Girl Things, Boy Things

Image by artist Daniel Arzola for the It Gets Better Project. Used with permission.

Image by artist Daniel Arzola for the It Gets Better Project. Used with permission.

“May the fourth be with you!” my son and I solemnly greeted each other this past Sunday, May 4th, and then instantly broke into giggles at the play on pop-culture.

Grade one and our six year-old has been bitten by the Star Wars bug, just like my little brother who was about that age when George Lucas’ seminal film was released in 1977. Over thirty-five years later, our son returned to school this past fall newly obsessed with anything related to the Force: LEGO Star Wars, Angry Birds Star Wars, and, of course, the real Star Wars. We watched the first movie together last summer – “Episode four,” our son is quick to correct me, but always the “first” for those of us who were around in the seventies. Amanda and I had to hold his hands through the scary bits, but that didn’t put him off – he was hooked.

We subsequently screened all the other episodes together as a family, both the original and the new trilogy. During our visit to my parents in Ottawa last summer, my mom retrieved my brother’s long-forgotten Star Wars action figures from the depths of the basement crawl space. Our son played with the vintage toys, entranced. “Has he left the basement yet?” my brother enquired a few days later, on Facebook. I suspect my brother was secretly jealous.

By happy coincidence, the interactive Star Wars Identities Exhibit was on in Ottawa during our stay. We led our awe-struck boy through displays of original artefacts from the film, and photographed him next to the real R2D2 and C3PO. Through a series of interactive prompts, we created identities for our very own, unique Star Wars heroes, whom we whimsically named Chewbuku (Wookiee), Thorax (Twi’Lek) and Schmoo (Ewok).

When school started a few weeks later, our son headed back, proudly toting his brand-new metal Star Wars lunchbox, a souvenir from the exhibit. At least he won’t be razzed this year, I’d thought to myself. Some kids in kindergarten had given him a hard time about his Thomas the Tank lunchbox the year before.

“Thomas is for babies,” they’d taunted, causing him sudden doubt and shame about his lifelong passion for trains. We’d talked him through this – you like whatever you like; there’s no age limit on liking trains; even Mommy still likes trains… He continued to play with his tracks at home, but had quickly learned to keep this interest to himself. Star Wars, on the other hand, had a certain cachet. It was perennially cool. I’d even spied a couple of other kids in his kindergarten class with Star Wars gear, so I knew he’d be good to go.

But only the second week into school, our son came home in tears: “People were making fun of my lunchbox!”

What?!

Turns out some boys in his class had asked him to identify his favourite Star Wars character. Without missing a beat, he’d piped up: “Princess Leia.”

“I like Luke and R2D2 and Han and Obi-Wan, too,” he explained to me and Amanda, afterwards – in fact, he’d go on to dress up as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi for Hallowe’en – “But Princess Leia is my favourite. So is Princess Amidala.”

The boys had dissolved into laughter. “Oooo!” they’d taunted. “You like princesses!” They proceeded to mock the Leia image on his lunchbox: “You like girl things!” Never mind that she was there alongside Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.

Our son was hurt and confused. What was there not to like about Princess Leia? She was tough, strong, smart, and beautiful. The notion of splitting the world into “girl things” and “boy things” was completely foreign to him. He’s grown up with two moms in a household where people are who they are and like what they like, regardless of gender. We’ve always encouraged his interests, which currently range from Star Wars, Trashies and Angry Birds, to Littlest Pet Shop, Groovy Girls, and Rainbow Magic fairies. At our house, toys are just toys.

Thankfully, the lunch monitors had run to get the teacher, who’d intervened with the boys and reassured our teary son. That afternoon, she’d initiated a positive, upbeat discussion with the class about the kids’ passions and interests, pointing out how much they all had in common in spite of their differences, and gently reframing their thinking about “girl things” and “boy things,” as well as “girl colours” and “boy colours.” We were so relieved that she not only understood and supported our son, but also was willing to seize the teachable moment with the entire class.

Still, the incident left me and Amanda deeply unsettled. We were only two weeks into grade one, and already our son was being singled out and picked on because he doesn’t conform to prescribed gender roles. We were shocked and saddened that most of the six year-olds in our son’s class had already assimilated the old-school message that toys, colours, movies, heroes, you name it, are gendered. Of course, society continues to perpetuate this message every single day. Just walk into any kids’ clothing store and face the great divide between the pinky-purple frills of the girls’ section and the rough-and-tumble blue, grey and blacks of the boys’.

Nevertheless, some of these kids must also be getting this message from home, whether overtly or covertly. Our son has grown up in this same world, after all, with the same societal messages, and yet he has no sense of being limited by categories and labels. And yes, we’re proud that we’ve managed to raise him this way, to be so free and open-minded and quintessentially himself. But at the same time, we can’t help but worry that we’ve set him up to be bullied. As if having two moms isn’t difference enough to contend with. In fact, we worry that “having too moms” may be mistakenly seen by others as the cause of our son’s gender-neutrality, as though simply being raised by queers has somehow “turned him” into a gentle boy who likes so-called “girly things.”

Which is why, at parent-teacher interviews a few months later, I immediately tensed when our son’s teacher casually remarked that our son has different interests than most other boys his age. She went on to give an example from that past week, when he’d talked in class about a movie he’d recently seen.

I nodded, glancing over at Amanda, a knot of dread forming in my stomach. The film was none other than Ariel, the little mermaid. Our son had picked out the DVD himself at the video store on Saturday. We’d had pizza and watched it together as a family. He’d been entranced by Ariel’s character, her long, flowing, red hair, and her swishy mermaid tail. It hadn’t occurred to me that he would go to school on Monday and blab all about it – but then again, why wouldn’t he? And more to the point, why shouldn’t he?

