Queering Birth Narratives: Nonbiological Lesbian Mothers’ Stories of Pregnancy and Birth
By Anna Nelson
Much of the literature about lesbian families suggests that the United States is currently experiencing a “gayby” boom, and has been for the last twenty years or more, as more and more lesbian couples are having children via donor insemination (Chabot & Ames, 2004). While increasingly common, the path to lesbian parenthood is not always easy, often revolving around difficult decisions, financial burden, and a dependence on health and legal systems that heterosexual couples rarely have to confront (Gartrell, et al., 1996). In addition to the practical concerns of lesbian parenthood, there are many challenges for lesbians in negotiating what is oftentimes ambiguous familial and cultural territory (Ben-Ari & Livni, 2006).
Questions arise such as: Does the child have a right to know their biological father or is it best to use an anonymous donor? How should the child refer each of their mothers? How can the nonbiological mother make sense of her role in bringing this child into being and subsequently her new role as a parent? How will she confront “father,” stereotypes and other heteronormative notions both within herself and out in the world? Will parenting responsibilities be shared equally, or will one mother take on more than the other?
As a someday-soon-to-be nonbiological lesbian mother myself, I have a vested interest in the answers other women can provide to these questions. My aim in doing this research is to provide narratives of nonbiological lesbian parenthood (partly to satiate my own craving), but also to use this research as a springboard to bring these parents together for community, support, and solace in sharing their journeys.
While many of the studies I have reviewed make mention of nonbiological mothers’ experiences and analyze several of the key features that this study also seeks to address, no study I have found sufficiently discusses or analyzes the experiences of nonbiological mothers (Gatrell et al., 2000; Chabot & Ames, 2004; Ben-Ari & Lavni, 2006). These studies primarily enlist biological mothers as participants, and while these perspectives are valuable, I am specifically interested in the perceptions, feelings, and lived experiences of nonbiological mothers during their partner’s pregnancy and birth. Because of legal inequalities and a lack of family role definition for nonbiological mothers, I posit that their stories are often silenced or take a back seat to biological mothers’ narratives and this study seeks to bring a few of those stories forward.
This study was originally designed to be a series of interviews with nonbiological lesbian mothers, but evolved into a study of lesbian birth narratives from a pregnancy/birth story questionnaire that I developed (formulated with open-ended questions like an interview), aided by a collection of birth narratives from Harlyn Aizley’s Confessions of the Other Mother: Nonbiological Lesbian Moms Tell All! (2006), and several prominent lesbian parenting blogs. Three participants were able to return the questionnaires, which I am able to analyze in the context of the literature and other materials.
Participants in this study are lesbian-identified, female-identified, nonbiological mothers who have become parents within the last ten years. They were in a relationship with the biological mother of their children at the time of at least one pregnancy and birth, but have never been pregnant or given birth themselves. The biological mothers conceived using intrauterine insemination (IUI), which involves inserting washed sperm directly into the uterus near the time of ovulation (Mayo Clinic, 2013). Participants were recruited primarily via word-of-mouth and Facebook posts. All three participants, Kendra, Natalie, and Tamara [pseudonyms] have completed the ‘Non-bio Lesbian Parent Questionnaire.’ Participants self-described their demographic information: Kendra is a white upper-middle class mother of two boys living in San Francisco, California who is no longer partnered with the boys’ biological mother; Natalie is a Filipino middle class mother of one daughter living in Hayward, California; and Tamara is a white lower-middle class parent of one daughter living in a medium-sized town in Michigan.
Results are organized by the relative chronology of becoming a parent: experiences before conception to after birth. In each section, characteristics of each participant’s descriptions of their experience will be presented. In this way, the hope is that the results will read as a collective birth story, offering three perspectives at once.
