A queer motherhood: unpacking monomaternalism (one mother)


Our notions of motherhood [are shaken] and seem to have taken the nature out of Mother Nature…neither nature nor mothers can be assumed to be what they were….(Schwartz 240)

My body is marked as more feminine, and so I was “the one” in the queer relationship that people assumed would carry a child to term. My genderqueer partner decided to carry first for a variety of reasons, including that she is biracial and wanted a biological child who resembled her. Queer motherhoods complicate how parenthood is defined, particularly from the time before conception through the moment of birth. Even during birth class, the assumption that the biological mother will innately “know” more about breastfeeding, be the one taking notes, and asking more questions is situated within a heteronormative parental structure. In our birthing class, I took the notes.

Shelley Park coined the term monomaternalism in her recent book, Mothering Queerly, Queering Motherhood. Monomaternalism is not only perpetuated by culture, but also by biology. In fact, even within the queer world, there are constructions of what it means to be a good “queer” and a bad “queer,” and parenthood many times fits a little too safely into a heteronormative framework. Therefore, a non-biological queer mother resists not only the stereotypical feminine biological mother, but also the stereotypical motherless lesbian. From the moment a queer-identified couple decides to have a child (Mamo), and through stories of fertility clinics, donor sperm, naming practices, birthing stories, the birth itself, and into the first year of our beloved’s life, their decisions and constructions of motherhood resist not only heterosexual roles (Ben-Ari, A., and Livni, T.), but also femininity and the cult of true womanhood.

I will use queer motherhood framework (Suter) to situate how I position and name my own non-biological mother narrative, which resists invasive heteronormative conception even couples who are infertile and couples who adopt are still supported by heterosexual master narratives, but also parenting practices, divisions of labor (Matos), and what it means to be a mother of a child I created (Moraga; Aizley), being with my partner through the moment of conception, pregnancy, and birth. This construction of non-biological queer parenthood is not parallel with adoptive parents; my child’s biological parent is the person I love (Gabb). Perhaps these subversive parenting structures can build better, more egalitarian, humble, and vulnerable family constructions. Maternal ambivalence is a vehicle then for nonbiological mothers to have a voice, that is, because of their position within the institutional hierarchy of motherhood, they are at a riskier, more vulnerable, and choosing between two worlds. In this case, I will argue that nonbiological mothers are synonymous with the ambivalanece of choosing between the master narrative of aligning themselves with fathers, which many do, or producing a new form of queer motherhood that transgresses the mother/father binary and builds a new paradigm of the queer family.

Naming the “Other” Mother: Defined by What I am Not

Much of the literature is inconsistent with the naming of the “other” mother, and what the child calls the parent (Abelsohn). The “other” mother; de novo families (Hayman 274); mather for a hybrid form of mother/father (Padavic 176); nonbiological motherhood (Reinmann 716); and of course language like complex, tenuous, and shadowy are prevalent. All of these terms resist the singular institution of mother hood, the “honored” (DiLapi 110) or “moral” mother; the authentic or “real” biological mother. Clearly the naming of these identities is situated within larger social assumptions about the institution of motherhood (Rich, 1977).

However, all of these terms also did not attempt to change the biological mother category – rather re-name and situate the “non” category. By not revising the biological, authentic mother name, the essential and moral mother stays in tact. In order to truly dismantle the institution of motherhood, it may be necessary to disrupt and transform the biological mother identity as much as the nonbiological one. For this reason, I will continue to use the most conventional term, nonbiological mother, until the biological mother category can also be disrupted and re-named.

Intentional Decision-Making in Queer Family Planning

A non-biological queer motherhood narrative begins well before birth. Decision making has to include intentionality, and creating a sense of family in a society that does not necessarily recognize queer life (Oswald). Many of the articles address the legality of motherhood as a central issue to non-biological mothers; that is, because the non-biological mother did not give birth to the child and may have not been able to be legally married to the birth mother up until same sex marriage was legalized in the United States in June 2015. Although legalizing motherhood can in many ways validate and substantiate “true” motherhood or at least true parenthood, I do not believe that legalization is the silver bullet that will level how we view two-mother families.

