Not that long ago, when we were expats in London, everyone I met tried to guess the relationship between my daughter and me – at the park, the store, the library, on the bus back home:
“Is her dad… dark?”
“Is she yours?”
“Your husband must be South American.”
“Are you the babysitter?”
When our family was all together, no one asked. We fit their expat framework, I guess, despite the absence of a man in our home. There was my partner, the breadwinner (corporate HR), our 14-year-old, clearly her mother’s daughter, and the baby – usually in my arms. I was obviously the nanny. No one questioned this. They simply assumed. If anyone had asked, I would have set things right – but no one did.
Then there was coffee one morning after Gymboree. It was our second month in town and I was desperate to make friends.
On the way out of the mall where Gymboree class was held was a coffee shop, with small tables spilling into the more public walkway, not far from the most giant fish tank you’ve ever seen, where all the Gymboree toddlers would meander and oooo and ahhhh and hide and giggle and point and squeal before and after class. Usually, I packed a snack for my girl and we’d stroll peacefully out after class with a banana or some tasty crackers, sometimes making idle chit chat with another mom or a nanny along the way. No one else walked home, though – so once we hit the big glass doors, we were on our own – and those afternoons were starting to feel really, really, really long.
So one morning after class, one of the moms who often chit chatted with me briefly and lightly on the way out invited me to join her and some friends for coffee. Of course, I said yes.
Nearly the entire class was there, each kid with a mom or a nanny. Some kids had brownies – others carrots – some were trying to stick straws up their noses. Mine sat quietly in her stroller, nibbling on the same cracker the entire time we were there.
We each ordered (at the counter, thankfully), chose a seat, sat down. Somebody sang their kid a song. Somebody else told a story about dinner with the family the night before. And somehow, I don’t even know how it started, pictures were out and being passed around. “This is her brother John,” someone explained, “and this is my husband George.” Family after family came out of back pockets and books and wallets, and popped up on the screens of small phones.
My daughter nodded off in the stroller, her cracker now a small nub in her hand. It was naptime, after all. Should I take her home?
I didn’t want to. Not yet.
I cooed and gasped and exclaimed over each family as they were displayed. Then it was my turn. There was a family photo in my daughter’s bag. It would have been easy enough to shrug it off, say I had nothing – no harm, no foul, no questions asked – but I decided to give it a try. I pulled out the photo. “This is Miss E,” I stated the obvious, with a quick nod in her direction.
“Ohhhhh,” a few of the women answered, finally putting the name with the kid. “Ohhhh,” they said.
“And this is her sister Grace.”
“Beautiful,” they all said.
“And this is me, of course.”
“You’re her mom, right?” (Mom of Miss E. I understood.)
“Right,” I agreed, relieved we’d come this far. “And this is her other mom, my partner. Kelly.”
“This is my partner, Kelly, Miss E’s other mom,” I repeated, hoping to let it sink in. I couldn’t be the first lesbian for everyone here. Right? Right?
“Oh,” one woman said, visibly shutting down.
“I see,” said another.
“No,” replied one.
“Yes,” I said, laughing just a little now. “She has two moms.”Again I nodded towards my daughter. “My partner, Kelly, and me.”
“She’s your mom?” the woman asked – the same one who said ‘No,’ a nanny from Eastern Europe. English was not her first language. She seemed sure she didn’t understand. Was it unkind for me to press on? Should I try to explain?
“No, my partner and I are – it’s like – we’re married.”
“No,” she said again, shaking her head. “Where’s her dad?” No one else said a thing.
“We’re a family. Miss E has two moms. We’re both her moms.”
“No,” she said, one final time.
The group moved on to another photo, another family.
But I had managed to come out. After two months, starting from scratch, I had managed at last to come out. It almost didn’t matter how it had gone. Almost. My daughter was sleeping and I could let this last one go. Everyone else there knew what I meant. Some of them still met my eye.
I kissed my daughter on the head and we stayed a few more minutes – looking at photos, sipping coffee, telling stories. It was good. It was social. It was a way to pass the time.
Eventually, I made friends at a playgroup across town. They met my family. I met theirs. We went to the zoo. We picnicked in the park. We swam. It was good. It wasn’t awkward. We had carrots. And crackers. Sometimes coffee.
And sometimes wine.