Queer mothering in a straight world: AMIRCI Conference Paper

This weekend I was lucky enough to attend (some of) the AMIRCI conference on Feminist Futures (parenting and work commitments meant I didn’t get to be there for the whole three days.)

I delivered a paper on queer motherhood and here ’tis for your non-conference-going pleasure. If you’ve been reading Spilt Milk for a while you might recognise the opening paragraph but the rest is all new content, I promise.

***

One of my daughter’s favourite games is to construct a pillow fort of sorts; a pile of soft furnishings and fluffy toys on which to luxuriate. She dubs this created space Comfy World, and vociferously claims it as a space for her only. (Usually to say to my partner and I that we have to stay ‘over there’ in ‘tuchus world’!) Who knows what lies beneath a child’s imaginative play? But I can’t help but wonder if my kid is really acting out her own alienation from comfort.

For the first four years of my daughter’s life I was, to the casual observer, a straight woman. That is to say that for her formative years, our family fit the social norm. Her family structure — mum, dad, kid — was represented in almost every picture book, almost every television programme, and was replicated in almost all of the suburban homes around her. Our family was visible, in that we were allowed to be seen anywhere, and invisible in that we appeared so normal as to be entirely unremarkable. And like so many couples, we were afforded a level of comfort that we took for granted even as it demanded a certain amount of silence about how very unhappy we were.
After we separated, my ex came out as a trans woman and in the same year, my female partner moved in with me. Our daughter, quite suddenly, found herself with three mother figures, no dad, and none of the comfort in social interactions that she had been accustomed to. My partner and I couldn’t move out of the suburbs, and we didn’t have the funds for alternative or home schooling. There was no choice but to interact with a large, quite conservative, outer-suburban state school during what was both my daughter’s first year of school, the year I came out as queer, and my ex’s year of transition. School is not the only institution we’ve dealt with; the wrangling with Centrelink, DHS, the family court, Medicare… any bureaucracy you can think of, has reinforced the idea that our family is not normative enough to be accepted. But this paper will largely focus on the school experience, in part because it is the most relentless and in part because, as a teacher, I am acutely aware of the forcefulness with which queerness is suppressed in classrooms.

Many people who describe themselves as ‘tolerant’ draw an intolerant line when it comes to children and education. There is a palpable fear that teaching about the existence of non-normative families will break down the apparently fragile institution of hetero-patriarchy. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wryly observes in Epistemology of the Closet ‘Advice on how to ensure your kids turn out gay, not to mention your students… is less ubiquitous than you might think. By contrast, the scope of institutions whose programmatic undertaking is to prevent the development of gay people is unimaginably large.’ I wish much had changed since Sedgwick penned that in 1990: in the realm of school, not a great deal has.

I have joked to friends that we will love our daughter even if she turns out to be straight. It’s a line that generally falls flat with a straight audience; they are never sure, perhaps, if I mean it. I can’t really be suggesting that heterosexuality is somehow taught, can I? That it is somehow part of the curriculum?
I would argue that it is very much part of what schools aim to teach. Why else would educational institutions so enthusiastically promote social norms which exclude queers? My own teaching colleagues have criticised my decision to tell my students my partner’s name, Emily, as it’s too much information about my sexuality; straight colleagues wear wedding rings or take the title ‘Mrs.’ Facebook memes celebrate ‘mums and dads’ kissing in front of the kids to show them what loving relationships are like; television programmes depicting same-sex kisses are firmly placed in later timeslots to ‘protect children’. Kissing my partner in the supermarket attracts disgusted glances from people who steer their children quickly away; a family wedding with children present can include more than one gently ribald reference to the wedding night or the honeymoon. In short, heterosexuality is relentlessly advertised by those who practice it; queer sexualities are always taboo in ‘family friendly’ spaces.
Our efforts to protect our daughter from bullying have centred around attempting to have the school do the work of explaining the gender transition of one of her parents and that she, like many other Australian children, lives at home with two mummies. Without institutional support, our daughter has to deal with intrusive playground questioning on her own. As a five or six year old, she has been responsible for introducing not only her peers, but much older students, to the existence of trans people and same-sex parents. Our efforts to have adult staff members shoulder this burden in her place have largely failed. I think this is because the school management persistently frames this teaching as part of the purview of sex education. The fear that to acknowledge queerness exposes the reality of sex underpins the erasing of queer and trans identities in children’s spaces. In this way, educators engage in farcical pretense, upholding the myth that they don’t have queer children in their classrooms. That one in ten students – and unknown numbers who love and live with queer and trans people — can’t see their own feelings and identities reflected in class materials should not be so quietly accepted by those who are charged with the care of our children.

One of the ways we’ve tried to support our daughter in her dealings with institutions is actually endorsed by a number of Government and educational bodies: recommending books and classroom resources to the school. After our daughter experienced bullying at school, we duly went along to a meeting with the principal with a pile of texts to offer to the class teacher: 10 000 Dresses, Tango Makes Three, My First Look at Same-Sex Parents and the classic, Heather Has Two Mommies.
The First Look book, with its explicit use of the words lesbian and gay and frank discussion of how to deal with homophobic bullying was rejected outright, presumably as too hot to handle. Ultimately only Tango Makes Three – an adorable and wholly innocuous book about two male penguins raising a chick at the New York Zoo – made it into the prep classroom. This was a pretty minor concession. But it did make a difference; my daughter told us that at least the teacher asked children about the differences in their families — she was able to say that she has two mummies out loud for the first time within a context which affirmed, momentarily, that not all families look the same.

