Mum's the Word

I'm proud of who I am. I just don't always feel like talking about it.
Moms chatting

Elise Gravel

My 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, is scaling an enormous rock-climbing wall at our fitness center. And I am below, thinking about life and death and whether we need more olive oil. Phoebe loves to rock climb and is really good at it. She makes it to the top of the adult wall with each ascent and then comes sailing gleefully down like Spider-Man (or Spider-Girl, as the case may be). All my job consists of is sitting slumped on a bench, neck arched to watch her every move, trying not to imagine a spinal-cord injury.

On this particular day I am dreamily considering how incredible it is that the baby I birthed what feels like just hours ago is now dangling from a bungee cord not unlike an umbilical cord, supported by her own small hands and feet and by her spotter, a 20-year-old guy with acne. With all I fear in this life, for some strange reason I don't worry too much about Phoebe's rock climbing or that the young men in charge chat about air guitar as they belay 5-year-olds up and down a 20-foot incline. It's the things I can't see that freak me out.

I must look relaxed enough for an impromptu heart-to-heart because another mom plops herself down next to me and says, "This was all my husband's idea. You don't see him sitting here though."

She is fully expecting me to nod in agreement and say with a sigh, "Men, you can't live with them; you can't live without them." But I am speechless. Not because I feel protective toward my husband; I am speechless because I am a lesbian.

"They love it," I say, meaning the kids, and rock climbing.

"Yours too?" she asks. "My husband says it's great and I should try it. I told him over my dead body. Mine's a tough guy, a litigator. What's yours do?"

Oh boy.

I have inadvertently landed on a slide, like when Phoebe and I play Chutes and Ladders. I was so close to being able to spend an entire hour simply spacing out, watching Phoebe climb, and now I have to tell a stranger I'm gay and sustain the potential shock/horror, feigned indifference, or politically correct overcompensation. It's Wednesday at 5:30. I've been up for close to 12 hours already. I've made breakfast and lunch, taken Phoebe to school, gone to work, the eye doctor, and the market. I've picked Phoebe up from school, raced to rock climbing, and still I have miles to go before I sleep -- dinner, homework, bath, bed.

I have tried being direct in the past: "Actually I don't have a husband. My daughter has two moms." Then I watched the gears turn: Did her husband leave her? Is she a widow? Is this her stepdaughter? The eventual Ohhh after my new friend figures it out, bringing on an unexpected awkward intimacy. Because telling someone you're gay is like talking about your sex life in a way that assuming someone is straight is not.

So, I lie. And rather than keep my lie true to life, I go all mainstream and say, "He's a doctor."

I just don't have it in me, the energy for that critical essential revolutionary act of coming out. I want a root beer with ice. I want Phoebe to finish class safely. I want to go to bed.

"Oh, really? What kind?"

Oy vey.

"An E.R. doc," I say, remembering an ex-boyfriend from college who became an emergency-room doctor. We could have gotten married. This could be his daughter now descending the wall at 90 miles an hour.

"I bet it's not at all like what you see on TV," she says.

"No, it's much more mundane." I somehow pull that one right out of my you-know-what.

Thankfully Phoebe comes bounding over to interrupt us before my nose grows the length of a telephone wire. If Phoebe had been within earshot I would have come out, would have modeled honesty and pride. For her sake I would have rainbow-stickered it right up, held my own little gay-pride parade. Instead I took the day off. I quickly undo Phoebe's harness and try to usher us to the door before the woman can say another word.

We make assumptions all the time. In an effort to start a conversation or to bridge a socially awkward gulf, we assume the dad at the playground is straight, the mom at music class with her new baby is married, the blond-haired, blue-eyed child of the blond-haired, blue-eyed mom is not adopted. We assume people are healthy or employed or share our faith. I know most people mean well in these moments, but as the member of an oft-misunderstood minority (How can two women raise a child without a man?) I usually feel obligated to inform and educate whenever I can.

Only this time I didn't. And to top it off, I marry myself to a doctor. I secretly feel terrible about contributing to the world of generalizations. Surely if more people were exposed to the everyday banality of lesbian parenting it would not loom so mysterious and threatening. But it's precisely this truth that prevents me from climbing the podium; at this moment I'm just another tired mom looking for a minute to herself while her child soars to new heights. So I jump the gay ship. I feel bad about lying, guilty for letting down the cause.

Phoebe tugs my sleeve. "I'm hungry. I need dinner now!"

I wave a guilty goodbye to the woman as we leave. She smiles generously and waves back.

Originally published in the February 2014 issue of PARENTS magazine.

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