The See-Saw Family
Begun March 6, 2006
I was standing on a street-corner when I felt the tilting and, though it might have been someone's brakes or the door to the diner behind me, it sounded like the screech of old metal pressed into service. Two dapper young lesbians walked by in perfectly pressed tuxedo shirts and short hair, dressed for night though it was early morning, striding in that way that my sisters walk, but even in San Francisco discreetly not holding hands. For 23 years of my lesbianism, dapper butches had been my favorite. A woman in slacks. Cognac, the New York Times, erudition.
But today, as a single lesbian mother, I clutched my son's hand tighter and felt chilled by how remote they seemed.
I had left yet another relationship but this break up was more devastating, more profound. Three years of cautious weekends and separate arrangements only to hear, "Gosh, I don't really want to be in a family."
I thought we could win her over, that time would draw her to this life spent raising kids, and to my child.
After she left, I started dating but was told by my beautiful, witty artist that she didn't want kids. And not knowing any better, telling her that I didn't want her to discipline my child or cover my finances, that I could keep my family life separate, how deluded was that? She knew better and disappeared.
No, separate wasn't going to work. It was family or celibacy and my friends point out that I'm really not built for celibacy.
Searching the internet, this time for lesbians who clearly stated a desire to be in a family, I found only femmes. Any woman who checked the box "would consider it" was ruled out. "Yeah, I like kids," they'd say, and it sounded like "sure, I like...dogs." I wasn't going through that again; have some woman exercise her right to change her mind or become involved only to reject us.
It was a slow, cautious business. You can't move too quickly when kids are involved, you can't have flings or give it a try. They take it personally. They believe in happily-ever-after. They want and need things settled, and they're incredibly traditional about parents. Serve them a sippy cup, you're a parent in their eyes.
But I'm not a woman to be alone. I didn't know what to do.
Taking one last look at the lesbian night owls, I saw a man coming up the walk, pushing a stroller with another kid in a shoulder pack. He was in his early thirties though sleep-deprivation made him look older. He schlumpped down the street, his socks mismatched and his bed-head hair ignored. The stroller rider had a bottle and was well-tucked into blankets and the backpack rider was bouncing up and down on the lumbar rung in that giddy callisthenic that makes a parent seem to be trudging through sand. You could tell he was tired, that his needs came second, that someone was at home reaping the rewards of his generosity. And that he was happy about that. He had the strength and self-confidence to live in the wrinkled world of parenting. Believe me, it takes a lot of confidence and exhaustion (or is it good values and clear priorities?) to make you not care if your clothes match.
And that, it turns out, was the crux of my becoming bisexual, to jumping the fence, or deserting the flock, or throwing in the towel: The sexual allure of nurturance drew me in. There's nothing sexier to me than evidence of generosity.
There is a sensuality to parenting. It sure isn't dapper, but it's very sexy.
People will grant you that parenting is a different world, but I've never heard that it's got a really hot streak to it. That care of children is a parent's foreplay. And I hadn't expected that a rumpled dad with happy kids would be way more attractive to me than a dapper someone focused on themselves.
I knew that family life was a different world, but I didn't know that the world of good parenting is so all-consuming, so entirely defining, that it can transcend the confines of gender, orientation, and social definition. It's not just that you spend all your time with parents, it's that the ability to focus on someone else is an indicator of a heart that's open and giving. And that's about as hot as it gets.
It was a surprise to me that it would be easier to find a man willing to put someone else first, to devote himself to nurturing, than a woman. It was a surprise to me that it was damn hard to find a lesbian who didn't lean back and proclaim to be "too selfish for kids." And so began the journey of discovering that some of our lesbian mainstays just weren't true for me anymore.
A Movement Lesbian
Twenty-three years with women is a long time. A lot of sex can be had in 23 years. I had done the committed relationship thing. I had done the SM thing, the non-monogamy thing, the orgy in the country thing. What was left?
I guess when you've been a lesbian long enough, sex with men is the only thing left that's taboo.
And I hadn't been one of those lesbians who knew at age 6 that she was gay. In fact, I had no desire to have sex with women, but 25 years ago men were a piggish lot, especially in Europe where I was living. I was between the boat and pier. So when a German woman told me, "You're called a 'movement lesbian,'" (women who go for the politics and stay for the sex), and then pressed me into the wall like a good top should, I stayed.
Twenty-five years ago, orientation wasn't a fluid thing. You were in or you were out. Going "back to men" was like a nun who gave up the frock, it was giving in to The Man. It was aiding and abetting the oppressor.
