What keeps us in something longer than we know is good for us? Friends, I know so many smart, educated, brilliant women who have stayed in relationships far longer than warranted, far longer than was safe, physically, emotionally.
The reasons we stay are as varied as our individual lives, but I would posit that we stay because we are afraid to fail, terrified to admit we haven’t lived up to the cultural fantasy of what marriage and family should be.
I know that fear ruled many of my relationships, one set of fears put me there and another set kept me in them beyond the “best by” date.
I’ve found myself explaining my past a lot lately—funny how potential partners want to know what happened, really, that a gem such as myself should suddenly be single and available now (LOL, I really crack myself up).
What drove me to settle down at 23 and become a parent before I turned 30? Fear. Fantasy.
How did it come to be that I put my need to be loved above my children’s needs in my next relationship? Fear. Fantasy.
How, pray tell, does a 58-year-old still grocery shop and eat like a five-year-old with a credit card? Fear. Fantasy. Seriously.
Dates, even phone dates, have so many questions. And rightly so. We all have arrived in this same space, these boxes on the internet where we are all putting our very best hiking-boot-clad feet forward, vying for the last Fine woman out there. Trying to remember what landed us here and worrying that the others all have the exact same traumas and baggage, fearful we will miss the obvious warning signs.
We are afraid, or at least I know I am. Of one another. Of scammers. Of being alone into our dotages. Of more disappointment. Of being hurt yet again.
We believe the fantasy is possible (and we should, we have to). I desperately want to believe. We want someone to wrap ourselves around on a lazy Sunday morning. Someone to smooth our hair from our foreheads when we struggle, someone to tell us it is okay, that we are okay. That it’s going to be okay.
Humans are wired for connection. We do better in relationships than we do alone. Studies show, that just like children can best self-regulate when a parent functions as a secure base, so do adults in solid relationships. But it takes more than fantasy to create relationships that allow us to flourish. It takes a belief in ourselves as deserving.
I settled down at 23 because I was afraid my parents would never accept me if I wasn’t as “normal” (i.e. as close to heteronormative, though in 1986 that was not a thing) as possible. How better to convince them with than a wife, a nice house, a good job (well, speaking of fantasies), and a couple of kids? It worked, too, btw.
I believed the fantasy that I could live as less than authentically myself in order to fit in. And boy, I gave it a good run.
Fear drove me into my next relationship as well. Fear of so many things, but mostly fear of never finding happiness again after losing custody of my children. I was so afraid I’d miss out on their lives that I failed to notice entire bouquets of red flags. And fantasy kept me there—the fantasy that I could sublimate my needs indefinitely in order to create an illusion of success and happiness. I did that well, too.
And it wasn’t all bad. I have my girls—the reasons I kept on keeping on through it all. I had some fun. We threw some epic parties. I made terrific friends along the way—I found my people, and my people helped me find my way.
I learned I am okay exactly how I am. I was okay before the pandemic. I am emerging from it intact. If I come out of it with a partner, so be it. If I don’t, that’s okay too, because I am Fine. Better than fine. Fabulous.
Things of which I was certain prior to embarking on this dating adventure:
Absolutely no pets. I swiped left (or whatever direction meant No Thank You) on so many lesbians with dogs. Do you have any idea how limiting is was to be dog unfriendly? Lesbians and dogs are like macaroni and cheese or peanut butter and jelly. And then I fell for a woman with a dog.
I was also certain that children under 25 were a definite No. If they’re launched by 25, chances are they won’t boomerang back to the basement. But like with the dogs, I wasn’t really up for the maintenance–the walking, the feeding, the cleaning up after. The responsibility. Been there. Done that. But then I fell for someone who had a kid (sort of).
And then there was the whole coffee thing. I declared to anyone who inquired that I had two very good reasons for not wanting to be in a relationship: “I am 100% not interested in learning how to make someone else’s coffee.“ At this time. (Sorry, can’t tell you the other reason on a public blog).
The only certainty is change, Dear Ones.
It’s something of a mantra for me. Change and choice. If we can’t or are unwilling to change or if we forget that it is okay to make a change, we risk missing out on so much.
If we constantly brace for change, fear it, work to avoid it, all of our energy goes into staying the same. We can’t learn or grow. Our windows of tolerance for new experiences shrink rather than expand.
How do we learn that we have to stick with a choice? Who taught us that we can’t try a new direction if our current course isn’t working for us?
Like many of our ineffective adult behaviors, this one also likely began in childhood. Can you hear it Dear Reader? Can you hear your parents telling you “you signed up to play the tuba, sweetie. You have to give it a chance”? “You can’t stay home sick today, the team is depending on you. Suck it up and show up.” “You said you’d go to the dance with Johnny. You can’t back out now.”
We learn in childhood to distrust our own guts and go along to get along. Sometimes disagreeing can be dangerous. So we learn to put our own feelings aside to make others more comfortable. And, once we recognize that we do it, we can in fact make a choice to change.
We have such power in choice, when we slow down to recognize that we can choose our responses or our paths. I could have bailed upon learning about the dog or the kid or the kid’s sister. Turns out I chose to check it out, to turn toward those things instead of away. I loved the dog (and I know he loved me), and the kids were pretty great too.
I learned to make her coffee. In fact, I still have a bag of medium roast in the freezer.
I originally published this piece on my blog in December 2012. I thought it was worth re-posting, given that it’s that time of year again and my holiday anxiety is ramping up.
Christmas Eve always provokes anxiety in me. For all of the 1960s and well into the 70s, I was the sole granddaughter amongst many grandsons and as such the only target for girly gifts from my well-meaning Mema: dolls, dresses, and purses. While my cousins and younger brother gleefully tore through the wrapping paper to discover footballs, cowboy hats, cap pistols, and baseball gloves, I opened my gifts cautiously, always hopeful that my true wishes would be granted, that my grandmother would see me for the tomboy I was, not as the girly girl she wanted me to be. As the Barbies, ballet slippers, tea sets, and girly frou-frou piled up over the years, I knew better than to be expressively disappointed. Growing up in a conservative Christian household, I learned early that it is better to give than to receive, to be thankful for what I had, and to put others ahead of myself, so I pasted on a smile and gave my thanks with as much authenticity as I could muster.
