Queer Mom Chronicles: Why Do I Constantly Have To Explain Our Family Dynamic?

One thing I had forgotten to consider when my partner and I got together was how people were going to perceive our family when we left the house. I know — it seems like a basic part of being a two mom family. But I genuinely didn’t think about it.

My son looks like he’s mixed race (his dad is white), so I’ve spent his entire life having to tell people I’m his mom. When he was just a tiny baby, I had people ask me how I could have made such a “white” baby. Look, I asked myself that question sometimes too, but it was still jarring to hear a stranger ask me that while I was walking down the street. As he got older, especially before he could talk, I had a lot of people ask if I was his nanny. I would politely say that no, I wasn’t his nanny, that he came from inside my uterus. It was especially hilarious when people would give me a quizzical look as I latched him on to nurse while we were on the bus or something.

For a while when he was a toddler, I was working as a nanny, and that was a trippy experience. Once, I had another nanny scold me for not keeping a better eye on my charge as I let my kid climb a jungle gym. “I’m his mom, my charge is right here,” I said, and she left me alone.

Once he could talk, people were less inclined to think I was anything other than his mom, mainly because of the way he talked to me. My friends and family swore he started to look like me as he got older, so I don’t know if that had anything to do with it. For years, it was just the two of us, so I had just accepted our dynamic. Yes, he was my son, I was his mom, and our skin colors didn’t really change that.

I’ll never forget the first time someone thought my partner was my son’s mother. We had to rush him to the hospital because he was complaining of severe stomach pain. It turned out he was having a terrible asthma attack, and his lungs were so inflamed that breathing was pushing down on his stomach. When he was admitted, we explained I was mom and she was my girlfriend. I explained he also had a dad, but he would likely just come visit for a bit. My girlfriend was going to be the second parent. Every time a doctor came in, they would talk to my partner like she was the mom and completely ignore me or my concerns. She had only known him for a month at this point and knew absolutely nothing about his medical history. But because she’s white, they automatically assumed she was the bio parent by virtue of her skin color. The same thing happened when his dad showed up the next day. Again, he knew nothing about my son’s medical history, so they were wasting their time talking to him.

Aside from my son being mixed race, our family dynamic isn’t the typical two-mom family dynamic. My son does have a dad who is a part of his life, and while my partner and I are the default parents, his dad isn’t someone we pretend doesn’t exist. Sometimes it’s a real pain in the ass, mainly because I don’t feel like I need to explain to the lady in the Target elevator that no, my son doesn’t get his curly hair from his white stepmom; he has curly hair because his dad is white and his mom is Black, and that’s what happens. (Yes, someone really said this to us in a Target elevator. We just laughed it off.)

There was the time I felt compelled to explain our family to a random woman in Petco while I pet her dog. It felt weird to be standing there admiring her pug while I was like, “no my partner didn’t carry, it was me, he has a dad.” All I wanted to do was pet a cute dog, not have to explain my whole life story. But I think I feel compelled to explain because every family’s story is different, and I don’t want people to make assumptions about two-mom families. Of course that doesn’t make it any less weird or frustrating when it happens in a time or place I’m not expecting it to, like the Petco or Target.

Maybe it’s just because I have an atypical two-mom family that I feel like I need to educate people on what that looks like. I think it’s easy for people to make assumptions because they see the three of us out running errands or spending time together, and they think they know everything about our family. Just like when I felt it was necessary to correct people when they didn’t assume I was my son’s mother because of his skin color, I feel it’s necessary to do not just that, but to explain that he has a dad, not just a sperm donor.

Just because his dad and I aren’t together doesn’t mean I ever want to devalue his place in our family. My son loves his dad, and it’s important to me that we make space for that and honor it. While I’m not going around with a sign that tells people he has a dad, if it comes up, I will quickly mention it, even if it’s just to get ahead of my kid saying something and causing confusion.

That’s why I have to make sure I have a conversation with his teachers at the beginning of the school year and explain our dynamic to them. Since first grade, it’s been me and my partner doing the day-to-day parenting. His dad lived out of state for two years, but it wasn’t “out of sight, out of mind” for us. I still explained to his teachers that yes, my kid has a dad, and while he isn’t the default second parent, I don’t want his contribution to our family to be discounted for any reasons. Plus, I didn’t want them to be confused and try to argue with my son about who’s in his family. Since his dad has moved back into town, I’ve had to explain who he is so that nobody questioned him if he ever did pickup or drop-off or attended a performance. I didn’t want him to feel alienated because he doesn’t live in our home.

