In our meltdown last week, generously fueled by hormones and sleep deprivation, Gail said something that really hit home. As she wrote, she said that she is finding it hard that as an NGP, she has to choose to parent Ira. Her care for him isn’t forced by the only truly essential need he has right now: his need to eat. Yes, she is nursing him, but she doesn’t have to, since he could be getting plenty from me.

There are things about Gail’s personality that make this particularly hard for her. She loves getting things done, checking things off lists, and moving forward in ways she can measure. Spending time with a little baby does not produce such tangible accomplishments. There’s also an overwhelming amount of non-baby work that just needs to get done, and until the last couple weeks, I wasn’t physically able to contribute much.

Now that she has noticed this struggle, she is consciously making sure to reach out to Ira. It’s amazing what a difference a little insight, time and effort can make. Just a couple days ago she was moderately annoyed with me for not gazing at him quite lovingly enough, convinced I was not truly appreciating his beauty, while she was in what looked to me an awful lot like a new-parent-oxytocin-fueled love-fest.

Folks who know me know that I can get rather up in arms when advocating for non-bio-moms. I’m particularly bothered by an underlying assumption, even within the lesbian community, that a non-bio-mom is secondary, a nice perk, sure, but not an essential member of her family. This message comes through strongly in the small amount of writing on two-mom families, as I’ve complained about before. It comes through in one-on-one conversations with parents in two-mom families, especially in the deeper fears and hopes we sometimes have the courage to tell each other. If, as a lesbian community, we can’t figure out that a family can contain two moms (as opposed to a mom and a back-up mom), then we should not be surprised when the straight world has trouble understanding us.

One of the ways I see this assumption reflected in our conversations is the insistence, usually expressed as reassurance to a non-bio-mom who voices any anxiety or struggle with her place in her family, that she is “different than the bio-mom, but that doesn’t mean she is less important.” This “Different but Equal” refrain really drives me crazy, especially when I look around at our families. Most non-bio-moms do take on a different role than the bio-mom, but you’d be hard pressed to call it equal in many cases. More non-bio-moms are primarily breadwinners, which, while certainly valuable to support the family, does usually result in less direct contact with their children. More non-bio-moms lose custody in case of separation or divorce. I am not saying this about all two-mom families; there are certainly families where non-bio-moms do plenty of parenting, even so-called primary parenting. But I’d venture that on average, non-bio-moms have less contact with their children than bio-moms. If time represents relationship (and I’d argue that it does to a first approximation), non-bio-moms are not on equal footing, even if you ignore the legal strikes against them (or rather, against us).

Even though I really hate the “Different but Equal” refrain, I’d be hard-pressed to say that my relationship with Leigh wasn’t different than Gail’s, at least during early infancy. So even though I get annoyed by such statements, I also sort of agree. But if I truly believe I do have a different and equal relationship to Leigh, even though she didn’t grow inside me, even though I didn’t nurse and nourish her as a baby, and even though she does not look a bit like me, there must be something else that I offered her. What is it? What is the “something extra” that I gave to her, that she wouldn’t have gotten in a family with only Gail as her parent?

This has been eating at me for years. Sure, I can see my influence in her mannerisms, the clarity with which she expresses herself, her bull-in-a-china-shop quality, her overt enthusiasm, and her love of connecting with all kinds of people. But none of that seems quite like the answer. The other night, though, I realized Gail had finally figured it out. What I offered to her, that only I could offer her, was my choice. I chose to parent her, and chose to love her deeply, despite a multitude of pressures that said either that I shouldn’t love her, or that I was unnecessary. Some of those pressures said explicitly that I’d damage her by my mere presence (those coming from, say, the religious right). Some of those pressures were more subtle, like the ones that said it wasn’t important for me to take leave to spend time with my new infant, or the ones that said if I pushed too hard to feed her or spend too much time with her, I’d take away from her all-important “primary” bond to Gail, resulting in some sort of vague but longstanding psychological damage. It is precisely the central challenge of being a non-bio-mom, the need to choose to parent your child, that makes the bond special. To spin something precious out of what looks and feels like nothing at the outset — no pregnancy, no genetic link, no nursing link, no overt need on the part of your child — is truly a gift to your whole family, and it is a gift that only you can give them.

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