Brandi Carlile On Her Journey to LGBTQ+ Parenting: 'Queers Must Pave Their Own Way'

In an exclusive essay, the singer-songwriter and mom-of-two explains why she believes her voice can help change the wider conversation around parenthood for good.

couple portrait in front of barn
Brandi Carlile, right, with Catherine, has won five Grammys, including 2018’s Best Americana Album for By the Way, I Forgive You. She is nominated in two categories for the 2021 awards, being held January 31. Photo: Victoria Kovios

It might not feel radical to talk about LGBTQ+ parenting right now, but over the arc of history, gay domesticity is a radically new concept. We have no generational template. There's some serious pioneering involved here. I wish there had been more for me to read or to absentmindedly absorb through TV sitcoms, movies, and ads—things that could have prepared me for the strangeness of being wholly responsible for a child without much representation or mirror to show me what it would look like. Now I want to be a part of building some of that history for other LGBTQ+ parents.

For my wife and me, every part of our emergence into the world of parenting was intentional and always felt a little like walking out onto thin ice, blindfolded. To my immense relief and delight, Catherine and I found a total abundance of support from our friends and family around us who had kids. It felt like joining some kind of a club. It actually made me feel cooler.

We did IVF with our first daughter, Evangeline. We harvested my eggs and Cath carried our baby, and it was really complicated and beautiful. It was complicated because I didn't know who I was supposed to be in this equation. I knew I wasn't "Dad," but I wasn't pregnant either. Catherine was uncomfortable with all the things that were happening to her body, and the whole concept felt so foreign to us.

evangeline laughing with mother
Carlile wrote her iconic motherhood ballad “The Mother” when Evangeline (pictured) was born. Victoria Kovios

This is because queer parenting lacks a manual—there's no way to prepare same-sex parents for what a lifetime of exposure to only heteronormative parenting will do to your heart and mind while you're contemplating and creating a new little life. All the breastfeeding and birthing classes are mom/dad-centered, so I wound up being called to the front of the class with the rest of the "dads" so that the "moms" could giggle while we put on diapers backward and struggled endlessly with BabyBjörn carriers.

It can be hard on any mom who's trying to wrap her head around not carrying her baby. But the queers must pave their own way. We found a really amazing LGBTQ+-sensitive instructor who came to our home and helped us navigate and identify our natural parental inclinations together, and that was hugely important. I strongly recommend this for LGBTQ+ parents embarking on this journey. There are so many mechanisms in place that make us feel inadequate—more than people really understand.

Everything has been a lesson. Evangeline was born to two mothers on Father's Day, but she made it clear right away that she only needed us. The rigidity around gender roles in parenting is indeed a construct. We know that now! But it took time. I think when same-sex parents are honest with ourselves, we worry deep down that we are depriving our children of a gendered experience. We have to work too hard to overcome it—that's a little planted seed we can now uproot. When we do uproot it, we even help heterosexual parents around us to break out of gender boxes. I've seen that happen with my straight friends.

The way we approach parenting now feels instinctual, even natural. We divide tasks by what feels important to us in the moment, not based on society's expectations of moms and dads.

We wondered what our firstborn would call us. What did we even want to be called? Someone wise, an older lesbian who'd raised her kids and has a whole bunch of grandkids at this point, told me that no matter what your children call you, even if they use the same name for you and your partner, you'll know who they're talking to by their voice. This turned out to be 100 percent true. Our kids know us ... like, really know us. We are learning about ourselves through them. They're the teachers. I'm Mama and Catherine is Mummy. The girls decided that on their own, probably based on what we call our own mothers.

When Elijah was born, we felt like pros! This time Catherine was reluctant to take IVF drugs, so we tried artificial insemination (IUI). Cath carried again. We were ready for the birth and we had our different but complementing baby skills nailed down and ready for the big arrival. I never felt a pang of the anxiety, guilt, or confusion that we wrestled with the first time. Eli was enormous. Almost 10 pounds! She was a dream baby. We call her "joy bomb" because she has just exploded joy into our world and she's finally taught our serious little Evangeline how to belly laugh.

family portrait in front of wood pile
The Carliles live in the rural Washington mountains where Brandi Carlile grew up. Victoria Kovios

The way we approach parenting now feels instinctual, even natural. We divide tasks by what feels important to us in the moment, not based on society's expectations of moms and dads. Some days Catherine does school and preps meals. Some days it's me. The parenting roles are really free in this situation. Catherine is just as likely to take the girls on a hike or to stack firewood as she is to gently press and lay out an Easter dress. I take pride in being a near-perfect laundry folder and gardener. I'm definitely in charge of splinter removal, and I take on discipline more than I thought I would. I was always such a cool auntie that I never expected to be such a strict mom.