Sometimes it feels like including my son’s father means that I am excluding my partner in some way. That by giving him his rightful space as the dad, I’m downplaying the contributions my partner makes to our family. For all intents and purposes, she is the second parent, and my son’s father is the third. She’s the one who’s doing homework and helping with bedtime and fighting with the kid to clean his room. So it’s hard when we encounter a heteronormative world where she is excluded by default. For example, school forms or medical forms say “mother” and “father,” and then I have to put her as the emergency contact, even though based on the paperwork’s reasoning, she’s the father.

I know I will be explaining our family dynamic until I die, and while it’s frustrating sometimes, that won’t stop me from doing it. We live in a time when the “traditional” nuclear family isn’t necessarily the default family structure anymore. But beyond that, not all queer families are made the same way either. It’s so easy for people on the outside to see us while we’re out and think they’ve clocked how our family was created. Just because we look one way from the outside, doesn’t mean that’s who we are. As much as it’s important to educate people about more “typical” two-mom families, it’s important to educate them on the ways that some of us might differ.

How often do you find yourself having to explain your family to strangers? Have you just said “fuck it” and given up?


Queer Mom Chronicles is a column where I examine all of the many facets of queer parenthood through my tired mom eyes. 

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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 125 articles for us.

11 Comments

  1. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many people look at my kid and attribute one physical trait to me and one to my girlfriend. Not genetically possible in our situation, but I like that people think it could be. It’s usually clueless cishet older people but I like to imagine that they’re just really open minded.

  2. I’ve lucked out in that my kid’s school wants contact information based upon who is available so they don’t list it as mother/father but primary contact, second, third, etc. Whoever is the primary contact is the one they phone first. No answer and they move on to the next one.

    From the local school lore I’ve gathered they did it that way to accommodate the number of kids who were living with grandparents or had multi generational households but whatever, I’ll take it.

  3. Yes, I related to this but in a different way, as I’m the non-gestational mom of my 2 kids. They’re both brown haired brown eyed white kids and I’m blonde with blue eyes, so people look at me quizzically in public sometimes. Recently a woman at the park asked if I’m their nanny and when I said I’m their mom she asked “they’re so dark, are they mixed?”
    The hetero assumptions run deep. I also often feel the need to correct people, but that time I just said “no.”

  4. Took my kid to a specialist at the children’s hospital once. I was asked “Are you her translator?” We’re at polar opposites of the skin tone spectrum, but I still thought that one was odd.

  5. My wife carried both of our kids, using sperm donors, and we’ve always been very open with them about how they were made as they became old enough to understand. My younger daughter (5th grade) told us the other night that there’s a boy in her class who keeps asking her questions about her family – how was she born if her moms are lesbians, etc. So now she’s explained the concept of sperm donors to a bunch of other 10 year olds. I would never want her to not know where she came from, I just hope none of the other parents complain about the “lesson.”

  6. My wife and I are a butch-femme couple. I carried our 2 daughters. We used a donor who is Korean, and our daughters look entirely like their donor and nothing like either of us lol. They call me mama/mommy and my wife “Da”, so that further confuses people. So yeah, we get a lot of stares and have to explain our dynamic a lot. I feel you on the “I didn’t want to have to get into this at Target, but here we go I guess.”

    Our upstairs neighbor of 5 years–who has seen us share a car, a home, 2 pregnancies, and two kids–just referred to me as my wife’s “roommate” the other day. So. Yeah.

  7. My wife (who carried the kids) and I used a gay couple as our donor dad. They decided that only one of them would donate but both have the same relationship with our kids. We are the only parents and always referred to them as ‘our donors’ or by their names. The kids spend time with them each week. Once the kids got to about 5 they started referring to them as ‘our dads’ when explaining them to others but have always called them by there names. Many people who hear this but don’t know us think that at some point one of my wife or I was in a relationship with one or other of them. Now that the kids are 11 and 13 the issue of which of us “is their mother’ doesn’t come up so much.
    The confusing thing is even close family sometimes push for the kids to have a ‘closer relationship’ with their donors and then still get shocked when our kids casually reference their other cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents etc from their donor’s families.

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