Making Room In Mother's Day For My Two Mothers

There is no “incorrect” way to be a family.
05/13/2017 03:36 pm ET Updated May 19, 2017
William Haefeli/The New Yorker

Mother’s Day is always a little strained for me, in part because my mom passed away when I was nineteen, just before my sophomore year of college. My sister, three years older than I and newly married, received a gift from one of her in-laws.

It was a book entitled Motherless Daughters, intended to help her cope with this loss.

“But I’m not motherless,” my sister protested. “I’m just down one.”

A macabre joke, to be sure, but accurate. We had been raised in a loving two-parent home in rural New Hampshire, the perfect picture of a traditional American family - except, of course, that our parents were never married, because they were both women.

New Hampshire had passed marriage equality a few months before my mother’s death, but it didn’t go into effect until the following year; too little, too late.

But even before my mom lost her drawn-out battle with cancer, Mother’s Day was a little strange for me. Starting in kindergarten, I was different: everyone else made a single flowerpot or finger-painted card and knew exactly who they would give it to the following Sunday. On occasion, I would be allowed to make two of whatever craft was in the lesson plan, but usually there weren’t enough supplies, and so my mothers would have to share.

I imagine that on their list of daily concerns, this was pretty far down, but I always felt a little bad about it. (On the flip side, when Father’s Day rolled around, my handiwork always read “Grandpa.”)

It took me until college, until the larger legalization of same-sex marriage, to routinely disclose to people I met the whole, beautiful truth of my family.

The more difficult part of all of this was that I had to lie about my family constantly. At the time, both my mothers could have legally lost their jobs if the nature of their relationship was known publicly (a problem that still exists in far too many states). I’m sure it was something of an open secret among adults - this was a small town, and one of my mothers was the phys ed teacher at our elementary school while both coached our various sports teams.

Everyone knew that my sister and I had two moms. Our peers, ever curious, would ask why our family was different than theirs, and we would lie to them, saying that the mothers who raised us were roommates.

There was little in the cultural zeitgeist at the time to suggest there might be any other option: Ellen DeGeneres hadn’t yet come out, and unlike today, there was certainly no children’s programming featuring (or even mentioning) same-sex parents.

I wouldn’t try to pretend that I had the perfect childhood - such a thing doesn’t exist, and my family had its fights and problems like any other.

But the deepest stresses of growing up were directly related to the fact that I had to lie at every turn about the (overwhelmingly positive) reality of my home life. Even when you can see with your own eyes that there’s nothing wrong with your family, having to lie about it makes you feel ashamed deep inside.

I want to be very clear on this point: I was never, ever ashamed of my mothers. Both women gave their time and their love to our family and the larger community. Indeed, when my mother passed all those years ago, her funeral was standing room only, filled with former students and athletes she’d coached, some wearing years-old jerseys in a tribute to the love of the game she had imparted on them.

On Mother’s Day... consider extending your love and support to all different kinds of families.

No, it was the lying that tore at me. An action made necessary under the threat of my parents’ livelihoods being stolen, but an act of dishonesty all the same - and it weighed on me. It took me until college, until the larger legalization of same-sex marriage, to routinely disclose to people I met the whole, beautiful truth of my family.

The basic facts never changed: my sister and I were raised by two mothers who loved us, who drove us to school and made us eat our vegetables and ensured we did our homework and who in general did everything they could for us, just as any parents should.

What changed was the legal protections that were suddenly available to my family, too. Protections that some states are even now trying to strip away from millions of families like mine.

I often reflect on how sad it was that my mother never lived to see marriage rights extended to her, and then to the entire country. But on the flip side of that, I hate that we’re currently living in a time when so many are fighting to take those rights away. It enrages me that the vice president of the United States (along with various others in the current administration) thinks that LGBT+ people can and should be “cured.”

I also know this isn’t the only battle to be fought: with our very democracy at stake every day, how do we triage our resources? How do we fight for the greatest numbers of vulnerable Americans?

I understand that everyone has different ideas, different priorities, but on Mother’s Day (affectionately written in my family as Mothers’ Day), consider extending your love and support to all different kinds of families.

Families with two mothers or no mothers or a mother who might be incarcerated - there is no “incorrect” way to be a family, and the implication that there might be hurts millions of children before they can even articulate why.

Mother’s Day has always been somewhat fraught for me, and became even more so when one of my mothers passed away. This Mother’s Day, after I send small tokens to my mother and my sister (now a mother of two herself), I’ll be sending donations to some organizations who fight for families like mine and families fighting battles I can’t imagine, because I believe in extending compassion to as many as possible as often as I can.

It’s what my mothers taught me.

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