Queer Motherhood Is A Constant Lesson In What Others Take For Granted

A Vancouver-based playwright talks gender norms for queer couples and boys.
This Pride Month, HuffPost Canada Parents celebrates families in all their forms.
This Pride Month, HuffPost Canada Parents celebrates families in all their forms.

Sara Graefe is the author of Swelling With Pride: Queer Conception And Adoption Stories. She’s married to her partner of 14 years, Amanda Oliver, and they live in Vancouver, with their 12-year-old son, who goes by his middle name, Michael.

When I came out in my early twenties, I thought, ‘I will never get married in my lifetime.’ I wanted kids and felt that by coming out, I was kissing that option goodbye. So sometimes, I pinch myself when I look at my life today and think ‘Wow, so much has changed.’

My wife, Amanda, and I first met at a really cheesy, 30+ speed-dating event. We’d both been through a breakup and we had friends who’d pressured us to go and were supposed to meet us there, but then at the last minute they stood us up. Amanda and I had a conversation that was genuine; when it was time to switch and talk with other people, we wanted to just keep talking.

The very next day after speed-dating, we met for brunch. Amanda is genderqueer and butch-presenting. I spotted this sparkly fairy wand in the backseat of her car, and I was surprised, because it wasn’t in keeping with the boyish style. Turns out, she was going to play a fairy godmother at the birthday party of her friend’s kid. It opened up the conversation on our very first date, in a very endearing way, that we both wanted kids.

This was in 2004 and same-sex marriage had just been legalized in B.C. the year before. It was the first time I’d met someone with whom marriage was even a possibility. Queer couples were getting married, and there was a lot of optimism and excitement that hadn’t been there before. So it was an interesting era to fall in love with someone.

Feeling like ‘gatecrashers’ to parenthood

When we were ready to become moms, it was clear adoption wasn’t the route for us. Both of us were aware of some issues with closed adoption: You have a kid who doesn’t know their biological parents and can’t ever know more, if they choose to.

We decided to go with assisted reproduction. We talked about having one of our close friends be our sperm donor, but because of logistics we ended up going with a sperm bank where donors were open to being contacted once a child turns 18.

Each donor had an essay as part of their profiles. Some of them were religious, preaching the word of God to our offspring. It turns out, especially in the southern U.S. states, a lot of them donate sperm as an act of service. We’re thinking, “Well, will this person be comfortable if our kids get older and want to contact them? Who can tell.”

The donor we ended up choosing, he did something different: He wrote a letter to the child acknowledging they shared a weird relationship, then lovingly describing who he was and what his own father was like. He had a final line that I’ve quoted in Swelling With Pride: “The fact that your parents cared enough and wanted to have you badly enough to go to the extent they did is very special indeed. This is leaps and bounds further toward being your parents than anything I have done. I hope for the very best for you in life and you will certainly make your parents proud.”

Pregnancy requires you to interact regularly with the health-care system. It felt like we were suddenly in a very hetero world and we were gatecrashers. I had gestational diabetes and many solo appointments, so the clinic made all sorts of assumptions about my “husband.” Sometimes I would correct people, sometimes I wouldn’t have the energy.

Watch: Kyisha Williams explains how queer people navigate motherhood. Story continues below.

There was a midwife clinic closer to us, but we went with one with several queer midwives on their team. There was never any confusion about who we were as a couple and even the way they talked about our pregnancy, how they talked to Amanda in a way that acknowledged we were both expecting this baby. She felt more included. Because of them, she heard the first heartbeat. Whenever they were in the hospital, we felt more seen.

The most devastating part of the birth experience came after our son, Michael, was born. We had complications, so we were in the hospital for a week. The nurses didn’t get that Amanda was my partner, not just a friend. They kept saying, “She’s such a good friend to be there 24/7 on a crappy mattress.” We corrected them, but it was tricky because of how exhausted we were. I couldn’t breastfeed and they were badmouthing us at the nursing station, saying I must be doing something wrong. That was really hard. But fortunately our midwives lodged a formal complaint. So education happened, but it’s frustrating that we were the test case.

