Of Woman Reborn: Contemporary Lesbian Motherhood Studies after Adrienne Rich
First published in 1976, iconic lesbian feminist Adrienne Rich’s motherhood monograph, Of Woman Born, in fact stakes relatively few claims about lesbians as mothers or lesbian motherhood as a wider institution. While the text makes some references to the position of lesbianism as it relates to the gendered specificities of mother-daughter relationships, such as in the classic novel by Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness, and cites some of Rich’s fundamental ideas about the hegemonic state of heterosexuality, in most respects, sexuality is not situated as central to the text. This is intentional. Reflectiong back in the 10th anniversary preface, Rich explains that:
In 1986, the visibility and varieties of lesbian motherhood are greater than they were in 1976. At that time it seemed important to discuss lesbian mothering as an integral part of the experience of motherhood in general, not to set lesbian mothers apart, in a separate chapter. (Rich, xxx)
While this preface cites several more specific issues affecting lesbian mothers even in the wake of women’s liberation, such as custody battles and sexuality-based oppression, ultimately“All human life on the planet is born of woman. The one unifying, incontrovertible experience shared by all women and men is that months-long period we spent unfolding inside a woman’s body” (Rich, 11). This shared bodily feature, being “of woman born,” as it were, is instead the focus to which all readers are intended to relate and as such, the specific institution of lesbian motherhood appears essentially nonexistent. But institutional status is only half of the story for Rich.
The subtitle to Of Woman Born – “Motherhood as Experience and Institution” – reveals the truth of the matter: to tell about being a lesbian mother Rich draws heavily on her own experience of motherhood, her struggle to find an identity as a lesbian within the confines of the institution. She differentiates between this experience, which she defines as “the potential relationship of any woman to her power of reproduction and to children; and the institution, which aims at ensuring that that potential – and all women – shall remain under male control” (Rich, 13). It is that firsthand experience of building a relationship to her reproductive capacity and to her children, and the related experiences of Rich’s friends and community, that quietly fill out the content on lesbian motherhood throughout the text. Thus in this 1986 preface, Rich positions herself politically, speaking back to the pervasive narrative that lesbian mothers and their families were the same as – and should be the same as – heterosexual families. Instead, she argues,
It is precisely because the lesbian is different that a value system bent on prescribing a limited set of possibilities for women can neither tolerate nor affirm her. It is precisely because difference is so powerful (though the “different” may be socially disempowered) that it becomes the target of threats, harassment, violence, social control, genocide.
It is unfortunate that Rich’s passionate stance on the difference implicit in lesbian motherhood comes through only in this preface, but as a more general treatise on motherhood – the institution and the experience alike – her work forms the ground against which contemporary motherhood studies must situate itself. This is even more emphatically the case for lesbian and queer motherhood studies. This paper examines work by the most recent cohort of writers thinking through lesbian and queer motherhood, each of whom takes up this torch of difference to illuminate their thoughts on how women have mothered differently in a historic context and how we can continue to think and experience motherhood queerly.
As the scholar best equipped to address the historical background and surround of Rich’s time, I begin with Daniel Winunwe Rivers’ 2013 book Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, & Their Children in the United States since World War II, a critical addition to the conversations around lesbian and queer motherhood. Based on extensive archival research and well over one hundred interviews, Rivers’ book makes a series of interventions into both popular and academic notions about how we parent queerly by drawing on the long narrative thread of history. By beginning his text in 1945, Rivers situates Radical Relations in a historical milieu understood as being empty of queer familial relations. Instead he reveals “Families in Hiding” (Rivers, 11). Most lesbian mothers during this time period were forced to enact something of a double life in response to the expectations of family and friends and the overall pressure of heteronormative culture (Rivers, 18), a pressure Rich’s journal observations of her own pregnancies and early years as a young, married mother concur with (Rich, 22-29). These double lives primarily consisted either of married women carrying on lesbian relationships outside of their marriages, or of single lesbian mothers quietly raising children from a previous marriage, careful never to have their sexuality revealed lest it result in termination of custody rights. However, Rivers frames the risks of queer parenthood during this era as only a shadow in comparison to “the massive loss of custodial rights that lesbian and gay parents experienced as large numbers of men and women openly declared their same-sex sexuality in the 1970s.” Rivers reveals the necessary silences that played out in early lesbian-headed households, a silence Rich’s text may not replicate in Of Woman Born, but which she appears to consciously skirt in her approach to lesbianism as an undercurrent to otherwise uniformly heterosexual motherhood. Through his use of interviews and archival materials, Rivers helps these early lesbian mothers to break those silences, allowing them to claim a place as founding figures to what Rivers shows to be a rapid surge in visible lesbian and queer parents, Rich among them.