Sure enough, his teacher confirmed, he’d gushed on about it at circle time, and all the boys in the class had started to snicker. She was simply sharing the facts – not making a judgement – but Amanda and I nevertheless went on the defensive. We tried to explain:

“This is just who he is. He may have two moms and no male role models at home, but he’s always been his own person.”

“A gentle, sensitive boy.”

“He likes what he likes.”

“He chose that movie himself.”

“We just try to encourage and support his interests.”

In other words, it’s not because we’re lesbians.

His teacher just nodded and smiled. She wholeheartedly agreed that our son is his own person. She went on to reassure us that she doesn’t want to see him change – that it’s the attitude of the other kids that needs to be changed. She explained that she’d just ordered some storybooks that openly challenge the notion of gender labels, in order to continue the conversation in class. And that she’d turned the snickers about Ariel around by asking who else had seen the movie, and by telling the kids that she’d watched that film a lot herself, growing up, because her younger brother was really into it. This had provided a safe opening for other boys in the class to admit they’d seen the movie too, usually with their sisters, and to concede that it was actually a pretty good story.

We couldn’t believe our good fortune. Here we were, only our second year in the school system, with a teacher who not only “got” our son, but also was willing to advocate on his behalf. A teacher who also understood and respected us as a queer family.

As the school year moves on, our son has been finding his own way. He’s got a solid group of friends, most of them girls, but a few boys too. Most importantly, he’s surrounded by a posse of kids who like him for who he is and who will stand up for him if anyone’s giving him a hard time. The teasing, as far as we can tell, has pretty much stopped.

Still, I held my breath on “Bring a Toy to School Day,” the class’ reward for good behaviour the last day before Spring Break. I knew before even asking our son that he’d want to bring in some of his Groovy Girls, his latest passion, and had to actively fight my urge to talk him out of it. I watched him go into the school that morning, proudly clutching his three fashion dolls to his chest, silently praying that he wouldn’t get picked on. To my relief, the day went relatively well. A couple of the boys had made disparaging remarks and chased him at recess, but he’d handled it. Overall, he was more focused on telling me about the good time he’d had playing dolls with his friends, and how he’d been able to share his Groovy Girls with a few of the kids who’d forgotten to bring in a toy.

As for the boys who’d chased after him, he said, “They still don’t get that there’s no such thing as girl things and boy things.” And we agreed that they were missing out, big time, on a whole lot of fun.

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Posted in gender, grade one, Out in the world, parenting, school, toys, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

How Many Tears?

iStock_000016115285Small“Mommy, how many needles does it take to make a baby?”

My eyes blinked open. I’d nearly nodded off on the acupuncture table. My four year old was literally in my face, his searching blue eyes and button nose clownishly upside down as he peered over me from the head of the table.

How many needles, indeed? The million-dollar question. How many cycles? How many vials of donor sperm? How blood tests, ultrasounds, ovulation predictor kits? How many inseminations? How many thousands of dollars flushed down the toilet before our son’s younger sibling magically appeared?

The straight parents at preschool made it look so easy. Women with burgeoning bellies, toddlers still in diapers running around the playground while their moms and dads dropped off and picked up their older brothers and sisters. Soon, I kept telling myself. It’ll be us soon. But as time marched on, cycle after failed cycle, doubt started to seep in. What if this time I couldn’t conceive?

I smiled up at our son. On my very first visit to the acupuncturist, he’d looked on with alarm as the Chinese doctor inserted over half a dozen needles into my skin. As soon as she’d left the room, he’d asked gravely: “Mommy, are you dying?”

“No, honey,” I’d reassured him. “Mommy and Mama are just trying to make a baby, remember?”

This time, I gently clarified that it’s not the needles themselves that make the baby. They just help make Mommy’s body ready to carry the baby.

“But how many?” he persisted, his question no doubt fuelled more by impatience than by curiosity. He had been spending the bulk of this year, his last before kindergarten, pushing his Thomas trains around waiting areas and examining rooms as I pulled out all the stops to get pregnant. Amanda and I had now been at this for almost three years. I wasn’t getting any younger, and we were down to our final, last-ditch efforts to create number two.

The clock was ticking, in so many ways. In a few short months, our son would be at school all day. I had taken a partial hiatus from my teaching job at the university; my plan was to spend quality time with my boy, to savour ever last minute of his waning early childhood. As the prospects of having another child became increasingly dim, I was all too painfully aware that this might be it. But instead of the carefree days I’d imagined, playing together at home or at the park or at Science World, I’d been dragging him to and from medical appointments. We frequented the fertility clinic so regularly that the nurses and office support staff now greeted me by name. This, along with my bursting clinical file, were not-so subtle clues that it was taking me way too long to conceive, and that any sane person would have called it quits by now.

There were also regular visits with the naturopath and the chiropractor, each doing their part to coax my aging body to create another baby. Our son had won the heart of my acupuncturist, who saw me at least three times a cycle. They discussed trains and the sheer awesomeness of Captain Underpants, his two main passions du jour. She even passed on a blue- and white-striped Thomas the Tank engineering cap that her seven year-old had outgrown; our son was enthralled.

At an IVF consult, he amused the clinic nurse by photographing her with the camera app on his LeapPad Explorer. He expertly sketched over the shot with his stylus, adding neon pink hair and bright orange sunglasses. The final portrait left her in stitches: “It’s wonderful,” she hooted, taking a moment to wipe her eyes and catch her breath before continuing to demonstrate how I was to inject myself with a slew of powerful hormones.

If nothing else, our son was at least growing clear about how he’d come into the world. He’d been in the room with Amanda and me for countless IUIs, those months I’d surged early or on a weekend and we couldn’t snag last-minute childcare. He’d even made a passionate, expressive painting in art class that he told the teacher to title, Mommy and Mama going to the hospital to make a baby. At home, he’d proudly explained his masterpiece to his two moms, pointing out the fact that we were both smiling, because he was the baby we were about to create, and that this made us so happy. I’d met Amanda’s eyes, my heart so full it was about to burst, and we’d spontaneously joined together in a group hug, sandwiching our little guy in the middle.

