Tag Archives: stepmother

Moving Day

17 Aug

“Sorry!” I say to the young woman at the coffee drive-up window.  It’s taken me ages to roll down and up both back windows before lowering my own window to speak and pay and I can see cars lining up behind me as I fumble with levers and knobs.  “I’m discombobulated,” I go on as if she really needs to know.  “I’m borrowing my partner’s car.”

As I drive away with an iced mocha and a kid-sized mango smoothie, my daughter asks, “Mami, what does ‘partner’ mean?”  Seriously???  How many times has she heard this word in her eight years of life?  No – better yet – how often has she USED it?

“Just now, I meant your Mama.  My life partner, domestic partner.  But it’s also a word for business partner, work partner, performance partner.  You probably do work at school in partners, too.”

“We do.”  I take a sip of my mocha, and continue following my partner in the Penske truck to my stepdaughter’s new one-bedroom apartment.  Words, words, words.  All these names for the relationships in our family.  Daughter, Stepdaughter, Mami, Mama, LOVE – words we use to describe for the outside world what it is that makes us wake at 7 a.m. on vacation and carry cabinets and couches upstairs to a small room overlooking an alley one block from a lake, three of us two and a half hours from home.  “Do you think she knew what you meant?”

“No.  Probably not.  But I didn’t feel like explaining.”

“What’s discombobulated?”  She asks, pronouncing the word perfectly.

“Mixed up. Confused.  Not smooth.”

*   *   *   *   *

“Look, Mom!  It’s a river,” she says to me five minutes later in the pouring rain.  A small rivulet of rain water is growing on the blacktop behind our truck, strategically parked behind the new apartment hours before we are allowed to move things in.

“It is!” I exclaim.

I remember my first solo apartment, full of promise and excitement, nerves and this delicious sense of freedom which is impossible to express.

The river branches off in many directions, gathering drops as it flows along the blacktop cracks.

“It is!” I affirm the river and raise my head to the lake, imagining the shady tree under which our eldest will do homework and write letters or notes to the people she loves.

We are told the rain will lift by noon.

“It is!”

*   *   *   *   *

By the time we leave town, my stepdaughter has her couch, desk, dresser, bookcase, and trash bins settled into semi-permanent spots, last night’s pizza in her fridge, and boxes upon boxes marking a path from her front door straight to the bed.

And I have this image:

Our girls holding hands, both wearing blue and grey, sunlight behind them as they walk back to us from the hardware store – one eight, draped in her sister’s shirt for warmth, looking up with unmitigated love and admiration; the other twenty-one, her face turned, listening, full-to-bursting with love.  And admiration.

We are lucky, belonging to each other as we do.  We’re tired and our backs are sore, but we’re lucky, all of us, belonging to each other (and to others, too).  It is.  Exactly as it should be.


Lava Cake

8 Jun

Ten years ago, after frantically polling friends to find a delicious, upbeat, somewhat upscale restaurant, Kelly and I enjoyed our first date at Chilpancingo, on Chicago’s Near North Side.

I changed clothes three times that morning, anxious that I should look put-together yet not too studied, breezy for the summer sun yet warm enough for nightfall, just in case.  We sat in a corner booth, semi-private, or maybe it just felt semi-private because my whole world was her while we were there.  Conversation was easy.  My heart thumped and skipped, and at the end of our meal, we shared a lava cake.  The waiter cut into it for us, gently, and we sat completely silent together for the very first time while the lava cake did what gently sliced lava cakes do.

Afterwards, she excused herself to visit the Ladies Room and paid the bill for us both.  Tip, too.  It’s always an open question, I find, on a lesbian date:  Who pays the bill?  Do you split it?  What meaning is attached to each choice?  Do straight dating couples grapple with this, too?

My last serious relationship ended when my girlfriend filed bankruptcy and begged me for the money she needed to move in with her new love.  And while I realize that paying for one meal does not speak to a person’s overall financial health, I did feel there was real promise here, or real… possibility.

I did know a few things about her, even then.

I knew she loved to read.  On our second date, at a trendy northside coffeeshop where I had once or twice listened to a friend play guitar, she gifted me with one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.