I was surprised, though, and have become increasingly dismayed, at the failure of our school and school in general to adopt a book like Heather Has Two Mommies as a regularly-used resource. Heather is a classic for a reason: not only does the book depict a loving same-sex couple as parents, but it places this within the broader context of family diversity. Despite the potential for the genre to spark change, literature for very young children remains relentlessly hetero-patriarchal. I’ve never seen anything in a Scholastic catalogue which openly deals with stepfamilies or even single parent families, let alone extended families, foster carers, gender diverse people, or queer families. So I think there is more than homophobia behind the discomfort with Heather and her parents, Mama-Kate and Mama-Jane. What Leslea Newman very gently challenges in her landmark – and still beloved – children’s book is not only homophobia, but a range of normative family structures. The children Heather meets inhabit stepfamilies, extended families, single-parent families, adoptive families encompassing a range of racial identities, abilities and, perhaps, socio-economic backgrounds. And there is a kid with two dads, too – a little girl without any mother at all.

In her book Queering Motherhood, Mothering Queerly, Shelley Parks explores what she calls monomaternalism: that is, the assumption that all children can only have one ‘real’ mother. This pervasive idea leaves stepmothers in the unfortunate position of having to either usurp a biological mother to attain ‘real’ status or exist in the no-woman’s land of the unreal mother. The dynamic works similarly for adoptive, or foster mothers. The legacy of this is a pattern of serial mothering; one ‘real’ mother is replaced by another ‘real’ mother, and thus becomes unreal. If hetero-patriarchal culture does rely on an understanding of motherhood as an expression of mono-maternalism – and Parks writes convincingly that it does in fact do so – then queer mothers problematise not only the notion of a heterosexual nuclear family but the institution of motherhood itself.

My daughter enjoys Heather Has Two Mommies and keeps returning to one page in particular. Sometimes she spontaneously quotes from this page of the book as she hugs my partner and me, as if she is working hard to displace one set of beliefs and internalise this new, radical viewpoint. It is the section of the book where Heather presents both of her mothers with pictures of them she’s painted at daycare. She says of the picture of Mama-Kate ‘This is the mummy I love the best!’ and of Mama-Jane ‘And this is the mummy I love the best!’ Heather, having grown up presumably from birth in a queer family, has resisted the pull of monomaternalist narratives, to a degree. But what is expressed in the book at this moment is an acknowledgement that to have more than one mummy is to have more than one ‘best’, more than one of the special relationship that children are generally taught is a one-of-a-kind experience. To be the child of lesbians is to negotiate the discomfort of having the archetype of the singularly perfect, good and loving mother exposed as incomplete and misleading from the beginning. Queer families problematize hetero-patriarchy not only by foregrounding same-sex love and expanding the definition of family, but by de-centering the ‘real’ mother.

I believe it is this discomfort with the possibility of two or more real mothers which has made it difficult for us to negotiate the spaces of the school drop-off and the parent-teacher meeting. Not only do we raise the spectre of queerness each time we are visible at school (and my partner and I hold hands in front of the children, no less!) but we also challenge gender roles by existing. The other suburban mums we know do mum things, and most of them have husbands or partners who do dad things. I am generally seen as the ‘real mum’ in public interactions and gradually, as initial discomfort with my queerness has worn away, there has been a place for me to inhabit in the social dynamics of the school yard. But for my partner, there is rarely any respite from the bristliness of those first weeks; no one knows how to talk to her. If she’s not a dad, then she’s a mum. But she’s not, in the eyes of many others who know that I am the birth mother, a mum. She’s invisible because there is no role to play in hetero-patriarchy for another ‘real’ mother.

Sara Ahmed’s work on ‘Queer Feelings’ in The Cultural Politics of Emotion resonates strongly with my personal experience of interacting with institutions as part of a non-normative family. Ahmed says ‘normativity is comfortable for those who can inhabit it…to be comfortable is to be so at ease with one’s environment that it is hard to distinguish where one’s body ends and the world begins.’ When straight parents – and I am talking mostly of married, able-bodied, white parents, although heterosexuality affords a certain level of ease to all who can claim it – enter an institution such as a school or kindergarten, the space is oriented towards and for them. At my daughter’s school, everything cries out in welcome to straight parents; from the casual address ‘mums and dads’ to the heterosexual romance plot of the school production, straight lives are affirmed and reflected back to children and their parents again and again.

I know it is easy to sink so comfortably into a chair that is built for you because when I was a married mother who was read as straight, the efforts made to make heterosexuals comfortable were less visible to me. I still felt discomfort; the discomfort of ‘passing’, and of benefiting from an arrangement which simultaneously silenced and hurt me. But it was only when I came out to my daughter’s carers and teachers and fellow parents that the sharp edges of heterosexism came into focus. Coming out late in the parenting game is like solving the world’s least rewarding Magic Eye puzzle. All that staring at the gaps in your own comfort can only be rewarded by bringing the extent of homophobia and biphobia into sharp relief.