“Yes,” we’d affirmed, “we love you so much.” Indeed, our son’s conception and birth were two of the happiest moments of our lives together. And yet, I realized later, as I revisited the beaming figures in his artwork, I hadn’t actually smiled on my way to an insemination in a long time. When had I given up hope?

In a few short months, it was over. Kindergarten began and, by the end of October, we’d completed our last cycle. In the end, the transition into kindergarten was much less catastrophic than I’d imagined. I had this sense that our son would be swallowed up by the school system, that he wouldn’t be fully mine anymore. I’d forgotten the golden hours that were ours to share afterschool. I’d underestimated the important bonding time as we cycled to and from school, his Trail-A-Bike hitched to the back of my Norco. And I’d had no idea just how proud and excited I’d be to watch him take his first, tentative steps towards independence.

I wish I could say the same thing about the infertility. I knew it was going to be deeply painful to stop trying and to close the door on a second child for good. But there’s no way I could have anticipated the intensity of the loss, how grief would completely slam into me, knock the wind out of me, and bring me to my knees. If our son’s final year of early childhood was the year of medical appointments, his kindergarten year was the year of grief. How many needles does it take to make a baby? How many tears to grieve a baby never conceived?

 

This past autumn, I was interviewed by Concordia journalism prof. Andrea Hunter, who is a doing a study on queer “mommy” blogs. At that point, my blog had been dormant for close to a year, but she wanted to talk to me anyway. Two of the many questions she asked were, “Is there anything you won’t write about?”and, as my friends, family and followers have also been inquiring, “Do you have plans to get your blog going again?”

The answer to both questions is “yes.” Yes, there are some places I don’t want to go and some lines I don’t want cross. Even though I’ve written intimately about our experiences as a queer family, my grief around my infertility is incredibly private. It was not something I wanted to chronicle, at least not as I was going through it. After all, how many ways are there to write, I feel sad, depressed, defeated? The last thing I wanted was my queer parenting blog to mutate into a blog solely about secondary infertility, even though my experience of secondary infertility is very much coloured by my queerness. Would it have been such a struggle to conceive if we’d had unlimited access to semen and the ability to try at home, several times a cycle? How much precious time was lost waiting for test results, for vials of sperm, and for our son’s donor to reappear? Right out of the gate, we were operating at a disadvantage.

As I was going through my year of grief, it was hard for me to write about anything else queer or family-related without it feeling faked or forced, because the reality was, the infertility was always there, spilling a grey wash over everything. Everywhere I looked in my life, from the daily, sibling stroller brigade outside our son’s elementary school to friends and close family giving birth, there were constant reminders of what I did not have, of how my own body had failed me.

And yes, I do want to start blogging more regularly again, and for the first time in a long while, that seems possible. Our son is now in grade one, and the year of grief has morphed into something new – a year of letting go, a year of daring to hope again. As I watch our son grow increasingly confident and independent, I too am able to start moving forward again in my life after being in a holding pattern for so long. For the first time in a long time, I have other things I want to write about, experiences other than grief and secondary infertility. But what I’ve come to realize after that conversation with Andrea – which was, incidentally, followed by months of false writing starts – is that in order to keep blogging, I first need to account for my time away. Not to apologize for my absence or to dwell over what happened, but to speak to that year of grief and to honour it, as I now move forward.

Posted in conception, grief and loss, kindergarten, parenting, preschool, secondary infertility, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

My First and Last, My One and Only

“So, which one of you is his birthmother?” a fellow mom asks me outside the elementary school. It’s the second day of kindergarten, and her words snap me out of my reverie. I realize I’m still staring forlornly at the double doors that have just swallowed my son as he filed proudly into the massive building with the rest of his class, his new red backpack bouncing on his back.

She’s trying to figure out our family. When we’d first arrived that morning, my boy had happily greeted her son in recognition – one of his first friends from yesterday – and she didn’t know what to make of me.  I’d sensed her giving me the once over while we made small talk, as though she were trying to place me.  Then, finally, she’d asked,  “Are you his mother?”

“Yes.”

“Then who was that other woman with him yesterday, on the playground?”

“His other mom.”

“Oh,” she’d said, clearly startled.  “You mean, you’re, like — partners?”

“Yes,” I’d smiled, willing myself to be patient. “Amanda is my wife.” It wasn’t as though she was trying to be rude – her heteronormative assumptions had simply been smashed by my family unit and, to her credit, she was doing her best to take it all in stride. But today, the heaviness of my son’s first proper day of school weighed on my heart, and I wasn’t in the mood to explain my family’s queerness. In fact, at that very moment, I was irritated by the fact that I perpetually have to do so.

And now, the question about my son’s birthmother. I hesitate a beat, wary of where this is going:

“I am,” I say.

“I thought so,” she smiles, knowingly. “I couldn’t help but notice you tearing up as you watched him go in.”

I blanch – was I that transparent?

“I was the same when my daughter started kindergarten,” she gently confides.  “It’s so hard when we’ve carried them in the womb.”

I find myself at a loss for words. Clearly, she’s just trying to be sympathetic, wanting to forge a connection with a fellow mother. But she’s unwittingly pushed some major buttons. Yes, watching my son take this crucial step away from me towards independence is heart-wrenching – but his transition into kindergarten has also been really intense for Amanda, his non-biological mom. And having watched queer friends go through the same process with their adopted son a year earlier, I know that it’s equally loaded for adoptive moms, too.

I want to say something, but today I’m just too tired. Today I just want to be left in peace, to deal with own feelings around my son’s fleeting childhood – not deliver a crash-course on Diverse Families 101.

