“So which one do you belong to? Who's your mummy?” the woman in the shoe store asks my daughter. I groan inwardly before faking a bright smile.
“We both are!” I say for the third time that day.
“Oh, that’s lovely,” says the shoe store woman. “But which one’s the real mummy?”
It's a common question, one that haunts our little family as we move through the world. Look at a man and a woman together, what do you see? A family. Two women together with a child? Sisters, friends, cousins, maybe, but a family? Not so much.
As a lesbian step-mother, this regularly asked question works to erase my connection to my child. In her book Mothering Queerly, Queering Motherhood, theorist Shelley Park calls this ethos “mono-maternalism,” the idea that there is one and only one “real” mother for each child. She argues that this version of kinship excludes all kinds of mothers from authenticity—step-mothers, lesbian mothers, adopted mothers, even polyamorous mothers.
So when strangers ask us, “who is the biological mother,” it is not mere idle curiosity—though it is intimate and indeed quite rude—that propels these questions; it is a social interest in determining which relationships are meaningful and important, and which are not. Either you gave birth to your child and you are the “real” mother, or you did not and you are not. I call this narrative the romance of the biological, in which kinship and inheritance is described as only and ever biological, and hence only and ever heterosexual. Those of us who live outside of the biological heterosexual family model find we are out of place, even in shoe stores.
And yet, we live in a society where women are still expected to do the bulk of the caring labour for their partners and families, often for children with whom they have no biological link. As literary theorist Helene Cixous has famously put it, for every woman “there is always in her at least a little of that good mother's milk.” We praise men for the slightest bit of parental interest, and yet expect women—all women—to be maternal whenever it is needed.
Indeed, it is simply taken for granted by many of the same people who negate my motherhood as a step-parent that I will take care of my child—but without the credit of a “real” mother. I work as hard as the next mum, making my daughter's lunches, taking her to and from school, to the doctor, the dentist, to swimming lessons, reading her bedtime stories, and sitting with her at her bedside as she drifts off to sleep. But while my child calls me her mother, this relationship is all too frequently denied by the world around her—whether it be peers, teachers, other parents or extended family.
So it needs to be said that in practice it is decidedly not the case that the heterosexual nuclear family is the only structure that takes care of each child. Step-parents, queer parents, grandparents, extended family, friends (that is to say, chosen family) may all be highly involved in the caring for a child. It takes a village to raise a child, as the cliché goes, and some of those people do in fact take on the role of a parent. The definition of family is broadening all the time, and yet we remain bound to an ideology that attributes authenticity—and hence value—only for one mother with a biological link to her child.
My hope, therefore, is that as the dominance of the heterosexual nuclear family wanes, we can evolve a more diverse and more accepting understanding of motherhood as a social practice—and a more inclusive way of speaking about mothers. While right-wing Christians fear-monger about the absence of both sexes from queer families, we are out there doing our best, and research shows that our kids are doing as well or better than those of heterosexual families. There are so many mums out there who do parent children they are not biologically related to, even as their hard work is often devalued, and we are as "real" as any other mother.