How are we related?

Notes from a lesbian step-mom

When I first began dating Sharon, her 7-year old daughter, Mollie, sat quietly while I was around. Eventually, she became accustomed to my presence and warmed up to me. At first, Mollie saw me as a new "playmate" who rode bikes with her, helped her build snow castles and taught her to play tennis.

As my relationship with her mother blossomed, Mollie struggled to name what she saw with her 7-year old vocabulary. One day as I leaned over to kiss Sharon, she put it all together... "You're really a man, aren't you?" Two years later, Mollie and her brother, Jacob, know that I am not a man. I am their lesbian step-mom.

What’s in a name?

What does it mean to be a lesbian step-parent? The term itself has an awkward feel. Step-parent implies marriage, but as lesbians, marriage has not always been an option.

Co-parent might be a better fit, but that implies an equal sharing of responsibilities. Yet for Jacob and Mollie, their father still participates in decisions involving them. He and Sharon share custody and share the major financial expenses. Legally I have no rights, no responsibilities.  Despite my involvement helping with homework, tending to illnesses or fixing dinner, my role remains nameless to the external world.

How do I explain my role?

I still feel very much like Mollie did in those early days... trying to understand and explain something for which the English language has no vocabulary.

Sharon and I are two lesbians raising two children. Jacob and Mollie are Sharon's biological children, born in the context of her heterosexual marriage. As the four of us deal with the normal struggle of becoming a family, I struggle with the absence of a vocabulary to describe who we are as a family and on a more personal level, to describe my role in this family.

Am I still an adult playmate or a supportive ally? Am I a step-parent,  a co-parent? Am I all of the above or none of the above? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in-between.

Been there, done that...

I did not enter into the world of step-parenting naively. Rather, I came into this role with prior experience. Prior to my relationship with Sharon, I was in a heterosexual marriage My former husband had three children at the time of our marriage. After six years of marriage, I had a good sense of the general level of stress children can bring to any relationship.

Defining your role is key

In my heterosexual marriage, I had a clearly defined role. My role allowed me to develop a relationship with my step-children, exclusive of their father.

Having a defined role provided the external world a way to relate to me, vis-à-vis the children. Over time we did become a family. I became mom; they became my children.

Family, friends, teachers and ministers recognized us as a family. They acknowledged the integral role I played in co-parenting through my emotional and financial support.

Given this experience, I thought I had a good grasp of the obstacles we’d face when Sharon and I entered into a long-term committed relationship. However, there was one thing I had not counted on... Homophobia.

Homophobia is alive and kickin’

If there is one overriding difference between my experience as a step-parent in the context of a heterosexual marriage versus my current experience, it is the impact of homophobia.

Homophobia stalks us. Like a shadow, its presence is always felt, covering every aspect of our lives. Its most obvious presence is in the context of social pressures to remain invisible for fear the children will be alienated, isolated and ridiculed by their peers. Underneath our obvious concerns, homophobia manifests itself in more subtle and insidious ways.

One Saturday morning Mollie was ill. I hopped on the phone with her pediatrician's office, the next thing I know I hear myself say, "Hello, this is Sharon, I'm calling about my daughter Mollie." As I got off the phone Mollie, in her simplistic manner, asked, "Why didn't you say you were Marcia, Sharon's partner?"

Why indeed... homophobia yet again. "It's just easier and we're in a hurry," I rationalized. But was it for expediency? Why couldn't I name myself as Sharon's partner or Mollie's step-parent? How do I explain that to Mollie or to myself?

The next day I replayed that scenario over and over in my mind. I thought back to the times I phoned doctors regarding my former step-children. 

In those instances I confidently identified myself as their mother. Why this time do I participate in maintaining that veil of invisibility over my role as a lesbian step-parent?

I tried to make myself believe that the situation was different now because Mollie and Jacob have a mother. Then a small voice in the back of my mind began to question, "Who am I in relation to Jacob and Mollie?”

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An invisible relationship

As I reflected on that question, I realized that unlike my prior step-parenting role, this time around there is no name and no label that describes who I am in relation to Jacob and Mollie.

With no name, our relationship remains invisible. This shroud of invisibility allows homophobia to silence us. Both within the family and the external world, my relationship to Jacob and Mollie are viewed only in the context of my relationship to Sharon. There is no way to acknowledge or validate my relationship to the children.

So how can we become a family without a name or definition for our relationship?

Searching for a name

In a society that refuses to name alternative family models, two lesbians openly raising two children face enormous pressures on the journey of becoming family. Undertaking this journey within a homophobic society requires much energy and commitment to the process.

Eighteen months into our relationship as a family, we finally started to recognize the implications of our family structure within the larger society. Now we actively search for ways to name and claim both our family and my role within this family. Below are a few ways we dealt with the difficult task of becoming a family.

We are family

Using the popular song, “We are Family,” as our motto, Sharon and I name ourselves as family and name my role within our family whenever opportunities arise.

Recently a new co-worker asked me how many children I had. After she over heard me speak about Jacob. Before I could respond with my usual "none," I paused. "Two," I said. "Jacob and Mollie." Although my response sounded somewhat strange on one level, I felt something inside shift as I claimed my role as a parent.

To name ourselves and to claim our roles is an important first step in the process of becoming family. This may sound simple to traditional step-families who have the privilege of legal ceremonies and public sanctions to frame their relationships. However, for lesbian and gay couples, the naming process is a life changing event in terms of family development. In naming relationships we define ourselves as we choose. We educate those around us. We confront homophobia head-on.

Give voice to your role

After giving voice and visibility to our family, I have become more assertive and Sharon has encouraged of me to take on additional parental roles. For example, when Sharon’s ex-husband wanted to discuss custody arrangements, Sharon informed both him and the children that I was to be included in those discussions.

We also gave the children's school my name and work number with instructions to call me, in addition to their father, regarding any emergencies should Sharon be unavailable.

Consistent with naming ourselves as family, we now participate in all of the things traditional families take part in. This includes functions at the children's school as well as at our local synagogue. We created our own holiday rituals that are inclusive of my faith tradition, which is different from Sharon's faith tradition. We shared these rituals with other families as a public acknowledgement of our family structure.

It takes time

For my particular role, it has become increasingly clear that my relationship to the children, independent of Sharon, must be given time and space to develop.

One way I have done this is to explore areas of common interest with the children, separate from their mother. For example, Jacob expressed an interest in watching the Super Bowl. I also wanted to watch the game and since Sharon does not like football, Jacob and I watched the game together. We popped popcorn and talked football all day long. We shared many laughs and enjoyed spending time together doing what we love.

Along those same lines, Sharon and I reinforce my role with the children through my participation in certain daily events like reading bedtime stories, not just when Sharon is absent, but more importantly when she is present.

These actions send the message that I am more than just a substitute mom or babysitter.

A positive sign of our progress occurred one night as Sharon and I were cleaning the kitchen. Having readied herself for bed, Mollie approached me. "I need a hug," she said. I sat down and she climbed on my lap while Sharon looked on with a smile.

Marcia Szymanski is a freelance writer. She and her wife, Sharon, spend summers in the Hudson Valley.