To celebrate Pride Month, we’re spotlighting a trove of queer parenthood writing and focusing on one specific author’s take on “Becoming a Family.”
Jennifer Berney’s new memoir, The Other Mothers: Two Women’s Journey to Find the Family That Was Always Theirs, is a candid and moving examination of her own path to motherhood, along with her wife Kellie, that takes on the homophobia of the fertility industry and wrestles with her own allegiance to the genetic ties that ostensibly “make” a family. It represents one model of a burgeoning genre that at long last diversifies the prototypical ‘mommy memoir’ through the neglected lens of LGBTQ motherhood/fatherhood/parenthood (also see Nancy Reddy’s “We Need to Talk About Whiteness in Motherhood Memoirs”). We urge you to read The Other Mothers and other titles that I’ll list below. But first, I’m discussing an earlier essay that Berney published in 2019, titled “Becoming a Family.”
In this piece, Berney catalogues the joys and challenges of her first and second pregnancies produced through sperm donorship yet also ruminates on the status of “biological” motherhood and fatherhood:
“Who’s the dad?” is a question friends of friends ask at parties when they learn that my children have two mothers. It’s a question that distant relatives ask, eager for the inside scoop.
The idea that my son doesn’t have a dad, that it is indeed possible to not have a father, is a hard thing for people to wrap their minds around. They may understand the process of donor insemination, but still, they think, because conception requires sperm, every child must have a father. Even for me, it creates a kind of cognitive dissonance. When I say that my child has no father, I feel like I’m not telling the whole truth.
Their donor was not anonymous--they met numerous times and had eventually become friends with him, his wife, and their children. The two families became intertwined support systems. She notes, “I found something deeply healing in having an extended family that was at once chosen, but also truly family, tied by blood.” But Berney also wondered about Kellie’s connection to both of their sons, who lacked any genetic relationship to her. She was legally designated the adoptive parent. While Berney had served as the gestational mother in both pregnancies, Kellie had taken up the more conventionally masculine role of renovating parts of their home, doing yard work, as well as daily caring for their children, post-birth. Berney realizes that “we’d been trained to see blood as a legitimizing factor, trained to understand that blood equals family. Like many queer families, Kellie and I, while challenging this notion, unconsciously embraced it. … What does it mean to my family that Kellie shares no DNA with our children? Does it mean next to nothing? Or does it mean more than I want to admit?”
As an adoptive parent myself, I am keenly aware of these biologically-centered myths about family ties. They’re deeply rooted and difficult to transcend. I admire Berney’s decision to expose this common belief while also acknowledging its nuances. After ten years together, fearful of Kellie’s response, she bravely asks her wife how she actually feels about her “other mother” status in their household, reporting, “She feels secure in her own attachment, but the role the world assigns her is a tenuous one.” Drawing on Barbara Katz Rothman’s argument that society’s obsession with genetic connections is “patriarchal”--where “blood ties indicate a kind of ownership,” and where “the work of nurturance is not accounted for”--Berney comes to see its continuing presence even in feminist, progressive communities: “We’ve learned to be careful, when speaking of adoptees, to use terms like “birth mother” instead of “real mother,” acknowledging that genes and gestation are not the only thing that make a parent real. And yet, when someone does say “real mother,” we know exactly what they mean.” Mothers like Kellie indeed “know” the implications of that term (as do gestational mothers who have had children taken from them or have arranged for them to be cared for by others).
Near the essay’s endpoint, Berney takes up the dilemma of family histories-- specifically, her wife’s: “It’s not quite clear to her: Is her history their [children’s] history, or is it something else? … Does her history matter to our kids because it’s their mother’s history, or because it is, somehow, their own?” Citing geneticist Graham Coop’s argument that “‘“many of your ancestors make no major genetic contribution to you. ... Genetics is not genealogy,’” she proposes, “[w]hat if, more than heredity, families are really a collection of stories, some of them spoken, some of them withheld?” She concludes with a vignette centered around her mother-in-law, who often compares her grandsons’ physical and emotional traits to relatives on her familial side: “I used to think she was forgetting that our children are donor conceived, or maybe just being silly. Now I realize it’s the opposite. ... She’s claiming them: tying her family’s present, past, and future, like stringing lights around the branches of her family tree, affirming that we belong to one another.”
Explore these additional LGBTQ motherhood/parenthood memoirs:
Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
Paige Schilt, Queer Rock Love: A Family Memoir
Cheryl Dumesnil, Love Song for Baby X
A.K. Summers, Pregnant Butch: Nine Long Months Spent in Drag (comic)
Nikkya Hargrove, Mama: A Black Queer Woman’s Journey to Motherhood (forthcoming)
Krys Malcolm Belc, The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood
Jennifer Finney Boylan, Stuck In the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders
Cherrie Moraga, Waiting in the Wings: A Portrait of Queer Motherhood
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