However, even within my case of being married before our daughter was born, I still had to go through second parent adoption in order to ensure full parentage across state borders and the ever-changing landscape of same sex family law. The decision to have a child has to be legally and medically intentional; that is, we acted on and had to negotiate a variety of legal and medical terrains before we inseminated. There are many times when my straight friends will jokingly say, when we are discussing family planning and the number of children we are going to have, “well, you never know!” I reply back, “actually we do. Whenever we are “trying for a baby,” we have to march over the infertility clinic and do the insemination.” This conscious decision making already resists the heteronormative narrative of a “surprise” or “oops” baby, or that one night of unprotected love making could create another human being. Erlandsson’s work in Sweden on nonbirth lesbian mothers was validating. Through her interviews of nonbirth lesbian mothers, Erlandsson found that most nonbirth lesbian mothers “felt like everyone else, but not quite,” (99). Even though I am still in a monogamous relationship with two parents, I still did not fit in the mother/father binary, starting from the infertility clinic where we saw images of heterosexual and infertile couples and realized the “interventions” were built on the assumption that we were infertile and needed some sort of medical procedure or prescription for it. In fact, once the clinic found out we were a healthy, young lesbian couple who “just” needed a few inseminations, the least invasive and least expensive procedure there, we did not have much guidance beyond that.

In addition to the intentional decision making process, there have also been differences in the way nonbiological mothers are interested in choosing the donor, and whether or not they would meet the donor. In a study that surveyed both nonbiological mothers and fathers who used “open” anonymous donor sperm, they asked the question if the parents would eventually like to meet the child’s donor. 73% of nonbiological mothers indicated they would like to meet the donor, whereas 45%, under half, of the fathers indicated the same. Even though the same procedure and many of the same decisions are made when heterosexual couples use anonymous donor sperm, many of the fathers do not wish to meet the donor. In many ways this is a consequence of the deeply rooted patriarchal infrastructure that as long as there is one mother plus one father, the bio-genetic relatedness (Pelka 397) is not as central. In fact, Pelka argues that LGBTQ people internalize some of the same biologic-relatedness philosophies through the planning, including choosing a sperm donor who looks like the nonbiological mother to ensure more biological similarities. Sadly, we are not immune to internalizing the notion that “authentic” motherhood is singular (Suter 459).

Because the Western, Euro-centric definition of family is structured around this biological myth, monomaternal, essential motherhood is central to external and internal notions of what it means to be a woman and a parent. Padavic and Butterfield (177) point out that this “essential motherhood” – the one, biological birth mother structure – are at the top of the motherhood hierarchy. Therefore, queer motherhood, or co-motherhood, transgresses these normative “biological” assumptions, and are positioned at the bottom.

Transition into Queer Motherhood

I was the first person to “catch” my daughter after birth, and when our daughter opened her eyes, she saw mine before my partner’s. Our eyes locked and I knew we would be forever connected. Ben-Ari discusses the curious transformation that nonbiological mothers make in the article “Motherhood Is Not a Given Thing: Experiences and Constructed Meanings of Biological and Nonbiological Lesbian Mothers”. In fact, her research of Israeli biological and nonbiological mothers shows more similarities in the even physical experience of birth – with both parents viewed it as a mutual process. Another interesting finding was that in becoming mothers, lesbians are actually more normalized in that they are now perceived to be joining the heteronormative mainstream society. However, even when many queer parents have the intention of the “egalitarian ethic”(Goldberg) before birth during conception and pregnancy, they fall into the roles after, namely with the birth or breastfeeding mother being the central figure in the child’s life, which actually fits the master heterosexual narrative. In fact, I did not realize how pervasive gender roles still are when they come to parenting until I became a parent. Many heterosexual women have shared stories of their own experiences with “having to do it all on their own,” even when they come from a more educated or higher socioeconomic background. Even though there is a strong movement now that “my husband is not a babysitter” that resist the notion that the bulk of childrearing duties relies on women, in straight families, the woman generally conducts more of the childrearing day-to-day tasks more than queer families. Breastfeeding was one of the more centralized biological behaviors addressed in the literature that would frame the biological mother as more essential for the child’s development, and to position the biological mother as the singular, authentic or “real” mother.