And I knew she had a daughter, who is a poet although none of us knew that yet.  Her daughter was eleven years old with a writer’s eye, a nose for injustice, an intolerance for phonies and an abundance of generosity.  Over time, I would pass many of her tests but not all of them.

Kelly also had a motorcycle.  Have you ever ridden on the back of a motorcycle, over a bridge and around corners, holding tight to the woman you love?

I have.

When Kelly’s daughter was thirteen, we sat together in another upscale restaurant, the three of us, much closer to home, in a private room (truly), and recounted for twelve of our closest friends the story of sitting on our back deck in pajamas over coffee that same morning, making promises and declarations and exchanging matching diamond rings.  “I promise to make you laugh every day,” Kelly said to me in the post-dawn autumn air, six days before adopting our youngest daughter.

Shotgun Ring Exchange, we called it then.  Still do.

Our friends enjoyed the story, snapped pictures, poured champagne, and during the toasts, my new stepdaughter shared that I often helped her with math.  She was lively and funny at home but didn’t speak out much in groups so she warmed my heart doubly when she did.

Raising a child can be tricky.  Two steps forward, one step back, we sought our co-parenting legs.  She had been a single parent for a long time, and I had my own worries about the whole mom thing.

But love pulled us through.  Love for our newest daughter, love for our eldest — no longer an only child — love for each other, love for the life of our new family.  We managed.  We grew closer.  And within nine months, we were on a plane to London, where the four of us stayed for a whole year.

The baby now is eight years old, and we are back in Illinois.  Our family consists of four humans, two dogs, two cats, a world of aunties, and parents and siblings who live too far away.

Our eldest is spending this summer in her college town.  Her cousin moved in with her last week.  They’re earning summer paychecks by taking petitions and pitches door-to-door for a worthy cause every weekday afternoon, every weekday evening.  It’s rough work, requiring sensible shoes.

Our youngest is spending this week at Camp Grandma.  When we spoke to her 36 hours into the trip, she was finishing an ice cream bar and learning to putt.  With a golf putter in her grandparents’ backyard.

Kelly and I are enjoying time alone.  We’ve enjoyed a French art house film, two delicious dinners out with good friends, chocolate martinis, and good bourbon.  We even sat at home happily one night in front of some crap TV.

Ten years ago today, a waiter made the first gentle slice into our shared lava cake and it tasted so good.

Still does, every bit.

Happy Anniversary, Mi Amor!

Photo discovered on Galaxy Desserts 


13 Apr

When I was growing up, my family lived across the street from a fire station.  Firetrucks pulled out of the station at all hours.  If I was on the phone (and as I got older, I often was), I’d stop talking a moment, and then continue as if nothing had happened.  This used to freak out my friends, who would of course hear sirens in the background, hear me pause and then continue, and often ask me in a panicked voice, “What’s that? What happened?!”  Most of the time, I hadn’t even registered the sound – and I’d have to ask, “What do you mean?”  “Why are there sirens at your HOUSE?!?” they’d practically scream in my ear.  “Ohhhhhh…”

My daughter for awhile was the same way.  While she was tiny, taking little cat naps a million times a day, she would often fall asleep on the long stroller ride home from Gymboree.  We would pass the emergency entrance of our neighborhood hospital and sometimes the sirens were deafening to me, but always, without fail, she slept through them.  If I parked her stroller in the shadows, if I began chatting nearby with a friend, if the dogs in our apartment barked, if someone came through our front door while she was napping in the crib, she would wake – but as long as her stroller moved steadily along while the sirens screamed, my daughter remained fast asleep.

It’s astounding what we can get used to ~ and what we can’t ~ each of us with our own rituals, our own attachments to what steadies us, what sets us off, what must be kept “just so.”

With age, my relationship to sirens has shifted.  That is to say: Most of the time now, I hear them.

Just last week, I woke up to the sound of sirens.  They woke me, in fact, from a deep sleep, growing  louder and louder as they approached our street – and then falling suddenly silent.  Again the crescendo, and again the abrupt end. And again.  Two ambulances and a police car.  Soon after, helicopters.  I then heard opening and closing doors in my house – my daughter and her cousin out of bed and curious, although strangely, wonderfully, falling asleep again on the blankets spread out on her bedroom floor.  Up and down, up and down like the sirens, and then out.

