The Misnomer of ‘Motherless’ Parenting

The New York Times 22 June 2013
SOMETIMES when my daughter, who is 7, is nicely cuddled up in her bed and I snuggle her, she calls me Mommy. I am a stay-at-home dad. My male partner and I adopted both of our children at birth in open domestic adoptions. We could fill our home with nannies, sisters, grandmothers, female friends, but no mothers.

My daughter says “Mommy” in a funny way, in a high-pitched voice. Although I refer the honors immediately to her birth mom, I am flattered. But saddened as well, because she expresses herself in a voice that is not her own. It is her stuffed-animal voice. She expresses not only love; she also expresses alienation. She can role-play the mother-daughter relationship, but she cannot use her real voice, nor have the real thing.

….What is not expressed in both arguments, which I consider valid, is the voice of the adoptee — my daughter’s voice, that is. Her awareness of being a motherless child is not addressed. I don’t want to appropriate our child’s voice, but I want to speak up for her, and her older brother, and I want to acknowledge their feelings.

Being a “motherless” child in an open adoption is not as simple as it looks, because there is a birth mother, who walks in and walks out of the lives of our children. And when she is not physically there, she is — as we know from many accounts of adult adoptees — still present in dreams, fantasies, longings and worries.

In a closed or an international adoption there is also a mother — sometimes in photos, but always in the narrative of the child’s birth, which also starts for them with “in your mommy’s tummy.” When the mother walks into the lives of our kids it is mostly a wonderful experience. It is harder for them when she walks out, not only because of the sad goodbye of a beloved adult, but also because it triggers the difficult and painful question of why she walked out in the first place.

The answer initially depends very much on us, and we have to help our kids find a narrative that is honest about the circumstances and the unjust world we live in, yet loving and respectful toward the mother. To do that properly, gay families have to create an emotional space where the mother lives as a reality, a space where she can be addressed and discussed without any shame or secrecy.

So, motherless parenting is a misnomer.
…the overarching idea behind parenting by gay men should be that it is great for a child to have one or two dads, and that not having a mom in your daily life can be hard. And that it is O.K. to long for a soft cheek instead of a stubbly one.

Frank Ligtvoet is the founder of Adoptive Families With Children of African Heritage and Their Friends, a New York City support group, and a member of the board of the New York State Citizens’ Coalition for Children.


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