We Need To Reimagine The Stories That Shape Our Understanding of Motherhood and Fatherhood

We Need To Reimagine The Stories That Shape Our Understanding of Motherhood and Fatherhood

In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fourth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.

By Jay Lenn

Our Stories, Our Selves

My eight-year-old son, Clark, and I had breakfast with my friend Cindi a few months ago. While the host was seating us, I was asking Clark where he wanted to sit in the booth — by himself, with me, or with Cindi. I was the only one engaging with Clark as a parent would.

After we were seated, the host looked directly at Cindi — not at both of us — and asked her if she wanted a children's menu for Clark. I said, "Yes, a children's menu would be great."

The server arrived while I was talking with Clark about what he might want to eat. Clark ordered, and the server asked Cindi to confirm his order. I said that what he ordered was fine. When the server returned later, Clark asked me if he could have more orange juice, and I said, "Well, I suppose that would be okay." The server then turned to Cindi for confirmation, and again, I answered the question.

Near the end of the meal, the server finally looked to me when he asked whether he should take Clark's plate.

I understand, of course, that the host and server made a convenient and comfortable assumption about our story — the three fair-skinned, blue-eyed people were a family. Within that context, they further assumed that all questions regarding the child should be directed to the presumed mother, not to both adults, even when the man was the only one interacting with the child as a parent.

Cindi often thinks about such things because much of her research and teaching as an anthropology professor focuses on the perceptions and expectations attached to gender. I think about them because I'm one of two dads in our family, and because Clark has already embarked on the lifelong process of understanding our story as a family, his birthmother's story, and his own.

Assumptions about how we connect to our children

I think events like our recent breakfast provide a glimpse into how we as a society think about parenting, how we think about mothers, how we think about fathers — and why some people believe my husband Greg and I should not be adoptive parents.

As Cindi describes it, we attach the nurturing we associate with motherhood to the female body. We assume there is something special about a woman that enables her to love, nurture, provide emotional support, perceive sadness, comfort, read a child's moods, and know what the child needs better than anyone else.

Some argue that this is an extension of the nurturing that begins in the womb, an inexplicable biological or spiritual connection. I do not think, however, that a woman who has both adoptive and biological children — such as Carrie Goldman, the host of this blog — would say that how she loves and nurtures each child in her family depends on biological parenthood.

Proponents of these ideas may further argue that because I'm a man, I simply can't comprehend that special connection. While this assertion may appear to put the argument to rest, I do know that all the explanations I've heard about the nature of this special maternal connection to children — and I've heard lots of them — sound like my relationship with Clark and my role in our family. As the stay-at-home parent, I am the father who — because of the amount and nature of time I have spent with Clark — has learned the kind of nurturing that we usually associate with motherhood.

But I do not think of myself as the mother in the family and Greg as the father. We don't function in static roles. We bring to our family an awareness of each other's strengths and limitations. We discuss the differences in our relationships with Clark. I do not think I'm inherently more nurturing than Greg.

If our careers and incomes were different, we could have made other decisions about who was at home more. Greg could have assumed a role more like mine. But at this point, I can hardly imagine my relationship with Clark being any different than it is. It feels as if it's an inexplicable biological and spiritual connection. And no one can argue with that.

Telling stories about complex connections

Greg and I enjoy taking Clark to Lifeline Theatre, a company in Chicago that performs adaptations of books for children and adults. Last spring, we saw Lyle Finds His Mother, the story of how Lyle — a crocodile who lives with his adoptive human father, mother, and brother in New York — finds his crocodile mother.

We adopted Clark when he was one month old. It's an open adoption, and his birth mother chose one of his middle names. Clark has always known he was adopted, and he first met his birth mother when he was six.

After the Lifeline show, we didn't revisit any conversations with Clark about adoption or families or his own birth mother. But we bought a copy of the book at the theater and read it together several times. Clark usually lets things simmer for a while, and when he's ready to pursue his story, he lets us know.

A few weeks after the play, we hosted an adoption day party for Clark at school. The night before, he spent some time looking for a story for me to read to his class, and he decided on Lyle Finds His Mother.

"That's a very good one," I said. "Are you thinking about your mom today?"

"Yeah. We saw her ages ago. And we've only met her once."

"Should we plan another visit for this summer?" I asked.

"Yes," he said.

We tried to arrange Clark's second visit with his mother, but the phone number we had for her no longer worked, and we received no reply by mail. Clark is sad about not seeing her. We feel sad for him and sad that we couldn’t make a visit happen when he was ready for it.