It was spring break in our little village.  My partner and I, and our niece’s moms, had stayed out late for a vegan dinner beer pairing at Revolution Brewery while the girls zipped around our house with a babysitter – their favorite babysitter.  And when she climbed the stairs to check on them, to give them a little time for reading before lights out, they were already sitting up in the makeshift bed of blankets on the floor – teeth brushed and books in hand.  A little bit of magic entered our house that night, I think, and stayed through morning.  They’ve never been so cooperative in all their lives.  Or… mine hasn’t been, anyway.

I did not go back to sleep.  I laid awake trying to separate sounds – trying to understand what was happening in my neighborhood less than a block away.

It isn’t that we never hear sirens where I live.  We hear them every day.  And it isn’t that we never hear them at night.  We do.  I do. But since becoming a mom, I hear sirens differently.  That night, I feared for the safety of my niece’s moms down the street.  For our back alley neighbor, classmates of my daughter whose family lives were mucky, rocky, troubling.  My worry rippled out to our other daughter in Madison, to my father in California, to my mother, landing finally on the fragility of life.

Eventually, sunlight broke through our bedroom window.  I let the dachshund outside.  I turned on the shower to start my day while the house was eerily quiet, both girls still sleeping soundly on the bedroom floor.  My partner quietly snored, which was rare for her.  (I blame the beer.  It was so good.)

My sister-friend – my niece’s mom – sent a text message two hours later, and relief washed over me.  The ambulance missed their house last night.  And ours.  The sirens were not for us today.

My stepmom once gave me a statue of a woman curling her knees against her chest in a pose of concentration.  “Write,” she told me after I unwrapped it.  Simple.  Just like she told me, “Be her mom.  Parent her.  Don’t think too much about it.”  Just like she said, when I told her I was gay, “I know.”

We lost her last year.  There were no sirens.  No calls of alarm.

And yet now when the sirens come, I pay attention.  Because she would, maybe.  Because I must.  Because they are somehow more piercing than they were before.  Because I am awake.  Because I understand finally what’s at stake.

A Slight Adjustment

13 Jan

It’s morning and I am strengthening the muscles around my shoulder, holding onto a giant rubber band knotted over the hinge of our guest room door, stretching and relaxing, pulling for a count of three and then slowly releasing.  Fifteen times, four different standing positions.  One-Two-Three-ONE-One-Two-Three-TWO-One-Two-Three-THREE…  I am not a person who multi-tasks well, so having a conversation while I do my exercises is a challenge.

From my daughter’s room comes banging, crinkled plastic, a book thrown down onto the floor and a quiet muttering.  I think my daughter is talking with her dolls, but I can’t be sure.  She is definitely not speaking loudly enough to expect to be talking with me.  “I don’t want to go to school,” she says.  “I’m not going to school.” She says this at least three times.  Maybe she’s exercising, too.  Exercising her power of choice.  Stretching her power, stretching herself, trying to see what she can get away with.  She knows she won’t get away with this.  She is setting herself up for failure.  “I’m hungry,” she continues.  “I want to read.  I’m not going to school.  I’m hungry.  No.  I won’t.  I’m not going to school.”

“You might want to change your attitude,” I suggest. 

“I can’t,” she says to me now, emerging from her bedroom with two dolls and plopping them on a chair.  Her clothes for the day remain stacked haphazardly in front of her dresser.

“Mmmm … Some days are like that,” I tell her as she walks by.

She regards me with smoldering eyes and replies with a verbal stomp, “I’m serious.”  Have you ever stood in the path of a grumpy seven-year-old on a school morning?

I continue my exercises. “So am I.”

She returns to her room (without the dolls), closes her door tightly with our spotted dog on the foot of her bed and within three minutes, I hear her cooing and chatting, showering our dog with playfulness and affection.  I’m delighted that she’s “found her happy” but I’m nearly done with my exercises and beginning to worry about time.  I knock on the door.  “It’s time, honey,” I say in what I hope is a voice both gentle and firm.