“Don’t worry,” she says, patting me on the arm, completely misreading my silence. “It’s much easier with the second one.”

And now – little does she know it – she’s just run a skewer straight through my heart.

A week before our son started kindergarten, our doctor at the fertility clinic had confirmed that our conception journey was well and truly over. After trying for Number Two for over three years, it was time to get off the fertility rollercoaster for good.  Too much time had now elapsed; the most recent round of tests suggested ovarian failure. Even though we still had a final vial of donor sperm in storage, there would be no “second one.”

And so, as my son started kindergarten, I was not only coming to terms with the end of his early childhood, but also the end of hopes and dreams of a sibling, of parenting another little one through those precious, early years.

I’d wanted to be done with our fertility journey well before kindergarten began, so that regardless of outcome, I could be fully present and ready to step forward with my son into this new phase of his life. Amanda and I had planned for a final cycle in May-June, for closure, but due a bizarre series of twists that were completely beyond our control – including the sudden, permanent closure of our long-standing fertility clinic less than two weeks before we were due to inseminate, which precipitated the long, arduous, costly process of getting our records and donor sperm transferred to a new clinic – the end kept getting postponed.

And now, here we are. It’s the first week of kindergarten and I’m raw with grief. I can’t even begin to explain to the well-meaning mom standing next to me that the tears she’d just witnessed, moments earlier, partly have to do with the fact that there won’t be a second one – that my son is my one and only.  That as he walked away from me into the school, I was impacted by the enormity of this milestone not only because it’s the first time, but also because it’s the last.

As I struggle to relate to this other parent, it occurs to me that it’s much easier to be out in my life as a queer mom than as a woman with secondary infertility. I had no qualms clarifying to this individual that Amanda is my partner and that my son has two moms. But secondary infertility, like primary infertility and pregnancy loss, is such a private, personal struggle. An unrecognized, unspoken grief. I wasn’t even going to begin to go there with a virtual stranger.

To fellow mothers who’ve never given their fertility a second thought, women like me are invisible. To women with primary fertility, my pain is often misunderstood: “At least you have one.” And yes, I feel truly blessed to have my son – in fact, now more than ever – but this does not diminish the anguish I’m experiencing after the countless attempts to conceive, after subjecting myself to escalating interventions that have left nothing but financial debt and an incredible physical toll on my body, after three years of a hellish rollercoaster ride, lurching me and Amanda at break-neck speed from hope to despair and back again – up and down, up and down, with both the peaks and the valleys progressively plummeting with each crushing disappointment until, finally, we’ve been forced to jump off before we completely crash.

As I stand there, stricken, in the school ground, it also occurs to me that I’m seeing everything through the grey lens of my infertility at the moment, which is not only why my son’s transition into kindergarten seems so heightened, but also why a casual exchange with another parent can make me instantly irritated and vulnerable. It explains why I bristled so intensely at said parent’s earlier comments and assumptions about birthmothers – because while my tell-tale tears had nothing to do with being my son’s birthmother, they also had everything to do with being his birthmother, and the fact that I will never get pregnant and give birth again.

So, in this painful moment, as the mother of my son’s first new friend at school has just told me that the transition into kindergarten is less painful with one’s second child, I simply take a deep breath and muster a smile:

“That’s what I’ve heard,” I say carefully, choosing words that both speak to my truth but don’t fully out me just yet.  Praying that she doesn’t notice me blinking back tears a second time.

Posted in grief and loss, heterosexism, kindergarten, Out in the world, school, secondary infertility, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Rainbow K

“Guess what?” my brand-new kindergartener announces. “Monsieur L is a MAN!”

He’s practically shouting at my back as we pedal home from school together, his black and yellow Trail-A-Bike hitched behind my Norco hybrid. This is where he likes to do his daily after-school debriefing, and I’m left fighting to understand him over the wind and the traffic.

But today, I hear him loud and clear:  his kindergarten teacher is a man. Big news for a not-quite five year-old with two moms, whose other caregivers and authority figures to date – preschool teachers, fine arts instructors, coaches, and babysitters – have all happened to be women. The funny thing is, my son has been in Monsieur L’s class for over a week already.  Guess he’s been so busy adjusting to the daunting, new routines of big-kid school that the enormity of “my teacher’s male, just like me” is only just sinking in.

My son already loves his dynamic, young teacher. “He’s SO FUNNY!!” he relays to family friends and relatives, who’ve all been peppering him with questions about how kindergarten’s going. “He wore a green bucket on his head, because he thought it was a HAT! And the next day, he came to school in pink BUNNY EARS!!”

Meanwhile, Amanda and I breathe a shared sigh of relief. As any parent will tell you, the transition into kindergarten is a big one. “It’s vast,” reaffirms a queer friend of mine, whose own children are now grown. “It’s like when you look at their baby feet and you realize that someday, they’re going to use those feet to walk away from you. The first day of kindergarten feels like that.”

And sure enough, as we first entered the classroom together, my son holding hands with both moms, I felt a pang inside, a strange mix of excitement, pride and wrenching grief. I didn’t actually tear up until the next day, when I had to say goodbye to him in the line-up outside, and then stand back as he filed into the school with the rest of his class – his growing feet taking steps away from me already. Right before he was swallowed by the massive door, he turned back and blew me a kiss. My sweet boy. I blinked back my tears and blew one back, loving him with my whole heart and missing him already. Another queer mom had forewarned me that kindergarten hardens our sons, and in that moment, I found myself praying that this wouldn’t happen anytime soon.

There’s no formal Pre-K program here in BC, so kindergarten literally marks a child’s entry into the school system, where they’ll spent the next twelve years of their young lives. Amanda and I were all too aware that my son was moving from the safe cocoon of the preschool he’d attended three mornings a week with fourteen other kids, to an all-day program at the neighbourhood French Immersion school with over seven hundred students.