Ahmed describes the discomfort a queer subject experiences in heteronormativity as a ‘feeling of disorientation: one’s body feels out of place, awkward, unsettled.’ In this sense, having queer parents has queered my child. I observe a new lack of ease in her body whenever she is in public with her family, and most particularly, when her parents are at school with her. She knows, acutely, that school is not a safe space for queer feelings. At the age of six she is afraid of homophobia and transphobia, phenomena she can’t yet name. And the failures of institutions to protect her from this problem – which, incidentally, they apparently also can’t name – only compounds her discomfort. My daughter’s not-fitting-in is attributed to her when the school recommends she see a counsellor rather than educating her classmates about LGBT issues. Implicitly, it is always her body which must re-shape to fit the heteronormative armchair proffered by the school, not the furniture itself which should move to accommodate her.

In spite of, or probably because of, this lack of comfort, my daughter clings to her recollections of an idealised (and largely fictional) past where she inhabited a happy mum-and-dad family. It is hard to imagine how she could not do so, when almost every text she consumes reflects back to her not images of her present but of her past. The only way she can relate to the majority of the textual representations of childrens’ lives that she is exposed to is to delve into memory and constantly strive towards a fantasy of cis, heterosexual normality. This is painful to witness not only because it reinforces the marginalisation of us all as queer or queer-adjacent subjects, but because on a material level it affects her ability to maintain uncomplicated attachments to her family. As Lauren Berlant argues in her book Cruel Optimism ‘all attachments are optimistic. When we talk about an object of desire, we are really talking about a promise or a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make for us and make possible for us.’

On some level, what my daughter wants is for us to promise her comfort. We can’t; this world doesn’t offer it to our family. And so even though it hurts her, she seeks out reminders of what she has lost, borrowing books from the library with titles like ‘What does your Daddy do?’ and acting out ‘mums and dads’ in imaginary play. Berlant asks, ‘what happens when the loss of what’s not working is more unbearable than the having of it?’ That’s not a question I can answer. I can only hope the future becomes less unbearable. For now, my daughter suffers a cruel optimism fostered by a culture of heteronormativity which actively harms her and her family.

What is needed is a refiguring of the role of schools in dealing with LGBT issues. When we hold hands and behave as a couple in front of small children in the school yard, my partner and I are merely repeating behaviour that heterosexual parents take so much for granted that is barely visible to them. Far from being intruders into the space of the school yard, my partner and I are being intruded upon by the normative demands of heterosexist attitudes. Where are the efforts to provide us with comfort? And more importantly, where is the affirmation for our daughter that she is right to live and love as she does, in her unconventional family?

In a conference about feminist futures, I feel like I can ask for a better future for queer children and children with queer families, despite how unlikely it is that schools will be providing this under the purview of Education Minister Pyne. That Pyne has appointed Kevin Donnelly – whose anti-queer writings are widely accessible online – to head up educational ‘reform’ does not bode well for queer students and families. And, like many schools, ours has an ACCESS ministries chaplain from a homophobic evangelical church and with the present funding model, the chance of us getting a secular social worker instead are less than nil. I am tired of the blithe inattention of the majority of heterosexuals – that is, the majority of parents, school council members and teachers – to the pernicious influence of homophobic chaplains and curriculum leaders on queer students and families. We are left with little institutional and social support. It is insufficient to pay lipservice to tolerance whilst benefiting from the comforts of heteronormativity: we require straight allies to challenge schools and institutions to include families like ours.

We can’t change social norms all on our own, but what my partner and I do each day when we queer up the suburbs is claim a little patch of space for us. The promotion of heterosexual and gender normative futures to school children is disrupted by our presence. My ex also disrupts when she enters the school grounds and visibly plays the role of affectionate parent; not one generally associated with trans women who are still so maligned in the media.

Emily and I take inspiration from our daughter’s Comfy World play in deciding to mark out some comfortable place for ourselves. Holding hands at school pick-up, attending parent-teacher night as a group of queer women, expecting that adults use the gender-neutral ‘parents’ instead of the exclusionary ‘mums and dads’, and putting bumper stickers on the car are small ways to demand that the suburban furniture fits OUR queer bodies for a change. Reclaiming this little bit of space doesn’t feel anything close to restoring social comfort; if anything, pushing at the boundaries of suburban heteronormativity is far more discomfiting for us that it ever could be for the straight folk we encounter, who after all remain in a world which validates their relationships. But it’s a step towards a future where queer kids and kids with queer families can find the world comfy in more than just their fantasy play.

 

Ahmed, Sara    The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Routledge, New York, 2004
Berlant, Lauren     Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press, 2011
Park, Shelley M.     Mothering Queerly, Queering Motherhood: Resisting Monomaternalism in Adoptive, Lesbian, Blended and Polygamous Families, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2003
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky     Epistemology of the Closet, University of California Press, Berkely, 2008 (1990)

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Parenting through obesity panic

Will I look like you when I grow up mama?
Maybe, I say, steeling myself.
Good! she says, skipping out of my arms. Relieved, I catch her back and squish her tight against my ample chest.

