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The Intersection of Identity and Lived Experience

My family recently visited a photography exhibit at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds offices, celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the legalization of same-sex marriage in NC. My wife and I were the 19th couple to be legally wed in NC on that day, on the front steps of the building where my wife now works. We brought our 6-year-old twins to witness our “law marriage,” as we decided to call it, drawing a distinction between it and our “love marriage” which had taken place a dozen years earlier.

Family is what you make it, it is about what you love into being. I remember as a child my favorite aunt described the agonizing choice, she felt she had to make in the 1960’s between being true to herself as a woman who loved other women and being able to have a family and children. She chose to live in truth and relied on the strong bonds with her brother and sister to create a sense of family. My aunt has always doted on my cousins, my sister and myself as though we were her own children. She sought her own path in the world, living authentically and creating family in her own way.

I thought of my aunt when, as a young woman, I fell in love with the woman who is now my wife, and we discussed adding children to our family. With deep love, hope and intention, we developed a plan to build and protect our family despite the fact that NC had not legalized same-sex marriage yet, so we would not have the protection and rights that come with legal marriage. On a beautiful day in May, in front of our friends and family, we held our first wedding, our “love wedding.” Though the wedding was not legal at that time, we legally changed our last names so our family could all share a name. For years, my wife and I carried pouches of documents any time we left the house, with 14 legal agreements that helped establish some of the most important rights of marriage. The hospital visitation agreement addressed one of my biggest fears, because no matter how much I and my extended family considered my wife my next of kin, hospital staff who didn’t know our family could have decided to keep me from seeing her at a time of great crisis if we hadn’t taken several legal steps to protect ourselves against that possibility.

When we decided that we wanted to have children, we intentionally crossed our biological and legal relationships with the children to ensure that we, as their mothers, would have the strongest possible ties to them. We were fortunate enough to be able to use in-vitro fertilization (IVF). However, the law had not caught up to science; my wife had to sign away her legal rights and donate her eggs for me to carry our children. This meant that after their birth, she had to adopt them back to regain legal ties to her own biological children.

The day after giving birth to our twins at 35 weeks’ gestation, I remember walking down the hall towards the NICU and my wife and I could hear and distinguish the cries of our children from the cries of all those other babies in the NICU. We have been listening out for their voices as best as we can ever since. Building a family with love, hope and intention while experiencing a broader world that doesn’t recognize our family, or views it with hatred, discrimination or disrespect is bound to impact those of us who experience it.

Generally, I try to deal with anxiety and uncertainty in life by learning as much as I can about what I’m facing. My career as a social worker, along with lots of meaningful conversations with other people living through similar experiences helped me to feel more prepared to build a happy, healthy gay family. However, I was not prepared for the overlap of post-partum depression and the

part of motherhood where I felt a sense of stark vulnerability coupled with an overwhelming sense of responsibility to protect my children from the world. I knew I could love resilience into them, but that I cannot protect them from the ignorance and hate that families like ours sometimes experience in the world.

We have always carefully chosen communities, schools and care providers for our children. Still, the kids would sometimes report that another child in class used the word “gay” as a slur, or that they were made fun of for having 2 moms. Compared to the hateful speech I regularly heard in school when I was their age, it always seemed rather mild to me, and yet I can’t help but wonder if it still seeps into my children’s hearts, making them feel like they don’t belong.

Like for so many families, the years around the pandemic were full of grief, loss, and anxiety. For our family experienced this experience started in 2018 when we took on primary care for a terminally ill aunt. In the following year, my father and mother-in-law were both diagnosed with terminal cancer. In 2021, we had a three-month period during which we lost our family dog, my dad and my wife’s mother in rapid succession. My children were struggling to manage, and I was struggling to support them. Our whole family was spinning, and we needed to find ease, grace and kindness.

During this time of loss, my daughter developed major mental and physical health symptoms. After years of supporting families in crisis, I was in the other chair now, getting handed phone numbers and names scribbled on post-it notes from all the places we went to find help, and feeling frustrated at the lack of expertise and available resources to meet our family’s complex needs. I couldn’t stop thinking about how hard this was even though our family had the privilege of a lot of access to information, connections and resources. I wondered how other people got through this. I started to ask myself the question “Am I the person with the most knowledge of my child’s condition in my area?” My wife and I reached out to every professional and personal contact we knew to get our daughter in with a specialist whose office is less than 3 hours away from home. Then, we had a crisis when my daughter had a bad reaction to a medication. All the anxiety about being treated as a “real” family came back. This meant that amid worrying about a potentially very serious issue with our child’s health, we had to explain over and over that she has two mothers and no father. We wondered if she was going to be allowed to have the support and comfort of both of her parents, like other children, at the hospital when she was there and in distress.

I love and am proud of the family I have created. I do not think that my being a lesbian caused my own or my daughter’s mental health challenges, but the uncertainty of walking in a world with an identity that is not always accepted by others does contribute to the anxiety I carry and the ease with which I am able to get support. I think back on my aunt’s experiences and how excited she is to celebrate my children like they were her grandchildren. Then I ponder what the world might be like if I am lucky enough to have grandkids one day. I hope that if one of them is queer, they are free to be true to themselves, have a family in the way they define it and can get support without fearing being seen as illegitimate. Sometimes taking the long view helps me have hope, to recognize that even though we still need to continue to grow our capacity for empathy and acceptance, that change is happening right in front of us every day.