by Pamela and Michelle Baer
Our story is told in two interweaving narratives—Mama and Mommy. Together we share how assumptions about parenthood are queered through the act of non-normative family formations such as ours, and how we perform motherhood through conscious and unconscious acts on a daily basis. Although poopy diapers and night wakings don’t discriminate, our experience as lesbian moms, as a queer family, have their own negotiations, frustrations, and moments of exposure.
Mommy: I took my partner’s surname on a Wednesday, almost four years after we were married. Our son was born on a Friday. I became a Baer and a mom all in the same week. I wanted to share a family name to minimize my status as “other” mother. Our straight friends were not surprised (it’s pretty heteronormative to share a family name), my queer friends were a little unsure (it’s not as common in the queer community), and my employer sent me a pay stub in my partner’s first and last name instead of mine. It took me a while to figure out that they mistook my marriage certificate for a name-change certificate because of the two female names on the form.
Mama: Who I am has shifted, teetered, and tilted since the grand event of becoming a mother. My world slid off axis the moment I learned I was pregnant. In a single moment I had become a mother. I felt it again when my water broke at 3:00 a.m. the day my son was born. I felt it as I broke every blood vessel in my face pushing him out into the world. I felt it as I held him on my chest for the very first time. I felt it as he clapped his hands together and stuck out his tongue, then looked up at me and said, “Mama.” I work to regain balance, to find myself in this new identity: a woman, a partner, a lover, a daughter, a friend, a mother. Mama. Me.
Mommy: I had heard rumours about inducing lactation in non-pregnant women long before my son was born. At first I thought why bother, my partner is planning on breastfeeding. Then a few months before he was born, I thought I might as well try. It could be really cool to have that connection, to nourish my baby from my body, and to be able to help out with nighttime feeds. But being the health conscious person that I am, I wanted to try breastfeeding without taking any drugs. I knew my chances for success were slim, but I started pumping every evening (I figured we owned the breast pump, I might as well use it!). There were various types of discharge from my nipples as my milk ducts opened up and cleaned themselves out, and in the week leading up to my son’s birth, I was able to produce a few drops of colostrum. Then the baby was born, and my daily pumping routine went out the window. I quickly stepped into the role of non-nursing parent, caring for a partner postpartum and a newborn baby. Thoughts of nursing disappeared until everything changed when our son began losing weight.
Mama: When our exclusively breastfed son lost below his birth weight (a meager six pounds!), our midwife said that we would either have to supplement immediately with formula, or else go to the hospital to investigate what might be wrong. We chose to avoid the hospital, but sought out the help of the Newman Breastfeeding Clinic and Institute. It was here that our son was diagnosed with a mild tongue-tie and lip-tie, impeding his ability to sufficiently feed, and which in turn hindered my body’s ability to produce enough milk. (This cycle must be remedied as soon as possible, as your ongoing milk production levels are set during the first few weeks after birth.) We elected to have our son’s tongue-tie and lip-tie “released” (i.e., snipped with surgical scissors) hoping this would remedy the situation—though, we were informed there was the potential it might not make a substantial difference. Throughout this time our son reacted terribly to the formula we were using as supplement, inevitably resulting in a hospital visit. This reinforced our resolve to continue breastfeeding, but we needed more breast milk.
Before our baby was born, my wife was eager to try out breastfeeding and researched how she might be able to successfully do this. Initially when she introduced the idea, I reacted with a protective “Mama Baer” growl—I was worried that having two moms breastfeed would take away the unique aspect of being the birth mother. I selfishly wanted to be the only one who could do this special job. Yes, our child would have two moms, but did he really need two breastfeeding moms? While I felt sad to lose this exclusive role, facing the challenges of breastfeeding gave us the push to become a two-mom breastfeeding family. Through the support of lactation consultants and our family doctor, hours of pumping and the wonder drug domperidone, my wife was quickly able to establish a milk supply and get our baby to latch with a tube at the breast.
Having two moms breastfeeding was one of the things that made those first few months manageable. If one partner was busy or just too exhausted, the other would say, “I’ll feed him.” Having two moms who are breastfeeding relieves some of the stress of childcare, with the ability to share nighttime and nap-time feeding, take a break from the house without leaving behind pumped milk, coordinate work schedules, or simply give one of us the option of indulging in a few glasses of wine. Our son benefited from hundreds of ounces of breast milk and the associated immune factors from having not just one, but two mothers breastfeed.
