JANET LINDER, PhD, LCSW graduated from The Sanville Institute in 2011. She is a mother, a stepmother, and a husband-wife (new terminology for new role in the void of lacking language). She loves working with couples and families. She tries to help families hold the wonder and joy of new parenthood along with the exhaustion, confusion, and challenge to the marital pair. She tries to help couples prioritize their own relationship even in the midst of the compelling nature of babies and toddlers. Janet has a private practice in San Francisco and Berkeley. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 415-285-1131. Her website is Emotionaltruth.com.
My interest in families, especially non-traditional or “alternative,” likely stems from my unusual personal growing up experience (raised by my non-biological father) as well as my desire to integrate my passion for social justice and psychology. Families pass on their cultures, their gender roles, their politics, their problems, and their food. Gay people used to be so rejected by society and their families that we had to form chosen families. This is still the case in many parts of the country and the world.
I wanted to study the lived experience of lesbian mothers and parents (not all lesbian parents identify as mothers/maternal) whose partners/wives carried their first child. As language often lags behind socio-cultural changes, there is no one agreed upon word or term to describe these women. I prefer to use the term ‘non-birth’ or ‘non-biological’ instead of the ‘social mother’, ‘co-mother,’ second mother’ or the ‘other mother.’ The factual nature of non-bio appeals to me even though the negative connotation of the ‘non’ doesn’t.
A lesbian non-birth mother/parent plans with her partner from the beginning of their process how to create a child. The acquisition of sperm is a major decision, as there is no in-house supplier. Should the couple ask someone they know (a known donor) or should they use a sperm bank (unknown donor)? Some men who donate sperm to an agency allow the children to learn his identity when they become 18 years of age (a yes donor/known identity donor) and some do not (a no donor). Most lesbian couples that use a sperm bank are looking for some physical resemblance to the non-bio mom/parent. Most couples want a child who will “fit in” to their greater families. Ethnicity, color of eyes, hair or skin, height, profession, are all variables that are considered. Sperm is expensive, which results in some couples asking friends or friends of friends.
As perhaps some of you know, role theory subscribes to the idea that an identity is created through performing actions consonant with a particular role. Thus, the role of mother is the result of acting as a mother, and being recognized as such by others. Lesbian non-birth mothers/parents have to contend with a family and parenting role that is new, ill-defined (not a biological mother and not a father), and often unrecognized. One of the most painful questions, from others and from oneself, is “Who is the real mother?”
Clinically, each lesbian parenting couple is different of course. I started to see one such couple recently, I will call them Ann and Zoe. Ann is the birth mother and Zoe is the “other mother.” That is how she describes herself. Their child is two and exhibits a strong preference for Ann, according to Zoe. (Ann sees things differently, and was not able to empathize with Zoe or validate her feelings). Zoe finds this incredibly painful, and when they came to see me, she had fallen into an apathetic depression regarding their child. Zoe had given up, felt bad about herself that she had given up, and no longer wanted to spend much time alone with their kid. Two women together (a surplus of female socialization that focuses on the needs of others) may prioritize their child over their marital relationship. Ann and Zoe have needed help realigning their family so that each parent is not giving their best selves only or primarily to their child. Ann has needed support in backing away from providing the primary childcare, and allowing (or encouraging) Zoe to have alone time with their child. Zoe has needed space to vent her anger and hurt, to feel accepted and understood by Ann. Ann has been able to apologize to Zoe for not being able to hear and tolerate her feelings. Each is trying to understand how she contributed to their family reaching this point.
Especially when a child is tired, sick, or distressed, the non-birth mother/parent may not get chosen. Breast-feeding can be wonderful for the birth mother and baby but it creates a deep bond that the other parent can find impermeable. Fathers are not socialized to expect to be a primary parent. During the transition to parenthood, one of the most challenging developmental stages in the life of any family, new fathers tend to prioritize their wives/female partners parenting decisions over their own. With a parenting team composed of two women there can be feelings of competition, exclusion, and role confusion. Non-bio mothers/parents need their partners to recognize them as equal parents, and provide support for their parental roles. Often extended families take the lead from the parenting couple on this.
Non-bio moms/parents may take comfort in the idea that around three years of age (that time called by Freud as the start of the oedipal stage) their first child may joyfully discover them, and the kind of particular fun that can be had with them. The world opens up for young children if they have a secure attachment to their bio mom and the non-bio mom has stayed open and desirous of a close relationship with the child. When non-bio moms/parents have a history of maternal abandonment themselves, or suffer from anxiety, depression, or trauma, they are at increased risk for experiencing their young child’s expressed preference for their partner as devastating. Helping such families to make shifts that result in better family satisfaction for all of the family members is rewarding. Families headed by lesbian parents now number in the hundreds of thousands in this country. Gradually they are helping to re-define what family is, and legitimize the myriad of ways that people parent.