The central chapters of Radical Relations deal with the years leading up to gay and lesbian liberation, the ensuing custody battles that filled the 1970s and early 1980s, and the lesbian mother activist groups born out of these struggles (Rivers, 84-87). These chapters, as well as a later chapter on the culture of lesbian feminist households run most concurrently with Rich’s writings in Of Woman Born, but they reveal an array of tensions that lesbian mothers experienced in raising their own children that Rich’s work erases. Not only does Rich’s monogram elide a significant segment of the maternal population in regards to personal experience of these battles, but sexuality’s erasure from the institutional component of motherhood also goes unacknowledged. One of Rivers’ central points in Radical Relations is that heteropatriarchal society demanded, and arguably continues to insist, that children never be exposed to issues of sexuality (the normativity of heterosexuality exempting it from this clause). Lesbian and queer women could not be mothers because the visible difference of their sexuality would be upsetting, confusing, corrupting, or otherwise damaging to any child they encountered; as Rivers remarks, “lesbian mothers…and their children existed in cultures in which their family ties were illegible and seen as virulently dangerous when they were discovered” (Rivers, 3).
The final chapters of Radical Relations captures the shift most people think of when they think about lesbian and queer mothering – namely what is often called the “Gay-by” Boom, the period from about 1980 forward during which lesbian and queer mothering became more common and accessible, as well as typically more socially acceptable. Rivers demonstrates the avenues by which lesbian motherhood became possible, including through underground systems of donor insemination and at home insemination procedures (Rivers, 174-181), and eventually through access to assisted reproductive technologies, and adoption (Rivers, 181-186). These chapters trace a rapid turnover in apparent cultural acceptance of lesbian and queer mothers and their children, leading to the fight for second parent and co-parent adoptions (Rivers, 191), the establishment of COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere) (Rivers, 201), and the publishing (and subsequent battles over) children’s books like Heather Has Two Mommies, Gloria Goes to Gay Pride, and Daddy’s Roommate (Rivers, 205). This increasing focus on children marks an overall trend in conversations about lesbian and queer parenting, with concern about whether such children will be harmed by their upbringing; such questions are typically posed from a position that believes in the importance of traditional gender roles and hegemonic heterosexuality. When Rich began writing, she noted that “We know more about the air we breathe, the seas we travel, than about the nature and meaning of motherhood” (Rich, 11). By tracing the long history of lesbian motherhood, Rivers’ – who is the son of a lesbian mother – picks up immediately where Adrienne Rich left off in her considerations of motherhood as an experience and an institution and carries us along a full historical trajectory that finds its end with a different question: What about the children?
This question – what about the children? – is addressed by the title of Rachel Epstein’s edited 2009 collection Who’s Your Daddy? and Other Writings on Queer Parenting. Though the question is of course in part a joke, toying with a common phrase often uttered in spaces of competition and domination, the title also acts as a kind of interrogation that is frequently imposed on the children of lesbian and queers mothers. For those children, “who’s your daddy?” can be a loaded question that they may or may not know how to answer. Epstein’s collection gives the children of queer parents, often known as queer spawn, a chance to speak throughout her collection (Epstein, 267). Epstein notes that the voices of culturally queer youth are an integral part of the conversation about lesbian and queer motherhood because “As our kids get older many of them seek a place in queer communities. They have grown up here. As my probably straight sixteen-year-old daughter says of herself, ‘I was born queer’” (Epstein, 28). Situating these pieces by culturally queer youth alongside stories from a wide range of queer parents, this edited collection, while touching on a number of historical landmarks, finds itself situated much more closely in relationship to the last moments of Daniel Rivers’ monograph, thinking through life as queer parents post gay-by boom.