Mommy: Being able to nurse our beautiful baby boy for six short months was a wonderful blessing. Yet doing so also caused a lot of unnerving reactions. People close to us were concerned that my milk was for some reason not good enough for our son: “Is it actually OK for him to drink it?” I was often nervous about coming out as a non-bio breastfeeding mom because I knew it would lead to questions I didn’t have the energy to answer. Friends, family, and acquaintances were shocked, appalled, confused, and generally unsure of how to react to me in this role.
It seems that in theory, in 2015, everyone is fine with two moms having a baby, as long as the roles are clearly demarcated between the bio-mom and the other-mom. When breastfeeding our baby blurred those boundaries, people could no longer easily categorize our family. This queering of motherhood made people uncomfortable.
Mama: On our son’s first plane trip to visit family, an elderly woman seated in our row looked over as I breastfed him. Once he had finished both sides, I passed him over to my wife, who pulled up her shirt, and our son quickly latched on to drink from her bosom. The woman did a double take. She had not spoken to us thus far, but her curiosity piqued, asked us in an Eastern European accent, “Both moms? Two moms?” We nodded in unison, waiting for her reaction. Our son looked up at her and broke into his beautiful smile. She smiled back and it was understood that even if lesbian moms would likely not be acceptable in her country of origin, she could see that our family was full of love.
Mama: On the rare occasion I went out into the world without our son, I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “I JUST HAD A BABY! I GREW A WHOLE HUMAN INSIDE OF ME! I BIRTHED HIM! BUT … (hushed whisper) I’m not his only mom, he has two…” It felt strange to enter the world without the visible “badges” of queer motherhood—holding hands with my wife, sharing a kiss, pushing our son in the stroller. Sometimes I appreciated being able to move in the world without having to explain our family. Other times, I wanted people to know, to be able to talk about it and share in our common experiences of motherhood, while exploring the differences as well.
Mommy: “You just had a baby? Wow, you look great!” I hear this a lot and depending on the context, I will either say “thank you” or feel the need to clarify that I didn’t carry the baby. Neither response feels very good. One feels like I am lying, while the other requires a long explanation of my family formation. I am often out of the house without the baby, such as when I to go to work, and so when people find out I am a new parent they are frequently surprised. Why would I, the mom, be at work? The relief in co-worker’s voices when I tell them my partner is on maternity leave and home with the baby is palpable. Enter societal gender assumptions: How could I, a woman, possibly leave my baby at home? But then there is a revelation and somehow it becomes OK, because the baby does have his mom at home, and I am just an imposter having momentarily tricked them into thinking that I am a “mom.”
Mama: As a queer mother, my experience of motherhood is both universal and unique. I have consulted the experts on common baby issues, and identify with many of the mommy blogs, but in no book, website, or resource is my family represented. My experience in mommy and baby groups, and in the broader social sphere, have demonstrated that people assume a woman is a mother by way of partnering with a man. Whether or not that male is involved, people see a woman with a child and by default, assume that a male and female had sex to create said child. When people think “mother,” they associate that role with the dominant traditional family model of heterosexual relationships, thereby reducing my partner’s role to “other” mother. While I was on maternity leave I met with a financial advisor who asked out of habit, “Oh, and your husband, what does he do?” When I clarified, “My wife, our son has two mothers,” he gave me a blank stare, crinkled his brow, and with the slow nod of the head said, “Ah, I see.” Right, what exactly do you see, I wanted to ask.
Mommy: To be an “other” mother (I hate that term) is an ongoing challenge, as if I need to prove my legitimacy as a mother every time we leave the house. I don’t have the ease of discussing postpartum hormones, or the pain of labour, or the time afforded by maternity leave. As a non-bio mom, I am of course sensitive to feeling excluded, for people not accepting me as a full-fledged parent simply because I don’t share genetic material with my son. My legal rights in Ontario seem solid, but beyond the borders of our province, and within many of the institutions that we engage with regularly, my role of mother is questioned:
A bank official tells me after spending two hours setting up an RESP that I don’t have signing rights, that he is sorry he assumed I was the birth mother, but that my partner needs to be the one to set up the account.
When my family travels internationally, do we go through customs together, or do I go separately?
In prenatal classes, when using the word “partner” instead of “father” feels like it is tangled in the instructor’s mouth every time.
The list could go on.