As the years wore on and the family expanded, my girl cousins finally came along, gleeful recipients of all things sugar and spice and everything nice, and I could ignore my gifts and slip away to play with my boy cousins and their superior toys. They would share their bounty with me, and for many happy hours I wore the cowboy hat and shot the cap guns, threw the footballs around the basement. Still, an uneasiness always settled over me as the holidays drew near, and as much as I looked forward to Christmas Eve at Mema’s, a genuinely fun and spirited occasion where the alcohol flowed freely and everyone sang and acted out a verse in The Twelve Days of Christmas, where we all wore colored paper hats from the Christmas crackers, I dreaded going because I didn’t feel like I belonged.
A sense of Other became my Christmas cloak: fundamentalist Christian amongst fun loving Catholics; country bumpkin cousin among my sophisticated Seattle cousins; and something deeper that I sensed about myself, something I knew set me apart in ways I wouldn’t understand for many years.
So, no surprise then that those familiar pangs rushed back as I navigated our red late-model Volvo into Mema’s driveway for Christmas Eve in 1994. Even though I was 31 and had a family, the anxiety dogged me. I let out the breath I’d been holding during our hour and a half drive south from where I lived with my partner and our two daughters. I pulled on my wide-brimmed purple felt hat that matched my paisley purple dress and smiled through the rear view mirror at the girls, Anna four and a half, and Taylor six months old. They were ready to be sprung from their car seats, their holiday dresses hidden beneath their matching Christmas coats from Nordstrom. I squeezed Sweetie’s hand, both for comfort and for strength, and admired her stylish red wool coat and her fine black leather gloves. I allowed a small satisfaction and confidence to creep upon me. We looked so normal that no one could possibly know from first glance that we were lesbians with two children. I drew comfort from our appearance as we wrested the girls out of the car and arranged ourselves into presentability—straightening rumpled tights, buckling Mary Janes, wiping the spit up from Taylor’s chin and removing her bib, making sure Anna had a firm grasp on Blankie. We each carried a child and marched to the front door to ring the bell.
We knew better than to wait for someone to answer before letting ourselves in. The bell served only to announce our presence before we walked into the sounds and smells of Christmas tradition: cracked crab, singed spaghetti sauce, bourbon, scotch, laughter and conversation, the burble of children’s voices and laughter. Aunts and uncles yelled out greetings or raised their glasses to us as we entered. My mother came to coo over her granddaughters. We collected hugs and kisses as we waded deeper into the gathering, and because we were women, we all finally came to a stop in the kitchen.
“Merry Christmas!” My aunt Betsy said, “You guys look great. I love your dress Pam.”
“Where did you get that hat?” Mema sipped her vodka, the ice tinkling. “I love it!”
“Sweetie!” Uncle David stepped towards us, a glass of red wine in his hand. “Merry Christmas!” He gave her a sideways hug and a peck on the cheek. “How are the girls?”
“Hey David,” Sweetie matched his enthusiasm. “They are great. Thanks for asking! Your girls must be getting big, too!”
I began unbundling the girls, removing their coats, checking Taylor’s diapers for any obvious odors. They both looked amazing, their brown skin glowing against the red velvet dresses, their white tights gleaming, their Mary Janes shiny. Anna’s eyes took on the pensiveness of being in a strange situation, and Taylor’s eyes grew wide, her Surprise Baby look we called it. Since we’d only just adopted her in May, many of my relatives had yet to meet her.
“She’s so tiny! How old is she, again?”
“She’s so dark!”
“Well, yes, she’s African American,” I explained. “She’s just a bit over seven months old.”
“Anna, you’ve gotten so big!”
“Anna! How do you like being a big sister?”
Anna buries her face in the pleats of Sweetie’s red skirt.
“She’s still adjusting,” I say.
“Hey, Pamalamala!” My uncle Mike approaches, the funny guy in the family. “What can I get you to drink? You’re still drinking, right?” He nods at Taylor in my arms. “You’re not nursing are you?”
“Scotch on the rocks sounds fabulous,” I say, happy at that moment to be an adoptive parent, no breastfeeding required.
Anna peaks inquisitively from Sweetie’s skirt. “Pamalamala?” She laughs. “That’s funny Mommy!”
“That’s what I called myself when I was your age,” I explain. “I couldn’t say Pamela, so I said Pamalamala whenever someone wanted to know my name.”
Anna’s brown eyes light up, and some of the anxiety disappears. I want nothing more than for her to be free of the anxiety. Mike hands me my scotch and I relax, happy to be among family on this holiday, grateful for the acceptance from nearly everyone, and even thankful for the forbearance of those who might still disapprove. I am aware they might be masking their disdain with holiday cheer and copious amounts of alcohol. I don’t mind.
Before long, the girls and their cousins hear the prancing of reindeer feet on the roof and the ringing of sleigh bells. The little ones who are old enough to walk, rush to the window hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa. I hold Taylor as she wiggles and babbles excitedly and points to her big sister, eyes wide with anticipation.
“HO! HO! HO!” Santa opens the front door, a pillowcase bursting with presents slung over his shoulder. “I hear there are children here who have been very good this year!
“Sit over here, Santa,” one of my younger cousins points to a wing-backed chair between the fireplace and the lavishly decorated tree. Over the course of the next hour, each child under 18 sits on Santa’s lap and assures him they’ve been nice and not at all naughty during the year. Santa digs in his bag and presents each child with a present, and as they unwrap their gifts, they hold them up as cameras snap and flash. The adults grin conspiratorially at one another, remembering Christmases not that long ago when they did the same. I’ve chosen Anna and Taylor’s gifts carefully, the sting of disappointment still fresh on me.
Once the spaghetti and crab have been devoured, once the platters of cookies have been depleted, once the children have succumbed to the rush of sugar and the excitement of Santa and fallen asleep about the living room, once the adults have exchanged gifts, and had a final glass of holiday cheer, we begin to gather our newly acquired belongings, our coats, the diaper bag, Anna’s Blankie. We whisper our good-byes and carry our sleeping babies to the car and tuck them in to their car seats. After several more forays between house and car, more hugs and kisses, I put the Volvo in reverse and head north, letting out the breath I’d been holding the past several hours.