***

One day my daughter will tell me she is afraid of being fat.

***

Am I pretty? She nods, says yes without hesitation.
Am I clever? Yes. Happy? Loved? Healthy? Do I have a job, a family? A wonderful kid? A partner who loves me? Yes, she says, all yes.

Am I fat? This time she doesn’t answer.

Yes, I am fat. I am fat and I am beautiful and loved and I have a good life. Some people make out that if you are fat you can’t be pretty and you can’t be happy. It’s not true.

It’s not true.

***

School has been pretty heavy with the obesity rhetoric. Public institutions always are; we are in the midst of a war on encroaching fat, goes the story, and children and parents are on the front line. Bean comes home talking about ‘good foods’ and ‘bad foods’ and we work hard to undo this labelling. There are foods that make you feel sick if you eat too much, my partner and I tell her. No foods are bad, we say, but it’s not good to eat too much of one thing. We discourage her from gorging on sweets by saying that sometimes if you eat sugary things instead of more substantial foods, you won’t have energy later, or your tummy will feel sick. Still, I worry that we are losing at teaching her to maintain her natural child’s inclination towards intuitive eating. Already she views dessert as the premium prize, sugary sweets as rewards and bribes, some food as ‘junk’, ‘healthy’ food as inherently less appealing. Combating school and advertising and conflicting messages from other adults is just as difficult as other parents will tell you it is, and I can see the task getting harder even as the stakes get higher.

At almost-six, Bean is well aware of the imperative to be pretty. She performs her femininity in broad strokes: dresses, long hair, rejection of play that is coded as masculine. And, increasingly, she grooms and preens and worries about her appearance.

I know that pretty soon this will translate to worrying about my appearance. Bean has started to laugh at my large belly. She tried calling me fat as an insult during an argument, but I just laughed, so she knows that one doesn’t work. But despite her fierce love for me, her delight in the squishyness of mama-hugs, she is aware that I inhabit a stigmatised body.

I’m not offended. I am more than robust enough to take second-hand playground jibes from a child.

But I am anxious. I don’t know, and no one can know, what shape and size her body will take on in time. Even if she does not incline towards fatness, Bean will no doubt hit a chubby phase as a pre-teen, as many kids do as their bodies prepare to unfurl in puberty. It is already patently obvious that I can’t protect her from the message that it is not okay to have a body with more than a certain amount of adipose tissue. This terrifies me because I love her so much that I don’t think I could bear to witness her hating herself.

***

Can I stand on the scale, mama?
Do you know how much I weigh, mama?
How much do you weigh?
Do we have scales in the bathroom mama?

***

Bean can recite with accuracy to the kilogram how much she weighs, and how much my ex weighs. They have a bathroom scale ritual. My ex models diet culture with a weight chart on the wall. At shopping centres, Bean asks for money for the scales to weigh herself more than for any other ‘amusement’.

I say no but I struggle to explain why.

My partner tells her that weighing oneself is boring. I say that it’s not important, that she is more than a number, that what the scales say doesn’t tell her anything worthwhile.

I want to tell her it’s because she is breaking my heart. I want to tell her it’s because I have taught girls with anorexia and bulimia. I have watched their bright eyes fade, their ideas and writing falter, the gnawing in their guts fail to drown out the pain in their skulls. Right there in the classroom, I have watched them gradually dying.

***

I am afraid that fat or thin my daughter will fail to grasp how much her vitality and pluck, her bold voice, the poignant beauty of her young skin, adds to the world. I am afraid that she will feel the need to make herself small — physically, or otherwise. Girls, after all, are not meant to take up too much space.

***

We don’t spend money on fashion magazines, or Barbies and Disney princesses, or consume commercial media, or dwell at the make-up counter. My partner and I introduce Bean to friends with values that align with our own; women with intellect and independent spirits, women who critique and reject some of the pressure to conform to beauty norms. We express our femininity in fluid and individual ways. We talk about why we make the choices we do, and emphasise that they are choices. We like pretty things; we are more than pretty things.

I hope there is refuge in this.

***

Do I look beautiful mama?
Do you know what is beautiful? Your big kind heart.

***

At the same time as the media tells women we are all ugly, all too huge, all in need of expensive ‘treatments’, it directs mothers to model good self esteem for daughters. Body image advocates stress that mothers should avoid ‘fat talk’ around their kids, lest they pass on their hatred of their minor body ‘flaws’ to impressionable youth. There is no space to talk about what happens when mums are fat, when their bodies are unmentionable.

Bean’s parents inhabit aberrant bodies. We face stigma and revulsion. Comfort with our bodies is a hard-won luxury that is repeatedly challenged whenever we leave the house, turn on the television, go to the doctor. Avoiding negative self-talk is all very well, but what of cultural negativity? What of fat stigma, what of transphobia?

In seeing the beauty in each of us, Bean is enacting radical body positivity each day.

She will be challenged on that, too. Almost nothing, almost no one, will affirm her admiration for her parents and her acceptance of our bodies.

If she makes it through without feeling the need to strive even harder for social approbation than the average teenager, she will prove to be even more amazing than I already know her to be.

