The Perils of Heterosexual Rights

Do you remember wishing you had all the rights and privileges of a married heterosexual couple? I do. It was before that day in an attorney's office when I looked at a calendar that my soon-to-be-ex's lawyer had just handed me, listing in detail my business travel for the previous year. I knew immediately what it meant. Her carefully kept calendar was the bellwether of my demotion from equal mother to absent partner, very much the equivalent of when the father in a heterosexual couple learns in a divorce that he's somehow instantly become the secondary parent.

Yeah, I said it: equal mother. I was an equal mother once. My partner and I were just like any other parents-to-be. We eagerly planned the birth of our first baby with great expectation and excitement. And like other parents around the turn of the millennium, we chose not to know the gender and gleefully picked out gender-neutral clothes, chemical-free toys and soft, cuddly blankets.

So what if we were two women? Who cares? Such a lucky baby to have two moms! One of us would biologically carry the child, and the other would adopt. Other than this difference, we agreed to be completely equal in all ways.

As confirmation of this commitment to equality, we planned to let the child choose how he or she referred to us. "Mom," "Mommy," "Mother," "Mee Mee" -- it didn't matter what we were called; we were equal mothers, and we couldn't wait to mother the stuffing out of our little peanut.

My partner would take maternity leave, then I would take maternity leave. We both had solid careers. Mine was a little more public, required travel, and was better-paying, so we decided to share other tasks more traditionally. I would provide, and my partner would be close to home, but other than that, we considered ourselves equal and hoped to remain so in the eyes of our family and community.

When our son was born, I adopted him via a second-parent adoption, and we were off -- equal even in the eyes of the law!

In general, people were pretty good about this equal mother thing. I don't know whether kindness and acceptance were motivated by a desire to be politically correct, but it seemed genuine, and rarely did I feel like people assigned me the "father" role, as sometimes happens when same-sex relationships don't make sense to the outside world. Our families and friends all seemed to support our shared platform of equal mothers. How wonderful! It played out nicely while the relationship was intact and we were equal, down to the nighttime rituals, the feedings (breast or bottle -- didn't matter!), the decisions, the comforting, the teaching, the mothering. Equal.

Flash-forward: a courtroom, a settlement, and me as the "wage earner" who traveled for work (read: stereotypical absent father). I was relegated to a mothering status one step lower, just because we no longer had a relationship as partners, and because I had not biologically produced the child. We didn't work together as a couple anymore, so the biological privilege prevailed within a heterosexual paradigm of one mother.

That day, I became the "other mother." No longer was I seen as equal -- not by my partner, and not by the court. Sure, I had adopted the baby, but I didn't give birth. Yes, we were both legal parents, but more importantly we were, glaringly, two dykes ending a relationship with the poor child stuck in the middle, and at the time, the court just didn't get it.

What I had seen as my shining, promising career, which supported our vision of becoming parents (in case you didn't know, alternative conception methods aren't cheap!), now became an ugly weapon. My ex used my required travel to demonstrate that I wasn't around and thus didn't deserve equal time. Equal by choice, unequal by circumstance.

I'm sure heterosexual couples have similar experiences in divorce, but in our case, the injustice seemed even more stark: We were both women, and we had agreed to be absolutely equal parents, only now we weren't, not by a long shot. Somehow, separation should be easier and more refined between women who are mothering a child, right? Wrong.

Part of the difficulty was simply the inexperience of the court. See, a court knows what to do with heterosexual divorce, but not how to juggle Mom 1 and Mom 2. The court didn't know what to do with equal, only how to pick -- and there's only one space for "mother" on the court form. This spot belongs to the biological mother -- the one who kept the calendar, stayed closer to home, took the maternity leave, etc. The mother who is without a printed place for her name on the court form, who has to cross out "father," becomes the "other."

But what was even more difficult was the fact that the inexperienced and perhaps naïve court could only work from a heteronormative paradigm. For Mom 1, who was staying home at the time, this worked pretty nicely. There was no need for her to point out the court's error, because with it came all the privileges that go along with the one who is "at home" and receives financial support.

Here I was, a lifelong gay rights advocate who believed passionately in this revolutionary way of creating families, and even I missed the fact that our separation was following a heteronormative model -- and one that seemed unfair. But I stayed silent. Why? Looking back, knowing what I know now, I would have spoken up, corrected the error and advocated for myself. Or would I have? I know I didn't consciously buy into the heteronormative model of marriage or divorce, so maybe I just fell prey to the age-old monster: internalized homophobic prejudice.

All I know is that since fighting to be included in the heteronormative model of marriage and then being steamrolled by the heteronormative model of divorce, I've been fighting these systems from the perspective of the "other" mother.