“I’m getting dressed, Mami.”  There is no trace of the dark cloud I sensed clinging to her psyche such a short while ago.  Ten minutes later – a school-day record in our house – she’s downstairs nibbling toast, finishing the bubblegum flavored antibiotic she’s been on since she started the New Year with a double ear infection, and chatting amiably with both of us – the people in the house this time – her moms.

We, on the other hand, are less amiable.  With each other, anyway.  I am cultivating the feeling of displacement which often comes early in my stepdaughter’s trips home from college, but which waited two weeks this time to descend.  Progress?  My partner is cultivating – What? Fatigue?  A general malaise.  A headache? Annoyance at last night’s rocky attempts at family bonding after the young one was tucked snugly and safely into bed.  Honestly, that’s what I’m cultivating, too.  I just have different words for it.

“Kelly’s cranky,” I offer in a clumsy attempt to make light of our mutual (oppositional) frustration.

“You sound cranky, too, Mom,” the young sage pipes in, between bites of peanut butter and nutella toast.  What else do you feed a newly avowed vegetarian 2nd-grader for breakfast?

I nod.  “That’s fair.” It is.

Our youngest remains chipper.  Our eldest remains sleeping.  My partner and I remain cloudy, half-lost in our own little worlds.  “I really like the way you changed your attitude this morning,” I tell my daughter.

“Thanks,” she says, chewing.  “Can’t you?”

Can she see me here inside this cocoon of self-pity?  Why do I think she can’t?  “Sure.”

“Why don’t you then?”

I have to stop a moment and look at her – really look at her.  And smile.  Really smile.  “This is changed,” I respond truthfully, if a bit ironically, seeing myself finally (however briefly) through her eyes.  Mami really is trying to climb out of the bat cave.  It’s just that she hasn’t climbed very high.

As a stepmom, it’s easy to have hurt feelings, and easy to feel justified in having them.  But it’s a set-up for failure.  It doesn’t get me out of the cave.

This is what I know from the other side:  It isn’t the start-stop-start stilted conversations I remember most about being a stepdaughter, or the competition for my dad’s affection – these were present, I’m sure, but they’re not what I remember most.  What I remember most is how my stepmom tried and tried and tried again.  She made overtures.  Again and again.   She told me when she felt rebuffed.  She asked me to try harder. She gave me space.  And perhaps most importantly, she didn’t wait for my permission to be let in.  She claimed me as her own from the beginning, and let me take my time to catch-up.  She always told me where she stood and what she believed about what she could see, but she never pushed me to reveal more about myself than I wanted her to know.  She let our connection ebb and flow with my mercurial moods and she rarely took it personally.

The grace with which my stepmom walked this line mystifies me – she was inside my life and outside it, for years and years and years until she was suddenly, as I discovered one day on her patio over coffee and tea, all the way in.  Present but not forceful.  Something I can aspire to now.  But not from inside this cave.

So I take in what my youngest has to say this morning – “Why can’t you?”  And I nod a few more times.  I’m not yet ready to shed my attitude (my cave, my cocoon). The coffee hasn’t even finished brewing.  But I understand finally, perhaps for the first time, that I will.

Loving Doris

2 Dec

Stepparenting: Full with the delight of new discovery and fraught with invisible frustration. For me, anyway. Like a quiet dance with a trip wire. I love my stepdaughter, and I know she loves me. We lived together for years in a smallish house, folding into one another’s rituals and rhythms (or sometimes not), sharing powerful opinions (both verbally and not), and uncovering in the process a host of unspoken hopes which we are now (both) slowly learning to speak aloud.

She is away at college and I miss her fiercely — trip wires, vampire hours and all. I appreciate the small bursts of time we now cobble together for our family. It is rarely easy, but always rich.

I landed in the life of my own stepmom at the ripe age of 21, when I knew everything and nothing, needed no one and everyone, living half a continent away from my family of origin with my feet firmly planted on the west coast and my head in the Midwestern clouds. My stepmom folded me into her life, even from a distance, left me room to grow and demanded to be let into my life, too, over time. When she passed away last year after battling mesothelioma, I was left – am left – lonely for her. I cannot say I lost a parent, and yet I cannot say I did not. She is mine – was mine – as much as anyone else in this world of ours.