We had navigated through a family Christmas Eve, our little family of four breaking new ground, the four of us presenting as just another family in spite of our differences. No one else in my extended family had ventured quite this far outside of the norm: being a “married” lesbian mother of adopted multi-ethnic children broke some new family ground and gained not just tolerance, but acceptance. Still, my anxiety and self doubt colored my experience and I believed that the love and welcomes came because we worked so hard to be a normal family, we wore dresses and feminine shoes; we bought thoughtful and not inexpensive gifts; we were fortunate to have beautiful children and dressed them in dresses and lace. We drove a Volvo. I believed that acceptance required stringent adherence to heterosexual norms. I thought that if we were going to be a successful lesbian family, we were going to have to be as non-threatening and as normal as possible.
I was so busy hiding who I was, I didn’t even try to be myself. It didn’t occur to me that my family would love me anyway.
Many years ago, flummoxed by the joys and perils of raising two non-white children in our predominantly white culture, I wrote an essay expressing my doubts and fears, and (surprising to me now) my certainties (you will recognize them when you see them). Some of what I wrote makes sense and some of it clearly needs rethinking. Yesterday on the day we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., my eldest daughter, now 23, texted me (this is how we communicate these days). She was wondering if I thought it odd that the company for which she now works didn’t celebrate the national holiday. I do find it odd, odd that only governments and banks shut down on this Monday when the world grinds to a halt, more or less, for other national holidays: Christmas, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, the 4th of July.
My initial response to her was yes, MLK day is like Veterans’ Day or Presidents’ Day—national holidays that go unobserved by most businesses in the name of productivity and profit. She replied that businesses should do more to honor a man who inspired the policies so many companies tout when they brag about being diverse and multicultural. I agreed.
I dug up that essay and I emailed it to my daughter yesterday. We had an enlightening and informative (for me at least—I can’t speak for her) email exchange about White Privilege after she read this. She asked if I’d ever blogged about the subject. I haven’t. I’ve been fairly quiet about it over the years. Why? Fear. Fear of offending someone, fear that I didn’t know enough about the “issues,” that I hadn’t read enough, studied enough, experienced enough. I thought overnight about this fear and I’ve decided that if someone is offended by me writing about my experience, then they are missing my point. I also decided I haven’t talked or written enough about race, in spite of the fact that I helped raise two African-American children. (Point of clarification—Anna, my eldest is mixed race—Native American, African-American, white; Taylor is African-American). Maybe it’s not too late. So, I am posting my long ago essay publicly for the first time—I’ve revised it some for clarity but mostly this is as I wrote it 18 years ago. Here it is:
Last week my daughter’s preschool teacher asked me if I’d talked with her about discrimination. I haven’t. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. What do you call the adopted multiracial child of white lesbians? I don’t know, but I’m sure as the years pass us by we’ll learn more than we care to know. I told the teacher that our family had discussed variations in skin color and the many other ways in which people are different and alike. How to explain discrimination based on skin color to a five-year old?
Our oldest daughter carries an acute awareness of her skin color. She knows that her skin is much darker than ours. She also knows that her little sister’s skin is darker than her own. “I have browner skin than you, but Taylor has the darkest skin, right?” She’s been known to ask this question on more than one occasion. And when we brought her baby sister home, Anna unwrapped her, peered beneath the baby blanket and with some relief announced, “Oh good, she has brown skin, just like me.” She knows which kids in her daycare have brown skin, though ethnicity is an elusive concept. For her, the world is comprised of people with varying shades of brown skin—from very dark brown (like her sister) to not brown at all except for little brown spots (freckled, like mine)—and people with porcelain white skin and long blonde hair.
I had no idea how deeply children internalize societal messages until we began dealing with what, in our house, has become “the hair thing.” Anna’s hair is a crop of silky brown ringlets, which we have, until recently, kept short for the sake of simplicity. Imagine my surprise when, after we agreed to let her grow it out, she expressed her delight at the prospect of finally having straight hair. She was shocked to learn that her hair might grow long, it would not grow straight.
I’ve read The Bluest Eye. I know the world bombards our children with images of white babies, white Barbie Dolls, white Make Up Beauty dolls, and I know that I too eagerly try to overcompensate at times, for this deluge. This year for the first time, Anna knew early and consistently what she wanted for Christmas: a pogo stick, a computer, and a Makeup Beauty Doll (which really is just a head with hair). Being the sensitive, aware, and hip parents that we are, we bought her the African-American version of Makeup Beauty, basically the white doll painted brown with straight brown hair instead of straight blonde hair. These details were not lost on Anna. Her face lit up as Santa handed her a box just the right shape for the coveted Makeup Beauty, but the excitement faded quickly into disappointment when she pulled the brown doll from the box. Anna suffers our political correctness with a sigh and a roll of her eyes, but she knows that Makeup Beauty is supposed to be white. After all, she told us, the make up only shows up on white skin. She has a veritable rainbow selection of Barbies residing with her African-American Cabbage Patch Doll, her Black Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, but she only plays with the white ones.
So, how do we talk with her about discrimination? There’s color awareness, and there is discrimination or prejudice based on difference. How does the five-year-old mind wrap itself around that one? Is Anna being excluded at school because of her skin color? Are teachers, parents, workers excluding her or making decisions based on stereotypes? Anna’s teacher gave me a book for kids about discrimination, Black Like Kyra, White Like Me, that is full of stereotypes. Kyra lives in a violent section of the city. She meets her white friend at the Youth Center. To escape the violence, Kyra’s parents move to a predominantly white section of town and encounter nothing but resistance, violence, and harassment. The message, it seems, is that people of color live in places that need escaping from, but the white people don’t exactly roll out the welcome wagon in the desirable neighborhoods. And I should share this information with my five-year old? Where is the line between preparing a child to meet challenges and adversity and raising a child to expect conflict and harassment?
Right or wrong, the one feature by which my children will always be judged in this country is their skin color. Before strangers know Anna and Taylor have two moms, before anyone knows their socioeconomic status, their spiritual convictions, their occupations, my children will be judged as other than white. The content of their characters will come later. The question is, do I teach them to expect this judgment as inevitable? Do I read them books in which people of color are run out of white neighborhoods? Do I tell them that one day they may not be invited over to play at a friend’s house because they are African-American, Native American, multi-racial, obviously different?
