Single at 52. Further Thoughts on Same-Sex Marriage and Divorce

Today’s the day. Ninety days ago I signed my divorce decree, and now we can get divorced. I simply have to go to the lawyer’s office to sign the final paperwork. I didn’t know going into this divorce that the 90 days is a “cooling off” period. I just thought it took that long for the paperwork to make its way through the court system. My lawyer corrected my misperception. I said, “You mean to tell me it only takes 3 days to get married but 90 to get divorced? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” She nodded sagely. I suppose there’s some sort of job security for her in it working this way.

I don’t know. I imagine I’d still be in the same place even if I’d had an extra 90 days to contemplate getting married. In fact, we did wait an entire year between the time I proposed and the day we finally married (to read more about that, click here). We were unraveling at that point anyway. Earlier this week I received an email letting me know that the lawyers had drafted the final decree dissolving our marriage. The past few mornings have been a miasma of mixed feelings. Yesterday I woke up with an outsized case of anxiety, and this morning I am not feeling any better.

A divorce is a death, a loss, an end. And in the hours since I received the lawyer’s notice, the past fifteen years have been flashing before my eyes as I understand happens before any death experience. The good, the bad, the ugly. The beginning, the middle, the end. Not that there’s necessarily a correlation—these things have a way of spiraling and weaving. There were signs of our eventual demise early on, had I been more aware, and we experienced moments of grace toward the end, even as recently as last week when we had dinner with my brother and his family in Seattle.

On our first date, we attended an Indigo Girls concert on the Pier in Seattle. Cliché? Maybe. I still remember what I wore that warm July night. I was on my way to her house a few months later when Al Gore lost (was robbed of) the election to (by) George W. Bush. On September 11 almost a year later, we awoke to a phone call from her sister-in-law on the east coast, telling us to turn on the television, that a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center. Together we watched astounded and in disbelief from her bed as the airplane careened into the second tower, which then crumbled. I told her how Aaron Brown, whose presence on CNN that day I found so stabilizing in a world come apart, had once been a local news anchor.

We attended at least two family weddings as a couple before we had our pre-legal same sex marriage commitment ceremony in September 2003. We dubbed it our Silly Ceremony. In retrospect, I wonder if perhaps we made a mistake calling it that. If perhaps we did not take ourselves or our union seriously enough from the beginning. We called it that because at my father’s wedding in April 2001, one of my relatives pulled me aside to congratulate me on my new relationship, to tell me how much she loved my new love, and then, almost as an aside said “But, you two aren’t going to have one of those silly ceremonies are you?” Of course. We had to after that.

I worked for the Catholics when we had the Silly Ceremony. I’d only been in my position there a few months, but still felt comfortable enough to invite a few of the friends I’d made in that time. My parents, by then divorced, came. My kids. Her sister. My brother and his family. Our neighbors. Her good friend, the holiest person we knew, officiated. We partied epically. People danced on the tables.

The temptation is to pick through the remnants, parsing out the good from the bad, categorizing events into a sort of giant, fifteen-year tally sheet. We spent many summer days playing Scrabble on our deck. And we kept score. One of the things that attracted me was her ability to string a sentence together, to spell. We fell in love online and spent our first few months there before we met in real time, exchanging instant messages and emails. She knew how to punctuate, a skill akin to tantric sex for a writer.

Even though we’ve essentially lived apart these past two years, and even though she officially moved her belongings out for good in mid-February, I am still sad to have finally completed this one last act.

We’ve been circling around the issue for a couple of years, been to couples’ counseling with two different therapists. Said the D word then reconciled again, deciding to give it one last go, at least twice. So, when I signed the decree 90 days ago, I guess it felt like anything was possible. Three months stretched out ahead in a sort of eternity. I still had 90 days worth of health insurance. We settled into a sort of amicable truce. She came up to see the cats. I stayed at her new place on my way to and from the airport. We had a few dinners, spent Easter with my family. Celebrated our birthdays in June with a lovely dinner on the Bellingham waterfront.