***

Again, we stand together in front of the bathroom mirror.
I hope I look like you when I grow up, mama. Beautiful mama.

***

My ever-beautiful Bean.

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I like my body when it is with your body

My lover says I am tiny. She is tall, so even with my not too scrappy 5′ 7″ and my somewhere-around-120 kgs, she can make me feel little. We discovered this the first time we made love; her hand here her mouth here and everything a perfect fit. Ease. I feel it when I adopt a child-like snuggly posture against her and her arms fit easily around me. When we dance in the kitchen and the inside of my elbows rest on her waist like they were meant to be there, the feeling of being right-sized frees me.

I’ve always been big, you see. Felt ungainly, conspicuous, too much. Always too much until now.

We are supposed to love ourselves. Somewhere between self-help books and liberal feminism lies the rhetoric of body image and self care. Platitudes about living mindfully in one’s skin, being gentle with oneself, celebrating individuality, finding ‘inner beauty’ sit alongside both the cynicism of beauty short-cuts and the politics of female empowerment. It’s feminist to love yourself. It’s also, conveniently, supposed to make you more fuckable.

What we forget sometimes, is that love is not distributed equally. Not everyone was taught that they were worthy of love.

Those of us with marginalised bodies and identities have heard it before; you will be happy if you love yourself. You will be loved if you love yourself. You will be more attractive if you just believe in yourself.

This message still spreads as insidiously as those fake weird tips to lose belly fat fly around the internet. But it seems to me that it is most often those coming from a position of recognisable lovability, if not fuckability, who are saying this. Married women. Celebrity women. Economically powerful gay men. Syndicated columnists. Comfortably middle-class white women. Dove commercials. Unsurprisingly, from fat activists, trans writers and disability activists a more nuanced discussion emerges, one which leaves space for ambivalence towards bodies which sometimes hurt to inhabit.

And yet, I do love myself and my body. I like my body when it is with [her] body.

Sex is transformative and creative and, yes, personal, but also radical. Also political.

Our desire is not meant to be spoken. Women have always had to struggle against the rules of propriety — of patriarchy — to speak of real passion and of sexuality that belies their agency. Especially when their passion is enacted outside of marriage, outside of heterosexuality, outside of beauty norms, outside of prescriptions of many kinds.

But I am a writer and so is my lover and she inscribes her desire on my skin, and words will find a way to rise to the surface.

Love binds us. It drives us to face up to bigotry. It inspires work; the work of thinking and writing and creating is fueled in partnership. It helps us to create family and community. It makes us glimpse our best selves and strive to reveal them again and again.

And ours is a physical love, as much as it is a literary one. There are as many different ways to love and have relationships (or not have relationships) as there are bodies and hearts to inhabit them. All I can speak of is our way.

If to love your body is a necessary goal (and I am not convinced it always is) then it is certainly one that is easier to reach when you have help. I love, because I am loved. I am worthy of touch, because I am touched. I embrace my right to pleasure because I am given pleasure.

Sometimes, talk of falling in love skates close to boasting; or worse, over-sharing. The acronym TMI is short-hand for cultural discomfort not only with bodies, but with emotions. And I am well aware that our stigmatised bodies and our queerness, even our age and maternal roles, mean that there is even less space afforded to my partner and I to tell our truth. Millions will sing along as Beyonce and Jay Z proclaiming drunk in love we be all night but few will want to hear of this fat suburban mum staying up late, intoxicated by her lover’s touch.

I write this anyway.

From the beginning, we joked that each time we fuck is a radical act of body positivity. To say publicly and unabashedly that we do fuck, a lot, and we love it, is more than too much information; it’s a challenge to patriarchy and cis supremacy and heteronormativity. And it’s beautiful.

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A good mother?

It’s a cliche to talk about how brushes with death, serious illnesses, trauma, give one a new perspective on life. It’s a cliche because it is true. There is nothing like a proverbial wake up call to make you clutch your child more tightly to your chest.

Earlier this year, I nearly lost Bean. That is, bureaucratic wheels were set in motion which could very well have resulted in her removal from my care. I am reluctant even to admit to that. To say, out loud, Child Protective Services investigated me. The urge to provide mountains of evidence to support the notion that this was unnecessary and inappropriate is strong.

Here are photographs of my perfectly livable house and well-stocked fridge! I want to say. Here is Bean’s body, healthy and bruise-free. Here is an email from the school social worker, noting how happy and well-adjusted she is and how positively she talks of her home life. Here is an example of my sensitive parenting, of the guided meditation I have written for her to help her gently ease to sleep. Here is a chart of all the hours I spend parenting, wiping up her sick, changing wet sheets at 2 am, taking her to appointments, deferring to the health professionals. Here is Bean spending her weekends drawing and reading and being taken to art galleries and sitting down to family movie night with something G-rated and homemade popcorn and a family cuddlepile. Here is me (and my partner) getting her to school on time every single day with breakfast in her belly and a freshly washed uniform and her homework supervised and excursion form signed and her healthy lunch and her piano books ready for the lessons we pay for, and her comfort blanket. And everything. Everything she needs and much of what she wants.

