By Sarah Viren
The second grandma to sit beside us on the plane leaving Dallas smelled like a dimly lit bar, but she had a sweet smile, and when she poked her finger into my daughter’s belly fat, I assumed she had good intentions.
“I’ve got two grandbabies myself,” she told me, and I smiled because I could tell she wanted me to.
Also, I was relieved. Our daughter wasn’t screaming, and somehow we’d found ourselves next to two adoring grandmothers on our three-leg flight from Lubbock to Philadelphia that Christmas.
I found myself alone with our daughter and the dimly lit bar grandmother, who had clearly decided that I was the rightful mother to our child.
The first grandmother, on our flight to Dallas, was Mexican-American, and had complimented me on my Spanish. Whenever she had a question about our daughter, though, she almost always looked at Marta. At first I assumed she just felt more comfortable with Marta, the native speaker. Later I realized the truth was much simpler. She just hadn’t registered that I could also be our daughter’s mother.
The second grandmother had much more in common with me. We were both native English speakers. She was from Dallas, and I was born there. I agreed that her favorite movie star, Brad Pitt, was good looking.
Soon Marta was leaning back from her upright position, and I found myself alone with our daughter and the dimly lit bar grandmother, who had clearly decided that I, and not Marta, was the rightful mother to our child. But when our daughter tired of my lap after ten minutes or so and wanted to sit with Marta, the grandmother looked surprised.
“Which of you is the mom?” she asked.
“We’re both the moms,” I said.
There was a long pause. The grandmother looked confused, or maybe defeated.
“Well,” she capitulated. “She’s pretty well adjusted.”
Her pause reminded me of a similar moment ten years earlier. I was in my twenties then, single, living in Galveston, and working my first real job as a newspaper reporter. In the mornings, I went to a gym downtown, and one morning I was running on a treadmill next to a crisply tanned woman in her late thirties who was sweating on the adjacent elliptical machine. We were both watching the news when a segment came on about Proposition 2, the state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage then up for a vote. The news report ended with footage from the wedding of two men. The woman on the elliptical machine turned to me.
“Isn’t that disgusting?” she asked.
I’d been thinking about work, not marriage equality, so it took me a moment to figure out the referent. Once I realized that it was me she had just called disgusting, I couldn’t think of anything say.
“No, it’s not,” I finally sputtered.
She looked surprised but didn’t respond. We motored on, the two of us, silent on our individual machines. To anyone walking by the gym’s wall of glass windows at that moment, we probably looked like sisters. We both had long blond hair. We were about the same height. Our bodies were thin and athletic.
Is that person’s conception of what a woman or mother is broadening? Or is her understanding of who I am being circumscribed?
The news changed subjects, but I was stuck in that moment, trying to think of a better response.
“I’m a lesbian,” I finally said.
The pause that followed was shorter, but still palpable. I assumed she wouldn’t answer. I imagined the disgust she must feel toward me, and I felt smaller knowing I could disgust someone I didn’t even know.
“Oh,” she eventually said. “I’ve never met a gay person before.”
Then she apologized.
I think about those pauses a lot. I know a realization is taking place, but I never know the character of that realization. Is that person’s conception of what a woman or mother is broadening? Or is her understanding of who I am being circumscribed?
When I was single and childless, I thought about this less often. For one, I came out to fewer people. After that first newspaper job in Galveston, I later worked at the papers in Corpus Christi and, finally, Houston. I wrote hundreds of articles in that time, and interviewed just as many people for those articles—small town cops, suburban teenagers, duck hunters, and, once, a “former” gay man—but I can’t remember once coming out to someone I interviewed. They never asked, and I didn’t tell them. I worried that doing so would create a barrier, make a source or subject trust me less. In my personal life, I was more forthcoming, but, again, the subject came up less often.
I felt newly freed by the decision, as if at part of me, of all of queer families and couples, had been put on pause for years.
Having a child, though, forces disclosure. People in the supermarket ask about your husband. People at swim lessons ask which of you is the mom. My hairdresser the other day, once I told her I was married to a woman and that we had a child, asked whether my wife had been inseminated or not. I told her the truth, and later Marta chided me for revealing too much about our family.
