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* A Parent by Any Name
by Linda K. Wright
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This essay originally appeared in the Autumn 1997 issue of Princeton Arts Review.

You are cordially invited
to a celebration
of the birth of
Marianne James-Mason.
Born March 20, 1997
six pounds, 3 ounces
Given by her parents
Elizabeth James and Louisa Mason.


My friend Elizabeth was inside when my husband and I arrived at her house. We'd parked on the street, a quiet cul-de-sac, and walked into Elizabeth's large front yard where people were milling about, talking and eating. Louisa, the biological mother and Elizabeth's life partner, was there to greet us. Marianne, the guest of honor, lay sleeping in her mother's arms. I could already see that even though she was only a month old, she'd inherited her mother's soft brown hair.

Though Marianne was oblivious to the voices of those around her, I whispered to Louisa, "May I hold her?"

Louisa waited until I'd seated myself, then held Marianne's sleeping form out to me. I stretched out my arms, my dark hand gently supporting Marianne's head, and pulled her closer to me.

"Look at her," I said softly to my husband. He knelt down in the grass beside my lawn chair, smiling at me, his eyes looking directly into mine. I enclosed myself in the warmth of the circle of my husband and Marianne.For a moment, even Louisa was outside our circle.

This interlude reminded me of my internal debate, recently concluded, over whether to have a child. The rate of self-examination mirrored the speed at which my childbearing years were disappearing. I'd repeatedly asked myself if I needed to fulfill my nurturing needs through bearing a child or whether I wanted to nurture in some other way. After thinking about several factors, including a major health consideration, I'd decided not to become pregnant.

Logically, I accepted my reasons. I'd even examined alternative ways to nurture, including centering more of my life around my husband, helping friends brainstorm solutions to challenges in their lives, volunteering with social agencies, nurturing my own needs. Yet I still questioned whether emotionally, these alternatives were enough.

At my gentle cooing sounds, Marianne's eyelashes fluttered. She opened one of her eyes and looked up at me as if to say, "Okay, who's holding me now? And do I want them to?"

She decided to favor me with a full look. I felt under inspection. Totally self-possessed, she yawned and smiled (it may have been a grimace), allowing me to coo a few minutes longer. Deciding she'd had enough attention from me, she let out an intensifying yell. Instantly I recognized her supremacy and looked around to locate Louisa.

Elizabeth came out of the house, bringing more food. She placed it on a table and came over to greet us. She smiled at my discomfiture and offered her arms. She held Marianne close and spoke to her in soothing words.

Elizabeth took Marianne to Louisa to be breast fed, then came over to a table where my husband and I were seated. We sampled the generous spread she and Louisa had prepared, and began bringing each other up to date on what we'd been doing. Elizabeth and I'd met professionally years ago, found we shared a love of literature and become friends. When I'd married, I'd invited her and Louisa to my wedding. When she and Louisa had decided to consider alternative methods of reproduction, she'd shared the decision with me.

Dance of Confusion
"Dance of Confusion" by Patse Hemsley

After catching up, our conversation turned to parental concerns. Elizabeth faced me with an anxious look.

"You look a little tired," I said. "Marianne letting you guys get enough sleep?"

"I guess I'm just working too hard. I feel like I've got to make sure Marianne has what she needs."

I looked around at the house, the large yard, and said, "Well, it looks like you're doing that."

"Beth," my husband leaned forward, "what specifically is bothering you?"

Elizabeth sighed. "Louisa and I center our lives around Marianne. Even our decision to move here was based on the reputation of the schools, the proximity of the pediatrician, things like that. We wanted to make sure when we had Marianne that we could give her the best. I just worry about whether we've thought of everything."

I heard behind Elizabeth's explanation of the specific, her concern that her child's life be a good one, trouble-free, full of learning and joy.

Elizabeth continued, voicing her fear about Marianne's struggles when she became a teen-ager. She recalled her own adolescence, smiling ruefully, as she related what a hellion she'd been.

"I kept a diary during those years. I want to share it with Marianne, reassure her that the craziness she'll experience at that age will indeed come to an end."

My friend Elizabeth, partner in a same sex relationship, expressing the concerns of any parent.

Expressing the concerns of any parent? She is any parent. Why would I even bother having that thought unless somewhere, something in the back of my mind wondered if I fully accepted these two women as co-parents? Am I having this thought because I'm acknowledging their situation is "other than?" Or do I subconsciously think it "less than?"

And if I think this about them, what do others think of me?

As an African-American, I refuse to accept the judgment "less-than" about myself, but now I had to stop and ask myself whether I was applying that badge to someone else. It's a common tendency, fostered in our society--the tendency to arbitrarily classify each individual is so culturally pervasive, that even those of us who struggle daily to overcome that indoctrination somehow find ourselves influenced by it.

Elizabeth was doing some self-examination and so was I. She was reinforcing my reasons for valuing the eclectic nature of my friends. They teach and nurture me in ways that help me not to take any person or attitude for granted. As I question my own needs and assumptions, I learn not to automatically accept any prevailing opinion or attitude.

My friends' nurturing and my own come full circle, parents to each other--parents by any other name.

Linda K. Wright alternates between the literary and the mystery and is the author of numerous published short stories, articles, poems, essays, and articles. Her literary work has been published in The Seattle Review, Slice of Life (Canada), The Maryland Review and others.


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