But I seem to re-invent myself every decade or so. I became a lesbian and 10 years into it became a mother. Ten years into motherhood I became bisexual. If my mother were still alive she would be afraid of the future.
The Swinging Closet Door
It's odd to tell people about this. "I've gone bi," I practice, but it sounds like I've gone by the store, or gone by the river, by the wayside. There are people who see a picture of my boyfriend Simon (OK, not his real name, but he deserves a little privacy) on my desk at work who have no clue that I "used to be" a lesbian. I come out to gay people on the job and it's an awkward conversation that makes them suspicious, the new millennium version of "some of my best friends are gay" but now it's "some of my best years were gay." I have new friends who have never known me as a lesbian and old friends who are just getting used to the idea of my not being a lesbian. Twice as many awkward conversations, twice as many closets.
Like having dinner with a straight man in the Castro. Clearly a bi-type move. Or maybe it was the move of a lesbian who didn't know what she was doing on an internet het-date site. Well, it was late at night. Sitting at Orphan Andy's counter eating, my "date" mentions that the gay people around us seem nervous. As if they haven't seen straight folk in a while, he whispers. But it's me, sitting there at total odds with myself, eating a salad with identity crisis dressing. Who is this guy? And who are men, really? What do I know about them? I've only got one male friend, and he's a radical fairie. Of course there are all the dads I hang around with, they're pretty cool. But what about this guy?
I've never been on the outside of the outside before. A bisexual in the Castro is on the outside of the fringe. Assumed to be the inside. I had whiplash.
And having dinner, again, with my boyfriend Simon, in the Castro, where the waiter treated us like breeders, camping it up as if we'd never seen a queer before and making all kinds of references to how "we gays" do things. I wanted to raise my hand like Hermione Granger, "ooh, ooh, I'm a sexual outlaw too!"
But there are advantages, I admit. Even here in San Francisco gay people on the street stiffen up and drop hands when they walk past people who appear to be heterosexual, and I don't have to do that anymore. My guy's not really the hand-holding kind (he tolerates my hand looped through his arm) but hey, I don't have to stiffen any more. The world's definitely safer, I'll attest to that.
Simon leans back against the kitchen sink and wants to know why I don't call myself heterosexual now.
I proclaim, almost with hostility, that it would be to suggest that the last 23 years of lesbianism was a mistake.
He presses on. "If this relationship didn't work, would you consider going back to women?"
I want to remind him of how much I love him, how devoted I am, and how good we are together, but that's not the question in front of us. (Nor the focus of this piece. No one asks, "why do you love Simon the man;" they ask "why are you with men the gender.")
His question makes me see my former selves spin out of my shoulders like a vapor trail. Women full of piss and vinegar. Full of righteous confidence that I just hadn't found The One. The just-shout-"Next"-and-you're-on belief that love was out there. But I'm nearly 50 years old now, and not only am I looking at my own middle age (exactly middle, since I want to live to be 100+), but I'm filled to the brim with the knowledge that I can't put my kid through another breakup, desertion, another set of readjustments. It's this or nothing.
If he leaves, I give up on love altogether. I mean that. I've tried every configuration and gender. I sincerely think I would shave my head and become a Buddhist nun. Not so far-fetched, really: I'm a Buddhist who has taken refuge. My Buddhism is central to my belief system and is at the core of my coping skills. I'd be a nun with saltpeter in her begging bowl, though.
What does that say about my sexuality? I won't base my sexual identity on my current heterosexuality so I can honor my past. Simon will give me my bisexuality if there's a chance of having sex with women in the future. If I intend to be celibate in the future, then am I pre-celibate? Is that a category?
Whatever it is, though, I'm definitely queer. I'm the B in the LGBT, so I still get to march in the parade. I may not be gay but I'm definitely in the "women with unusual sexuality" category. You can't have double-closets and not be considered queer.
Coy on a Barstool
Lesbianism is the land of the outward women. The self-made women. If there's one cultural trait that you can attribute to lesbians, it's that they say what they mean and mean what they say. They don't do coy. They don't do phony demure. You don't sit coy on a barstool waiting to be selected and laid. It's a self-selection process among lesbians, you make your world right down to the sheets. So when I "decided" to have sex with women, it was a darn difficult process, since I thought I could just switch bars, perch myself among women, and they'd pick me up. Maybe it was because they were Dutch (coldest people on the planet, statistically proven) and I didn't speak the language. Or maybe it was because I was already known in the bar as a straight girl. It just seemed to take forever.