However, in queer motherhood because most parents were committed to egalitarian family structures, even if breastfeeding may have initially been front and center and lead to a more traditional employment choices (the nonbiological mother being more likely to work and the biological mother staying at home), eventually once the children became toddlers, the division of labor would sometimes still be within the more heteronormative framework (Goldberg and Perry-Jenkins 17). This also depended on whether or not the nonbiological mother identified as more masculine, or wanted to ever be a biological mother. All of these factors lead to a very complex and diverse understanding of queer motherhood. In short, not all queer mothers queer the idea of the mother/father binary. Some uphold it. In reading through much of the literature, I realized I did not “fit” even within a narrative being formed on queer motherhood; that is – the more feminine partner was “naturally” the one that would try to conceive and be the biological mother. My partner identifies as genderqueer and I am more feminine, but she was the one to carry our first child. Biology still remains a “silent marker” of difference, even within queer families.

Suter’s (467) work validates the fact that we are not immune to internalizing the idea of one authentic mother. Suter identifies four tenets of what they name as co-motherhood, one of the many names for this identity. The four tenets are:

  1. Biological ties are not needed to render mother-child relationships real and legitimate
  2. A child can have more than one real mother
  3. A father’s presence is not necessary for raising well-adjusted children
  4. Nonbiological motherhood also equals moral motherhood

During my own transition into queer motherhood, I thought a lot about the first two tenets of Suter’s work. The transition to motherhood for nonbiological parents is a complex process because many times it lacks both legal and biological substantiation with few role models, which can lead to isolation (Wojnar 58). In fact, some nonbiologal queer mothers indicate they may not only feel invisible, but they are performing motherhood. Shelley Park discusses this performance in Mothering Queerly, Queering Motherhood. In fact, nonbiological mothers know they are “passing”. “It is incumbent on us…to know the script for good mothering well and to audition for the role convincingly,” (24). Further, because pregnancy is defined as a solely “female” experience and even a rite of passage for women, it would make sense that the nonbiological queer mother would align more with the father role, which would explain why when my daughter was born, I felt like I was “almost but not quite” the “real” parent. Wojnar discusses the risk of being invisible and even having a “shadowy” status, being in between the male/female or mother/father binaries. Sullivan dubs the binary concept of food mother/fun mother, but this binary still reflect the heteronormative structure of the mother providing nutrients and essential life elements and the father being the playful figure. Pelka discusses the paradox of shared motherhood:

The puzzle for families headed by two mothers is to psychologically negotiate each woman’s learned expectations that she would one day be her child’s most central relational object and primary attachment figure. When motherhood, a status generally defined by its singularity, is shared it can be challenging to one’s internalized sense of one’s own full maternal status, particularly if one is not the birth/biological mother (197).