Or do I teach them about respect, about the value of difference and diversity, about some people’s narrow mindedness. Do I teach them to expect acceptance if that is what they offer? And if I teach them these things, what will I say the first time one of them encounters a racial slur or rejection simply because of their skin color? A great gulf exists between my experiences and what my children will encounter. I cannot be naïve and pretend it won’t happen, because it already has. I expect discrimination and prejudice will continue to find their ways into our lives in more potent measure than they have thus far.
I feel like I just returned from four days on the moon instead of from four days at a writer’s conference at the Sea-Tac Hilton, so completely was I transported out of my daily existence. Even though I joined the Pacific Northwest Writers Association a few months ago with an eye toward the conference, I signed up at the last minute, still unsure if I was ready, unconvinced I could learn anything new about writing. But a small voice niggled in the back of my mind, and I’ve been working on listening to the voice instead of dismissing it as I’ve done most of my life.
I’m so glad I listened. I could not have imagined a richer four days. The workshops were all excellent—each one exceeded my expectations. The other writers were open and supportive, friendly, and talkative—all of which surprised me, I guess because writers are notoriously introverted (well, at least I am), and since there were NY agents and editors at this conference, I expected a sense of competitiveness. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I sat down at the table with the Memoir sign and within 10 minutes I was joined by three other women. We took turns sharing our stories and giving each other feedback, all instant compatriots linked by our love of words, all of us with four incredibly different stories.
I sat in a workshop called “First Page” in which attendees submitted the first page of their book to be read aloud by a volunteer. As she read, the panel of judges (5 agents/editors) were to raise their hand at the point where they would stop reading (this to give the writers in the room a sense of what catches an agent or editor’s attention or makes them hate one’s work). Once three hands were up, the volunteer stopped reading and the panel members told the audience what made them stop reading. The first handful of first pages didn’t get very far before the hands shot up. Common complaints from the panel included confusing openings, too much narrative, too much tell and not enough show. I began to regret handing over my first page—I wasn’t sure I could handle my work being judged like this. But then, a couple of pages got read all the way to the end and the panel had kind words. I started feeling better.
And then. Then I saw the volunteer reader holding my page (I could tell—it was double-sided). I started sweating (beyond the “normal” hot flashes I’ve been experiencing of late), my heart pounding. I entered that out of body orbit and I tried to pay attention as the volunteer read my first page. She got through the first paragraph and one hand was up, but the other panel members seemed engaged. Second paragraph—the one hand that was up seemed to flag a little (and honestly, this panel member didn’t seem to like much of anything). Other panel members were still listening, smiling even. And at the end, everyone applauded. The panel members complimented me on my clear writing, crisp language, and engaging story. The one male member of the panel said he wanted to know what happened to that little girl and felt for her and her dilemma.
Validation. I floated out of that workshop. What had been a casual decision to attend it at all turned into the most critical moment of the conference for me. People liked my story! Visions of publication danced in my head. Editors and agents will beg to represent me, I thought. And, in fact, all of the agents and editors I pitched to later that day invited me to submit my work to them for consideration, and I have since my return on Sunday.
But a few of the agents/editors I spoke with wondered what my “hook” was and how my story was relevant, and this question has me deep in thought as I work to finish my memoir which, for those who are wondering, is tentatively titled Co-Parent: How I Became a Divorced Lesbian Mother of Two Adopted Multi-Racial Girls in the Not So Gay 90s. I thought my hook was evident: same sex marriage is all over the headlines. What’s more relevant than a story about same sex divorce and custody? Still, a couple of these women asked why anyone would want to read my story, when it happened so long ago. Which makes me wonder . . . why do we read history? And how can I make my history more relevant?
Interestingly, the agents/editors who asked these questions were all of my generation—late 40s to late 50s—and those who were more enthusiastic were younger. And this disparity also has me wondering if those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s, no matter how liberal we might be, still carry traces of homophobia with us in spite of recent cultural advances.
So, I’ve decided to crowd-source my “hook“—what will make my story appealing to readers outside of the narrow “divorced adoptive lesbian mothers” demographic?
I was heartened to find this Doonesbury cartoon in the Sunday paper—it made me feel that my story was indeed relevant, but I’m no Gary Trudeau. I need to convince agents and editors to take a chance on unknown me.
Fifteen years ago this week, I picked my eldest up from school. She arrived at my car sobbing, clutching what could only be a Mother’s Day art project, a gift wrapped with lots of construction paper, held together with even more scotch tape. When I asked her what was wrong, she explained between tears and hiccups that she only had time to make the one present. “But I have two mommies!” She whimpered. My heart broke into a million pieces. Gently, I took the gift from her hands and unwrapped it. It was a book. This was a problem easily solved. When I explained we could make a color copy, the relief on her face broke my heart all over again. We drove directly to Kinko’s. “See,” I said, holding up an exact replica, “One for me. One for Mommy M.”
Seventeen years ago, I sat weeping in my therapist’s office, terrified that I had made the biggest mistake of my life, certain that my life as a mother was over. I had just left my children, my partner and co-parent—my children’s other mother—had just moved out of our family home and into a tiny apartment, taking only my clothes, a CD player, and my 1964 Dodge pickup truck with its rusted out floorboards and no seatbelts. In a fit of youthful optimism I’d taken a job that would allow me to spend more time with our girls, keeping them out of daycare, a move that did not go over well with my co-parent. Long story short, she asked me to move out of the house, her house, launching us all into a long and painful custody battle. A war in which there would be no winners.
As I wept in that office, overwhelmed with despair, I could not visualize a way forward. I could not imagine life without my daughters, then six and two years old. We’d adopted both the girls as infants, first as single parents, then as a couple. We stood before the judge in the King County courthouse among family and friends and promised to be a forever family. Our names graced the birth certificates. Our little family seemed solid. I thought my decision to take job with more flexibility was the right one. My diminished salary would be made up in what we saved on daycare for our youngest and after school care for the oldest. We had worked so long and so hard to adopt the girls, had spent so many years dreaming this family into existence, it made no sense to me that we both worked full time and put the girls in daycare.