Sometimes it’s hard to know where the line is. Living in West Texas, I feel an obligation to educate people, like this hairdresser, who clearly knew little about families like ours. But other times, as Marta argues, it’s just none of their business.
After the Supreme Court overturned all gay marriage bans last week—including the one passed in Texas soon after I came out to that woman on the elliptical machine—I had a strong urge to come out to strangers I passed on the street, other parents I saw at the park. I felt newly freed by the decision, as if at part of me, of all of queer families and couples, had been put on pause for years while we waited for the country to say, “Oh. I’d never met a gay person before.” And then apologize.
But another reason I wanted to come out in a more public way was that I felt defiant, because as I write this, Lubbock County, where I live, is still refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. And as I write, it is still legal in this state and many others to deny someone a job based on sexuality or gender identity. And so it still often feels like we are in a moment of cultural pause, as those around us decide whether or not we exist.
When we got back from Philadelphia after that three-leg Christmas flight, it was still too cold in Lubbock to go to the park or play outside. So I took our daughter to the local children’s museum one Sunday afternoon. She was about eighteen months then and the museum’s different stations had suddenly become fascinating: the fake grocery story, the fake veterinarian office, the fake news anchor’s seat, and, her favorite, the water play station. While we she was throwing some plastic balls into a stream of water, I overheard another parent speaking to his son in Spanish. When they got a little closer, I asked where he was from.
“Argentina,” he said. “And you?”
I told him I was from “here,” by which I meant the United States, and he asked where I learned to speak Spanish, though I knew he really wanted to know why I was speaking Spanish with my child.
“Her other mother is from Spain,” I said.
There was a pause.
“So are you Spanish?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “But we speak Spanish at home.”
I hoped that might clarify, but he still looked confused, and eventually we changed the subject.
Afterwards, I realized that I should have just referred to Marta as my wife. I had tried to speak like a heterosexual might, to offer the equivalent of “her father is from Spain” by way of explanation, but it didn’t compute.
Because a pause is also a lack of language. And as families, though we have gained so much recognition in recent years, we still lack language to describe ourselves. We are same-sex couples, yes, but we are not all same-sex families. We both may identify as lesbian parents, but we are not a lesbian family. The terms “alternative families” and “rainbow families” are used occasionally, but the first sounds like a 90s grunge band and the second like we’re Care Bears.
My favorite option so far was one Marta unintentional invented. When we moved to Lubbock from Iowa two years ago, she was filling out registration forms for daycare and asked me to look them over for mistakes. Beside the question that asked, “Is there anything special about your family that you’d like us to know,” she’d written that we were a “bilingual and homoparental family.”
Sometimes I feel like we are a face with two noses.
I was tired that day. We’d moved cross-country and our daughter wasn’t sleeping well. It was scorching in Lubbock, the wind blew harder than I knew it could, and I worried—more than I should have, I now realize—that our family would face jeers in the street, harassment at restaurants. Something about the absurd perfection of Marta’s neologism made me laugh.
“What?” Marta asked.
“Homoparental is not a word,” I said. “But it should be.”
Homo: same. Parental: Relating to parents. A homoparental family, then, is simply a family of same-gendered parents. That’s what we are. Or at least that’s what feels unique to me about our family in the day-to-day. Not that we’re lesbians, but that we’re two moms trying to figure out how to be two moms in a world that often fails to recognize us both as parents—or cannot stop staring as we stroller by.
Having language to describe ourselves, after all, is what makes us real. After our daughter was born, we came up with names for her to call each of us. Marta wanted to be Mamá, and I decided on Mom. For almost a year we used those titles with each other until, one day, our inventions become reality. The first time my daughter called me Mom, I felt legitimate in a way I never had before. A thousand grandmothers on a plane could doubt me, but that one word from her mouth made me real.
These days, our daughter is into the number two, and so whenever I ask her how many moms she has, she says, “Dos!” I then ask her how many noses she has, and she says, “Dos!” with exactly the same certitude and excitement.
Sometimes I feel like we are a face with two noses. But more often, I relish the inventiveness of our homoparental family.