We hope that Clark can meet his birth mother again. Meeting her may help him piece together his own story. But we cannot honestly assure him that this will happen. Greg and I have a difficult story to help Clark understand — parts of it unimaginably heart-rending and incomprehensible. But it is also the story of a woman who made a decision with Clark's best interests in mind.

Unfolding Clark’s story will take years of carefully sharing with him the details we know and helping him imagine the gaps that remain mysteries. That’s how we all construct our stories. And, of course, so much of his story is not a mystery. He knows he has two fathers who love him, who are helping him find his way, who share with him their own stories.

In the play version of Lyle Finds His Mother, Lyle sings a song in which he wonders about his mother, "Maybe she's a little bit like me!" Happily when Lyle finds his mother, he discovers they are very much alike.

I think the book and play have helped Clark talk about his birth mother, maybe because the message is hopeful, maybe because it's about searching and wondering. Still, I think his expectations are measured and thoughtful — and realistic.

The other day when he said he had been thinking about her, I asked if he could tell me what he was thinking.

"The usual," he said.

"Can you explain to me what the usual is?"

"I wonder if she's okay."

Revisiting our stories

I believe in the power of telling stories. I believe they help us make sense of our experiences. But I also believe we need to revisit stories that have long shaped how we understand our world and question whether those stories are complete. Everyday experiences like the one my friend Cindi and I shared over breakfast remind me of a need to re-imagine the stories that shape our understanding of motherhood and fatherhood.

For me, a good example of our need to revisit such stories is a commentary on Mother's Day 2013 by National Public Radio host Scott Simon. He has shared several eloquent tributes to his mother on the air, but this commentary struck me for his thoughts, not only about his own mother, but also about mothers in general. The following excerpts are from his broadcast essay:

Mothers possess singular vision. They can look at what the rest of the world may see as a sullen, snarling teenager and view them, through some other set of eyes, as the infant they used to carry and cuddle, the child who babbled on their lap and laughed, and the person they're sure we're struggling to become.

Mothers don't always think we're right. In fact, they know better — better than anyone. No one has heard more of our cunning excuses. But mothers are the ones who remember our tears and nightmares. Mothers can always see through to our innocence.

I have no doubt that these words capture the character of Simon's mother — and many other mothers, including Greg's mother and my own. We've all read these words before on Mother's Day cards, and they appear regularly in both sentimental and funny social media memes.

They are also not unlike a statement from Focus on the Family regarding opposition to adoption by same-sex families: "Children have a right to grow up with the love that only a mother and a father can jointly provide."

There are certainly people who believe that because there is no biological female in our family, no one is here to remember Clark's tears and nightmares, to see through to his innocence.

Many people do not believe this is true but still hold on to deeply rooted assumptions about motherhood and fatherhood. These assumptions are revealed in how we talk about a mother's love, a father's love, a mother's intuition, or a father's strength. They're revealed in how we talk to mothers or don't talk to fathers. They're revealed when gay men share their coming-out stories and say, "Mothers always know."

I believe we should revisit assumptions about motherhood and fatherhood not simply because they mischaracterize adoptive gay dads or lesbian moms but because to some degree they mischaracterize all parents.

They don't help us understand the connections between a parent and child in single-parent families or blended families. They don't help a mother deal with the guilt of thinking she is not nurturing enough. They don't help us understand why a woman may not want to be a mother or how a father may feel pressured by society to be less nurturing. They don't help us understand how we can help each other as parents and friends.

I don't believe assumptions about motherhood and fatherhood help us understand everyday family dynamics in which roles, parent-child relationships, connections, and nurturing are rarely divide neatly according to the sex of the parent.

And these assumptions do not help us understand the story of any individual parent or a particular child. They will not help Clark understand the story of his birth mother's choices — both the good and the bad. They will not help Clark make sense of his own story the first time he hears someone say, "There is nothing like the love of a mother."


Jay D. Lenn is a stay-at-home dad, freelance writer, and occasionally manic gardener. He writes primarily for nonprofit medical and mental health care organizations. Jay lives with his husband Greg and son Clark in Chicago's West Ridge neighborhood.

This year's Adoption Portraits series is filled.  You may send a submission for next year's series to Carrie Goldman at portraitofanadoption@gmail.com.  Follow Portrait of an Adoption on Twitter and Facebook.

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Check out Carrie Goldman's award-winning book Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear

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