Full of bravado, and in spite of stern warnings from my partner, I had to follow my instincts as a mother. I had to do what I saw as the Right Thing. What did it get me? No house. No relationship. No kids. I thought, naively it turns out, that being a legal mother of both girls would grant me the right to be a parent, at least half time. Not so. While heterosexual divorced couples with children automatically get kicked into a custody process, “divorced” lesbian mothers, at least in 1996, got nothing. There was no divorce because there had been no marriage. Our commitment ceremony, while a fun little ritual, had no legal ramifications. Really, all that seemed relevant at the time was the fact that I did not have my name on that house title. I had to move out. Having no legal access to the house meant I had no access to my kids. I had no idea when I left that my soon-to-be ex would bar me from seeing our kids, that once I was gone, she would attempt to erase me from their lives.
My days suddenly silent, my nights stretched out empty, I spiraled into a deep depression. My identity as a mother slipped away. No diapers to change. No breakfast to make. No lunches to pack. What was I, if I wasn’t a mother? Everything I had been, I’d given up in our pursuit to adopt our girls, to be in this relationship, to become a family. One social worker along the way even commended me for giving up on being a writer and getting a real job. I’d sold my bookstore. I had become a Mother, and I loved being a Mother so much that I wanted to spend more time with the girls. That love had led me to here. To nothing, it seemed. If I couldn’t be a mother, then maybe I shouldn’t be at all. I thought about moving away, just leaving town. I flirted with razor blades and alcohol. My therapist reminded me regularly and forcefully of the damage done to those left behind.
I decided to stay. In town and on the planet. I upped my antidepressants. I got a lawyer. I worked three jobs and went back to school. I found two housemates, asked my grandmother for an advance on my inheritance, and bought a house. I made a home. I fought to remain relevant in my daughters’ lives. Not one part of this journey was easy. Co-parenting with someone who would rather I just disappear, with someone who had to be court-ordered to share custody sucked, but it sucked so much less than not parenting at all. My legal and therapy bills grew enormous. When I cried and railed against the unfairness of my situation, my therapist told me how fortunate my children were to have me in their lives. When I couldn’t breathe because the initial child support payments I had to make were more than half my meager monthly salary, she helped me strategize a solution. When I despaired that I would have no meaning in, no impact on my daughters’ lives, she reminded me that they would come back to me, they would be in my life, maybe not the next week or the next month, but in a few years, when they were out of school, in their late teens and early twenties. Mothering meant showing up and reaching out, even when I didn’t think it would matter, even when no one reached back. Even when the next week, let alone the next decade, seemed impossibly far away.
But I did it. I showed up. At games. At concerts. At parent teacher conferences. Doctor’s appointments. Most of the time, I felt awkward because the teachers, the doctors, the other parents didn’t know I even existed. I had to show up at the school with the Parenting Plan in hand to get my name on my kids’ emergency contact list. I had to request I be added to the PTA’s little booklet with the kids’ and parents’ names, phone numbers, and addresses. Every year. I had to introduce myself to coaches, principals, other parents. Sometimes, I missed events because I found out about them too late or was too embarrassed to call other parents to ask. The last time I called the pediatrician’s office to get information about my daughter’s medications they hung up on me, refusing to give me information even though my youngest was still a minor, even though I had the paperwork granting me joint medical custody. I had to take the parenting plan to the pharmacy to find out what medicine my child was taking. Often, I felt like a fraud, an imposter. So many times I wanted to give up, to crawl away in shame. The depression and suicidal thoughts stayed with me for years.
Still, I pressed through the fog and darkness. Even when I had to take a job 80 miles from home—I drove back three days a week, arriving in time to pick the kids up from school. I finagled time off. I found a way to be there. I got a MySpace Page. I got a Facebook page. I texted. I emailed. I called. I found a way. I made Easter baskets and bought Halloween treats, Valentines Day cards, swallowed my pride and left them on their front porch if I had to. And if my ex made other plans for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, I had presents and stockings and dinner with the girls on December 23rd. Because what day we spent together didn’t matter. First day of school? I showed up. The day my eldest left for college, I packed my mother in the car with me and we went along too. I refused to be erased.
And you know what? That decade passed and my girls are in my life. They finished high school. My eldest finished college. The youngest just started this year. These are the days my therapist promised. These are the days I couldn’t even imagine.
These days as I work on my memoir, I’m writing about shopping for baby clothes, writing about the days when I’d throw baby Anna in the front pack and walk to a nearby children’s clothing consignment store. I loved to look at those tiny little jeans, the impossibly small shirts and sweatshirts, miniature jean jackets. As a lesbian mom I was determined to dress my daughters in gender-neutral colors and clothes, but I was also very aware that as a lesbian parent, whatever I chose to dress my kids in would be scrutinized closely. Evaluated for any hint of agenda. Judged as too masculine, too political, or god forbid, too dyke-y. Too much an extension of my own taste in clothing.
I don’t think I was prepared for the politics of clothing when I first became a mom. I certainly wasn’t aware of the enormous gulf between boys and girls clothes, even for kids who were not yet walking. Who knew toddler wear could be sexualized? And as much as I wanted to put baby Anna in those tiny blue jeans and a miniature grey sweatshirt, I resisted the urge, unwilling to open myself up to whatever criticism might come my way. Really, my dilemma only lasted until Anna could express a preference, which happened by the time she was two and demanded to wear only clothes that bore a picture from The Lion King, preferably Simba or Nala. What I wanted her to wear mattered not one whit after that. I felt fortunate if I could get her to swap the Nala dress for the Simba tshirt once a week for washing.
As I wrote about my experiences with Anna, I wondered if my mom worried what people would think about the clothes I wore as a kid? From the time I could walk, I preferred cowboy boots and buckskin jackets (thanks Grandpa) to Mary Janes and more lady like outerwear. I ached to wear my cowboy hat and checkered cowboy shirt with the pearl snaps. My mom still mostly dressed me in dresses if we left the house and until I was in the third grade I had to wear dresses to school. Granted, the year was, well, the year was sometime in the early 1970s, but feminism was taking hold by then, though the ERA would not be defeated for a few more years. I remember my parents lamenting the droves of hippies that had invaded our small town: men with long hair and women without bras. Gender lines were being crossed already, so I was not so much of a pioneer, though I had begun to stage my own little revolution.