While some of the parents in Radical Relations may have identified themselves as queer, this was not a primary identity for those individuals; in fact, for many of the individuals in Radical Relations queer was likely still a slur. In contrast, it is important to note that Rachel Epstein’s collection focuses primarily on parents who are either queer identified or who in some way relate to the more radical politics that are intended to separate queer politics from a civil rights model. This emphasis on queerness is reflected in many of the titles found in Who’s Your Daddy?. Part of the emphasis of this collection, then, is on how the queer community comes to parenthood and engages differently in parenting practices. An early essay by author Emma Donoghue, for example, addresses the challenges of becoming pregnant when your same sex partner is uninterested in becoming a parent. Entitled “Go On, You Choose: The Ethics of Getting Pregnant by Nagging,” Donoghue’s piece addresses the way the gay-by boom, particularly among lesbians, has impacted women like her partner, leaving these women “feel[ing] even more like freaks, even more backed into the corner by the transformation in lesbian and gay culture over the last decade. (Some call it civil rights, some assimilation; Chris and I tend to call it, ruefully, a bit of both.)” (Epstein, 47). The gay-by boom finds itself here grouped at least in part under what Donoghue and her partner Chris identify with dismay as assimilation, and in the tension between the two over whether they will have children, two camps are delimited: the normative desire for children, as inhabited by Donoghue, and the queer desire to avoid heteronormative structures and expectations, as marked by Chris. As Who’s Your Daddy? progresses, we see more parents from the second camp working to figure out how to negotiate their lives when children enter the picture.
Karleen Pendleton Jiménez, the author of the essay “Little White Children: Notes from a Chicana Dyke Dad,” articulates several key parts of this queer identification. Jiménez enters a family situation in 1999 where there are already children. Additionally, this family that Jiménez, a woman of color, has fallen in love with is a white family. In choosing this relationship, Jiménez broke a number of promises she had made to herself:
I gave in despite a commitment I had made to myself nearly a decade before that I would marry a Mexicana and we would make Mexican children together, end of story. I would put an end to two generations of my family’s American racist dream. Instead, I fell in love with Claudia and embraced her children as my own. Even if I had been ready (financially or emotionally) to give birth myself, that was no longer my path; I was joining a white middle-class Canadian family. (Epstein, 243)
This passage by Jiménez marks several moves that might be considered contrary to a radical queer agenda. Queer activists could easily criticize Jiménez for entering a long-term relationship with a white woman and her children. Furthermore, there is actually something of a stigma attached to middle-class stability for many younger queers who claim radical politics, following a model of downward mobility – it registers as a sign of assimilation. By choosing her partner Claudia, Jiménez chooses a life in which her racial identity migrates between starkly visible and ignored. She says of Claudia’s children, who become her own children in due time, that “I feel sad when I think they don’t care about who I am and where I come from. I don’t know whether it is being a queer parent, a step-parent, or simply a parent, but sometimes I feel like my children have no interest in my history or background” (Epstein, 247). Queer parenthood, here magnified by issues around race and gender, poses difficult situations that must be navigated as a family. As Jiménez notes at the end of her essay, “Talking about racism does not make our queer families less worthy; it does make them more honest, more loving, more enduring” (Epstein, 250).
The stories detailed by Donoghue and Jiménez are two representative examples of the work that Rachel Epstein undertakes over the course of Who’s Your Daddy?. The volume also includes poignant essays by a community of single moms, diasporic queers, and the title piece about masculinity in the sons of butch mothers. In many respects, however, Epstein’s collection attempts to take on the mantle of queerness and fails. This, I would assert, is the result of a popularization of queer theory in the academy and the increasing use of queer as an empty signifier in the general population, rather than as a marker of radical politics. This is not to say that lesbian and queer women raising children is not a radical act – Daniel Rivers’ book would decidedly instruct us otherwise – but when Epstein’s collection is held up to the academically defined queerness of Shelley M. Park’s Mothering Queerly, Queering Motherhood, that is where the term falls short for Epstein.
In contrast to Rachel Epstein’s volume of relatively disparate essays, Shelley M. Park’s book on queer mothering states as its aim Resisting Monomaternalism in Adoptive, Lesbian, Blended, and Polygamous Families. Park’s book challenges the idea that children can and should have only one mother by addressing a range of mothering situations that exist in contention to that claim. Mothering Queerly, Queering Motherhood, however, is a decidedly high theory collection, with titles such as “Queer Orphans and Their Neoliberal Saviors: Racialized Intimacy in Adoption” and “Queer Assemblages: The Domestic Geography of Postmodern Families.” As such, Park’s text addresses an entirely different audience than Epstein’s or even Rivers’ books. This is of course not to dismiss the importance of such work, but the tone of Mothering Queerly, Queering Motherhood seeks to address important political and practical questions with recourse to the explicitly academic rather than the historical or anecdotal. By doing so, the conflict between the day-to-day concerns of parents and the academic nature of this text results in a kind of slippage, through which the day-to-day risks being elided.
