Makeup Beauty Doll and Other Problems with White Privilege

Originally posted on Pamela Helberg:
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…

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 … Continue reading

Happy Mothers’ Day: The Days My Therapist Promised

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.”

Mommy Pam's Hair and Necklace; Mommy M's Eyes and Earmuffs

Mommy Pam’s Hair and Necklace; Mommy M’s Eyes and Earmuffs

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.

mothers day 5

My mom works at Village Books. Her favorite food is spagetti and meatballs. She is very fun to be around. she’s tall and her hair is maroon color. She is very nice because she buys me ice cream.

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.

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Getting Ice Cream at The Colophon Cafe

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.

Happy Mothers’ Day.

So Far From the Tree

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.