On the days that I had Bluebirds and had to wear the insidious blue and red uniform dress, the saving grace was that I also wore a white blouse under the uniform so I could smuggle jeans to school in my lunch box and change once I got to school. I’m not sure how my mother missed the great bulge in my little tin lunchbox, the red and yellow plaid pattern straining at its edges. I loved the way I felt in my jeans, saddle shoes (not so much), and white shirt. I felt free. Boys couldn’t look up my skirt when I climbed on the monkey bars. I could properly propel myself out of the swings without worrying about skinned knees or my dress hiking up around my waist. I could play kickball and kick my hardest without worrying that my dress would fly up and reveal my little girl panties to the entire outfield.
By the time third grade rolled around, my mom and I struck a deal: I could wear pants three days a week. I was still in Bluebirds, still smuggling my jeans on Bluebirds day, so realistically, this meant only one day of dresses a week for me. This meant shopping for jeans when we went to Sears for Back-to-School shopping, and by jeans I mean shopping for boys’ clothes in the boys’ department. I would not be satisfied with some girly version of jeans; no side zippers, nor zippers up the back; no wussie zippers that might break should I slide into home plate during kickball. No. I insisted on Sears Toughskins, reinforced knees and all. And while we were in the boys’ department, why not some practical t-shirts as well in some good colors, like blue and green and red. I had no use for ruffles and pastels. I despised the scoop neck t-shirts and peter pan collars reserved for little girls. In fact, I would have been over the moon with super hero pajamas and some tightie whities as well, but Mom had to draw the line somewhere.
I saved my most vociferous arguing for the shoe department, however. I had enough of the saddle shoes—which it turns out were my mother’s own leftover fantasy from her childhood, seeing as how her mother forbid her to wear saddle shoes—what I wanted now were Waffle Stompers. Anybody remember Waffle Stompers, named for the shape of their tread, with padding around the ankles and sliver triangle eyelets? They came in dark blue, maroon, or green, and I loved them. Back in the days before Merrells and Salomons became ubiquitous, before tennis shoes/sneakers were limited to PE class, before Nike was anything but a winged Greek goddess, Waffle Stompers offered a little budding lesbian like me a sensible shoe option of which my mother was hard pressed to disapprove. For reasons that still escape me, we (and by we, I mean all children of the time) had to have dress shoes and play shoes (just as we had school clothes and play clothes). Heaven forbid the two should ever be confused. No one could wear a pair of Chuck Taylors or those insipid Keds when in school clothes. But Waffle Stompers! Waffle Stompers offered a much needed middle ground—they weren’t tennis shoes, they weren’t dress shoes. They were sturdy and leather, and they definitely did not go with dresses. I had to get me some of those. And I would not relent. I finally got my Waffle Stompers. I wore my mother down.
But what, I wonder now, did Mom make of my tomboyish ways, my insistence that I dress like a boy? With my short carrot top hair and my Toughskins and Waffle Stompers, did I give anyone pause? Did anyone pull her aside and accuse her of having an agenda? (A sales clerk did object to my father buying me a toy rifle for Christmas one year, but that’s a different blog).
It’s interesting, the politics of clothing. Still, after roughly 43 years of dressing myself and choosing my own clothes, I struggle with what to wear, with how I want to look, how I want to be seen. What I am comfortable in. Except for a brief adolescent period, from roughly the ages of 13 to 16, I’ve always felt more comfortable in decidedly unfeminine clothes. Dressing up for me has mostly meant putting on pants that aren’t jeans, a shirt/pullover combination, or a polo shirt when it’s warm enough, and something on my feet besides sneakers or hiking shoes (though recently I’ve taken to wearing my red Chuck Taylor’s as dress up shoes).
I’m such a casual dresser that even my doctor made a note of it in my chart one time: Neatly dressed. Extremely casual. At Christmas gatherings when I was in college and in my early 20s, my grandmother used to say “Pam, you look like a boy!” I always took that as a compliment, as confirmation that I was slender and fit. Now when I get called “Sir,” and I do, regularly—just a couple of weeks ago, at the LA airport, dressed in my very womanly Izod golf shorts, not to mention my more obvious and, increasingly matronly, girl parts—I just look, like “Dude? Really?” More often than not, people are appropriately mortified. But I have to wonder, what are they seeing when they look at me?
(I do realize I’m laying myself wide open here) It has to be the clothes and my short hair—I think we’ve gotten to the point that women’s clothing is so drastically different than men’s clothing that most people don’t bother to look beyond clothes to determine someone’s gender. No visible cleavage? Guy. No floral patterns or ruffles? Guy. Short hair? Guy. Not pastels? Guy (though if you’ve been to a Ralph Lauren store lately, you know that the men are wearing a lot of pink, green, and yellow these days). Last summer, I was out and about town in a tshirt, a pair of cargo shorts, and flip flops. As I was locking my bicycle to a parking meter near the Saturday Market, a woman behind me kept saying, “Sir!” “Sir!” She got mad at me for not responding and when she found out I wasn’t a Sir! she was still mad at me. I thought that was rude. And especially now that I am a woman of a certain age, I think a certain amount of invisibility is inevitable.
Early in my professional career, I put a fair effort into dressing nicely, but in my very classically tailored clothes I was often addressed as “Sir.” I shopped exclusively in the women’s sections at Nordstrom’s and Macy’s (which was then The Bon Marche) and a gal could get shirts sans floral patterns and ruffles; I wore women’s Bass Weejuns with tassels, and (tragically) a woman’s London Fog raincoat. I even occasionally wore panty hose and a dress, and sometimes tights and professional shorts, and blazers (remember that bad 80s trend?). Eventually I tailored my career choices so I wouldn’t have to ever wear panty hose again, and these days I feel dressed up if I put on a pair of worn cords and a polo shirt for work. Most days I show up in saggy-assed Levis, a gray hoodie, and my black Converse. How I dress has no bearing on how I perform at work, except that less formal makes me happier and happier workers are better workers.
