with the ensuing children. In these cases, the correct word is usually “donor” -- not “father” or “dad.”
In some cases, like my family’s, our donor, Rob, started out as a donor and has, over the years, morphed into a dad. His “dadness” is specific to our family, though: he lives in a different city, visits a few times a year, has started staying with the kids while Rachel and I take a much-needed annual vacation as well as some shorter getaways. He plays games with the kids (now eight and five years old) over the computer. He is a cherished and important member of our extended family, and we love him dearly. But Rachel and I are the ones who live with the kids and do 99% of the actual parenting. And we’d like to take most of the credit for that, thanks.
But without thinking through my answer beforehand, when that woman asked me, “Is he yours?” I blew it.
I panicked, and instead of taking a deep breath and pausing and thinking about just how I might respond, I stammered out, “Um, yeah.”
I felt flustered, and like a jerk, and Rachel felt doubly wounded -- at the question in the first place and then at my response to it. It took us some time to regain our equilibrium that day. We managed to do it, to work our way through the guilt and the hurt and the defensiveness and the pain, by coming to a mutual understanding that our first responsibility as queer parents and partners was to our family. We needed to plan in advance for the intrusive questions of strangers and acquaintances and come up with responses that we both felt comfortable with and that respected our unique family -- not someone else’s preconceived notion of what families look like, or ought to.
Sometimes, that means that we have to remind ourselves that we don’t have to accommodate other people’s questions just because they ask. A simple, “I’m sorry, but that’s private information” is well within our rights as parents. And sometimes it means that we have to do the work of acting as ambassadors for our family, of seeing the openness and the genuine support behind what might be misguided questions and gently redirecting them, even if it means moving slightly beyond our comfort zones. Because that is how you build community and make it more diverse.
If I could go back in time to that morning at the farmer’s market, I would have taken a deep breath and reached for Rachel’s hand. And then I would have looked that woman in the eye and smiled and said, “He’s ours.”
But then I would have added, “Why do you ask?” And I would have made an effort to have a real conversation, move the dialogue forward. Because, in my opinion, that’s the etiquette of these kinds of things: wherever possible, try to make room. Try to share.
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What were your thoughts on the crib sheet? Any pearls of wisdom or tips for queer parents looking to navigate the world with their rainbow sippy cups in tow? How do you handle questions that feel intrusive? How do you balance wanting to expand knowledge about your family while maintaining your privacy?
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