Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
People in Your Situation


The evening of our first birth class, I gripped the steering wheel to the point of pain and told Morgan that I should have cut my hair. She folded her hands across her ever-growing belly as we slammed over Houston’s potholes toward our doula’s house. "If I just shaved my head," I said. "They’d know right away."

"You’d look ridiculous," Morgan said. She patted my knee.

I was hopeful we wouldn’t run into any fundamentalist Christians, but you never knew. It was Texas, after all. Be confident, I told myself as we pulled up to the curb.

Such confidence did not come easily. I’d spent years feeling invisible in my sexuality. I debated about embracing certain external signifiers, but mostly chose long hair, earrings, and low-key-yet-feminine clothing that allowed me to pass as straight. I felt guilty about this, yet it was simpler. Safer. And I had grown accustomed to it.

Then we got pregnant. More specifically, my partner was carrying our baby.

The nurses talked to Morgan, ignoring me or asking if I was her sister. It seemed that a line had been drawn in the sand. Biological parenthood fit on one side, while I stood on the other, and societal and cultural approval fell squarely with the former. I wondered whether my child would love me as much as he loved Morgan, whether her relatives would treat me as an equal parent, whether he'd long for a father, and whether it was true that Morgan would be transformed by hormones into a mythical mother bear.

The birth class took place in a 70s-era rambler with brown carpet and plenty of houseplants. I’d selected it because it was advertised as being "holistic," which didn’t seem like an evangelical adjective. Plus, it was run by our doula, Amanda, a touchy-feely natural birth advocate who likened labor to sex.

Amanda put out ice water in a tall pitcher, along with a stack of stapled packets printed on neon paper. Two mild-mannered straight couples greeted us with warm handshakes and extra-nice smiles. I felt sheepish. We talked about cloth diapering, and birth plans, and perineal massage.

It was familiar territory. My mother had bucked convention in the 80s and embraced natural birth and breast-feeding. One of my earliest memories is of my younger brother’s birth at home. Midwives attended my mother; we children flitted in and out, nervous about the guttural sounds, the tub of boiling water. Yet, while I knew about birth, I didn’t know about being the non-birthing parent.

Artwork by Juli Cady Ryan

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Getting pregnant had been a joint project, at first. Our clinic had the phrase "Women’s Specialists" embedded in its name, which would seem to promise the presence of at least a few lesbians, but no such luck. Our doctor called us "single women." He was better than the Tom Selleck look-alike we’d seen first, however. That doctor had laced his fingers around his knees, leaned back in his office chair, and repeatedly referred to us as "people in your situation."

When we were finally, truly pregnant, we screamed with elation. A kind, wild-haired midwife administered the first ultrasound. Our tiny peanut waved his arm and leg buds on the grainy screen, bouncing around Morgan’s uterus with something that seemed like glee.

It took another few weeks for the worry to settle in. I felt in between motherhood and fatherhood. Stateless. Nameless. "I’m the non-biological mother," I imagined saying to curious medical staff or extended family. It didn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
During subsequent classes at Amanda’s house, I gravitated toward the dads during the breaks. We joked about dull hospital tours, hormonal partners, and crib assembly.

"Are you worried about bonding?" I asked them one day. We were practicing putting a cloth diaper on a stuffed doll. I was considerably more adept at this, thanks to years of babysitting.

"No," they both answered, almost in unison. I envied their casual tone.

"How can I make sure I have a strong bond with the baby?" I asked my mom later.

"What do you mean?"

"You know, because I can’t breast-feed him," I said.

We’d been reading up on attachment parenting, which focused intensely on the biological mother-baby duo. It seemed at once progressive and anti-feminist. Dr. Sears and his ilk addressed "Dad" in an obligatory, patronizing way that embarrassed and annoyed me. At the same time, I understood that breast-feeding and baby care would require a lot of Morgan's time, leaving me to—what? Do the dishes? Make the money? As a writer and adjunct English instructor, I was hardly the family breadwinner.

I feared that bio-fathers could afford to be less involved, because they held the trump card I did not: genetic connection. If I didn't have a legally, biologically, or culturally sanctioned role, and I stepped back in favor of attachment parenting, then what would happen? Would I be a mother at all?

"Well, you’ll be changing his diaper all the time," my mom said.

"And?" I said.

"So that’s how you bond," she said.

Others reassured me that the daily work of parenting would obliterate my fears, but I wanted to hear this from non-gestational mothers, and I didn’t know any. I read blogs written by other lesbians trying to conceive or gestating babies; these were largely written by the biological mothers, and I read feverishly between the lines, seeking tidbits about how their partners were faring. I made lists of names. I researched baby gear and memorized pregnancy milestones, determined to inform away my fears about my role.