A Different Kind of Straight Girl
All that lesbianism has made me a very different sort of woman, and I'm not sure Simon appreciates it (but that's OK). There are a number of things that drive me crazy about straight women (and always have). For example, I'm appalled that they use sex as a manipulative behave-or-you-don't-get-any tool. No lesbian would tolerate that. Sex tapers off and falls away, but no lesbian would use it to get the lawn mowed.
And who the hell taught straight women that they could have a house where there wasn't any sign of a man living there? I went to a (straight) colleague's house and every inch was covered with chintz and Laura Ashley prints. No sign of the husband's hobbies, past, pictures, shoes. Nothing. She toured me through the whole thing, out into the backyard.
"Here's John's special place," she said, opening the back end of the garage. No Rosanne set with beer fridge and old La-Z-Boy, this room was perfectly finished with white carpet and pale taupe walls, a minimalist modern sofa. He was in there. The room was so small that the three of us couldn't be in it at the same time. And there was no dust or socks or personal objects, even here. Turning, though, she saw a flat-screen TV.
"What's this?" she said incredulously.
"I ...bought a TV."
"When were you going to tell me?" my friend said.
"Ahh... today," he said quickly.
Busted, I thought.
There are times, however, when I do ask, "What would a straight woman do?" to double-check the extent of my rights in this new world I live in. Looking at the filth and the disheveled mess men seem perfectly happy to live in, I think maybe it's reasonable that straight women exercise control of the interior decorating. Can I do that without becoming my colleague, the Chintz Diva? Can't I say, "No you can't put that dirty old milk crate full of albums in the living room?"
While I was single -- really single, as in not dating at all -- I started a list called Butch Things I Can Do Myself Now, which included things like getting up onto the roof (treacherous activity), changing fuses. A few things like that. I was very proud. And Simon, being devoted to equality, wants to know every time I can't open a jar or ask him to investigate a plumbing problem, what I would have done prior to his arrival. The truth is I would have paid someone or waited for a friend to come to open the jars. My son and I used to line them up on the counter until my butch friends would come over. Why don't I do it?, he wants to know. Because he's more capable than I at things like that, right? Hell, he's an electrician, but so was one of my exes, and she opened the jars and spackled the walls. On the other hand, the truth is that while we were hiking in Desolation Wilderness and had to make our way from cairn to cairn over steep rocks, I wouldn't have had the confidence to forge on if I had been alone with my son. I just wouldn't. Despite my lesbianism and my confidence, I wouldn't have done it alone.
A Cross-Cultural Experience
"Is that a guy thing?" I ask.
Or, "Don't straight women get to do that?" Not apologize for caring about table linens at Thanksgiving. Set the dress code for the night out. I hear that some of them even get veto power over articles of male clothing. No lesbian would stand for that.
Simon's completely baffled by the phrase, "will you butch it out and get the drinks?" or "straight women are the laziest lovers."
Or here's a great one. Simon says, "I don't understand. What is a 'control issue?'" And I think "Toto, what land are we in now because this is so not the Lesbian Nation."
And the time I was trying to explain feeling fragile that day, a bit afraid or as if something would push me over the edge into being blue, or I was describing some sort of oatmeal of shame, fear, and powerlessness. And he's craning his neck and knitting his eyebrows while he's shaking his head no.
"You know, fragile."
"No, baby, I don't know."
I thought I knew that men were confident enough to do all kinds of things that women second-guess themselves about, but I didn't understand that confidence could be that pervasive.
He doesn't understand why I have two locks and a chain on my door, why I keep the house locked at all times, why I lock the car doors the second I sit down, even before my seat belt. Early on I railed at him that it was very nice for him that he didn't have any experience with rape or sexual assault, and I trotted out my theory that men do extreme sports because they're not in danger on the municipal bus. But it is nice for him that he feels safe in the world: I wouldn't wish fear on anyone. And I send him to the door when the homeless guy comes to harass me to clip the bushes because the guy scares me.
Sometimes he says, "Is that some kind of lesbian philosophy or something?" (I've developed the habit of saying "go forward" in the car rather than "go straight." It's a holdover from the early 80s chest-pounding days. "Go straight? Never!" seems a bit ridiculous in this day and age. And try explaining it to a car full of teenage boys.)