“He’s so ready,” his preschool teachers had reassured us in the spring. But like most parents, we wondered and worried about how it was going to go.  Can he handle the gruelling, all-day schedule? we asked ourselves.  Will he make new friends?  Will he listen to the teacher?  Will he eat anything for lunch?

My son is not yet five, one of the youngest in his cohort – he still struggles with snaps, zippers and shoelaces – yet he’s already as tall as your average six year old. Will people expect too much of him? Will he be able to hold his own on the playground?  Will he play nicely with others? Will others play nicely with him?  Essentially, we were rehashing the same kinds of concerns we’d had when he’d first started preschool, revamped for this brand new age and stage.  At play dates and kids’ birthday parties over the summer, it’s all parents could talk about:  “Are you ready for kindergarten?” I, for one, longed for the summer to stretch on forever. My son may have been ready for kindergarten, but I sure wasn’t.

As queer parents, there’s always that additional, niggling worry – how will our family be received by the school? And most importantly, how will our gentle, sensitive, trusting boy continue to grow and make his way in a world that doesn’t always smile kindly on queer families? We’d been dismayed to receive a five-page “Welcome to Kindergarten” form from the school over the summer, along with my son’s assignment to Monsieur L’s class.  “Name of Mother?” the form asked off the top. “Name of Father?” Amanda took a deep breath, crossed out “Father,” and penned in “Mother.”  Here we go, we thought. Welcome to the next twelve years of tirelessly advocating for our right to exist as a family. And while we were excited by the possibility of our son having his first male teacher, we were also left wondering – what kind of a man is Monsieur L?

“Let’s just hope he’s the kind of man who’s open to a family headed by lesbian moms,” Amanda noted grimly.

On the first day of school, we were greeted at the door of my son’s classroom with a warm “Bonjour!” from a bright-eyed young teacher. So far so good.

Moments later, as Monsieur L enthusiastically welcomed his new students and the gathered group of parents, something caught my eye in the corner of the class. I did a double-take – could it really be? A small rainbow flag was sticking out of the pencil holder on Monsieur L’s desk. I nudged Amanda. Not only are queer families welcome here, but oh-my-goddess, he bats for our team!

Monsieur L organized short interviews with all the parents that first week.  When Amanda and I went in to meet him, one of the first things out of his mouth was an apology for the “Welcome to Kindergarten” form.

“Thank you for crossing out ‘Father,’” he said. “That really helped when I raised the issue with our principal at the staff meeting this week.”  Amanda and I exchanged a glance – our small action had already made a difference. “These forms have been used by the school for a long time,” he went on, “and they no longer reflect the reality of our student population. I told the principal, ‘I can’t believe this form was distributed to families in MY class, of all classes.’” He went on to say that he does a unit on diversity with his students every year, and gets his male partner to come in and talk to the class.

We couldn’t believe our luck. In fact, we feel like we’ve won the lottery.  A month and a half in now, our son still skips into to school every morning, eager to see what new and wonderful things Monsieur L has in store. A teacher who can get kids excited and motivated about learning is worth their weight in gold. A strong male role-model for a boy with two moms is a huge bonus. And an openly queer teacher who not only welcomes but champions our family? – what a spoil of riches. I cannot think of a better start to kindergarten, and to our relationship with the school system.

Posted in gender, heterosexism, kindergarten, Out in the world, parenting, role models, school, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Mother’s Day Musings

My mom’s first Mother’s Day was particularly memorable, as it was the day she first became a mother. She laboured through the night and I popped out bright and early at 7:22 am that Sunday morning, just in time for her to be showered with Mother’s Day greetings along with congratulations on my arrival.

Her 27th Mother’s Day was equally memorable as it marks the occasion where I, in a horrible lapse of judgement, came out to her for the first time. I’d been out in my life on the Coast for years. It had reached the critical point where if I wanted an authentic, adult relationship with my parents, I had to tell them I was queer. I was only passing through my hometown for a few days and wanted to break the news early enough in the visit to give us time to talk it through. Needless to say, my timing wasn’t as impeccable as on that very first Mother’s Day, nor was my announcement greeted with the same joy as my happy arrival into the world.

I’d actually given my coming out a lot of angst-ridden thought and, after weighing the multitude of pros and cons, had naively concluded that doing it on Mother’s Day wouldn’t be such a big deal.  My mother, who’d grown up in England, had always downplayed the significance of Mother’s Day, along with all the other North American Hallmark holidays. “It’s just another day,” she’d say, as we showered her with flowers and cards. “You really don’t need to make such a fuss.”

Until the year I dropped the lesbian bomb.  Not only did I destroy her life as she knew it by turning out queer, but I’d completely ruined her Mother’s Day. She was so upset that she retreated into her garden for days, tending to her flowers and barely talking to me for the rest of the visit. Every time I approached, she’d dissolve into tears. Live and learn: Hallmark holidays do matter, no matter what she says. I’ve spent every Mother’s Day since overcompensating for my cringe-worthy, twenty-something faux-pas.

One of the reasons my mom was so devastated by my coming out, I later found out through the family grapevine, was that she assumed it meant I wasn’t going to have children of my own:

“She was so looking forward to having grandchildren,” my aunt relayed sadly to her own kids, as she processed the latest family tragedy – which actually wasn’t such a tragedy to my savvy adult cousins:

 “Who says Sara’s not having kids?  Two sets of ovaries, two wombs? Being a lesbian actually doubles her chances of becoming a mom.”

My aunt was totally floored.

“It’s amazing what you can do with modern reproductive technologies,” one of my cousins went on. My aunt’s eyes widened as she scrambled to process – this was a bold, new world that she and my mother had never before considered.