The truth is that all of those things, although they mean everything to a child’s well-being, would mean nothing here, where readers will judge according to their own presumptions. And they meant little at the point of crisis. I know, because I am told, and because through common-sense observations I can see, that I am a ‘good mother’. I also know it’s relatively easy to be a ‘good mother’ if one is white, English speaking, read as middle class, the recipient of an expensive education.

The yardstick I go by is whether Bean is secure in the knowledge that she is loved deeply and has a safe place to be. So far I do well by that measure.

How does a ‘good mother’ find herself subjected to social worker visits, pressure to end a relationship, and the demoralizing experience of having a tiny twenty-two year old tell me that I’m failing at mothering because I’ve not got my five year old to sleep without nappies at night?

Around twenty percent of parents in Australia are coping with a mental illness at any given time. It’s unclear how many children live with someone who has a chronic or ‘serious’ illness, but it’s a fair chunk of that twenty percent. In all but the most debilitating cases, it is unreasonable to remove a child simply because they might be exposed to crazy people. Crazy is everywhere, and it doesn’t preclude one from loving, from the right to love, nor from the right to be a parent.

But resources are stretched and those families who are unlucky* enough to come to the attention of CPS, who require significant support, are vulnerable to decisions which favour expediency. That is, where there is another parent who can provide stability without ongoing use of department resources this may well be a favored option.

My own mother had her parental rights terminated. It was argued in court that she was an unfit mother (and yet, they left my half brother in her care because there was no father to claim him). Certainly my mother needed support and perhaps psychiatric care. In 1981 it must have seemed a much better outcome to place a child permanently and solely with her sane and respectable father than with her flighty, mouthy, promiscuous (by conservative standards) mother.

It chills me to realise that it is probably only my education, my unimpeachable whiteness, my willingness to cooperate, my economic means, and the department’s likely prejudice against Bean’s other parent which meant that it took only a week after I had a very public episode of acute mental illness to get my kid back into my home.

As a mother who lives under the shadow of devastating mother-loss, knowledge of the slim (but nevertheless very real) possibility of losing Bean was itself a great trauma in the midst of other traumatic events. The fear that Bean, too, could grow up motherless is a spectre whose haunting of me has not ended.

I am writing this now from safety. My recovery from illness and from the fall-out was necessarily swift, in part because of my need to be a well parent. My partner is here with me and we are living and loving and mothering well. And there are no bureaucratic wheels left turning; I have been examined and found to not be wanting.

Even so, it is difficult to write any of this. It is a kind of grieving, having to accept the precariousness of even the most deeply cherished parts of our lives. And it is a trauma made worse by silence: my own, through fear of speaking, and others’, in apparent or actual complicity in my suffering.

I am a ‘good mother’, as are the other mothers I know.

But I was ill, and I had been traumatised both recently and in the past, and I lost my mind. It was right that people made sure that Bean was safe and our home a stable one, but the process was isolating and threatening.

So I am writing, as I always do, through this grief. Having one’s mothering — so tied up with identity and so ripe for self-doubt — scrutinised by people who have the power to alter the course of your life is not the kind of parenting experience usually blogged about. I no longer want to carry this experience as an unspoken weight. The social costs have been punishment enough without factoring in the personal cost of keeping silent about my illness and about the consequences of being crazy and queer in a still-unfriendly culture. Stigmatize me if you will. Or else, hold someone precious to your chest, as I have done, and marvel at the simple wonder of being allowed to love. Of blessings given freely and never taken away.

* I say ‘unlucky’ here in reference to families like ours where there has not been violence, abuse or neglect but authorities become involved for other reasons. We hear reports almost daily about children who have suffered appalling neglect and abuse who would have been ‘lucky’ to have been saved by child protection from further suffering but who were not, for whatever reason, given sufficient attention. And so obviously CPS workers are vital and they should be better resourced and work under more sustainable conditions.

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Love story

I write a lot about love. I believe fervently in the centrality of love; what is mothering, but the work of love? What is feminism but a life ethic — a love ethic? What is grief but a leaking out of lost, missed, or broken love? What is fat activism without a call for radical love, love of oneself and others?

But I have not written, here, of my lover.

Most of my writing on this most precious of loves, this fervent and brilliant and life-changing love, has been private. To her I write all of my secret words. Whisper sweet everythings. Compose bare poetic couplets. And of course this is how it is, ought to be, with lovers.

There is still the desire to make open proclamations, though. And there is perhaps an imperative to share.

If the personal is political it is still so when the personal is joyous. Our stories are not only valuable when they are painful, although I have always written more extensively about pain.

Even though I met my beloved in unconventional circumstances and even though our relationship moved quite swiftly and even though we’ve encountered some external pressures — or perhaps because of those things — I have uncompromisingly expected others to recognise this as a meaningful and profound relationship to me. Just as meaningful as a heterosexual relationship. Just as meaningful as one with a more conventional trajectory. Just as exciting, affectionate, positive, with as much potential.

Insisting on that has not always made me popular (which is a glib way of saying that it has cost me a great deal in ways I am not yet ready to speak about). And it’s not always been possible; just yesterday an ostensibly accepting acquaintance who’d met us both at the same time and as a couple referred to my partner as my ‘special friend’. I’ve never heard such a condescending term applied to a man — or anyone in a heterosexual relationship.