But this week, once we got the email from our attorneys letting us know that the final FINAL papers were ready, that we could sign them on August 21? Then I realized that this is it. The end. I know. I know. I didn’t want to get married in the first place. Marriage is a patriarchal institution. But I started thinking about having a fixed date for the demise of our relationship. In previous relationships we just sort of came apart in fits and starts. There were no hard and fast dates and times to affix to the ending. No “on thus and such a date we officially broke up.” At least not one recorded in the annals of time for all of perpetuity.

From here forward, August 21 will be complicated. One part heartbreak, one part freedom. One part new adventure. One part wistfulness. It’s particularly metaphorical that the eastern half of the state is currently on fire. We spent one of our happiest road trips in recent memory exploring the Methow and the Okanagon a couple of summers ago. We set out in the jeep one weekend and just kept driving until we reached Conconully. We drove up Hart’s Pass where I wanted to camp even though it was 32 degrees up there. I guess if I wanted to read something into the fires, I could. I was sitting in a friend’s house in Winthrop the first time she suggested (offered?) divorce, in an email. I’ve always joked about having a scorched earth policy when leaving jobs and relationships. It’s a policy I have worked to change in recent years. I would like the end of this relationship to be different. Gentler.

I’m trying to resist the urge to get sentimental, but finding resistance futile. Scenes. Memories. Events. Dates. In the course of those 15 years my children grew into adults. I forged a new career, realized my dream of becoming a published writer, changed careers, returned to school. Had a job with a Fortune 150 company. Became a runner. I found myself and so doing became many things I never expected to be, including single at 52.

Makeup Beauty Doll and Other Problems with White Privilege

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?Halloween 1994

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.

Daniel F**king Boone, Lesbian Pioneer

This morning, I woke up early, the result of a nightmare. I haven’t had a dream that I can remember for months now, but there was a grizzly bear in my early morning REM, pointed out to me by the bobcat that was in my house. I hate waking up in fear. It makes it that much harder to roll over and go back to sleep, so to ward off the boogey men (and bears), I turned on the light, put on my glasses, and fired up my iPhone so I could read the news.

As if the news would make me feel better. Yesterday morning, I read about two little boys who were squeezed to death in their sleep by an escaped python. I hoped things would be better this morning. And they were. On NBC.com (still listed in my favorites bar as MSNBC), is a story about how difficult it is for same sex couples to get divorced.

Normally, divorce isn’t cause for celebration, but this article warmed me to my very core because it validates my story and the reason I’ve been working on my memoir. For years now, my writing coach, mentor, and friend has been telling me that I was a pioneer, Daniel-Fucking-Boone is how she put it, and here is proof, validation from others inside the struggle, that indeed, I was a pioneer and that as a matter of fact, gays and lesbians who want to get divorced are STILL pioneers all these years later. Which makes my story, though it is 16 years old, relevant.

One of my biggest fears in writing my story about my lesbian divorce and custody battle was that I’d be a big old caution sign on the road to same sex marriage equality. Don’t get me wrong—I think it is high time that gays and lesbians who want to get married finally get the same rights and protections as straight couples. But I also know from experience that just because we have those rights suddenly conferred upon us, the legal system isn’t going to automatically know what to do with us when we want to get a same sex divorce.

I know because 16 years ago, I tried. Obviously, I wasn’t legally married to my lesbian partner 16 years ago, but I was the legal adoptive parent of two children and had been in a relationship with the co-parent of said children for 10 years. Neither of us was the biological mother of either girl. We both had equal rights as parents, or so I thought. We both had been able to adopt because, as more than one lawyer or adoption specialist said there weren’t any laws against it.

Same sex couples were not explicitly banned from adopting in Washington State as they were in other states in the 1990s, but that did not mean that the legal system had any idea what to do when two mommies split up and needed a custody arrangement. We bounced around from lawyer to lawyer, burned through multiple family therapists, mediators, and a guardian ad litem and depleted our savings accounts (or at least I did), before settling on a less-than-optimal parenting plan just to end the pain.