Her birthday is less than a week away. Later this month is Christmas, followed by the first anniversary of her death.

In an attempt to make visible this relationship which defies real definition, but which provided a shape for my own choices, my own growth, my own coming out and coming into myself, falling in love and trusting the fall, I scribbled some thoughts to share at her memorial last year.  Because I was unable to fly back the fifth time in a year to attend, my brother-in-law read these thoughts aloud during the service — for which I will forever be truly deeply grateful.  Here is what I said…

Twenty years ago, Doris married my father. Her son and I worried.  They had dated so briefly – were they rushing into this? Did they know what they were doing?  But they did; they were wiser than we thought.  They were soulmates. I know this now.  But at the time, I didn’t know soulmates were real, or possible.   They lived their lives with space between them, with fierce commitment and loyalty, with a respect for one another’s independence, intersecting in all the right spots, encouraging and supporting one another to follow their dreams – even when it meant they had to live in different places for a time.

There was an afternoon I came visiting, maybe three years into Dad and Doris’s marriage, and I’d been staying with them for a few days.  I hadn’t yet been to Santa Clara to see my mom.  Doris came downstairs to tell me it was time to call my mother – however much I was enjoying my time with them (and I was), she was still my mother and I needed to call her, to make a plan to visit.  I was furious.  Of all the people in the universe who could bawl me out for not calling my mother – it’s my stepmother who comes downstairs and actually delivers the message.  And she was not to be contradicted, let me tell you.  It took me hours to speak to her again, I was so angry.  But she was right.  I called my mother.  This is the only fight we ever had, Doris and I.  I finally understood what she meant about family.  Family is family. Nothing is more important than family. We don’t choose our family, but they’re ours – no matter what.

Later when she moved to Texas and built her office from scratch, after the carpet was down and her team was assembled, I remember she introduced me to everyone as her daughter.  They were confused, because they knew she had a son and a daughter and they’d met them already, or at least seen pictures.  Or maybe they were confused because they couldn’t quite see the family resemblance.  But she let them live with their confusion.  She had claimed me, and didn’t feel the need to explain further.  Our family is full of contradictions and potential for confusion, with its layers of “step” and multiple ethnicities.  Some of us chose one another, some of us came along for the ride, and some of us were born into it.  But we all belong to one another now.  Because Doris and Dad made it so.

I know that she has been a mentor to so many people – that her wisdom, and her commitment to justice, and the way she stands tall and takes space on this planet are the things she’ll be remembered for today – and I remember her for these, too, and hope to help impart some of this to my daughters – but for me, personally, it’s the sense of belonging I’ll remember her for – because of all the people in my life, she’s the first one who made that feel real, and possible – something we create for each other and for ourselves.

I love you, Doris, and I always will.  You have helped me become who I am.

Your courage and your grace: Helping so many young women and men find their place on this planet, and hold it, and fill it with all they have and all they are.

Thank you, and Happy Birthday.



[photo borrowed from http://takecareblog.com/category/holidays/]

Eight Years ’til the Light

16 Sep

My stepdaughter is amazing.  She is thoughtful, generous and strong-spirited, passionate, beautiful, stylish and funny – SO funny.  Her laugh is like the bubbling over of glee, like ice clinking lightly in your glass on a hot, hot summer’s day.  Ask her mom.  Ask her friends.  Ask anyone.  She was the first in our family to make her little sister laugh, lying on a hotel bed in Guatemala City late in the evening.  Her little sister would sleep, and she would make eye contact, but she didn’t laugh until she laid on her back on the bed with her sister and something clicked.  My stepdaughter is like that.

My relationship with her, on the other hand, is more like gravel, or smooth rocks held like treasures in one palm, like a cliff face, sheer, straight up, or like that sliver of light at the top of the cliff.  Up and down.  Smooth and rough.  And when we are in the dark tunnel with each other, it feels like our dark is doubled by a mutual desire to show the world – or is it to show her mom? – a happy lesbian family, every moment of every day.