Decision to Conceive
Before deciding to conceive, both Natalie and Tamara had been in a relationship with their partners for four years and Kendra had been with her partner for two years. Coincidentally, all three couples were living in San Francisco at the time of this decision. For all three participants, the decision about which partner would become pregnant and carry the child was an easy one. All three cited never having wanted to experience pregnancy, but explained that it was important for their partners. Natalie explained, “I was okay never having children, [but] my partner grew up always knowing she would be a mother.”
When choosing a donor, Kendra and her partner wanted a known donor, while Natalie and Tamara chose unknown donors. Each participant explained several important donor characteristics that went into this decision. Both Tamara and Kendra considered factors like the donor’s personality and interests. As Kendra is a musician, finding a donor who was also a musician was very important to her. For Natalie and Tamara, family medical history and ethnicity were very important factors as well. Natalie explained, “It was important to me that we choose a donor with [an] Asian or Pacific islander background in hopes that there would be some sort of representation of my physical features.” Kendra, having a known donor, offers a different perspective from the other two participants: “I think my situation is unusual in that the biological father is my first cousin. I am not the biological mother, but I am biologically related to the children.”
Tamara wrote, “Conception was kind of hilarious because it was so medical and strategic. We joked a lot about that.” There were somewhat varying experiences of conception in this sample. While Tamara’s partner became pregnant on the first try, Kendra’s partner tried for two cycles before becoming pregnant. Natalie and her partner got pregnant initially on the second try, but then had a miscarriage. After four more inseminations, Natalie’s partner became pregnant again, and this time carried the baby to term. Kendra was both “happy and scared,” at finding out her partner was pregnant. Natalie described being, “overwhelmed with emotion,” “excited,” “nervous,” and “reflective.” Tamara wrote simply, “I was elated!”
Each participant spent the pregnancy preparing for the birth in several ways. Kendra and her partner interviewed several midwives, read a lot, and took a childbirth class. While Natalie and her partner were originally seeing an OB/GYN for prenatal care, they chose to receive care from a midwife after experiencing the miscarriage. Natalie wrote that her knowledge of childbirth and infants was limited until her partner became pregnant, but that, “once [she] started reading, [she] didn’t stop.” She explained that both she and her partner, “immediately [made] a connection to the baby.” They made a pregnancy photo journal that documented their feelings along with the baby’s growth and activity. Natalie also, “wrote letters to the baby [and] talked to the baby.” Tamara did lots of reading, including Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth (2010). She also spent time talking to the midwife, other mothers, and her own mother about the process.
While Natalie and Tamara reported feeling, “very supported,” by their partners, family, and friends during the pregnancy, Kendra stated, “I didn’t feel in need of support,” despite positive reactions from family and friends. She explained that she did not feel supported by her partner or anyone else during the pregnancy because, “I wasn’t the focus of the process. My feelings weren’t a huge factor to anyone other than myself.” Natalie wrote about her partner that, “it was important for her that I feel involved in the pregnancy process – that we were doing it all together.” Natalie also explained that her family had a hard time supporting their decision to have a homebirth, which meant she felt more supported in that decision by friends, “who were familiar with homebirth and midwifery.”
Similarly, each participant commented on their relationship with their partner during the pregnancy:
Kendra: “What I remember most is the alteration in [my partner’s] personality. She was kinder, gentler, more patient. It softened her . . . It was obvious that she loved being pregnant. She didn’t communicate about it directly very much.”
Natalie: “When things were difficult or overwhelming, words weren’t necessary. The most positive parts of her experience came from how she was feeling inside and out. She was passionate and excited to tell me about those things, so that I’d experience them too.”
Tamara: “Sometimes she was a total mystery, all the changes. Probably a mystery to herself as well, but to me it was kind of like watching an evolution of something magical. It was special.”