I’d actually tried to reassure my mom that day I first came out to her.  “I still want to have kids,” I’d insisted. “I’ve always wanted to have kids, and that hasn’t changed.” At the time, this upset her even more. I don’t know if she didn’t believe me, didn’t want to go there, or was just too overwhelmed by my newly-announced queerness to really hear me.

Luckily, my entire family has since come around to a place of acceptance. The process took years – my mother couldn’t even bring herself to mention my sexuality for almost a decade. By the time I met Amanda (the first girlfriend that my mom actually liked) and got engaged, it was no longer to possible for her to dismiss my queerness as a passing phase. Our wedding ceremony marked a seismic shift for both my parents: seeing me and my beloved up there, warmly supported by our gathered family and friends, declaring our love and commitment to one another in the same way that straight people do, finally seemed to make them get it – that we were a couple like any other, and that this was love, end of story. My mom hadn’t lost a daughter after all; in fact, she’d gained a daughter-in-law. My son’s arrival a year later sealed the deal: I’d finally given her the grandchild she’d so badly wanted; the one she’d given up on that Mother’s Day so many years ago. The fact that he had two moms and was conceived with donor sperm no longer mattered. We were a family.

My own first Mother’s Day was also memorable. My birthday happened to land on Sunday again that year, meaning there was much to celebrate – another year older, after a year full of exciting changes. Birthday cake intermingled with family celebrations as Amanda and I jointly marked our first Mother’s Day as new moms. There was something extra-special about sharing that first Mother’s Day with a partner (as well as the ones that followed). It gave us a wonderful pause in that crazy-busy first year, an opportunity to stop grumbling about sleep deprivation, lack of couple time and all the other myriad of complaints that pepper life with a newborn, and instead reflect together on the miracle of our son’s birth and growing little family. We marvelled at how much had changed in our lives in such a short time, and how we’d both been challenged to stretch and grow in positive ways in our new role as parents.

That first Mother’s Day also marked something for me personally – a happy reminder of the bridges I’d been able to rebuild with my own mother by becoming a queer mom. I was amazed by the power of my small son – an ambassador of the next generation – to bring my family back together in spite of the initial fears, prejudices and differences that had ruptured my relationship with my parents when I first came out. My experience is not unique; I have seen similar scenarios play out in many queer families in my community. It seems that the very act of bringing a child into a queer partnership and creating a family, by whatever means – known or anonymous donor, birth or adoption – has the potential not only to help legitimize our relationships in broader society, but also to promote powerful healing within our own, extended families.

Posted in coming out, extended family, gratitude and affirmations, misconceptions, mother-daughter relationships, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tommy Mommy

“Mama, I have to go PEE-EE-EE!” my son announced at the top of his lungs. He was on the cusp of four, and every trip to the loo was deemed worthy of broadcast with the same volume and intensity as a Boxing Day door-crasher announcement.  On this particular occasion, he was visiting Science World with his other mom, and managed to make himself heard even over the formidable, prehistoric roars of the Extreme Dinosaur exhibit.  All eyes in the room were suddenly on my wife and small child.

“Okay,” Amanda responded cheerily and took our son’s hand, acutely aware that they now had an audience. “Let’s go to the bathroom.”

Some parents exchanged knowing smiles with her as she led our son out of the exhibit hall.  But as she approached the women’s washroom, he tugged suddenly on her hand and pulled her towards the men’s.

“No, Mama, over here.” He had to go so badly he was practically dancing.

“Wait a minute ,” Amanda said, gently stopping him. “We can’t go in there.”

“But it’s for boys.”

“I know, honey.  You’re a boy.  But you’re too little to go in by yourself.”

“But you can come too.”

“No, I can’t,” she explained. “I’m a girl.” Never mind the countless times she’d endured double-takes from confused patrons in the ladies’ room.

Our son just looked at her wide-eyed for a moment, and then laughed as though this was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. “Nooo!” he squealed.  “You’re a boy, just like me.”

“No, I’m not,” she insisted, even though she was once an eight year-old tomboy who stole a pair of her male cousin’s boy briefs and longed to change her name to Paul. “I’m a girl.”

Our son scrambled to process. “You’re not a girl,” he reasoned. “You’re a mama.”  As if that clinched it. But as contradictory as this statement might sound in any other context, it actually made a whole lot of sense coming from the mouth of a preschooler talking to his butchy, non-biological lesbian mom.

“Yes, I’m your mama,” Amanda assured him, hurrying him now into the women’s washroom.  “And I’m a girl, just like Mommy. Which is why we have to go in here.”

They headed into a stall together and took turns going pee.  As our son hiked his pants back up over his Buzz Lightyear underwear, he regarded Amanda carefully: “Mama, you’re not really a girl, are you?” he asked again, half-giggling.

“Yes, I am,” she smiled back.

“No-ooo…” he responded in a sing-song voice.

“Look.  You have a penis, and I don’t.”

“But Mama,” he implored, “you are a boy, just like me.”

And there’s the rub – he desperately wants an image of himself reflected back by at least one of his parents. It’s developmental stage that all kids go through, where they want to identify with the same-gendered parent. And that gets a bit tricky when you’re a little boy with two moms.

Amanda told me about the incident later, after they’d come home and our son had breathlessly debriefed about how scary the dinosaurs were, but how he’d kept going back through the exhibit with his mama until he wasn’t afraid anymore.

He went to play trains upstairs, and Amanda and I quietly shared a laugh about the bathroom escapade. We figured this was simply the latest chapter in the “Mama Daddy” saga – that our son had been continuing to try to make sense of himself and how he fits into the bigger world and, like all children his age, wanted to see himself mirrored back by one or both of his caregivers (see Mama Daddy, Papa Bear). He’d become increasingly interested in gender ever since he’d started preschool the previous year. He’d recently gone through a phase where he was categorizing everything into “boys” and “girls.” Our eldest pug, Oliver, was proclaimed a boy, while Finnegan, also male but younger and less boisterous, was deemed a girl: “He’s got a fluffier face than Ollie.”

