I’m sitting in a chair behind a door, in a very small room on the south side of town. This is not the first time I’ve been in this chair or this room, but it’s the time to which all the other times have been leading. My partner, M, lay on a table in front of me with only a paper sheet covering her lower half. Covering her upper half is a t-shirt which reads “Put your money where your heart is.” There’s so much to think about this morning, I forget to ask her if the message on her shirt was intentional or if she wore it because she knows it looks good on her.
The nurse-midwife hands me a vial – about the size of a couple Tylenol capsules – and tells me to hold it tight in my palm. My job, she informs me, is to keep the sperm warm while she preps M for the procedure.
I close my eyes, meditate on the vial. “Be good,” I silently tell it. “Do the right thing.” It’s the first piece of motherly advice I give to my future child. Or, as it were, a tiny jar full of half-cells (spermatozoa), one of which, I hope, will create a complete cell with one of M’s half-cells (ova). A whole cell which will multiply at an incalculable rate until its multiplied selves become bone, muscle, organ, hair, heart. I laugh to myself, thinking this isn’t exactly the scene my mother explained to me when I was a child and asked where babies come from. I imagine explaining this scene to my child. “Be good,” I tell the sperm again. “Do the right thing.” If I get only one idea through to this kid for its whole life, I suppose this wouldn’t be the worst advice.
I open my eyes and M is smiling at me. The midwife returns, takes the vial from me, fills a syringe with it, attaches a catheter, reclines the table a bit further, and gets to work. I hold my partner’s hand and we lock eyes. It’s Sunday morning. The clinic is closed except for the three of us in this room. We breathe in unison, M winces a bit. After a minute or two, the procedure is done and the midwife leaves us alone. That’s how our little family begins.
Most people think about their nuclear unit: one or two parents, maybe some grandparents, siblings. The sentimental will include their pets. When I was a little kid, the default was usually a mom and dad, a sister or brother. A house on a street with a yard. That was the picture many of my peers drew in kindergarten, at least. It’s the image opponents of LGBT rights would have us think is the only legitimate family. But it’s not really the truth. Families are so many different things – the people we grow up with, the people with whom we surround ourselves once we’re adults out in the world, the people we commit ourselves to in intimate relationships, the pets we acquire, the children we make either through lovemaking or fertility treatment, those we adopt, those we wind up taking care of when they’re expelled from their family of origin, when someone dies, when they’re far from home.
It’s the most basic construct of human culture, family. As social creatures, we’re compelled to group together. We have to form families and communities to survive, because no one person has all the skills and knowledge they need to live in the world. Families educate us and prepare us for life, they introduce us to things we wouldn’t discover on our own. They challenge us and support us when we fail, give us the confidence and reassurance we need to continue. These are the ways we survived in the bush, and the ways in which we’ve built societies. The fact of the matter is, for the purpose of perpetuating humanity, it doesn’t matter what your family looks like as long as you have one. Family, a student of culture knows, is not a luxury of any one race, religious persuasion, or economic class. It’s a universal human habit; a compulsion; a necessity.
My parents divorced when I was a month old. You could claim that’s what made me a lesbian, I guess, if you’re inclined to discredit my companionship preferences by blaming them on some nick in my developmental psychology. The problem with that argument is that all my siblings who grew up in the same single-parent household as me (there were four of us total) wound up straight as the day is long, in healthy, committed heterosexual marriages all focused on having children of their own. Hell, one of us even wound up a preacher.
What took place in the dissolution of my parents’ marriage was never as important to me as knowing that I could depend on certain adults and other children. That our mother raised the four of us without a father around – with help, granted, from our grandparents and a champion team of babysitter-friends, music lessons, and after-school activities while she earned her masters then her doctorate, held down a day job as a counselor, a second retail job, sometimes also teaching night school on top of it all – really had little to do with how any of us turned out. If anything, it probably helped influence the killer work ethic we all have in common, the big bleeding heart, the dedication to children and family. Those are, after all, things my mother values most.
As I mentioned, though, there are other kinds of family.
I don’t know when the LGBT community started using the code word “family,” but it’s one I learned pretty early on, probably before I even came out. You’d see a guy out at a coffee shop who looked quite well dressed, gesticulating a certain way, and you’d lean to your friend. “Do you think he’s family?”
One of my friends in Seattle has taken to calling fellow lesbians “sisters” and gay men “brothers” in the same tradition as Baptist churches. This distinction has always struck me as a little bit cultish, but it works for most people. There is after all, or there used to be, quite a trend of LGBT people coming out to their family of origin and pretty quickly being expelled. There was a sense you could be closer with your gay “brothers and sisters” than you could with the folks who raised you. I know that happens, but it’s just not something that’s true for me.
When I think of the family I want to create with M and these children, I don’t think of straying from how we were raised. I think of pulling together the greatest assets of my family and hers: my mother’s hard-working selflessness; her mother’s infectious hospitality. My brother’s sense of humor and contemplative nature; her brothers’ rugged sarcasm and bullshit detectors. My sisters’ grace and fearlessness; her father’s soft-hearted gruff. My father’s love of music; M’s love of music; my love of music…
If you think about it, really, life is a journey from family to family. You start out in one, you move through some others (as you date, find friends, other likeminded people). Eventually you fall into step with someone else and the two of you start a new family together. The family you create may live in a different geographic location from the one in which you started, but it’s really just another branch off the same tree.
Landscapers sometimes brace limbs onto trees to help them grow better on their own. The brace doesn’t stay for good – it’s just there at the beginning to help the branch get started. Bracing a tree doesn’t make it unnatural or less legitimate. Indeed, it helps it realize its full potential.
So here we are, in this small room, bracing ourselves, bracing each other. Embracing. Starting a family, however it may wind up looking. Putting our money where our heart is. I put my hand on M’s belly, where her hand is already resting and we both close our eyes.