Because of these societal hurdles, it is no surprise that I feel so protective of my role as mother, even in social settings with friends and family, as if I have to say to them I am as much a mom as Mama! But I can tell you that at three in the morning when the baby is crying, genetics are not a prerequisite for being a mother. My cuddles, my breast milk, and my love aren’t preceded with an “other,” and neither is my title of Mommy. Everyday I live all the glorious and exhausting implications of being a mother—don’t bracket me off because I didn’t give birth.
Mama: On May 16, 2014, after eighteen hours of labour, my wife and I pulled out of me our wriggling, bright-eyed baby boy, and celebrated the sheer power of life, love, and transformation that had just occurred. We were a family!
Our midwife came out to us as a queer mom only as we were giving birth, despite having worked with us intimately for the nine months leading up to this day. We wondered, had she kept this a secret on purpose or was it simply a professional exclusion? When I was pregnant I would get questioned about my husband. If I outed myself, other mothers would often say, “you’re so lucky that you have a wife,” or “your baby is so lucky to have two moms.” What does it mean to “pass” as just another straight mom in motherhood circles? What impact will it have on our child(ren) to come out or not? I make this choice on a daily basis: Do I correct the grocery store clerk who assumes my wife is “Grandma” to our son? Do I come out to my son’s dentist when he asks about the “father’s teeth”? Do I let stranger’s comments about how much he looks like his “mom” go unchecked, without sharing that he actually has two moms, and strangely he kind of looks like both of us? It can be exhausting, but I also feel a deep responsibility to my child, my wife, and myself, to be open about who we are. How else can the world change for us, if we are not willing to be a source of change ourselves?
Mommy: Something strange happens when coming out as a queer family to strangers. The act of coming out seems to create a false sense of intimacy. People often feel justified in asking us inappropriate details about conception, parenting, and even sex. My coming out, my presentation of my queer family, is not an invitation to you, a stranger, to ask intimate details about my life. It is a public identity, a public statement, and if you opened your eyes and saw the love that flowed between our family of three, I wouldn’t have to explain our family to you, it would be obvious.
Mama: I am sitting in the bleachers at the swimming pool, alone save for one other onlooker, watching my wife and son participate in his waterbabies class. The onlooker turns to me and asks if I’m here for a friend. I pause. Do I let him believe a lie in order to protect myself and my family from potential harm, or do I come out to this complete stranger, to speak up in an act of courage and queer resistance? “My wife took our son to the lesson today,” I say, and wait for the reaction. He leaps directly into asking how we made our son, did we “have a friend help?” with visions of sapphic pornographic threesomes flashing across his mind.
Mommy: Bringing a baby into the world has legitimized us as a family in a way that I didn’t know was possible. Without a child we were simply a couple, now we can claim family status. Yet every day is a negotiation; we move through the world knowing that our privilege as cis-gendered, middle-class, white women, provides us the opportunity to choose when, how, and where to disclose, come out, and straighten up. We might not be the queerest family on the block and we readily admit to reproducing certain homonormative ideals (when your life itself is an act of resistance to the status quo, folding to some dominant structures can bring an ease and comfort). We are us, and we live a life full of love and joy.
Mama: The monitor buzzes with the sound of white noise, pierced by the shrieks of our baby at 1:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m., 5:00 a.m. And finally 6:00 a.m. I drag myself out of bed one more time, knowing that I am now up for the day. The sun is not. I lift my screeching little lovebug out of the crib where he now “sleeps,” in his own room, following nine months of being attached to our breasts in the family bed. He screeches again, letting me know it is time for milk. He suckles forcefully and graciously, gulping down the elixir of life in a way I never thought would be possible for him, after all of our breastfeeding challenges. I thank the universe for these beautiful moments together. I thank the universe for my wife. I remind myself to be more thankful in general. How incredible that I live in today’s world, in Ontario, Canada, to have been able to create our family through the donation of sperm to the fertility clinic, to have become pregnant on our first attempt, to have a supportive network of family and friends who have nothing but love for this child. I know that as I one day remember these moments, when we were in the process of becoming Mama and Mommy, I will feel as if they only lasted a second, when in reality they are seconds adding up to a lifetime of being Mothers. Together.
Pamela Baer is a theatre artist and filmmaker with a focus on collaborative and community engaged creation. Her most recent work explores LGBTQ representations, experiences, and families. She is currently the Program Coordinator of the artist-run video production facility Charles Street Video, and a PhD student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.