My favorite cross-cultural experience, though, was the discovery of the pedicure. I've never had a pedicure, and I had always thought that straight women painted their toenails because they were utterly powerless and relegated to decorating every surface inch in their lives. Especially when I heard that men don't really care about women's shoes or women's feet. Well one night it hit me that it's so the chick has something to look at over his shoulders. It's het sex self-entertainment!
But then I started wondering if that meant that the women with the toe rings and the ankle bracelets and the pedicure were openly displaying their boredom with sex or, at the very least, that they are narcissistic at the one moment they should be focused on someone else. Is that it? Is that some unwritten code that straight girls have with each other?
Six to 23
You can imagine that I must have been pretty disillusioned after my last lesbian relationship to have taken such a drastic turn. Some friends tried to keep me on the path and called to invite me to a Butch-Femme dance. Maybe with an Uzi, I told them. Bitter. Sick of the processing, and the self-righteousness, and the judgementalism. Scouting on Match.com (divorced dads with higher educations and liberal politics -- that was my database search), I came across a profile where the guy said "it takes about 23 conditions to keep a woman happy, and about six to keep a man." Well that was it. I wanted a life where it only took six factors.
My lesbian friends claim that men are emotionally shallow. Aside from the statement being glib and rude (and oh so righteously lesbian), I just don't think it's true. It might have something to do with men's pervasive confidence that I mentioned before. Men don't have any reason to be as suspicious, worried, frightened, or conflicted as women. Maybe it's because men only need six factors in a relationship and they seek fulfillment in 17 other areas of life. Maybe it's because they don't need to reopen every conversation and revisit every fucking discussion, they don't need to have it proven over and over that they are loved. Things are what they are: holidays are holidays, not tests of love. Presents are objects, not yardsticks of emotion. It may be that men are not shallow, they're content. They are willing to let something that is true remain true until big movement proves that it isn't. What's true for a man is true. Until it's proven to not be true.
My friends call it shallow. I wonder if it might be called stable.
All of this is new on all kinds of fronts: when I met Simon it had been seven months of no lover; it had been four years since my last full-time relationship; seven years since I lived with anyone; 23 years since my last man; and I had never had other children in the family at all (Simon has two teenage boys). Talk about old metal pressed into service!
Of course this would all be much more shocking if I didn't already have a son, if I had a daughter and wasn't used to boys wiping their noses on their knees and bashing into things because their elbows have grown overnight. Or with the mantra that I learned early on that my son was like a puppy: meat before 10 and run hard before noon or there would be no socially acceptable behavior out of him. None of this light breakfast, read quietly then sit like an angel for brunch. Good god, no.
I went to Santa Barbara on a train with my six-year-old son and there was a jet fuel spill on the tracks so the train was stopped for hours, and my guy started to go bananas. The only thing I could think of to do with him was to have him run down the entire length of the train car, give a mighty kick to the panel on the door that opened it, get into the next car and run its length. Kick, run, kick run, turn around and do it over again endlessly. At one point a mother was sitting there quietly and smiled at me. "You have children?" I asked, seeking absolution. "A daughter," she said with a knowing smile, "and she would be just standing here turning pirouettes in front of me." Sons. And a wired-up son at that -- oh so like his mother, who can't sit for more than 10 minutes to save herself even at 50.
A Sudden Din
It's odd to have other children around. When you have one kid and you're a single parent, you talk to them, and they talk to you. But get a car full of kids, and they talk bullshit to each other. A din of it. A head-pounding dose of bullshit while you're relegated to the role of chauffeur.
And when they're somebody else's kids, you're not really a parent, but you are. I want to notice when they don't brush their teeth, or to inspect their hands before dinner but that's the last thing his kids want me to do. Especially the youngest who was two when his parents divorced. He's never had to share his father. He is the one least pleased with this new arrangement.
It was odd to read that the best thing to do in a "blended family" is to let the biological parent do the parenting. My philosophy had always been that everyone does the very best they can for every single child. The whole "it takes a village" concept means that everyone in the village gets to be involved.
We had been arguing about the kids' comings and goings, about schedules and being notified of things because I'm a planner and Simon's plan-phobic.
Simon hates to plan. He doesn't know what he's going to do at the end of the day, even after morning coffee. He never makes a reservation for anything, and he thinks even the smallest calendar or notepad with dates on it is giving in to The Man. Weekends that I thought were scheduled with the kids weren't. I assumed it was because his wife (countdown to the divorce) was running the show, but it isn't. He just admits to having a serious deficit in the time-management skills department.