But having my stepdaughter home from college last month was new.  Something about the way she carries herself now.  More confident? Classic? Calm?

There were still the late-night visitors, the exclusive mother-daughter dates, cryptic conversations carried on primarily through mental telepathy, intuition, and a long shared history.  There were still awkward negotiations about car use, and there was even one eye-roll.  But this time, she also joined her sister and me for ice cream to celebrate the first day of second grade.  She told me about her class schedule without my asking a single question, and she took me outside to admire the blankets and pillows stacked in her mom’s car for the ride back to college – gold, cream, blue, ornate and plump, perfect for the window seat in her new bedroom, and purchased at rock-bottom prices from a resale shop.

She spoke with me earnestly about boundary-setting and consequences, when I finally put her sister on the stairs for disrespect.  She was my ally.  It is those simple moments which stick.

When I moved in with her mom, it’s my stepdaughter who convinced us to move our bed away from the wall.  She could see I needed space on my side.  I should have known we would grow into allies then, when she was twelve.  At the same time, though, she was delighted each time the big orange cat trapped me at the back of our walk-in pantry by his food bowl, hissing and swiping at me with his claws.  I understand.  I can relate.  I am a stepdaughter, too.  It still made me feel out-of-place.

I threw out all my step-parenting books a long while ago.  It may have been the sentence which suggested it could take eight years for a stepfamily to gel.  Also, I grew tired of translating “wife” into “partner,” changing all the genders, imagining what the authors would say about a single mom, her only daughter, and the new lesbian partner who steps in.  Eventually, I wrote my own book – in my head – too worried about all the implications to actually get it down on the page.  Did you know that something like 50% of step-families break up?

Yet here we are now, eight years into stepfamily life, and I finally have a story I’m willing to tell.  Because I see the light now – the light at the end of our tunnel.  This new calm, this new respect.  I love my stepdaughter fiercely.

I’m sure that somewhere she will share her story, too – growing up with a lesbian mom, growing up Latina in a home with one, then two, then one, then two white women.  After all, she is a poet, and a storyteller, and a darn good one, too.  Her story won’t be the same as mine.  It will start and end in different places.  It will recall different things.  We’ve been shaped in different ways.  Our tunnels of light and dark are different, and only sometimes intertwined.

But today, this is my story.  Today, it’s about light.  Eight years.  And the strength of love.

The Decision to Adopt

19 Aug

In December 2003, on the drive home from Appleton, Wisconsin, Kelly and I had the talk which led to painting our guest room periwinkle and purchasing polka dot rugs and a crib from Ikea.

We still hadn’t agreed on an art print to hang in our bedroom.  Kelly wanted something unique by a local artist.  She tended towards yellow – the deep summer corn yellow of the textured wallpaper that adorned one wall of my childhood bedroom – and crimson.  She was also partial to cubes, and hard lines.  I wanted waterfalls and green jungles, deep blends of color where I could lose myself in a tranquil setting – or a paint-peeling wooden chair hanging from hooks on the wall, as I had seen in Wicker Park once at the home of an artist hosting a non-profit fundraiser.  But we had not yet come to an agreement, so our bedroom walls remained bare.

We agreed on most of the rest of the house.   We came to a meeting of minds with deep earth tones, large comfortable couches and giant art prints, with footstools for her short legs and wide open space to sidestep my mild claustrophobia.  Both of us enjoyed being cozy – although for her, cozy included a dachshund covering both knees, a patchwork blanket her mom made fifteen years ago, and an orange and white boy-cat named Sweet Potato on her chest –  while for me, cozy meant candles, fuzzy slippers, and a plush blanket over my lap, soft against my chin when I pulled it up.

We also agreed early in our relationship that she was Grace’s only mom, and I – well, we hadn’t really agreed yet on who I was to her daughter.

Step-parenting books say it can take 7 to 12 years to gel as a family.  I stopped reading when I hit that statistic.  It was too much to take in.

Now in the car, alongside snow-laden barns, we agreed to have a child – a decision which meant co-parenting for the rest of our lives.  We didn’t arrive at this agreement lightly, but we were quick.