Labor and Birth
All three participants’ partners went into labor at home and gave birth at home with the care of a midwife. Natalie wrote at length of all of the preparations made in advance to help ensure a safe and healthy home birth. Both Kendra and Tamara’s partners labored for about 12 hours, while Natalie’s partner began the early stages of labor on a Friday, labored through the weekend, and eventually gave birth early that Monday morning. Of labor, Kendra described, “it was exhausting.” When asked if she felt connected to her partner during labor, she responded, “Not directly. It was very important that I was there…but labor is something that happens between a mother and herself.” Kendra’s response is very different than the other two participants’ responses. Natalie reported feeling “very connected,” adding, “it felt like we were the only ones there, doing this unbelievable thing.” Tamara also reported feeling connected to her partner, “more than ever.” For all three couples, the only people attending the birth were themselves and a midwife, “plus a couple plumbers because our plumbing backed up!” in Tamara’s case.
Participants were asked about their feelings at the moment of birth, a similarly intense experience for all three. Kendra explained that, “there’s no time to feel,” and Natalie reported, “Pure adrenaline. I don’t remember processing any feelings at the time.” Tamara wrote:
Everything was super intense. I had a heightened sense of my surroundings and what was important. I tried to stay calm and to not let fear enter the room. I wanted to be as strong mentally as my wife was being physically, in order to support her and the baby. I had this sixth sense that we were in good hands with the universe that day. [I felt] intense, strong, [and] scared at times, but I tried not to show it and kept the positive words coming so that my wife knew that we were going to be ok.
All three births were uncomplicated, and all three babies were born healthy.
After the Birth
All three participants reported falling immediately in love with their new babies. Kendra explained, “I found him (and still do find him) amazing and miraculous.” Natalie described herself as, “emotionally overwhelmed with joy,” and Tamara wrote, “I had this feeling of euphoria…better than any drug experience.” Each participant, without any prompting from the questionnaire, mentioned holding the baby as a very important and enjoyable part of her experience. Tamara indicated her apprehension at being a new parent when she wrote, “when the midwife was about to leave, I remember thinking, “you’re not really going to leave us alone with the baby now, are you?” Fortunately, all three participants had a team of supporters including friends, families, midwives, or doulas following the birth who came by to check in and drop off meals for the first few weeks.
Each participant described being equally involved in the baby’s care right away except for breastfeeding. Kendra described her participation as “50/50, but it felt more like 100/100.” As for her relationship with her partner after the birth, Kendra writes, “Our relationship with each other was suspended. All there’s time and energy for is taking care of the baby. We worked seamlessly to do that.” Kendra described the weeks following the birth as, “one long blur of unimaginable exhaustion,” with “dozens of almost-all-nighters one after another.” She explained her belief that, “if the baby is breastfeeding, and the other parent is committed to being an equal parent, that’s just the way it is. When the baby’s awake, you’re awake.” Unfortunately, the data did not contain Natalie and Tamara’s perspective on this issue to find out if they held similar beliefs about their involvement in the baby’s nighttime care. Natalie also described having to adjust to “the frequency of ‘awake time’ at night,” which she had to balance with her 9-5 office job, but did not describe the level of fatigue that Kendra wrote about at length. Tamara described the second night with the baby as being somewhat difficult, but did not elaborate.
Kendra reported very little financial stress, citing “good benefits from work,” and that “having a homebirth…was very economical.” Natalie and her partner “saved and prepared for a child a few years in advance.” While Tamara explained the need to move to Michigan to raise her child: “I am very happy that we are raising a baby in a place that we can actually afford as opposed to San Francisco…There’s no way we would have been able to stay unless one of us went and joined some corporate job that we hated.”
Both Kendra and Natalie reported experiencing very little or no homophobia or discrimination during the process of becoming parents. Kendra wrote, “I think being same-sex parents would have had more effect on our experience elsewhere, but in San Francisco, it wasn’t a big deal.” Natalie experienced some isolating treatment from her first doctor whom, while remaining “very professional…directed most questions to [her] partner and didn’t give [Natalie much] eye contact.” This was Natalie’s only slight experience of being treated differently from her partner during the pregnancy, however. Tamara’s experience living in Michigan has been quite different from the other two participants’ who live in the Bay Area, as Kendra predicted. Tamara wrote that, “being gay in Michigan is sometimes a challenge because of the horrible law that bars the lesbian non-bio mom from actually adopting [her] children,” adding, “It’s a law that is soon to be overturned and changed, if we have anything to do with it.”
