Sunday, July 15, 2007

Identity, family, badges and labels

Just recently I have found myself wandering into some blogs of other lesbian mums. It has got me reflecting on the way our lives as parents have panned out, and on the whole thorny question of identity.

When the kids were little we were very active in our local L and G parents’ group. In reality it was always more a lesbian mums’ group than anything else, occasionally a dad (or prospective dad) would appear, but as he was nearly always the only man there he usually didn’t return! The group had a mixture of single parents and couples. I think there was only one family that was in the process of adopting. Back in those days (8 or 10 years ago) this was still a tricky process and usually involved one parent adopting and the other remaining pretty invisible in the official records. That’s very different now and we know of several local lesbian and gay couples who have adopted children. But, anyway, most of the families had kids they’d either chosen to have as a couple, or who had been born from previous heterosexual relationships.

The group was usually pretty busy and families would come quite a way for the sessions. We were very active in the whole thing – being key-holders, keeping the books, getting involved with planning Christmas parties or organising speakers. Mostly that was just an established pattern for us – and especially for Dani. If she gets involved in something she tends to get really involved! But it was also indicative of our sense of looking for an identity as a family, and as parents. Not only did we attend the group religiously, we read all the books we could find (both always do that, no matter what the issue!) on lesbian and gay parenting. Looking back, I am glad and grateful that we took that approach. Going to the group when P was little gave me a place where my parenthood wasn’t questioned and I didn’t have to keep explaining myself – and that was then mirrored for D when L was born. Can’t say what it gave to D, P, or L but they were generally keen to go. I think that it did help the kids to realise that other people had two mums, or no dad, or some other combinations of parents. So, how come we aren’t still there every month? What happened to that need?

I guess that part of the explanation is that people just do tend to throw themselves in to things when they are new to them. The way we behaved was pretty much a carbon copy of our early years as out dykes – at the club nights, in the campaign groups, wearing all the gear, reading all the books. Later on you calm down a bit, realise that you’re in this for the long haul and attempt to integrate the new aspect of your life with everything else. (Think Little Britain’s Daffyd as someone not yet engaging with this process!) Also, you tend to realise that whatever the label you still have a need to work out how to do this as you – or, in the case of family, as us.

Several jolts occurred when we were very involved with the L and G parents’ group - things that jarred with our sense of how we wanted and needed to parent and live. One was the realisation that our model of family creation (each giving birth to one child, sharing the childcare and both working outside the home) was not actually being followed by anyone else! We found ourselves floundering for common ground with families where one person thought that all the housework was her job, or that the kids should be neat and tidy when their working mummy got home. That kind of rigid distinction of roles wasn’t reflected in the heterosexual partnerships of our own siblings and we were a bit gobsmacked to find it in lesbian parents’ relationships. Another was that we’d find ourselves being part of discussions on ‘discipline’ for toddlers and little kids. Talking about appropriate punishment was just way off the radar of our beliefs about parenting. It was only a matter of time before our decision to home ed Leo, and Pearl’s decision to come out of school, introduced a giant hiccup in our comfort levels. For some reason, around that time, discussion often tended to centre around which were the ‘good’ schools, and how to ensure you got into them. So, we felt less and less at home.

If our day to day lives had thrown us more homophobic situations to deal with, then we would surely have clung a bit closer to that group. There’s nothing like adversity for bringing people together. But, extremely luckily for us, we live in a city and a neighbourhood where we don’t face lots of prejudice. Brighton is also a place where people make diverse lifestyle choices. The kids aren’t surrounded by families that all look the same. They know that people (parents and children) come in a range of sexualities and gender identities. Though I’m not na├»ve enough as to assume that they never have moments of discomfort to deal with, they aren’t facing daily bullying at school, or on the street. Dani and I both have families and work mates who accept us for who we are and both our employers recognise our family relationship. So, with gladness and thanks, but some element of relief, we stopped going along to the L and G parents’ group.