“But they both have penises,” Amanda had pointed out.

“Finnegan has a girl penis,” he’d explained.  (I’m sure the young Amanda/Paul would have coveted one of those.)  Gender confusion, wishful thinking, or both? Or perhaps neither: our queer dog walker has strong suspicions that Finnegan is gay (our pug reportedly had a boyfriend at the dog park last summer, a frisky black lab) so perhaps our son was picking up on something else he couldn’t fully articulate yet.

Which brings us back to the bathroom episode. When Amanda relayed the tale to another queer mom, a therapist whose two boys are now in their late teens, the woman shared an immediate laugh of recognition: her youngest went through the exact same thing with his other mom when he was about our son’s age. She suspects a big part of it has do with our kids picking up on their other parent’s butchiness and not knowing how to name or categorize it, rather than simply pining for a male role model and/or equating the parenting role of “other mother” with “daddy.” Kids are smart, and certainly not blind. They can clearly see and sense that something’s different about their butchy moms, both physically and energetically – that strong, butch energy that’s almost male, yet at the same time distinctly female. The same qualities that make it impossible for butches to pass as straight when they walk down the street; the very qualities that cause butch-loving dykes like me to fall head over heels for them.  And how does one begin to name that, if you’re not quite four and only given two labels – “boy” and “girl”?

And so, Amanda initiated a chat with our son about tomboys. She explained that some girls, like many of the little girls at his school, like princesses, the colour pink, and wearing pretty dresses. She then pointed out that there are some girls who look and act like boys, and who even dress like boys and like to do a lot of things that boys do, such as climb trees and play with trains (although yes, girly girls can also do boy things, and boys can like princesses and pink and do girl things) – and that these kinds of girls are sometimes called “tomboys.” Just like his Mama. Which is why she’s a girl who still uses the girls’ washroom, but also looks and acts a lot like a boy.

Our son, who’d been listening with rapt attention, nodded quietly. It was a lot to wrap his little head around, but it all seemed to be making sense.

“Mama?” he asked, after a long moment. “Can I be a tomboy too?”

Posted in butch/femme, father figures, gender, non-biological lesbian mother, parenting, preschool, role models, roles, tomboys, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Making Up for Lost Time

Confession: my son was conceived in the middle of an on-line graduate class. A class I was teaching, no less, in mid-discussion. Or rather, discussions, as the internet enables me to teach two classes simultaneously. At that fateful moment when egg met sperm, I was actually in three places at once – virtually speaking, anyway.

Confused? I sure was, the year I moved from a live classroom to a virtual one. My internet workshops are the on-line equivalent of the same, two-hour courses offered in a seminar room on campus, except mine stretch over thirty-three hours. We use a bulletin board format – no web cam, no live-chat, meaning I can show up to work in my pyjamas. It’s distance education in the truest sense:  students in disparate time zones with complex family/work schedules can drop in and out any time over the two days, posting comments on the class forum. As the instructor, I’m expected to be ever-present, guiding and monitoring both classes, heated, dynamic conversations that run in tandem. I take breaks to eat and sleep, of course – and, on this particular occasion, make a baby.

And no, we weren’t going at it under the desk, or even in the next room. Modern lesbian couple that we are, our act of conception involved ducking out of work mid-afternoon and driving to the fertility clinic where, thanks to the wonders of reproductive technology, previously-frozen donor sperm was inserted through my cervix by intrauterine insemination as Amanda stood by and held my hand. I lay on the examining table, feet up in stirrups, thinking how strange it was my students were carrying on without me at that very moment, without an inkling of what I was up to.

This was would not be the last time. Flash-forward thirteen months: I am out in the pissing rain, pushing the infant stroller up and down the leafy greenway near my house, willing my three-month old to fall asleep. The stroller is the last resort – usually it does the trick – but today my son just stares up at me from under the plastic rain cover, cooing away, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, completely oblivious to my mounting frustration. I wish I could just follow his lead, like any other neighbourhood mom on mat. leave – okay, you don’t want to sleep?  Let’s go home and play. But I cannot even enjoy the walk, or the dose of fresh air, as I’m all too aware that I’m supposed to be present in both my on-line classes right now, wrapping things up for the week.  But my baby has steadfastly refused to nap all day so I’ve barely made an appearance in either classroom – in fact, I haven’t had a chance to weigh-in in one class at all since last night.

This isn’t how it was supposed to go. My colleague had told me how she’d breastfed her daughter at the keyboard the first year she’d taught in our program. “It’s totally doable,” she reassured me, back when I was still pregnant and trying to determine whether returning to work, without childcare, when my son was only two months old, was as insane as it sounded. In fact, a good number of students have become new moms while enrolled in our program, and have completed their degrees without missing a beat – maybe a class or two around the birth, but that’s it. That’s the beauty of the virtual classroom. “The worst part was cleaning the upholstery on my office chair to get rid of the stench of sour breast milk,” one student posted in a forum for new parents in the program. “Who knew there was so much spillage?”

Even the head of my department, who still teaches live on campus, shared fond recollections of writing a novel while his infant daughter slumbered in her car seat on his desk. He would pause mid-paragraph and gaze over at her lovingly, his sweet little muse.

“Those early days were pure bliss,” he told me. “I had precious one-on-one time with my baby daughter, something many dads don’t get to enjoy, and I was incredibly productive. It’s when they start moving around that it gets harder.”

So it wouldn’t be like going back to work at all, I tried to tell myself. My baby, too, will sleep peacefully on my desk, while I get to enjoy the rare luxury of stimulating, adult conversation two days a week. Win-win, right? I get to go back to work while staying at home with my baby.