So, to bring it all back around to where I started . . . maybe what’s really important about clothing is that it makes us comfortable, because when we are comfortable, we are confident. If we are confident, we are happy. If we are happy, we are better learners, players, workers, partners, lovers, parents, children, and friends. Choosing our clothes, dressing our kids—these are political acts, not just across gender, but also across class and race (different blogs altogether). Being comfortable in my own skin, let alone in what I’m wearing? Judging one another according to what we wear? I don’t have any illusions this will change, ever. I just wish I could get over it, myself.
I just finished reading Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree. I managed to get through the 700 pages in a couple of weeks and right up to the last chapter, I found it engrossing and revelatory. As the parent of two adopted children, the sister of an adopted brother, and the daughter of a mother who herself was adopted, I know a bit about horizontal relationships in parenting. As a lesbian, too, I know a bit about falling far from the tree.
That said, I have some serious issues with what seems to be his bias toward creating a family biologically rather than via adoption, as well as the notion that it is better to breed than to adopt, even when biology is clearly flawed. On page 678, he writes that “the right to reproduce should be among the inalienable ones,” and later laments with one mother who didn’t consider adoption because it would be heartbreaking not to be pregnant or give birth (even though she would have a handicapped child).
As he continues on with his own quest for a perfect bio baby, I fail to understand how one person’s desire to be pregnant and birth a biological child, even though the chances of said child being profoundly handicapped, trumps creating a family through adoption. As a gay man, Solomon should know the value of creating a family of choice. I find the selfishness and narcissism rampant in his final chapter sufficient to render the preceding chapters nearly meaningless.
My mother was placed in a children’s home when she was about a year old by a single mother who couldn’t both work and support an infant. The people who became my grandparents adopted her when she was three years old, even though her birth mother came to visit her regularly.
My little brother (my only brother, my only sibling) arrived with only a week’s notice the year I was four, right around Thanksgiving. One day the phone rang and my mom asked me (rhetorically, I’m pretty sure) if I wanted a little brother. Seven days later, I’m at the hospital with my parents picking him up. I cannot imagine life without him.
Nor can I fathom the possibility of life without my daughters, children born into and then given into impossibly complex circumstances. I may have once been ambivalent about motherhood, but their arrivals in my life eradicated any indifference I may have ever had about being a parent.
I wasn’t one of those women who felt incomplete without children, or maybe I should say I wasn’t a young woman who felt that my life wouldn’t be complete should I not ever have children. I just didn’t think about it that much given that I was a lesbian. I figured that kids just weren’t in my future, and this realization did not cause me any angst.
Then I met and fell in love with a woman for whom having children was critically important, an imperative, even. Myself, I didn’t really understand how much I valued my role as a mother until I faced losing my children when my relationship with my co-parent went south. At the point where I could choose to remain a parent or walk away, I decided to stay. I guess in this way, I am like some of the parents in Solomon’s book.
My eldest daughter came to live with us three days after she was born. Her birth mother had decided to place her for adoption and had chosen my partner at the time as the person she wanted to raise her as yet unborn child. Given the times (1990, pre-Will and Grace, pre-Rosie, pre-Ellen, pre-gay marriage, even pre-Don’t Ask Don’t Tell), it made sense for my partner to adopt as a single parent. I was a willing, if somewhat ambivalent, participant in this process, until I held Anna. Once that baby was in my arms, any uncertainty melted away.
One of my greatest pleasures is wearing a sweatshirt my daughter Anna got for me one year for Mother’s weekend at her university—the sweatshirt has a large pink apple tree on it and says The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree. I love the irony. I take certain pride in the fact that Anna is more like me than I ever could have imagined. But I didn’t adopt her so she would reflect myself back to me. I adopted her because I fell in love with her. I parented her because I loved her, from the moment I first held her.
Taylor, my youngest, found her way to us from Philadelphia. At the very moment I got the phone call as I was sitting at my desk at work, she became my precious and beloved child. When I first saw her tiny (and she was very, very tiny—a full term 4 lb. baby) little person, I had no doubts that I would love her with all of my heart and soul. She couldn’t be more different from me, and I love her fiercely. Taylor’s adoption got all kinds of complicated before it became final, but she was as much my child before the birth certificate arrived as she was after.
The paperwork is a formality—it doesn’t make my love or support for Taylor and Anna any more real. In that way, adoption is a bit like gay marriage—the paperwork grants us privileges under the law, but we are already a family without the judge’s decree.
I suppose Solomon is to be admired for not hiding his fears and feelings in the final chapter of his book, but I find his quest for the perfect child completely antithetical to the notion of parenting. As his book so profoundly shows us, there is no guarantee that our actual children will even remotely reflect our ideal child. And I would go so far as to say that the greater our expectations are that our children will arrive and fulfill our dreams for us, the greater our disappointment and the greater damage we as parents will inflict upon them.
Becoming a parent is a crapshoot any way it happens, but I do believe the children we need find their way to the families they need. May we all be able to accept these gifts with grace.
The first thought I had upon hearing that Ruth was dead? “Did I do that?” I had wished her dead for so long, and now she was. Colon cancer finally killed her. She’d fought it for years, on death’s doorstep one day, back on the treadmill the next. Deathwatch 2004 we called it initially, though she didn’t die until 2008. In death, now as she had in life, Ruth agitated me, inscrutable and maddening. Even though we had never been friends, our lives were intimately entwined, and I often felt trapped in a relentless dance with her—the same steps over and over and over.
We were on vacation, Taylor and I, on our annual trip to the Oregon Coast when the call came, beckoning us home for the funeral. Ruth cut everything short when it came to my kids. Taylor upset, because at 14 she thought she should have been contacted directly. Trust me, I would have preferred not to be the bearer of this bad news.
In my fantasies Ruth generally died in a car wreck. Her five-year-old van had over 300,000 miles on it. That van, full of toys and treats, her clothes, toothbrush, old woman shoes. Stuffed animals and children’s books. Sports equipment. Balls, racquets, running shoes. Games. She had a house of her own, but lived on the road, in between our home and hers.
I did not believe the cancer would kill her. She seemed invincible, omnipresent, immovable.
