Sunday, August 20, 2006

The fear of the (other) mother

Not too long ago, Her Bad Mother posted a request for help in writing about a mother's physical love for her child. Soon after, she wrote about an email she had received. It came from a non-bio lesbian mom:
As the "Other Mommy" in a two mommy household I have to say that I could NEVER write such a post. I would be too damned afraid of the authorities coming and taking my child from me. Ever since he came into this world the one thing that has terrified me the most is that someone might come and take him from me - because of my sexual orientation, because I'm not the "real" mommy. I lay awake nights thinking about it even though I am on his birth certificate and have adopted him... I am constantly censoring myself to make sure no one can say I'm not a fit mother. Am I touching him for too long? When I change his diaper am I wiping for too long? Don't linger with that kiss on his cheek, etc. Every scratch or bruise he gets because he is an extremely active young one, I obsess over because someone might call Child Services to report the "evil lesbians".

I love my son more than I can adequately express but frankly I would be afraid to even try. Losing him would kill me and I just won't risk it.

As I commented, a series of thoughts went through my head:
1) Just reading this feels like a blow to the gut.
2) I wonder if my wife has felt (still feels) this way.
3) I wonder if my wife wrote this.
4) Wow, I would feel awful if this is how my wife feels and I didn't realize it until just now.

Since my wife also reads Her Bad Mother, we had a short, but enlightening and interesting, conversation on this topic that very night. As it turns out, the email pretty accurately reflects my wife's feelings. Or how she used to feel. Or somewhere in between.

It was the worst when our son was very young, before our second-parent adoption went through. There was this scary juxtaposition of emotions: a sudden, intense love that went beyond anything she had ever experienced before set against the knowledge that there were people in this world who might make it their business to take this away. The adoption and amended birth certificate eased the fear slightly. Time and geography have helped even more.

At first, I thought about this as a difference between being the bio vs. non-bio mom. But then the memories started to come back, the fears that had seemed simultaneously overblown yet only too possible. And the truth is, they only recede when we're in our comfort zone--a liberal area in liberal Canada and a very few select places in the States.

While most of our family has been wonderful, there are a few members who are overly religious in a way which includes viewing homosexuality as damnable (in the very literal sense) and a danger to the young and impressionable. Moreover, there are some states and localities where judges still feel it is in a child's best interest not to be in a gay household, regardless of who that means the child ends up with; in some cases, a complete stranger can decide to challenge gay parents' rights to their kids. Likewise, some states have passed laws that say they don't have to recognize gay adoptions from other places. And yes, we have family in some of those places. As a result, it feels like a crapshoot when we do visit such family members--and even those visits are rare.

And then, there's the pressure to be super-parents, overcompensating to avoid having our kid's stumbles and problems attributed to his 'unnatural' living situation. At the beginning, we were always aware of it. Out in public, we would scramble to stop his cries, change his diaper, clean him up. Don't draw unnecessary attention, paste on a smile, never complain. We have relaxed noticeably; you just can't keep that up for very long. There's still some external pressure to make sure he has appropriate male role models (thank you preschool with multiple, yes more than one, male teacher), but we worry much less that his issues will be blamed on having two mothers.

Some of the comments about the above email talked about how sad it is that a mother might feel she has to restrain her physical affection. My wife admitted to me that this was something she felt when we would be out in public. I don't think I particularly noticed; I did most of the carrying when we went out, but it was a natural set-up since he was still nursing. And it never stopped her from holding, kissing, hugging, cuddling, comforting, and generally expressing her love for our son at home.

I don't know that the fear will ever go away completely--I don't think we'll see such sweeping societal and political change in our lifetimes that we can fully relax. In the meantime, my wife and I try to minimize the big fears through our choices for our family and keep our fingers crossed that some changes will come sooner than later.


Her Bad Mother said...

Sad but true that we likely won't see sweeping changes in our lifetimes. But maybe in the lifetimes of our children. Which is why it so, so important for all parents to be effusive in their love for their children, and to communicate to our children just how very boundless love is. The more they love (I hope, I hope) the more open they will be to love in all of its many forms.

In the meantime, I wish wish wish for you that you are both able to keep the fears minimized.

Thanks so much for writing this.

Mouse said...

When I'm feeling optimistic, I remind myself that I never expected to be able to marry, in a very legal and binding sense, the woman I wanted to spend my life with. So we've already come further than I had thought possible, although the changes are geographically limited.

The optimism grows when I look at upcoming generations. I love that so many of the kids I taught truly couldn't understand objections to gay marriage. I love that my son's at a preschool where they talk matter-of-factly about the different people and families out there. I fervently hope that what I'm seeing is happening other places. On good days, I truly believe it.

Beth said...

I am so sorry your wife feels this way. I'm not a lesbian and I don't pretend to know the issues you are facing, but I am a mother & I can imagine the fear of losing your child. How hard it must be to hold back your physical love. A child needs all kinds of love, from both parents, regardless of sex. I hope things change.

Lisa b said...

Hey Mouse.
I read this before I "knew" you better and didn't feel like I could or should comment. When I read that comment on Catherine's page I got such a sick feeling. What's to say except that I keep hoping for and working for change. Its a small comfort to me that it allowed you and your wife to talk about some important issues.
The colleague I job shared with last year is an adoptive mom to her partners baby. I cannot imagine feeling like your child could be taken away or having the validity of your marriage questioned.