* * *

“How about ‘Kyla’?”  I asked over breakfast, weeks after we had looped Grace into our decision.  Grace was twelve, and looked like she wanted to throw up.  She was still adjusting to the idea.  “Let’s put it on the board, at least,” I said.

“No…” Kelly said.  “I don’t like the name ‘Kyla.’”

“I thought Mama said it was gonna be a boy,” said Grace.

“It’s probably gonna be a boy.  We don’t know for sure,” I began.  “We said we’d take either.  They said most of the time when people say ‘either,’ they get a boy because –“

“I get it,” Grace said.

“Hey – What do you think of ‘Nicolas’?” Kelly asked.

“I love Nicolas!” I said.

“I like it,” Grace offered.  “It’s a good name.”  Kelly stood up, uncapped the black dry erase marker, and wrote ‘Nicolas’ in the boy column of our new whiteboard, right by the door to the basement.

I remembered Grace huddled under blankets at the computer in that basement, with just her hands exposed, typing.  I remembered relaxing on the futon behind her with a magazine, waiting for her next editing question, in a rare and lovely moment between us one evening a few weeks prior.

“Why are you adopting?” she asked now.  “Don’t you think that’ll be hard for a kid?  I mean, why don’t you – ?”  Her speech patterns mirrored her mother’s.

“We’re adopting,” her mom said, “because we can all come into this together that way.”  It sounded so mature and uncomplicated, the way she expressed the thorniest bit of our decision.  “We did think about using a sperm donor,” she continued, “and one of us being pregnant – probably Roi, since I already did that once.”  They smiled at one another.  “But Roi says she doesn’t really need to be pregnant, so we decided adoption was the best way to grow our family.”

“Why Guatemala?  You don’t even speak Spanish.”  I noticed she didn’t ask why we decided to grow our family.

“I do speak Spanish, Grace.”

“Not around me.”

“Well, we’d need to get better about that.  That’s something I’ll need your help with.”

“Are you going to learn Spanish?” she asked me now.

“I’d like to,” I answered.  She nodded. The movement was small, but decisive.

“It’s a lot of work,” Grace said.

“I know,” I replied.

Later she would tell me she thought I’d be a good mom, and she thought it would be good for me to have a kid of my own.  Later she would tell her mom she wanted a little brother, and she wasn’t sure how she felt about not being an only child anymore.  But not this morning.

“What are we gonna do today?” she asked.  Her mom smiled.  My stomach tied itself in knots.

I shrugged, and pushed my chair back from the table. “I have a coffee date with Susanne in a little bit,” I said.

“What would you like to do today?  Do you wanna play Rummicube?” Kelly asked her daughter, standing to clear our plates from the table.

“You just had coffee,” Grace informed me with a quiet grin.

“I did.”  I smiled back.  She always seemed a bit easier with me when she knew I was on my way out the door.

“How about Speed?  Are the cards in the office?” Grace asked.  Her mother groaned.  “I’ll go easy on you,” Grace promised.

“Okay,” said Kelly.  “Will you help me clear this up?”

The two of them carried plates to the sink.  I put the butter back in the fridge, carried a glass and two mugs from the table, set them on the counter with a clink, and kissed Kelly on the cheek.  “I sure do love you guys,” Kelly said.

“Love you, too,” we both replied.  I took my winter coat down from its hook by the door, put my arms in and zipped it up.  It was fleece-lined for winter, making me cozy in the doorway.

It hit me like this all the time now:  Soon, I would be a mom.

New Sister

17 Jun

I don’t claim to provide an accurate perspective here, but I’ll share what I heard in our family once we made the decision to adopt. From Guatemala.  My stepdaughter, then-13, and before we’d even tried on “step” as a title… or a name… or a position we maybe held (hold) in one another’s lives, had understandably mixed feelings about our decision – not so much, I think, because she’d been an only child her entire life, but because we planned to bring a brown child into our family with two white parents. 

