Friday, September 26, 2008

(another chapter from The Brides of March: Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage)

Why Would You Want To Do That?

These days, when we go over a river and through the woods, to Seattle, we are engulfed in a cocoon of grandparent enthusiasm. Our kids, waking from their driving-induced slumber, come alive at the idea of Grandma! Grandpa! And all the excellent electronics they stock in grandchild heaven.

Grandma will pick them up, shake them about, get down on the floor with them, and ask them (with the attention of a well-paid therapist) about everything going on in their lives. Grandpa, after initial greetings, will ask about our drive, how our new car is working out, are we hungry? He’ll tell us about the projects Grandma has him working on, and ask Jannine if she’d like to go to the store with him because he forgot to get the rocky road ice cream.

Somewhere in there, Grandma will have gone off to her bedroom and come back with a shopping bag with junior-sized sweatpants, a sparkly shirt for our daughter, maybe a gross of socks, or a Lego building set. Just something she picked up, she’ll say with a good-natured grin, her eyes twinkling, knowing we think our children are spoiled enough as it is.

And that’s just the first twenty minutes.

How things have changed.

Whereas now they cannot wait to see our kids, initially, they weren’t sure we should be having them, period.

When Jannine and I first got together, she was a good girl. She’d done nothing more boat-rocking than buying her motorcycle (she took the safety class, did the market research, and didn’t buy more bike than she could handle), and had never given her parents cause for concern—no wild parties, no binge drinking, no boys named “Fang.”

And then, she brought me home.

By the time I walked into their suburban-style living room replete with crystal stemware and early American furniture, I was well ensconced in the gay subculture, from cowboy boots to leather jacket, from flat top fade to attitude.

We were a cautionary tale of opposites attract. Probably still are, though my hair is down my back and I wear the boots under long skirts, to church.

Needless to say, her parents weren’t overjoyed that their daughter was a lesbian (she said), and that she brought home this alarming girl for their approval, and to every holiday, birthday, family occasion, and casual Sunday drop-over ever since.

To their credit, they never considered disavowing her, throwing me out, or being openly rude. But, they weren’t exactly enthused. Her father has a live and let live philosophy; he may not have been happy with the situation, but it was her life. Her mother expressed her displeasure in subtle ways: suggesting at family functions that Jannine was secretly engaged to her friend Andy, giving us two coffee makers one Christmas (just in case), and asking us not to tell anyone in the extended family.

Jannine, being young, went along with all this for a few years, hoping they would adjust. We went to endless gatherings knowing that as pleasant and polite as they were, they really didn’t want us together, and would have quietly celebrated had I fulfilled their expectations and decamped.

When we decided to have a baby, we didn’t have high hopes for their reaction.

We tried to be optimistic. Jannine and I came over to her parents’ house one sunny weekend morning in March, 1991, intending to break the big news. We all were chatting in the kitchen amicably, when Jannine blurted out, “We’re thinking about having a baby.”

Her mother’s face scrunched in a moue of distaste.

“Why would you want to do that?” she sneered.

Where do you go from there? Jannine tried to explain her longing for a family, her hope for the future, her gratitude for the way she was raised, but it was hard to scramble over the emotional hurdle of “why would you want to do that?” When we admitted that we were already pregnant, and that I was having the baby, they didn’t offer any congratulations, only concerns.

And it hurt.

They were scared. How did they know I wasn’t just using their daughter to get what I wanted? How did they know I wouldn’t have the baby and then take off? Thirteen years ago, the legal prospects for non-biological parents weren’t good. But, we’d done our homework. We already had an appointment to make wills, and to start Jannine’s adoption of our coming son, though it was painful to be explaining safeguards in case I was a schmuck, when we should have been celebrating a grandchild.

They did their best to get used to the idea. Grandma and Grandpa put in an appearance at the baby shower, made joking references to my enlarged condition, and speculated wildly as to the identity of our anonymous donor (we had all the men at the baby shower wear “not the donor” buttons so they wouldn’t be harassed).

When Duncan was born, this tenuous relationship was tested. I was a new mother, afraid for this life entrusted to us, and became The Safety Queen (a.k.a. Madame Paranoia), ever conscious of household poisons, unlocked toilets, marbles, poinsettias, food allergies, and light sockets. My in-laws’ house seemed like a cesspool of danger (as did the entire world), and I let them know it, with, I regret, no tact whatsoever.

Equally, our child rearing methods appalled them. They believed in bottles, cribs, and naps timed to the microsecond. That Duncan ate nothing but breast milk until one, slept with us, was never put down, and rarely babysat, seemed weird to them, which they weren’t afraid to share.

They may have been threatened by our lifestyle, but I was equally threatened by theirs. I was incredibly insecure as a new mother. Jannine’s mom has dedicated her life to her children, and virtually raised her grandson, Kevin, one year older than Duncan. She could run a home with her hands tied behind her back; she’s great with kids and is naturally playful, something I clearly lack.

Yet, we are very alike, she and I. We are women who want desperately to have a stable, safe, and wholesome home life, despite unstable beginnings.

It was ten years ago, as we stood side by side one summer morning at six, holding running water hoses, wearing only red plastic firefighter hats and our nightgowns, the two toddler boys playing in the wet grass, that the cracks in our mutual armor started to show, and we began to have a sense of humor about the situation.

She realized I wasn’t going anywhere, and that it could be worse. I could have been a diesel dyke in steel toed boots, instead of a long-haired liberal arts major in lipstick—surely the lesser of two evils in her eyes, and easier to explain to the neighbors. I started to see the ways they’d welcomed us in, lent their support despite concerns, and loved our kids. We all started laughing at my Safety Queen status. I sided with my mother-in-law in every argument, and made meals with my father-in-law’s particular tastes in mind.

They weren’t quite there when we told them Anna was coming, “Oh…” but, by the time Jannine called to tell them Graeme was due in February, her mom’s voice was giggling across the line, “I knew it, I knew it! I knew Beren was going to talk you into it! This is great!”

And it was.

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