The fact that my son has two mamas does not mean that one of us needs to take on the role of father.
In the early years of our son’s life, my partner Valerie and I struggled at times to define complementary parenting roles. As lesbians, we did not fit neatly into traditional mother-father gender definitions. This fact gave us greater freedom to define our relationship with one another and with our son in a way that suits our personalities instead of social norms. But the better path is not always the easier path. Finding our way as co-parents put us in some uncomfortable situations and made us targets for some unwelcome advice.
In the beginning was the birth mom vs. “other” mom dichotomy. We did not impose this bias on ourselves, but rather had to escape various social pressures. Our son Bobby was born into a roomful of doctors. With a serious heart condition diagnosed in utero, he was immediately swept up by a team of neonatologists for examination. After they determined he needed no immediate intervention, I approached, asking to see him, but was told, “No. We’ll bring him over so his mother can hold him.”
My partner did not love maternity leave. Our infant son was in congestive heart failure, waiting to gain enough weight to be safe for open heart surgery. He only left the house for doctor’s appointments. Valerie is a restless soul who likes to be on the move. I am a home body. Throughout those first three months, I was jealous of her ability to stay home with Bobby and she longed to return to work like I had. The fact that only she qualified for maternity leave imposed an unwanted division of parenting upon us.
Post-maternity leave, we hired a nanny. Neither of us was happy leaving our sick child with even a well-vetted stranger, so I worked from home as much as possible. When Bobby had doctor’s appointments, the nanny came with us to care for him so Valerie and I could ask our questions. After witnessing these parent-doctor interactions for several weeks, our nanny gave me some advice. “You need to take a step back,” she said. “Be more of a father and let Valerie be the mother. She gave birth to him. Bobby will always have a stronger bond with her.”
We never bought into it. I mean, I felt like Bobby’s mother. During his repeated hospital admissions, I spent weeks at his side, managing doctors and talking to him over the rails of his hospital crib. After his first heart surgery, when the ventilator and chest tubes were finally removed, I held him until my arms were numb, so happy to see the look of relief on his face as he felt a mama’s touch for the first time in days. Valerie was there too. He needed us both. We both needed the other to help us get through. It was all-hands-on-deck parenting.
Bobby is 7 now. Where once we were exhausted from caring for his medical needs, we are now exhausted trying to keep up with our active boy. As Bobby’s health improved, we modified our parenting style away from crisis health management and toward the goal of a happy, healthy life for all three of us.
Bobby still sees half a dozen medical specialists on a regular basis. He has weekly after-school therapies. He is depleted at the end of the day and needs an early bedtime. When we were a two-income family we could have hired a caregiver to manage his after-school activities, but then we would have only spent an hour or so with him at the end of the day. So I left a job in corporate America that I hated so I could be the person to greet Bobby at the end of his school day.
Because I am home so much, I do the household chores—the laundry, the cleaning, all of the miscellaneous drudgery. It’s not my favorite, but I much prefer doing it as my “job” during the weekdays then squeezing the same chores into evenings and weekends on top of a paying job. I now also have time to write, something that feeds my spirit.
For her part, Valerie enjoys the fact that these tasks are done while she’s out of the house. With her to-do list shortened, weekends have become a time for our family to have fun. Valerie is also often able to take a few hours to herself. Our lives are by no means free of pressure, but the tradeoff of my salary for more time together has been wonderful. We know we are fortunate to be financially able to make the exchange.
Bobby benefits in that he spends more time with both of us. The best part of my day is when I pick him up from school. His smile of delight when he sees me assures me that this is the right thing for him, for me. We go to appointments, go home to play, eat dinner. Most days, he follows me around the house, enjoying the closeness and attention. Then Valerie comes home and he completely ignores me, so happy to have his very best playmate with him. Watching the joy in both their faces again solidifies for me that this is the right solution.
Or, I should say, the right solution for us. I don’t believe any one configuration of childrearing is “best” in a universal sense. Parent satisfaction has to be taken into account. If I pined to return to my old career, I would likely be less present for Bobby and the value of my staying home would fall. Our configuration works for us because Valerie and I are both satisfied with how we have divvied up the work. Valerie wants no part of being a stay-at-home parent. I have never regretted my decision to leave the workforce.
We need to stop forcing parents into predetermined roles. This is not just an issue for same-sex parents, but for every type of family. We have to be free to do what works. The fact that Valerie is Bobby’s birth mother is a unique connection that they share, but that connection did not transform Valerie from a woman who likes to be out and about to one content to stay home with a child. My lack of biological connection to Bobby does not preclude me from being nurturing to him, from being the person responsible for the bulk of his day to day care.
The fact that Bobby has two mamas does not mean that one of us needs to take on the role of father. Bobby has a working mama and one of the stay at home variety. He has yet to log any complaints.
Anne Penniston Grunsted writes about parenting, disability, and family life from her perspective as a lesbian mama. She has been published in The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Mamamia, and won the 2014 Nonfiction prize from Beecher’s Magazine. She lives in Chicago with her partner and son.