Shelley Park struggles with this conflict between theories of motherhood and lived experience and in places succeeds in addressing it quite clearly. For example, Park opens her chapter “The Adoptive Maternal Body: Queering Reproduction” with a quote from the scholar Amalia Ziv, who asks about “‘the contradictory implications of queer parenting,’ arguing that gay or lesbian parenting ‘subverts key elements of the heteronormative ideology of the family and revolutionizes kinship’ at the same time as it succumbs, perhaps to the pressures of ‘normalization and assimilation’” (Park, 57). This is much the same question that Emma Donoghue asks in her essay in Who’s Your Daddy?. Always, assimilation haunts the attempt at queer family, and this is one moment in which Park acknowledges that struggle. At the same time, in this chapter Park is interested in interrogating adoption through a lens that is “not about queers (e.g. lesbians) who breed, but instead about breeding (e.g. mothering) that is queer. What happens,” Park asks, “when mothering occurs queerly?” (Park, 57). From an academic perspective, this is a perfectly acceptable use of the term queer, but for many of the contributors to a text like Rachel Epstein’s, this would seem to be asking the wrong question, co-opting a hard won identity in an attempt to work out an issue that is fundamentally separate from queerness for those who live that identity daily.
At the same time that Shelley Park’s volume collides with questions of lived experience, her work on monomaternalism certainly is relevant to the world of lesbian and queer motherhood. Children being raised by lesbian couples, or even in some polyamorous group situations, will have two – or in some cases more – mothers. As such, chapters like “Making Room for Two Mothers: Queering Children’s Literature” (Park, 119) address the common chorus heard from children in polymaternal situations: “you’re not my REAL mother!” In this chapter, Park looks at various children’s books and the way they frame stories, such as the search for one’s “real” mother (think of traditional books like Are You My Mother?), or the struggle to recognize adoptive parents as allegorized in stories like the Dr. Seuss classic Horton Hatches the Egg (Park, 135). While the readings that Park deploys are theory heavy, including the work of figures like Marilyn Frye, Maria Lugones, and Sara Ruddick, the chapter still succeeds in opening up new options for women seeking to have the difficult conversations about queer mothering with their young children.
Although Park opens up many important topics of conversation that affect queer mothers, such as transracial adoption, or even raising children in polygamous relationships, ultimately her book fails to address the lived realities of the women features in Daniel Rivers and Rachel Epstein’s volumes. For example, when Alessandra Iantaffi writes about polyamorous family structures for Rachel Epstein’s collection she emphasizes the complexity of building relationships that are not just between adults, but also between adults and children. Iantaffi also talks about how “Being a polyamorous and/or queer family does not automatically mean that all members of the household reject all mainstream notions about gender, class, ethnicity, or dis/ability’ (Epstein 354). Park is less interested in addressing these questions; instead, her chapter on polygamous families talks primarily about media representations such as Sister Wives, which she uses to talk about coalitional families and alternative kinds of solidarity. Overall, Park’s perspective on queer families leaves unexamined the real lives of lesbian mothers and their children.
So, if we take Adrienne Rich to be the key founder of lesbian motherhood studies, the most continuous lines of flight in the field today would certainly originate with Radical Relations and Who’s Your Daddy?. Radical Relations sustains the interest in institutional motherhood that concerns Rich, while also providing a comprehensive historical milieu through which to think about her work. Alternatively the individuals compiled in Epstein’s volume are interested in examining how their specific experiences of motherhood look, just as Rich evolves her volume out of personal experience and the analytics that experience provides. In contrast to these, Shelley Park’s book, Mothering Queerly, Queering Mothering, while at first glance suggesting itself as the most progressive, is simply the most theoretical. Park takes up the role of feminist academic engaging the framework of queer theory and cleaves to it. Unfortunately, the final result offers little of practical use either to the field of lesbian motherhood studies as it imagines itself, or to lesbian mothers themselves. Though both Park’s book and Rich’s ultimately skirt the concept of explicitly lesbian motherhood in many ways, Park’s theoretical approach fails to open up lines of conversation with lesbian mothers in a way that Of Woman Born continues to do even decades later.
Rich ends Of Woman Born by returning to the body, the body of the woman that holds the potential for motherhood. Rivers and Epstein return to the body; Park does not. It is the bodily life of the mother, whether a birth mother, a step-mother, an adoptive mother, or of any other maternal relation, that motherhood studies must always return to. As Rich concludes:
The repossession by women of our bodies will bring far more essential change to human society than the seizing of the means of production by workers… We need to imagine a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body… In such a world women will truly create new life… Sexuality, politics, intelligence, power, motherhood, work, community, intimacy, will develop new meanings; thinking itself will be transformed.
This is where we have to begin. (Rich, 285-286)