How many times had I driven past the large wooden church on the corner and watched as black-draped mourners filed in? How many times had I wondered what unfortunate soul inhabited the casket being extracted from the back of the hearse? I hadn’t been to many funerals in my life, just the expected ones, never for someone so much a part of my everyday life. And never for someone I actively wished dead.
Now I tried to find a parking space so we could join the long black line into the church for Ruth’s funeral. I could barely keep my soul and body together as I prepared to confront the death of the woman who had hijacked my family. I kept reminding myself I needed to be there to support my children.
“I wonder if there will be a casket,” I said to Nancy, my wife, as I waited, not patiently, for the old people in front of us to hobble their walkers out of the parking lot. I peered intently at the old couple, certain I recognized them but so many years had passed, I couldn’t be certain.
“I hope it’s not an open casket,” Nancy commented. “She wasn’t much to look at on a good day.”
“She was such a scientist though,” I said, surprising even myself with my equanimity. “Maybe she donated her body to science. She loved taking those anatomy and physiology students to see the cadavers, though I can’t imagine her naked on a stainless steel gurney for some random college kids to carve on. For a PE teacher and a coach, she sure had a fear of being naked in the locker room.”
I recognized Ruth’s profile well above the chrome rim of the casket as soon as we entered the sanctuary. Her faced looked weirdly green. I took a deep breath. The church and the people swam before me–I could feel my soul disengaging from my body. Too many people from the past. Two of my ex’s longtime friends handed out funeral programs and attempted to usher people towards seats. I let Nancy take the program and tried not to make eye contact, still uncomfortable 12 years after our divorce.
“Where are my kids?” I surveyed the pews, expecting to find Anna and Taylor sitting with my ex, Narcissa, their other mother, near the front, where the family usually sits. They were as close to family as Ruth had.
“There’s Anna,” Nancy pointed to the middle row, front pew where Anna sat among a long line of her good friends and schoolmates. Most of these kids had grown up with Anna, and some had been with her in school since daycare. All of them knew Ruth, knew what she meant to Anna. I was relieved to see Anna was nearer to the foot end of the coffin and not directly in front of Ruth’s strangely green face.
“That’s weird. Where’s T?” I frantically scanned the rest of the church. “I can’t believe she’s not here.” I started to grow indignant on her behalf. Figured, I thought to myself. She always came second with Ruth–I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d been forgotten at home.
I swooned (not in a good way) to recognize a cadre of Ruth’s former field hockey players–all mullets and capped teeth, awkward in their funeral attire. I averted my gaze again and then bugged my eyes out at Nancy, our universal signal for “help me!” She took my arm gently and guided me toward an empty pew.
“Let’s sit down before your head explodes,” she whispered. We sat a couple of rows behind Anna and her friends, and I thought I should say something to Anna, at least let her know I was here. I stepped forward and put my hand on her shoulder.
“Hey sweetie,” I began but had no idea what to say next. She knew how I felt about Ruth, not the entirety of my pain, but she knew well enough I did not much like Ruth. How could I convey that in spite of my anger and disdain for Ruth, I deeply felt Anna’s hurt? “I’m so sorry, honey. I know she meant the world to you.”
Anna, just two months out of high school and within a week of going off to her first year of college just stared at me blankly. I knew she must be completely unmoored by this. In spite of my most vigorous efforts, Ruth had been her primary parent–her biggest cheerleader, her most unfailing supporter, her own personal chauffeur and ATM. And, I suspected, the primary reason Anna had chosen a school a good seven-hour drive from home. Anna knew it was time to start cutting the cord, but I knew she wasn’t prepared for Ruth to just be suddenly gone. I patted her inelegantly on the shoulder and hugged the friends on either side of her, relieved to head back to my seat, on edge because I still didn’t see Taylor.
Nancy poked me when I sat down and pointed to the casket where a woman I did not recognize was trying to put a tennis racquet in Ruth’s cold dead hands. Ruth had donated much time and money to Anna’s high school tennis team over the past four years. Evidently, this woman had been charged with expressing the team’s appreciation.
We could not look away as she first positioned the racquet so it stuck out of the box as if Ruth might be holding it, and then as she rearranged it so the strings crisscrossed Ruth’s head and the racquet framed her green face. Not happy with that look, she attempted to put it behind the body where it simply looked ridiculous. The woman also had a folded pile of clothes, green sweats, and she attempted to wedge these in the coffin as well. Nothing said goodbye like a good racquet and a set of team tennis sweats. There was no way for the tennis accessories to look anything but weird and the woman mercifully gave up, but I do think Ruth would have admired her persistence.
Throughout the funeral service, I keep telling myself that I was young. Too young and inexperienced to have known about Ruth. And optimistic. Hopeful. Naïve. Twenty-five years of therapy later, I know that all I could do was leave, but not all choices are obvious or easy. I stayed. We both stayed, hoping for a place in Narcissa’s life. Ruth provided the money. I provided the sex. Ruth had history and everyone else could see that she was part of Narcissa. I couldn’t have Narcissa without Ruth, but I didn’t see it.
Narcissa’s friends asked how the three of us were getting along. I didn’t understand. Why the three of us? Ruth’s part of the package, they said. Narcissa didn’t warn me. She denied the truth if I asked. I learned slowly. Something about being in the 1980 Olympics. I’d written a paper about that boycott. I was a junior in high school in 1980. Narcissa a 29-year-old member of the US Olympic Field Hockey Team. Ruth her coach. Bitterness. I didn’t know field hockey.
We started as an affair—sexual attraction, a broken relationship. And hard to get. I dated a girl my own age then. Finished graduate school. What now? Two degrees in English. I wanted to be a writer. Narcissa found that sexy. The Girl My Age wanted to be a writer too. Whom to choose? I played it both ways.
When The Girl My Age started driving by my house at midnight and yelling obscenities from her car window if she saw Narcissa’s truck, when she started calling me at 1 a.m. asking if I were alone, I chose Narcissa. Stable, settled and starting a family. I thought those were my dreams too. I often consider the path not taken. I did not count on Ruth.
Ruth raised my children. Her ubiquitous presence drove me out of their lives as she became a puzzle I couldn’t solve. There were too many pieces. I couldn’t see how it all fit together. I should have known, should have seen it that first night when she arrived, unannounced, immovable. She never left. How could I have known?