Challenging hetero assumptions

Most of the time, Amanda and I can go about our lives and not give our queerness a second thought. But then there are things that happen in your daily life as a parent that shake you to your foundation.

My kid’s going to high school next year, and he’s applying for some programs. On some forms, they ask for a father’s name. Michael said to me, “Mom, I guess that school’s not very woke.” He ultimately chose not to go to that school.

For Sara Graefe and her family, small reminders like outdated forms are reminders of heteronormativity.
For Sara Graefe and her family, small reminders like outdated forms are reminders of heteronormativity.

When Amanda’s not with me, in some spaces there is this assumption that I must be straight. When I do out myself, people are so curious, and they’ll ask a lot of questions, like:

“Which of you is the mom and which of you is the dad?”

“Is he a test-tube baby?”

“Which of you is the real mom?”

Some days it’s cool, other days, not so much. Queer parenting spaces are our favourite because we’re around families like ours. Going camping together as a big group is always fun to do. Some of our closest parent friends are straight couples, people we would have never found if we hadn’t met through our kids. We’ve met some lovely families this way and some we’re closer to than our queer single friends.

We had a brush with homophobia in 2005, someone had seen us walking holding hands on our street. There was a chill in the neighbourhood after that, neighbours were yanking their kids inside, if we passed. We realized then, we can’t stay here with a kid.

“Most of the time, we can go about our lives and not give our queerness a second thought. But then there are things that happen in your daily life as a parent that shake you to your foundation.”

- Sara Graefe

Where we chose to live after that in East Vancouver, it’s a long-term lesbian enclave. It just so happens, my kid’s best friend also has two moms and is from an anonymous donor. It’s cool that he’s not the only one. He thinks it’s interesting to have that in common, but also no big deal.

It’s nice that Michael can be one of several kids with queer parents at school. His peers see that there are all kinds of ways to be a family. His friends have even told him, “I wish I had two moms.” That seemed to reflect that moms do most of the caring and nurturing (in their perspective) and they thought Michael was getting a double dose.

The interesting thing about becoming parents, when you’re queer, is it does out you in a way. Say you’re walking down a darkened street and there’s someone’s being an asshole. If you’re worried about your safety, you can drop your partner’s hand when it’s just the two of you. But when you have a kid, you don’t want to do that anymore. We don’t want our kid to doubt who we are.

“He can be whoever he wants to be”

When Michael was younger, he called himself a tomgirl. There was a phase where he was more gender-non-conforming, but then there was a lot of gender policing in the early grades. My kid was blindsided by this, because in our family, you like what you like. He liked “My Little Pony” and “The Little Mermaid” when he was seven, but he also liked Lego, comics, and curling. He and Amanda are really into “RuPaul’s Drag Race” now.

Sara says Michael is making huge spreadsheets to track how well competitors on "RuPaul's Drag Race" are doing in the seasons he's watched.
Sara says Michael is making huge spreadsheets to track how well competitors on "RuPaul's Drag Race" are doing in the seasons he's watched.

He’s kind of just himself and can be anyone he wants to be, as opposed to how Amanda and I felt in our families: There was disappointment when we didn’t turn out to be straight. Our families came around when I started dating Amanda and have been better since we got married in 2006. Seeing us loved, accepted and supported as a married couple by all our friends, I think they finally “got” that love is love is love — that my being queer isn’t a tragedy or something shameful, it’s just who I am. But it wasn’t easy for us in the earlier years.

The couple riding a scooter for a wedding photo in 2006.
The couple riding a scooter for a wedding photo in 2006.

We’re a woman and a genderqueer person raising a boy. So we’ve talked a lot about what does it mean, raising a man who will treat others respectfully? Maybe our society is going to have different kinds of men because they’ve grown up in families like ours. My hope is growing up in this family will make our son a more kinder, compassionate man and that he can love who he loves. It’s kind of a privilege to do that in a family that’s not “heteronormative,” which assumes the being straight is what’s normal and natural.

We didn’t plan to break those gender stereotypes, we broke them down just by being us. We hope that when he grows up he can model that to his partner, in his workplace, in his social circle. In some way, bit-by-bit, queer families are transforming the world just by being. I’m hoping our son will embody that. No pressure!

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