Sunday, December 2, 2007

Picture a Family

When my girls were growing up, they had adult role models that identified their gender/sexual identity in many ways. Though I hate boxing them into categories, they were gay, straight, bisexual, butch, lipstick lesbians and more.

When I had those birds and bees discussions with my children... we talked about birds and birds and bees and bees too.

I also tried to teach them know that “family” is a very subjective term, that is best defined by the people in that particular family. We certainly did not fit the mythical family norm.

I was a single mom of two, who adopted another child as a single parent. My birth childrens' father was active in their rearing, as were other surrogate males; my adoptive daughter knew her dad. We had different names, and we were a family.

I moved away from my birth family when I married, but maintained a strong desire for family. I developed, a “family of choice.” My girls had nearby, aunts and uncles; to this day they continue to refer to them in familial terms.

They were my brothers and sisters. Who is to say these men and women were not my family. Perhaps the inheritance laws would denounce them as next of kin, but I have precious little to pass along anyway.

Take my friends Joannie and Anne. They met when Anne was pregnant with Johanna. It was nearly love at first sight; Joannie immediately became family, and we all joyously awaited Johanna’s arrival.

A few years after Johanna’s birth my daughter was babysitting for her “cousin”. Afterward, Anne dropped her off. I noticed she was fidgety. I poured her a cup of coffee and my daughter ran off to play.

“Why didn’t you tell Angie that Joannie and I were lovers… On the way over here I mentioned that I needed to stop by and pick up my anniversary gift for Joannie.” She spoke in a soft, concerned tone.

My daughter who had been in their home many times and apparently oblivious to the fact they shared a bed responded, “I didn’t know you were a couple… I thought you were roommates.”

Anne replied, “No, we’re a couple and it’s our second anniversary!”

Angie said, “Cool. What did you get her?” And just like that, she accepted them as a couple and was ready to celebrate. Oh, if only adults could be so open-minded.

Anne was pissed… at me! I was surprised. I explained to her, “I have yet to explain the relationship of others who dwell together to my kids. Did you want me to sit them down and say, “Kids… Auntie Anne and Joannie are special. They share special love between women and although the law won’t let them be married, it’s like they are.”

“Or, would you want me to accept your family as I would any other of my home-made family or neighbors, without explanation, and her realization as to the nature of your relationship come naturally, as it did?”

I was really asking. I felt in my gut, I had done it the right thing… but maybe I was wrong. It’s difficult to know, because society puts enormous pressures on its narrow definition of gender identity and even narrow definition of what constitutes a family.

“No… I guess… this was better. BUT YOU SHOULD HAVE WARNED ME.” she said, only half-kidding. (Oy, family!) :)

It is 20+ years later, and I still wonder if I did the right thing. The issues of gender, sexual orientation and family are so complex. What do you think?

(The proud mother in me cannot publish this blog entry without telling you... when Angie rejoined us... she brought with her a homemade anniversary card for Joannie and Anne.)


ms.cripchick said...

the birds and the bees, the birds and the birds, and the bees and the bees.

cilla you rock so unbelievably much.

shiva said...

being a literal-minded autistic kid, with a biology obsession that no one else i knew shared, that phrase always confused me... i was like "do people *really* think that birds have sex with bees?"

family... yeah, i *really* have to write something deconstructing family. "next of kin" and all those type of concepts really piss me off. why can't people just have the right to choose whoever they like to be their next of kin?

IMO, if you don't feel comfortable telling your "family" about aspects of yourself as important as gender/sexual identity, then they're no "family" worth having.

Big Noise said...

Shiva, It wasn't that I didn't feel comfortable about telling my daughter about my friend's sexual identity, it's just that I didn't do that for any of my friends, (ie: "Angie, this is my heterosexual buddy."), so why would I do that for any other of my friends.

I don't think Anne was uncomfortable either, just surprised. I do know, she was very worth having in my, untraditional but loving, little "family."

And the Birds and Bees thing... just my way of trying to be funny/clever. I guess I struck out on that point, ey?

The reason I wrote the piece is because I was really curious about how others deal with similar situations...

For your children:
Make a deal, or not make a deal? That is the question!

flightygal said...

Well, I think the fact that you showed you were open and accepting is more important than anything else. Not being a parent but being the child of parents who wanted to raise me to be accepting of others and to be comfortable with myself as well, I know my parents struggled with similar issues. I remember going to a lesbian wedding and not being told it was a lesbian wedding when I was about 11 and honestly I was kind of shocked. Sometimes my parents would tell me so and so are lesbians or gay and sometimes they wouldn't. They got mad at me if I refered to something derogatively as "that is so gay". One time when watching tv, my dad let me know that if I were gay it would be ok and my mother and him would still love me. Took me a little by surprise but I think it did a lot for my comfort level with my parents and with others. My husband's uncle and his partner of 20 some odd years are a deeply committed gay couple and my husband didn't realize they were more than best friends until his brother told him around the age of 11. They are still his favorite uncles and it didn't change the way he saw them. It might have been more awkward and uncomfortable for him if his parents sat him down and said now Uncle F and Uncle G are more than just friends and they share a bed. I like to think my husband and I are both pretty open to people of any background, orientation, religion, ability etc. I think parents can second guess every little thing they ever did but if you demonstrate your unconditional love for you child and acceptance of others, I think odds are pretty good your kids will be accepting and loving people as well whether you try to explain the nature of every person's relationship that you know or let some things just be figured out.

flightygal said...

One more thing, its like the argument with so many other things to label or not to label. Is it necessary to point out to your children that these are your lesbian aunts and these are your straight aunt and uncle? This is our black friend and this is our friend with MS or schizophrenia or something? Probably the most important thing isthat your daughter felt that they were family and their orientation was of little importance to her. What do your daughter and friend think now?

Tera said...

Hi, Cilla!

My aunt tells this story about me when I was two years old or so:

My mom, grandma and I went to visit my aunt and her girlfriend. And she says I called her "Aunt" and her girlfriend "Uncle." So it sounds like on some level I knew they went together, were a family and were part of my family as well. (Although it was probably much easier to make these connections at that age, because my vocabulary was pretty small and I didn't know about "roommates" or possibly even "friends").

Now I just call my aunt and her wife (who is a different person than my "uncle") "aunts."

Anonymous said...

We have two households with single-sex pairs down the block - while my older kids know the truth, my youngest (11) just knows that Beth and Robin pay well for dogsitting, and Fred and Jim have the big white lab. Someday she may ask about homosexuality, and I like that she will have already known some really nice people who just happen to also be gay.