Another blog, another day, I may (or may not) share what went into our decision, but for now, I will share – true or not – what I believe I heard in our house at the time:



Mama said

we were naming her Bea,

but we’re pronouncing it

Bee, like the bumblebee,

not two syllables

like she would at home

in her birth country,

not two syllables

like we would

in Ecuador,

like my dad would

pronounce it, like my Abuelita

(my step-Abuelita), like my friends,

like any Latina would.


I asked her why.

She says because

we are American.

I am not American,

not completely.

She says because her first name

is her birthmother’s

and her middle name,

Bea, crosses cultures.

She can pronounce it

both ways when she’s older.


I don’t want


to have to

cross cultures.

I want her to be


Latina, like me.

From the beginning.




Real questions. Real concerns. Like everything else in my parenting life, there are probably 25 different ways to raise children with a strong cultural identity. Sometimes, I’m good at it, and sometimes I’m not. If you’ve reached the end of this post, I imagine you have ideas (and stories) of your own. I invite you to share your thoughts below.

And if you read my earlier post, you may know that dear Grace is a poet and creator, too – and so, to hear her tell her own story, Ecuador: Travel Through Time, please click here.


Thank you.



If I didn’t have kids

15 Jun

“Mami, what would you do if you didn’t have me?” my daughter asked the other day, as she put toothpaste on her toothbrush.  Why do we have our most intimate conversations in the bathroom?

“Why are you asking me that?”

“Because you’re YOU.  What would you do?”

I can tell you what I used to do, before my girls, before my partner.  I used to perform spoken word poetry at Northalsted Market Days, dance sometimes at the local boy bar during Wednesday “Women’s Obssession Night”, dress up fancy for the annual Lesbian Community Care Project benefit at South Shore Cultural Center.  I used to host meetings for LGBT affinity groups and solidarity organizations.  I dated.   I rehearsed comedies and children’s shows, co-facilitated coming-out groups, performed for open mic nights and fundraisers.

I used to wear a thick silver chain necklace to parties sometimes, with a three-inch license plate dangling down to say “Butch,” but I never was. I never was Femme either, but my hair flowed past my waist.  A friend and I once made a plan to print T-shirts proclaiming, “I survived the AIDS Treatment Activism Conference without cutting my hair!”  It was something. 

Then nine years ago, I was staffing a table for Lambda Legal at Chicago’s Midsommarfest in Andersonville, when I met Kelly and her 11-year-old daughter. I came out from behind the table, she gave her daughter and friend a few bucks for face-painting, and we all walked around in the hot sun.   I began introducing her to my friends that afternoon – on curbs, on steps, in all manner of street festival dress. In the days that followed, I remember a luscious lava cake, emails, hurried phone calls, a few squeezed-in dinner dates. My friends called her my Motorcycle Mama.

Less than a year passes and I am moving into their new house in Oak Park and arguing with her about the color to paint the guest room. We had reached the point, sooner than we might have because her kid was involved, when I needed to jump in now or step out.  I chose to jump in, for better or worse.

And slowly, I began to understand that being out every night wasn’t helping us to bond as a family.  So I prioritized family TV nights, spent evenings coaching her daughter with math homework, and spent ten minutes on the phone with friends instead of forty – most of the time – although I imagine her daughter doesn’t see it that way.  Pre-teens at the time rarely had their own cell phones, so we shared the family land line. 

One afternoon in a friend’s sunroom, we wrote a long poem together.  Each of us contributed.


Things That Happen in a House















Plant watering














Spaghetti dangling













Or reading


























































Flipping out


Learning to pout














Cranking up the volume


Stair stepping

And beeping

Young sneaking

Or creeping


And creaking

Late-night critiquing






And farting














Just saying

Just laying




































And surging

And sleeping

And leaping

And waking

And dreaming

And screaming










Things that happen in a house.


My stepdaughter and I edited this poem the following day, and we had a lot of fun.  It was years before she asked me to look at her writing again.

So what do I tell my seven-year-old in the moment?  “I don’t know, Sweetheart.  More writing maybe?  Going out with friends?”  Her sister’s now a spoken word poet in her own right.  And I, at least, am writing again, re-discovering my own voice.  Or honing it, this time.

I step out of the shower.  My youngest brushes her teeth.  And we begin the new day.

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