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What Makes a Mother 'Primary'?

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The role of "mother" is a central experience in a child's life. But a mother needn't be biological; it's a very special role that a child assigns to any primary caregiver: a grandparent, an adoptive parent, a father or, in the famous children's book about a lost baby bird, a steam shovel. But in lesbian relationships a child has two mothers, and here's the thing about the role of "mother": It's only big enough for one. As much as I wish it were otherwise, in lesbian relationships one partner tends to be seen as the primary mother, while the other partner takes on the role of the "other mother."

I've been writing here about the experience of being the "other mother" for just about a month now, and I've been overjoyed at your support but also concerned about the misconceptions of this experience. What is the "other mother"? How does the role develop, and where does it lead? Here I'll do my best to answer just a few of these questions. But please let me know your experience! Let's work together to explore what it means to be the "other mother."

Is the biological mother primary by default?

Despite the leanings of the court, the biological definition of "mother" doesn't hack it in the modern world. Consider adoption, surrogacy, alternative insemination and even partner-assisted reproduction -- in same-sex or heterosexual couples! How the heck do you determine the primary parent if not by biology? This is something for our community to consider very carefully, because, as we know, adult relationships don't always last, and provisions need to be made for the "just in case." At the very least, for the sake of the children as well as the for sake of the "other mothers," parenting shouldn't be undercut by divorce. When all things are equal and all parents are competent, caring, loving, and involved, why can't society and the courts switch from presuming that the biological parent is primary to presuming that both parents are equal? If this starting point needs to be adjusted, great. But let's start with parental equality as the default.

Is a stay-at-home mom necessarily better or more primary than a working mom or other parent?

I can certainly see how this came about: In earlier decades stay-at-home moms, whether biological or adoptive, generally had less earning power than men and needed financial protection if husbands flew the coop. Though imbalance still exists, that's become less the case today, and both parents working, or nontraditional combinations of wage earners, mean that, rather than the biological mother, "other" mothers or fathers are staying at home after a child is born or adopted. Caretaking ability is not determined by biology. I know many stay-at-home dads who are the primary "mom" -- whether they biologically contributed to the conception of their child, adopted the child or used a donor's sperm instead!

Does the number of hours spent with child determine primary status?

Nannies clock time. Grandparents clock time. Some parents who are loving and involved have to work so that the other parent can clock time. Sometimes roles shift and the one who clocked time at home for the first couple of years goes back to work while the other mother/parent kicks in and starts clocking time. If you use the clock and the calendar, it will always be a snapshot, and "more hours" does not always mean deeper connection or primary status. If single moms are using daycare, is the daycare provider now primary because of the time clocked with the child? Get real. Spending time with your child certainly allows the opportunity to create a parent-child bond, but then it's what you do with this time that counts. It is quality, not necessarily quantity, that makes a mom.

Can parents switch roles?

The answer to this should be a resounding "yes," but all too often the answer is a definitive "no." What if the biological mother stayed home but then goes back to work and the "other" mother becomes the primary caretaker? Imagine the same in the context of divorce. In that case you have a biological mom who was also the clock mom, whose status as primary parent was reinforced by society and the courts, who may not collaborate well with the "other" mother. No matter what the experience of the child and the "other" mother may be, this is a tough pattern to break.

So what? Who cares? Why should there be a primary mother at all?

All things being equal, why can't kids morph their conception of "mom" to meet our flexible realities? As our life circumstances change, why can't out children's understanding of us change as well? How many kids are placed with parents based on antiquated rules, laws, and perceptions that biological mothers are primary by default? How many "other mothers" have been created by these rules -- the same rules that have negatively impacted equal fathers for decades? And is our community of lesbian parents ready to manage the reality that there is limited room for "other mothers" when the relationship ends and the "primary" evokes this heteronormative standard? I care, and I think you should too.