The ways in which other people devalue queer relationships is a stark reality; my marriage was read as straight and I feel the social differences as tiny cuts each day. But that is not what I want, need, to say now about love.

Love is a revelation. How do I put into words the momentousness of experiencing someone else’s skin as raw joy pressing against me, without gauche sentimentality or discomfiting over sharing? Perhaps I can’t. Perhaps the question is not how, but why — why explain these things?

There are not enough narratives for people like me, like us.

There are not enough queer stories.

There is too much pressure to maintain the just good enough, sometimes relationship that’s socially sanctioned. Where there is no evidence that more is possible, this pressure comes from within too. Unhappy marriage is a heavy trapdoor to shoulder open for too many women.

I am a fat, queer, mentally ill mother in my thirties. I am invisiblised. Desexualised. Devalued. My body, my desires, my emotional needs and those of my partner, are treated as disposable, unimportant, ridiculous — even repulsive. And yet.

And yet here we are. Obstinately visible. Insistently affectionate. Unexpectedly steady.

And yet here we are, suburban mums making school lunches and doing laundry.

And yet here we are, sometimes experiencing discrimination on multiple fronts, sometimes struggling with illness, but finding safety in love’s embrace.

And yet here we are, writing about romance.

And yet here I am, growing into my skin. Skin turning permeable as lungs, making love like it’s breathing. Breathing in the certainty of improbable love.

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Please, won’t somebody think of the children?

In recent months I’ve seen same-sex marriage described variously as: a niche issue; a darling of conservative governments and therefore the enemy of radical queers everywhere; a sure-thing within a generation; another failing of the Gillard government; a politically expedient strategy for Rudd (and that turned out so well!); a fond wish; the ‘fashion of the moment'; another reason to move to New Zealand; unimportant because de facto couples have rights anyway; a ticket to bestiality; a basic human rights issue.

I’ve read tweets and blogs and op eds and overheard students say ‘yeah, of course I believe in gay marriage’. Since the election I’ve heard dismay about the new government’s expected failure to improve — or even maintain — LGBT rights.

But I haven’t had any chats about marriage equality at school pick-up. My mothers’ group friends aren’t sharing articles about it on social media. I haven’t seen Michael Carr-Greg or Pinky McKay or whoever else currently passes for a parenting expert doing the morning-show rounds about the issue. And I certainly haven’t seen any young people given a platform (beyond youth media like Triple J) to talk about what marriage equality means to them.

When heterosexual couples reach a certain age or relationship stage it is expected that they will start planning for marriage-and-babies. Long term de facto couples regularly announce a wedding timed for just before they want to ‘start a family’ — any time friends in their thirties announce wedding plans it’s taken as a sure sign of cluckiness. It is widely accepted now that a woman needn’t acquire a husband before getting up the duff and yet, for so many heterosexuals, the plan to ‘settle down to have kids’ implies matrimony, not simply cohabitation. It seems to me that the Marriage and Babies Boxed Set is still far more popular than the less traditionally packaged version.

The reasons for this are many, and they are not all about tradition or religion or social class. Despite the quite strong legal protections enjoyed by cohabiting couples in Australia, there is still some legal expediency attached to marriage, especially if a relationship ultimately breaks down if one spouse is dependent and/or there are children. And there is no doubt that being married ensures that everyone: bureaucrats, police, CPS workers, school principals, doctors, lawyers, even family members, takes your relationship status seriously.

More powerful even than the legal ramifications of marriage, though, is the social imperative. Unwed mothers (a term that itself exposes the othering of single mums) are often treated less well, even by healthcare providers. I’ve known pregnant women, too swollen to wear a wedding ring, who’ve been shamed and scolded by the pathologist performing a routine blood test and random people in cafes: in each instance the women chose to assert that they were really married, pointing to the wedding band temporarily worn as a pendant. The temptation to assert one’s right to breed whilst unwed is easily trumped by the need to seek shelter in heteronormative symbols. And understandably so.

Kids frequently start play-acting weddings in toddlerhood. Bean has expressed a desire to live alone as an adult but she still talks about wanting a wedding. And sometimes, she asks me to get married again.

I haven’t told her that I couldn’t legally marry my partner. Shattering her fragile ignorance of the extent of the bigotry her family faces would break my heart. Soon enough someone will tell her that Mama and Ima can’t be married like most of the other parents and step-parents she knows. Like all kids, she has an easily mobilised outrage switch: I expect she’ll rail against the injustice. But she’ll also have the sensation that I feel every time my relationship is devalued or erased or vilified. The sensation of a thousand tiny voices whispering ‘you are less than us.’

It is hard enough to get Bean’s teacher to acknowledge her queer parents — it is very clear that even in the 21st century mainstream schools are heavily invested in teaching heterosexuality. And what chance do we have, even as feminist killjoy parents, of meaningfully counteracting the relentless messaging about marriage? Bean loved the wedding in her school’s recent production of Cinderella. She’s dead keen on happily-ever-after.