As Susan Sommer from Lambda Legal points out in the nbc.com article, same sex couples who are getting divorced, are pioneers, alone and without a map in this new wilderness. And while we may have embarked on our domestic adventures all starry eyed and idealistic, that idealism can fade fast when one is suddenly homeless and without access to her children. Add to that the financial woes involved (the costs of same sex divorce are currently double that of heterosexual divorces, and triple the cost if children are involved, according the nbc.com article), and same sex couples with children certainly need to start thinking realistically about their futures and the futures of their children.

It shouldn’t be a stretch. We have had to find our own paths to where we are now, many of us without the support of family or the legal system, and even now, when we might like to think the legal system has finally caught up, it hasn’t. We need to protect ourselves and our children. We can continue to learn from one another, as we have for most of history.

I am going to start thinking of my story as an important road marker rather than as a caution sign. We don’t have to all find our own ways—there are trails and maps in this wilderness if we share our stories and go into the unknown aware of the dangers. As Elizabeth Schwartz, a Miami attorney who works with gay and lesbian families, says in the nbc.com article, “sometimes divorce is the beginning of a bright new chapter for people.”

A Whole New Me–Coming Out, Again

I have a confession to make. I am not what I seem. You have known me, Dear Reader, only on the surface for the past 25 years. I’ve been keeping this burning secret at the very bottom of my soul, trying to keep people out, away from the real me.

I know, I know.  How many coming outs can a gal have in a lifetime? I’ve had two official ones so far: once at 16 when my parents stumbled quite accidently upon my very first lesbian affair and took me to be exorcised (in their defense, lesbians were a lot more frightening in the very early 80s—mullets, flannel, white sneakers), and once in my early 20s when I renounced god and embraced Sappho once and for all.

 But really, as I type, it occurs to me that pretty much every day is a coming out if I want to live as authentically as possible. Every day I come out when I don’t censor myself: at the bank, the grocery store, the staff luncheon. I come out when I refuse to change the pronoun when I’m talking about my wife. I come out when anyone sees and asks me about my wedding ring. I come out when I talk about my memoir. It’s getting easier. But I’m not completely comfortable doing it. You’d think, after 34 years I’d be better at it. So, yeah, I may have had two official coming stories, but it’s a lifelong adventure.

I still think twice about it too—I don’t make any overtly lesbian gestures or comments without first thinking about it. Checking the crowd. Weighing the dangers. The Dangers: alienating co-workers—which could make the largest part of my day hellish. Being judged by wait staff, which might result in something bad happening to my food. Being denied service. Being kicked out of a cab. What might the danger be? If I can ascertain a good amount of safety, I will, say, grab my wife’s hand as we walk in our neighborhood. Even grocery shopping together feels like exposure and vulnerability.

I know I’m not supposed to, but I really do care what people think. I’m trying to get over it, though. And tonight, as a step in that direction, I am coming out again, as something else.

Tomorrow is the beginning of something amazing. Tomorrow is the end of my life as I’ve known it for the past 25 years. Tomorrow, I become a stay-at-home writer, full time. Fully supported by My SugarMama (formerly known as The Little Woman).

It’s a whole new kind of coming out—and I have been emphatically undecided about telling people about this new me. I’ve been afraid of what people will think: Career suicide. Poverty. She’ll ask for money. She can’t hack it. She’s nuts.  

Shocking isn’t it? I’ve quit my job. I have said no to the man. Life is too fucking short to spend most of my time on earth miserable. I tried, but I could not just decide to be happy. No more than I could decide to be straight. I am not cut out for this shit. And neither are most people if this article is even remotely accurate (and I’d say this guy is absolutely right on).  And like being a lesbian, choosing happiness over misery is absolutely no reflection on anyone I work with (well, except on maybe one person). It’s all about me (My SugarMama will concur). What makes me whole.

Clearly, I would not be doing this without my best supporter and best friend, best lover and wonderful wife Nancy. I’m a lucky woman. And for that I thank her.

Unpacking the PNWA Experience

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.