Roles and Names
One very interesting finding was that in all three couples, the biological mother chose the name, “Mommy,” within the family while the nonbiological parents chose other names. Both Kendra and Natalie go by, “Mama,” while Tamara has chosen, “Mimi.” Tamara wrote, “Mimi was my grandmother’s moniker. We kept it in the family.” When asked about their roles, all three participants stated their equal status as parent to their children. Kendra explained, “I am a parent, plain and simple.” Natalie wrote, “Simply put, I am a mom, but I like to think of myself as a mere mortal trying to…raise a little super hero.” Tamara had different feelings about her role in the family, saying, “I’m my kid’s mom, if anyone asks, but I feel more like the dad [which is] so hard to explain to a passerby at the super market. I’m mimi, mom, dad, friend, and partner in crime.”
When asked about each of their lives as parents, similar threads emerged. Kendra, whose oldest child is 7, explained that, “It’s very demanding and very exhausting and very magical and very rewarding, full of tough decisions and uncertainty. The same-sex parent part just hasn’t been a factor. There’s no weirdness about it, to us or to the children, or to anyone around us in our professional or personal lives.” Natalie, whose baby is 3.5 months old, contributed that, “the experience so far is like one big adventure…It is being confident and proud and out.” As far as her experience out in the world, she wrote, “I find it surprising when people approach me in the street and tell me how she looks just like me. I sometimes think it is funny, but I like it, because my hope is that she will look at herself in the mirror and see me too.” With her last quote, Tamara, whose daughter is now 1 year old, effectively and eloquently summarizes much of her experience:
It’s pretty awesome. I’m always surprised when people ask who is this baby? Is it yours? Cause they think that a dyke like me could in no way be a mom. I say, she’s my daughter. They usually ask which one of us gave birth and [ask] how did we get pregnant, questions most straight parents don’t have to answer. I don’t mind answering their questions, because I think we should educate people on our experiences, although it does get a bit old after a while. All in all, people are supportive, but can sometimes be a bit ignorant and say things or ask questions that seem a bit like over-stepping the level of what our relationship or friendship is…We have learned to just be open about it and kind of roll our eyes after a while.
When Ben-Ari & Livni (2006) wrote about the ambigious territory occupied by lesbian families, they explained that this ambiguity helps to create freedom for lesbian couples to make up their own rules and values upon becoming parents. This sentiment was echoed in this study, primarily by Tamara, who discussed the many names for her role in her family: mimi, mom, dad, and friend. When Tamara wrote about “feeling more like the dad,” it was hard not to read it as conforming to patriarchal and nuclear ideals of what parental roles should be. Then I took a step back and considered her position; I realized that taking on a normative role as a queer person, a role into which one does not “fit,” by mainstream standards, can in fact be just as subversive as refusing the role all together (Gabb, 1999). The very fact of Tamara’s existence as a parent who does not inhabit either absolute on any binary flouts heteronormative conceptions of “the family.” Furthermore, this freedom to define roles however we choose within queer families is created by stepping outside societal expectations of family. When lesbian, gay, and queer parents choose what we have come to think of as normative roles, it all depends on the intention and the individual positionality whether that act is subsersive or not.
While other studies seek to explain qualities of lesbian families, this study has sought to make visible the lived experiences and memories of individuals in lesbian families without comparing these experiences to those of any other individual or group. It is my hope that scholars of queer theory can recognize the mixture of transgressive and normative within these accounts, and that queer families – whatever their makeup – may find more solidarity with one another in coming years. I personally would like to collect many more narratives from all types of queer families to further complicate the collision (or gentle meshing) of the category “queer” with the category “family.”
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