But life takes planning, I argued. It doesn't, I know, but I'm a professional project manager. Gantt charts, spreadsheets, rolling deliverables and all. I can only "be here now" if I have a plan of action for immediately after "now" and a backup plan for that plan, just in case.
Simon went seven years after the separation without dating at all, and I think that after he dropped his kids off at their mother's house he would just fall into a stupor, as if life was on hold until they returned. He never wanted to go anywhere until his kids came back: things didn't matter unless they could be shared with the kids. Life on pause. The see-saw tips, he's stuck at the bottom.
When an opportunity came up to be with them, even if it was a spur-of-the-moment change of the family constellation, he would jump at it. He'd go off to Marin to drop off the kids and come back with one. Or walk through the door (when I had dinner for three in the oven) with two extra mouths to feed.
Finally I put my foot down, pointing out that putting everything on hold until his kids returned made me feel like my son and I didn't count. And if he's not going to plan ahead or let me know when they're going to be around, I can't schedule things only for the weekends that they're there.
It was my "life goes on" speech. Which was a bit ridiculous of me because I am incapable of being without my son. That's why I'm a single parent by choice: better do it all alone than have to have him just half-time.
That's when the "oh my gawd" moment came, and I could see things more clearly. Simon was talking about how difficult it is for him to be without his kids, how painful it is for him to only see his kids half-time. And I could see it in his face: more than the demise of his marriage, the central pain in his life is his separation from his kids. Relationships come and go, but you want pain? Take a parent away from his or her kids. That pain overrides all schedules or menus, that's for sure. Simon now tries harder to let me know what's going on, and he's getting used to doing things with just the three of us. In return, I cook for five, almost always.
Single Parent by Choice
I am a single parent by choice -- rare, I know. Not a "broken family" or an it-didn't-work dream. Single parent by choice because I figured that if there's a 50% probability of divorce among heterosexuals then there has to be a 75% chance of divorce among lesbians. And I just wasn't going to have my son living out of a suitcase, shuttled back and forth. I've seen too many disorders generated by that uncertainty. My son would come home to the same house and sleep in the same bed every night, regardless of whether I had to incur the huge karmic debt and my ex bear the huge emotional scar of my refusal to co-parent with her. Besides, I am mom who wants to be up to her elbows in motherhood, so there just wasn't enough kid to share. Fifty-percent parenting wasn't enough parenting for me. I suggested she have one as well (so handy, this lesbian parenting), but she declined.
So I walked into this relationship with a divorced father with a deeply held dislike of the see-saw lifestyle. I need order and stability.
The fluctuating cast of characters was difficult for me because the see-saw was tipping. It caused a couple of hours of the oldest mouthing off at his dad (read transition behavior) or the young one talking incessantly (read transition behavior). I faced rising panic every time I knew they were about to arrive (read transition behavior) and would need to retreat to my room and close the door to have some control. Everything changed. My son never spoke at the dinner table when Simon's kids were there, as if we were watching someone else's dinner theater. If he did speak, it was to make outlandish claims as if he had to open with a zinger of a punch line (transition behavior). And for the first year there was nothing I could do to keep my son at his homework or on his usual regimen because Simon's youngest was there and there were video games and "The Simpsons." I lost my son to the pack whenever Simon's kids arrived. And Simon, so hungry for their company, would walk down the street shoulder to shoulder with his oldest, the rest of us trailing behind. Waiting our turn.
Then Simon would fall into a funk when they left and put life on pause while my son would get wacky and out of control to fill up the space they had vacated.
Up and down. Up and down.
Cave of the Clan Bear
The joy, of course, is that all things balance out in time. I am blessed to be in a situation in which the care of children takes primacy. Simon and I recite the litany of sporting events and play dates that will keep us jetting around town all day Saturday, and there's no resentment or inequality. There's no issue if I work all evening with my son on his homework, and it's assumed that Simon will play guitar with his oldest, go to dinner alone with his kids after aikido, and go to the swim meets of his youngest. At 10 PM every night it all shuts down, and it's time for the two of us (gosh, a whole 30 minutes). We try to get away every couple of months for a weekend, and once a week we grab a few hours when there are no children in the house at all. I think it's pretty healthy. No one is left behind. Neither of us is lonely or neglected. And we get along even better when the kids aren't around, which we recognize as a darn good thing because in a short seven years the house will be empty. We're in a clan now, and it doesn't make any sense to pretend we're alone in a couple, or that the configuration is any different than it is. Some of the clan members move more than others, but we're a clan anyway and trying to be careful and kind.