I ordered The Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy for Lesbians out of desperation, but it addressed, it seemed, a certain brand of single, middle-aged lesbians, not couples engaged in the endeavor as a unit. I closed it when I read the chapter about what to do after finding out you're pregnant. "At this point, you might want to tell your partner," the author advised. Meanwhile, the landmark essay collection about non-biological lesbian mothers called The Other Mother offered up stories about toddlers who loved their Boppy pillows more than their non-gestational moms. For all its admirable honesty, it terrified me.

At night, however, when I curled against Morgan's spine and rested my hands on her belly, the worries would fade. I began to feel our son’s movements beneath her skin. I sang to him. We tried out different names when we discovered his sex. A boy, I whispered to myself. A boy, a boy. It was a kind of incantation.

During our final birth class, we held ice cubes for timed intervals. This was to simulate the episodic pain of contractions. As the cold turned to a sharp, bright throb, I thought: what are we getting ourselves into?

I tried to imagine the baby, but I couldn’t seem to conjure him up. I kept clutching the ice, feeling stubborn about waiting out the pain. Morgan hissed through her teeth but held on just as tightly. I told her to breathe.

"I am breathing," she said, flashing me a wry smile.

"Me too," I said.

We soldiered through the end of the pregnancy in record-setting heat. Morgan devoured ice cream and watermelon. We waited, and we waited some more. His due date came and went. Every single day, we packed and unpacked snacks for the birth bag.

And then he arrived. Ten days past his due date on a hot, thundering afternoon, our son flew howling into our arms. It went faster than anyone had anticipated. He was born in the bathroom of a small birth center at a moment we were briefly unattended. Morgan reached down to grab him by the neck and we lifted him up together. That is the startling truth. For a few seconds, she and I held him like that, slippery, shouting, and still attached to his umbilical cord. Her face dumbstruck. My heart flopping madly in my chest.

"It’s the whole baby," I said to the midwife, who had come barreling in with towels. I cradled him to my belly while Morgan was stitched up, both of us too stunned to speak.

We named him Judah. It seemed both strong and gentle, a name for the ages.

Later, after friends and relatives had come and gone, I waited to strap him into his car seat. Morgan nursed him carefully. The room was dimly lit; evening had descended. I swallowed against the sudden threat of tears. I felt helpless, and tired, and proud of my wife, and distant from her. Indeed, I felt very far away from anything I’d ever known.

The midwife had swaddled Judah in two different receiving blankets, both fuzzy with age. That first night, we lowered him into his co-sleeper bassinet. Immediately, he wailed. I plucked him up and settled him on my chest. Cocooned against me, he calmed down.

From the start, he didn’t like to sleep. Morgan fed him; I burped him. We nuzzled his soft, wrinkled neck. We tried to soothe him with the White Noise app until its rushing crackle filled our dreams. The shower would silence him, so I often sat with him on the bathroom floor, letting the water run and the room fill with steam. We perched on the top step of our garage apartment with our infant propped on our knees, watching him watch the trees sway. We cried with exhaustion. We watched every episode of Mad Men while our son nursed himself into oblivion.

We owned a large blue exercise ball that had been purchased with vague thoughts of doing yoga. I’d swaddle Judah and bounce him on it for hours. To keep myself entertained, I’d read the titles of my books to him. Their spines faced me, untouched on the shelf. They reminded me of myself beyond that messy, sleep-deprived moment. My undergrad major in Latin American Studies, for example. My thesis on Cuban film. "New Latin American Cinema, Volume II," I would say to my son. "Memories of Underdevelopment." I adjusted him if he continued to fuss. My arms always ached. "Chicana Feminisms." I felt like I was underwater, looking up through layers of blue light at the life I had once occupied.

When Judah was two months old, Morgan left for a few hours to go to a friend’s birthday dinner. It seemed momentous. The baby devoured a bottle of pumped milk and started to cry. Nothing would soothe him. I tried the exercise ball. The shower. Going outside. Eventually I left him howling on the bed, and sat on the couch with my fists pressed to my eyes. I felt useless. Not only did I feel that I had failed him, but I was sure that I had failed my wife.

My worries about being a non-bio mom added a particular flavor to our disagreements. I didn’t feel that I had the authority or the legitimacy to disagree about co-sleeping, for instance. At the same time, Morgan wearied of my anxiety. "You read too much about this," she’d say.

Yet gradually, we found our rhythm. After Morgan went back to work, I held Judah through every nap because he wouldn’t sleep alone. I'd wrap him up tight and rock in the wooden chair, a novel propped on one knee. Or I'd put him in the Bjorn for urban hikes; he'd sleep with his head tipped backwards, or kick his legs and gurgle. I felt like I was going non-bio incognito. Strangers would coo and ask questions; I was quietly thrilled to offer them his birth weight or his age.

