I just finished reading the new book by Amie Klemnauer Miller: “She Looks Just Like You: A Memoir of (Nonbiological Lesbian) Motherhood.” Now, to be clear, we don’t buy books. We live as a family of four in a 650 square foot condo and we do not consider any but the most important reference books to merit shelf space (instead, we think of the library as our personal free bookshelf). So it tells you a lot that last week Gail surprised me with a gift of this book. Come to think of it, we don’t really give gifts either, so clearly, this was a big deal.
Now, regular readers also know I have a somewhat complicated relationship with the available literature out there for lesbian moms, and non-bio-moms in particular. I’ve read as much as I can get my hands on, and have never seen more than the faintest shred of my experience reflected in print (which, come to think of it, is why we write here). Most of what I do find, just ends up pissing me off. But Amie Klempnauer Miller’s essay in the Confessions of the Other Mother was one of the few places I felt I connected, and so I was excited to read what she had to say in a longer form.
Overall, I wasn’t disappointed. I had a few quibbles here and there (I know she was trying for a general audience, but sometimes it read little like a remedial text on “Here’s How Lesbians Have Babies” for straight people — I forgive her), but the writing was clear and honest, and she really got a lot of it right. (And here, by “right,” apparently I mean “noticed the same things and felt the same way while her partner was pregnant and her daughter was tiny as I did”). I’ll stop short of a full review, but I will say that if you are an expectant lesbian mom (bio or non-bio) this is worth the time to read, perhaps even ahead of the Other Mother Anthology, though I’ll begrudgeingly admit the anthology contains a broader range of experiences. It just happens that some of them make me angry. I guess you should probably read both of them. (And, of course, our entire blog).
But what I really wanted write about was just a few sentences in Amie’s epilogue. Way at the end, long after the story of pregnancy and her first year or so of parenting, now that her daughter is at the ripe old age of six, she writes:
“I sometimes wonder how relevant it is anymore that I am Hannah’s nonbiological mother. I’m not sure that it makes any appreciable difference in our daily life, but still, it does matter, at least to me. I’m not a paternal stand-in, not an extension or replication of Jane. I am Hannah’s Mama, and that is something different form the other categories, something that is distinct from mother and father, something that is new in the world.”
When I read this, it was one of the few places in the book I bristled, albeit perhaps on a technicality, since reading between the lines, she and I likely agree about what’s at the core of this paragraph: that traveling this path, as a non-bio-mom in a two-mom family, through pregnancy, birth and infancy, marks you. It permanently shapes your place in your family, your relationship with your child(ren), your position in the world of parenting and in the fabric of society. It’s subtle, but it’s there, like looking through sunglasses, or maybe like having subtle x-ray vision.
So where did I disagree? When she writes that she is “something that is distinct from mother and father,” I fear she cedes the role of mother to her partner. She seems, despite staying home full time with her daughter throughout infancy, and still doing the “primary” parenting, to hold the assumption that central to the definition of “mother” is the idea of one. Her partner, by virtue of giving birth, is both “Mommy” and Mother. While she remains only “Mama.” Now, part of what she seems to be saying is that she claims this as something new and wonderful, and there we would agree. But instead, I would say that I am mother to Leigh, heart and soul, and was long before I gave birth to Ira and became a bio-mom myself. But I’d say that special non-bio-mom heart, that “Mama-ness,” is perhaps like a “special sauce” added to my motherhood (see here for a related take on this). And finding that space, finding room in “mother” for two of us, was a job that Gail and I both took on. It was not mine alone. We are both mothers. And we are both much more than mothers.
When I read this clip to Gail, she bristled at something different, and that was at the idea that she would ever in a million years consider herself anything like a father to Ira (Amie draws comparison to the experience of fathers throughout the book, especially during pregnancy, and I think she does so rightly). Gail insisted, that no, it was more like being a cross between a “standard” mother and an adoptive mother, at which point I told her she was pretty much off her rocker, and that you can’t experience pregnancy and infancy as a non-bio-mom without sometimes feeling, at least a tiny bit, like a father. Amie writes about scouring the parenting books during pregnancy, for anything that might speak to her, and coming away with a book for stay-at-home-dads. I had exactly that experience. I still remember the cover of that book from the library (blue, with a stock dad & kid walking into sunset photo). Gail reports feeling less of an affinity for dads, although she says she can empathize with them as fellow NGPs.
But Gail’s and my experiences of non-bio-mom-hood were very different. When we were expecting Ira, she was already very much a mom. It was hard and complicated for her in a whole host of interesting ways particularly after he was born, but she didn’t spend 9 months in that strange liminal space, that no-(wo)mans-land of parenting, swimming between any vaguely relevant categories (Mom? Adoptive mom? Dad?) all while your partner is already forging a bond with your child and you have no idea who you will become. Now, of course no parent really knows who they will become, but I think it might be that time of not knowing, in this largely invisible way, that makes this particular mark, that adds some of this “special sauce” and “Mama-ness” to our parenting as non-bio-moms. Now, I’m not saying Gail doesn’t have it, but I do think she has something a little different. Maybe she can tell you what it is once she reads the book.
But for now, I’ll just say, do read this book, and Amie Klempnauer Miller, if you’re reading, I hope you can handle the mild ribbing. The book was great and I’m really glad you wrote it.
(Also note, Amie expands a bit more on her ideas on this at her blog here.)