This process, of acknowledging a path, identifying with it and slowly working out how to walk it as yourself, is a recurring pattern in life. People do it in all sorts of environments – home, family, career, unpaid work, hobby. I have been quite conscious of how our family has adjusted to the label of ‘home educating family’. Finding a philosophical location where our family is comfortable, as well as actual places where each family member is comfortable, is an ongoing process. Sometimes we flounder when family members have different needs. Sometimes we need to stop and consider how we’re doing and if everyone is getting enough of what they need.

I have realised that recognising and caring for all elements of myself is essential for happiness, though it is not easy. If I’m tasked with finding a good image of a dalek for someone’s poster, that doesn’t mean I won’t just sneak a quick image search for Karina Lombard – just to brighten my day. If I am reading something heavy on the origins of thinking, then I might well take a break with the latest G-Scene. Nattering to my mum on the phone is as vital as following in-depth debate about the government consultation on home ed. Getting the washing on is as important as getting to work on time – but neither is as vital as being there when the children need me. If I get just a couple of chances to dance ballroom stylie with my true love in any one year, then those chances are worth grabbing with both hands. And so on… Being a parent, being a lesbian mum, being a home educator – they’re all who I am, but they’re only part of who I am. What I hope for the future is that our children feel the freedom to define themselves, to name what and who they are - no matter how unusual the combination of labels.


Beth: said...

Thank you for sharing your ponderings on this .... Way back when Forrest (18) was little there was a lesbian mothers group I was part of. It worked well for a while, but there was a certain conformity of identity and politics which were required. For me, being a mother came first: for the group, one's sexual identity was supposed to come first, as that was presumed to influence one's parenting more strongly than anything else.

Then, too, even though they said they were open to mothers who identified as bi, in truth they were not at all welcoming. Such is life. Over the years I have found identifying myself by my sexuality to be less and less useful. I'm not sure if useful is the best word. Important? Maybe? Anyway. My family is pretty complicated: I'm not sure where we'd fit in these days! :-)

Allie said...

Yes, I think that 18 years ago there were lots of environments where identity politics held sway. If you couldn't, or didn't want to, sign up to the whole identity then that was 'unacceptable' in some way - letting the side down! I have some crazy stories from those days.

I am less and less concerned with finding a 'perfect fit' for me or my family. I hope that my kids get the message that it is ok to be there, to belong, but to be different in some respects to other people.

I know what you mean about identifying by sexuality. I certainly do that less than when I was younger. But, that said, there are some very deep rooted loyalties that I don't forget. And sometimes I really do crave to be in a lgbt environment. There's something about being just one of the women couples in the bar that is a real break from being the only one.

emma said...

This is a beautiful post. Thank you.

Yes - that thing of assimilation of ideas with the missionary zeal of the new convert, and then "the long haul"... mmm... all those different facets of one's personality.

Gill said...

Yes, I especially related to the bit about giving equal value and emphasis to the different aspects and sections of your life. Realising it's important to do that has really helped me.

I'm impressed with the way you two organise things there, WRT sharing earning and parenting etc. You're very inspiring! - great role models IMO.

'EF' said...

Excellent post Allie.

Very well put. Our family doesn't seem to fit in with any group now, especially because we are all so being muslim, Willow loving Jesus and Noah, Meadow being a nature worshipping lass, dh and his indian guru background. I suppose that just as some of us sometimes are identified by our sexuality, I am identifying my family by our methods of spirituality and/or religion. It is ongoing though, defining ourselves and creating our own forms.

But. However much I bang my independance drum...there is no match for the feeling of absolute peace and understanding that came when I was in the company of other muslims for the first time since I embraced Islam...there are reasons we group..yes, of that I am sure. And it certainly cuts out the question. "Why are you wearing that thing on your head?"

But mostly we have become more exclusive with our time..and we do tend to choose very carefully who we spend time with..and who we choose to be with tends to be based on how honest and trustworthy and respectful they are with us and not on 'what' they are.

I hope my kids are learning to see people with their hearts.