As Judah began to smile and interact, I loved to make him grin. I'd lay him on the bed and jostle him, saying "earthquake!" This cracked him up. At night, sometimes, he'd roll into my body and away from the breast. I'd wake up to his hot, quick breath, his fuzzy hair tickling my chin. There was a kind of unbearable sweetness to his tiny, sweaty form.

I still experienced moments of feeling like the "other mother," as I had during the pregnancy. When Judah had his first bad fever, we panicked and took him to Urgent Care. I filled out the paperwork while Morgan cradled him in the waiting room. I crossed out "father" and wrote "mother" underneath the blank for my name. The receptionist frowned at the form.

"Wait, so which one of you is the mom?" she asked.

"We both are," I explained. "He has two moms."

She paused. Her expression was not hostile. But the hair stood up on my arms. I braced for impact.

"We don’t really have a way to put that in the system," she said at last.

"Skip it then," I said. "Leave me off. We just want to get him in."

Some weeks later, at my grandmother’s house, a distant acquaintance exclaimed over Judah’s wide blue eyes. "He looks so much like you," she enthused.

"I know, isn’t it weird?" I said.

Her smile faltered, and I realized that she had no idea that I hadn't birthed him. I didn't clarify. It occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to let such moments pass when Judah got older.

When he was a few months old, I formally adopted my son as his second parent. At the time, only one judge in all of Texas would grant such adoptions, and he was a four-hour drive away in San Antonio. Judah screamed for most of the ride.

We put our son in his infant jeans. I straightened my hair. As we sat on the hard wooden benches with other queer families from around the state, the mood was expectant. Our baby was sound asleep in my arms. When it was our turn, we carried him up carefully and stood shoulder-to-shoulder, as if, in that critical moment, the judge might change his mind and try to separate us.

Instead, the judge smiled perfunctorily. He asked if I understood the depth of the commitment. He asked if I'd help Judah to be a good citizen. "Yes," I answered, trembling. And then it was over. We hardly remembered to take photos.

Not long after, we flew to Dallas to visit Morgan's ailing grandmother. North Texas thunderstorms shook the plane. Judah cried desperately. His wailing escalated to huge, gulping sobs. Morgan kept trying to nurse. He'd latch on briefly, then pull off and scream again.

I fished out our favorite swaddling blanket, stretchy and sage green. She held him still while I wrapped him up. Then Morgan, nauseous from the turbulence, leaned back and closed her eyes. I gripped Judah, the human burrito, and bounced him against my chest. Up, down, he went. Up, down, went the plane. I walked towards the bathroom, defying the injunction to stay seated. Anything, anything, to silence him.

"Is he yours?" a middle-aged woman asked.

"Of course," I wanted to say, but I stopped.

I stroked my free hand down Judah’s blanket-wrapped spine. My arm burned from his weight. Perhaps he belonged to Morgan and I, in a legal sense. And yet, the question felt absurd. It didn’t seem that he could belong to anyone, this baby. Not this fierce, sleepless creature who had staked his claim on me.

In truth, I thought, I belonged to him.

For what is motherhood but surrender?

Judah was quieting. I felt his limbs loosen with sleep. I stood perfectly still, even as we cleared the turbulence and the clouds parted to reveal the distant, wrinkled landscape. My son breathed steadily against me. His drool dampened a warm circle on my shoulder. The sensation was so familiar that I hardly noticed it.

Irene Keliher‘s essays and stories have appeared in The Millions, Salon, Calyx, The Bellingham Review, The New Ohio Review, and elsewhere. She’s received the Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction, the Potomac Review Fiction Award, and the Pearl Editor’s Prize. A former librettist for the Houston and Seattle Opera companies, she holds an MFA from the University of Houston.

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Juli Cady Ryan is a self-taught artist and who has been selling her art worldwide for 12 years. What started a as a hobby, soon became a vehicle for her to share her experiences with her family’s mental illness. Her art has now been in galleries, from the Smart Gallery in Springfield Missouri, to the Fuller Lodge Art Center Solo Exhibition in their Portal Gallery. She has also written a bedtime story for children, The Sleep Fairy and the Magic Sheep, a fun story to help the little ones fall asleep. Recently she has self-published a book of paintings, Wounds of Wisdom, that along with her poetry, show the pain and hope of dealing with mental illness in her family.

I loved this. What it says about what parenthood really is. Just beautiful.
We all feel that anxiety and that apprehension during the firsts of parenthood. We belong to them...excellent point.
What a wonderful essay. I am so sorry for your struggle, Irene. You are his parent, that's all that matters. Thank you for sharing your words.
I love how you end this-that we belong to our children- as it is all about surrender. I wasn't aware that adopting your own child was that complicated in the US. We have made progress perhaps more quickly in Canada.
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