Division of Labor in Queer Families

Much of the literature on same sex families includes some element of a division of labor. That is, who takes care of daily household activities, child care, finances, laundry, dishes, and other day to day domestic operations. In 2015, The Families and Work Institute wrote a report titled Modern Families: Same and Different Sex Families Negotiating at Home. Some of their findings reported no significant statistical differences in everyday operations of the household between same and different sex couples; however, there were some interesting findings as it related to child care. Two child care responsibilities in particular – the routine child care and sick child care showed significant differences between how same and different sex couples divide up these particular tasks. Of the families interviewed, 74% shared the child care responsibility in same sex couples whereas only 38% in the different sex couples. Same sex couples are more likely to indicate they share child care responsibilities, which although was only one category, it was comprehensive in that it included most of the day to day, routine child care tasks (Matos 8). Within same sex female households, Sullivan (70) suggests that most of the couples she interviewed equally shared all household responsibilities. Of the couples who did not, traditional gender role differentiation did not matter as much as “personal preferences” in that it was really about what skill set each individual parent had and not about their socially constructed gender role. This notion circles back again to Goldberg’s (17) “egalitarian ethic” and how that framework manifests in queer female relationships, particularly related to child care responsibilities, but also parenting styles and family values. The silent marker of biology, even though it can impact naming of a parental identity and increased isolation and stress on the nonbiological parent, very rarely impacted how child care responsibilities were divided, even when controlled with breastfeeding.

However, homonormativity, a term that is used to describe tendencies among non-heterosexuals to assimilate to heteronormative standards, is still prevalent in some lesbian households. Again, Goldberg and Perry-Jenkins (310) found that if the birth mother believes that biology matters more, she is more likely to perform more of the stereotypical female childcare duties. Likewise, if the couple is more committed to an egalitarian philosophy, the childcare duties are more shared. Downing and Goldberg also echoed this “spontaneously earned” ethic, and defined it as the couple’s philosophy that gender and birth status are irrelevant. With these families, it formed a new “homonormative way of presenting one’s relations [that was] independent of the surrounding heteronormativity,” (265). A new queer model of motherhood seems to be developing when looking at division of childcare labor in particular. When reading this last article, I realized that my family fit into the spontaneously earned model, and it was validating to have a name not only for my own nonbiological parental status, but also a name for our family structure and parental values. This spontaneously earned way of thinking of birth and gender as irrelevant contrasts with the deeply embedded heteronormative ideals of parenthood, nuclear family, and monomaternalism. Further, it not only resists it, but provides a new way of defining motherhoods, and how we shape what it means to be a parent.

Maternal ambivalence is inherent in non-biological queer parents’ identities and stories simply because of the (non) placement of these narratives within the larger heterosexualized motherhood complex. Because of my femininity situated within the larger social formations of parenthood, I was destined to be ambivalent. However, this ambivalence is also situated within the heteronormative framework – I have to be a social taboo or exception because I’m feminine, because I “look” like the one who would carry a baby, because I’m queer but can pass as straight. When I begin to look at new homonormative motherhood structures and using new terms like polymaternalism to define not only my own experience, but my partner’s (birth mother) experience, it provides a new road map for defining our shared familial experience, and not just my own isolated nonbiological mother one. My ambivalence as a mother, then, can be re-positioned as a player in a larger, newer framework for parental and familial structures. When mothers tell me that “they are the only one” that ever does anything or when mothers post questions on facebook that address only other mothers, I can transform the conversation simply by sharing my own experience, and providing them with another way of thinking about multiple mothers, both nurturing, both doing the laundry and cooking and childcare. Both parents. In fact, maybe no variation of motherhood is truly stable, definitive, or certain. Maybe all variations of motherhood are ambivalent, contradictory, changeable. Until we truly begin to dismantle the construction of biological motherhood – and debunk the myth that it is somehow more ‘stable’ or ‘real,’- all other types of motherhood, including nonbiological, will remain on the margins of the privileged, authentic motherhood fantasy.


“I cannot walk on icy or rocky terrain without stumbling; she can dangle from trees by her toes. I agonize over every alternative; she leaps spontaneously toward each decision. I turn in circles without a map; she backseat drives with glee and flawless spatial precision. On the other hand, like me, my daughter likes cooking, cuddling, puzzles, red, and irony. Coincidence? Parallel genetic construction? Environment? Nurture? Chance? Magic? Does it matter?” (Beizer, 2002)


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Works Cited

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