We are absolutely euphoric with gratitude for our kids and the support from all kinds of people we've encountered as we travel this partially paved road. This is my wish for LGBTQ+ families who are treading out on the ice: Keep on moving the world forward and being honest about your family and your experience. Be clear and vocal about the importance of cultural representation.

Everything You Need to Know About Brandi and Her Family

Yes, she lives on a compound: Friends ribbed Carlile for having her bandmates snap up land around the log cabin she bought in Washington when she was just 21 years old. "Everybody teased, 'Brandi's forming a cult,'" Carlile says. "Next thing I knew, the people I work with were here. And we've married into each other's families"—bandmate Phil is married to Carlile's sister, Tiffany, and bandmate Josh is married to Catherine's sister, Sarah—"so we have siblings, nieces, nephews."

family selfie in colorful hats
This tight team is good with togetherness. Courtesy of Brandi Carlile

They podded up—before podding was a thing: Phil and Tiffany and their two young kids live at the next house over; guitarist Tim, who's Phil's twin brother, and his wife and two kids, and cellist Josh and his wife, Sarah, and their new baby daughter, born in November, are all just an ATV ride away.

They trade responsibilities: "You get so tired of your own cooking—so, say it's Josh and Sarah's night to cook. We can go to each other's houses," Carlile says. "We have a garden that we all can work in. We built a deck and put in an above-ground pool. We've done all kinds of projects together—anything to keep ourselves busy." And as school went remote, "everyone helps the kids with learning. It's a community-based effort."

How their day starts: "Catherine opens all the curtains, gets the kids their morning milk, makes me a cup of coffee—Willie's Remedy, medium roast—and does her morning routine."

Best time of day to write songs: "Coffee time and in the shower."

Music vibes in the house: "I want my kids to love Maggie Rogers, Harry Styles, Alicia Keys, Courtney Barnett, and Yola," Carlile says. What music do they actually love? "Mine, John Denver's, and the Frozen soundtrack."

What makes the girls laugh: "Being chased with the hose."

How the kids make Carlile laugh: "When they ask permission to do something basic, like drinking water or going to the bathroom."

Carlile misses touring: "When the pandemic hit, I was definitely in the midst of the big pendulum upswing of my career," says Carlile, who had planned to spend 2020 headlining major venues after her recent Grammy wins. "That was supposed to be a big victory lap. But one thing I've realized is: Everyone's on pause."

brandi carlile playing guitar
Carlile’s been writing new music during lockdown. Jim Bennett/Contributor/Getty

She cheers on other musicians: "I think that the music industry, especially as it pertains to roots music, has been so hard on women and marginalized people," Carlile says. "So I get so happy when I see other people cut through the noise like I was able to do."

Her big pandemic purchase: A 30-foot aluminum fishing boat. "I basically begged Catherine," Carlile says. Over the summer, the family spent a week at a time living on the boat, squished into the 8 ½ x 10-foot cabin's queen-size bed, floating around the San Juan Islands, up near the Canadian border. "We had a barbecue on our boat. We fished and hiked and paddled. The kids love it."

Fishing is now family time: "I love taking people out to fish. Now I spend all my time untangling others' lines, to the point where I rarely get a pole in the water, but I'm just as glad to see somebody else catch a fish," Carlile says. And she brags on Evangeline: "She fishes like a crazy woman. Then she twists heads off of spot prawns for us without gloves."

Favorite kids' book to read: "Mommy, Mama, and Me, by Lesléa Newman."

Phrase she might overuse: "That's not a jungle gym."

How their day ends: "I'm in charge of the night routine, which includes shutting down the house, building a fire, and pushing the damper to make sure there's heat in the morning when everyone wakes up."

Hope for 2021: "The end of COVID and the return of hugs."

Brandi's playlist: Simply click here or search for Parents magazine on Spotify to find Brandi Carlile's favorite songs for families.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's February 2021 issue as "Mothers of Invention."

Additional reporting by Kera Bolonik
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