The woman from the E.I. office was more dubious. She wanted to know why I wasn’t planning on taking my full mat. leave benefit, and told me in no uncertain terms that I was going to regret my decision.

“Is your employer pressuring you to go back to work early?” she asked. “Because that’s against the law.” There was an uncomfortable silence over the phone as she awaited my reply. But how could I even begin to explain? That my same-sex partner was currently on education leave without pay, that Amanda had been accepted, against all odds, into a competitive grad school program a matter of weeks before we knew we were pregnant? We hadn’t expected to conceive so quickly; we’d been warned not to put our life plans on hold. At the very least, we’d expected that Amanda would be allowed to defer her acceptance for a year.

No can do, said the university. The same university where I have my adjunct teaching contract with no benefits – no mat. leave, and no tuition benefit for my spouse. The E.I. we’d receive on my meagre part-time salary was laughable – no way we could live on that for a year without going into serious debt. Okay, we were heading into the red anyway, but with me back at work and Amanda receiving parental leave while she was at school, there’d at least be a wee bit more money trickling in.

During that awkward, radio silence on the phone, I had a horrible, sinking feeling that the E.I. woman’s words were going to come back to haunt me. And sure enough, that afternoon as I plod up and down the greenway with the stroller, my face streaked with rain and tears, I am already wishing I’d been able to make a different choice. I wish I was staying home for the year like all the other moms in my mom-baby group. So I could join them for coffee and regular walks at the park, sign up for stroller-fit, do infant story-time at the library, and complain about how I bored I was and how many long hours there are in the day to fill with baby. So I could be fully present and enjoy my son on my so-called days “off,” instead of worrying about the manuscripts I need to read and the lectures I need to write and the student comments I need to complete before I teach later in the week. Where my biggest dilemma of the day would be – do we get ready and go out to kindergym or do we stay in our pyjamas and hang out at home, rather than, how do I get him the fuck to sleep so I can post? I wish money didn’t matter.

Somehow I made it to the end of term. My MFA students were incredibly patient with me for the most part, although someone wrote on my teaching evaluation: “The instructor seemed a bit distracted and preoccupied this semester.” Gee, ya think?

I felt bad for letting my students down, but I didn’t take the comment to heart – I knew there would be other terms, other classes, other students. I would get childcare for the fall semester, get back on my game. But it breaks my heart to know that there won’t be a next time with my young son – that those precious, early months are gone forever, and I was only half there.

Back in my own MFA days, as I slogged through a playwriting thesis, I had an image of the Bard pinned above my computer:  So I haven’t written much lately, the post card proclaimed. So what? Neither has Shakespeare. It helped me hang on to my sense of humour, and stopped me from beating up on myself those days or weeks when the writing wasn’t flowing, or when the demands of my various part-time jobs were keeping me away from the page.

This corny slogan pops back into mind as I find myself compelled to explain my seven-month hiatus from this blog. And no, the dog didn’t eat my homework, so I won’t bore you with mundane excuses.  But I will say this: as I often tell my students, there’s a time for writing, and sometimes there’s a time just for living. We literary-types can get so preoccupied with the writing we’re doing, or stressing about the writing we’re not doing, that we forget sometimes to take a step away from the page and breathe in new experiences. How can there possibly be anything fresh to write about if you don’t get your head out of the computer once in a while and let yourself live a little bit?

This past school year, I have done just that.  Full-day kindergarten is looming large this coming September – how did we get here so fast? – and after endless visits to that same fertility clinic, with drugs and escalating interventions and my feet back up in stirrups too many times to count, it has become painfully evident that there is going to be no second baby. No sibling for our sweet boy. No second chance to re-do my botched mat-leave, to spend quality time with both kids before my son starts school. It’s been a harsh wake-up call:  this is it. Our son’s childhood is not a dress rehearsal, and I need to be as fully present as a parent as I possibly can. I knew if I didn’t somehow take back what we’d lost during that frazzled first year, I was going to regret it – and worse, resent it – forever.

And so, I have taken a hiatus from my classes, and am simply supervising a half-dozen thesis and special project students so that I can spend quality time with my son. Instead of showing up at my computer to teach, I’ve been going to park with my boy. Letting go of my inhibitions and singing loudly and joyously with him at our Music Together class. Watching his antics at Dress-Up Drama, delighted there’s yet another thespian in the family. I’ve been helping build elaborate train tracks and marble runs, and remembering how good it feels to squeeze Play-Doh through my fingers, or to cover my entire hands in finger-paint. Snuggling in close and reading Thomas the Tank Engine and Captain Underpants, and showing my son how you can make your own books by stapling a series of drawings together and penciling on your own story. And while these intimate, shared experiences can never completely replace what the two of us missed during those early months, I do feel that we’re making up for lost time. My son has never been happier and more settled. I’m happy too, although it’s bittersweet. Even as I throw myself in one-hundred percent with my boy, I’m also aware that I’m deeply grieving the second child we so wanted but will never have.

I hadn’t actually planned on taking a hiatus from my writing as well. I’d blithely assumed I’d fit it in somehow, juggling things as I’ve always done, this time during stolen moments at Starbucks three mornings a week while my son is in preschool down the street. I’d figured, two mornings for my thesis folks, and one morning to show up at the page – which worked for about the first month, until October when the entire family got flattened by a bad bout of bronchitis/sinusitis, forcing me to spend the rest of the academic year playing catch-up. That, and the fear that writing about the infertility would make it all too real. That putting it into words would somehow jinx our last-ditch attempts to get pregnant.

But now, as the university term comes to a close and I proudly watch my thesis students graduate, it’s time once again for me to write. Time to recount the many stories and experiences I’ve gathered during this year of just living. Just living and grieving and being with my son.

Posted in career, conception, grief and loss, parenting, secondary infertility, teaching, Uncategorized, work-life balance, writing process | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments