I was recently reading an article about queer parents, “(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter” by Stacey and Biblarz, and hit up against a not uncommon academic term for a lesbian non-biological mother — “social mother.” The whole time I was reading the paper (which is really good, by the way) I kept getting distracted and kind of pissed off by being called a “social mother.” So I started to think about why I was having such strong feelings and what I really want to be called.
There are those in the queer parenting movement that don’t like the term non-biological mother to refer to those of us who have children that are biologically related to our spouses. We are mothers, period. I’m certainly not going to introduce myself at the playground by saying, “Hi, I’m Gail, Ira’s non-biological mom, and Leigh’s biological mom. Nice to meet you!” Ugh. I’m Gail, Ira and Leigh’s mom. Enough said.
But sometimes it’s not enough said. If I want to think about or talk about the differences between being a mom who gives birth and a mom whose wife gives birth, I need a way to refer to specifically to these ways of becoming a mother.
Personally, I like to use GP (gestational parent) and NGP (non-gestational parent). We started to use this terminology when I was pregnant with Leigh and Lyn got a card from her dad in the mail which referred to how they were both going to be non-gestational parents. I like using NGP because it draws a link between being a mom whose partner gave birth and being a father. Non-gestational lesbian moms aren’t fathers, but we do have a lot in common with fathers, especially during pregnancy and infancy. We share an outsider status in our own families that we have to work to overcome. We share having roles in our families that the world often does not see or respect. So I like language that establishes that connection. I think using the term NGP can also forge a connection to straight women who have children via surrogates, and, in some ways, to adoptive parents. These are not the same thing as having your partner carry your child, but there are parallels that are interesting to explore.
At other times, I like to use the terms bio-mom and non-bio-mom, which are useful when I want to talk about lesbian mothers in particular. There is the problem, though, that both NGP and non-bio-mom are terms of negation, which does rankle. I’d rather be identified for something I am rather than something I’m not.
That leads directly to terms like “social mother” or “co-mother” that don’t have the problem of negation. I suppose that Lyn and I are co-mothers, and that’s a fine term, except when it is applied to the NGP alone. But it is useless for any discussion of differences between the experiences of two co-mothers, one of whom gave birth.
After reading the article that used the term social mother and being angry for a while, I finally figured out what was really bothering me. First, “social mother” is often paired with the use of “mother” for the other parent. If one parent is the “social mother” and the other one is the “mother” then you’ve got one “real” mom, and one mom who isn’t as important. Pairing “social mom” with “bio-mom” could avoid that issue. But the real problem I’m having with “social mom” is that being a “social mother” sounds like a permanent active status. Who am I? Apparently I’m Ira’s social mother, the mother that people recognize socially. That status is an on-going, permanent state. On the other hand, if I’m Ira’s non-biological mother or his NGP, then I’m his mother and I didn’t give birth to him. The modifier of “non-gestational” occurred while he was in-utero and being born. With that over with, the “non-gestational” or “non-bio” modifier simply gives you some historical information. I’m Ira’s mom, and if you want to know how I came to be his mom, the “non-biological” part tells you. But as a “social mom,” I feel like I’m always different, and frankly, always inferior.
Don’t get me wrong. I never forget, even for a moment, that I am Leigh’s GP and Ira’s NGP. I’m no more likely to do that than I am to forget for a moment that I am a woman. Not only that, I would never want to forget how either of my children came into the world. But on the other hand, it is not an important fact in our day-to-day interactions. It’s a part of our history and the kids’ histories, and it comes up sometimes when we think about traits Lyn and I share with the kids, but if I were writing a summary of important facts about our family for a friend, teacher, or babysitter, I certainly wouldn’t include who gave birth to whom.
So, as usual, I’m over analyzing, but that’s what we like to do here at FTST. I’d like to hear from all of you out there reading who are lesbian moms –what do you like to be called? In what context? I’d also like to hear from adoptive parents because I wonder about the use of “mom” versus “adoptive mom” and how both of those terms sit with you.
* Title edited not to imply an assumption all lesbian parents are co-parenting, thanks to lesbian SMC mom friend S for the heads up. (used to be “how do we refer to lesbian parents”)