Twenty percent of queer couples are raising kids. I’m sure not all of the children sense a lack of social recognition or stability due to their parents’ inability to legally marry, but I have no doubt that many do. Importantly, their peers who have straight parents also lack the unequivocal signal sent by wedding rings and the terms ‘wife’ and ‘husband’. Children may have access to ‘Tango Makes Three’ but they are not missing the meaning behind the ongoing denial of recognition faced by same-sex couples. Less than married (or potentially married), less than ‘normal’, less than equal. Is that how we want same-sex attracted youth to envisage their future? Conservatives and bigots are not afraid to use children as an excuse for their hatefulness: does the left want to leave a gaping vacuum where positive discourse about what family diversity could mean for children should be?

I know that realistically, marriage equality is off Australia’s agenda for at least the next few years. But it shouldn’t be off the minds of straight parents.

Someone has to think of the children.

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Mothers’ Day mourning

Mothers’ Day tastes of grief, to me.

I went to a teeny rural school. The other kids came from conservative families, traditional, married parents in stereotypical gender roles. My family was likewise conservative but there was one stark difference: my parents were divorced and I did not have — at least visibly, for the purposes of tuckshop duty and sports day cheering or even braiding my hair — a ‘real’ mother. I was teased for it.

Ours was a thrown-together family; my stepmother and father married suddenly when I was barely five years old and it never really felt like she fit into a maternal-shaped space in my life. So each year when we crafted glittery cards and picked chrysanthemums from the school garden for our mummies in that first week of May there was a hollowness in it, for me. Not that I didn’t love and appreciate the woman who fed and clothed me and administered band-aids; of course I did. But it was ambivalent love.

A wounded child needs her love to be unflinchingly returned. That is what we mean by the unconditional love of good mothers: it is not just that they love but that they know and accept children in all their faltering fragility, and that they know, most of all, that affection offered however ungracefully by a child is not a thing you should swat away. I saw my stepmother extend openness and warmth to her biological children but not to me, and that is how I learned to feel a little bitter about the chrysanthemums. (It was only recently when I saw how my own daughter was embraced by my partner in a starkly different way — different because my partner is consistently open and kind and loving with Bean — that I understood more fully the pithy root of that bitterness.)

When I was a child pretending to be normal at school, making a Mothers’ Day card was not optional. Ambivalence was not tolerated. Compounding the hurt was the failure of those around me to acknowledge that I had suffered any meaningful loss. My biological mother had wrenched herself from having a permanent presence in my life with such brutal surprise that there had never been time, or permission, to grieve. Everyone around us had rallied behind my father; they had pitied him in his imprudent first marriage and I grew up with the implicit knowledge that my dad was a good person and therefore my mother must have, somehow, been bad. I was not meant to cry over a bad person.

It’s not so simple. If she was, is, anything, it’s closer to broken than bad.

As an adult I became more cynical about Mothers’ Day. It’s a commercial invention. It makes money from the perpetuation of the myth of the perfect mother and the infuriating pinkification of everything. If you watch the TV commercials, it’s apparently about receiving slippers and nightgowns — or worse, domestic appliances — as if they magically compensate for being the designated toilet-cleaner for most of one’s life.

Of course, there are families for whom Mothers’ Day is an opportunity for genuine expressions of love; the kind that could come on any day but so often get lost in the rush. These are families I have struggled not to envy, pushing down the unbearable feeling of missing-out with critique and yes, cynicism.

It’s a hard day for a lot of women, certainly for anyone coping with infertility or pregnancy loss. When I desperately wanted a baby and was facing month after month of negative pregnancy tests, Mothers’ Day ads with images of fresh-faced children offering burnt-toast breakfasts in bed had me sobbing. It pretty much felt like a conspiracy designed to torment people like me: not only motherless, or childless, but both.

I guess I thought that a baby of my own would anesthetise me against the pain of past Sundays in May. And don’t mistake my meaning: Bean and the day she was born and everything about her is my Best Thing. Mothers’ Day gifts and cuddles are blessings like gifts and cuddles on any day are. And tomorrow I will steal a little of her weekend with her dad to smoosh her to my chest and catch a bit of joy.

But the joy of mothering, though healing, cannot really compensate for motherlessness.

I have a maternal shadow over my life: shadow, because it is absence more than presence that causes the greatest pain (although both of my mothers have inflicted pain more directly, too). It is hard to write about this loss, about the way it seeps into everything, the way it never fully recedes, without sounding ungrateful for the blessings I do have. It is difficult to admit the depth of my pain without seeming melodramatic. But I persist in trying to express it because I know there are others feeling it too.

On social media at this time of year, we motherless women huddle together in a wary kind of sisterhood.

I wish there more spaces for us to carve out alternative narratives to counter the nauseating Hallmark celebration of mundane maternal stereotypes. And mostly I wish there was safe harbour for those of us who find the bombardment of reminders of what we lost, or never had, particularly cruel. I am thinking of the abused and abandoned, the aching and bereaved. I am thinking of the lonely and bitter and grief-stricken ones. Lost girls. Adult orphans. Cast-offs from a would-be chain of maternal inheritance.

Solidarity, sisters.

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Filed under Feminism, mental illness, Motherhood and Parenting