When I was 10 years old, I completely idolized my swim instructor.
She was a young, no-nonsense type of woman who wore an “I-mean-business” one-piece swimsuit. I saw her as an authority figure and I aimed to be as effortlessly cool and confident as she was.
One afternoon, I eavesdropped as she spoke with my mother. She casually mentioned how she would be going to dinner with a female friend and that friend’s “wife.” I eagerly intruded on the conversation in order to correct her, nonetheless in that condescending drawl kids use when they think they’ve outsmarted adults.
“You mean your friend’s husband,” I said, to which she replied, quite matter-of-factly, “No, her wife.”
This revelation had me absolutely stunned. As the conversation progressed, there was no opportunity to step in and ask the pressing questions swirling around in my prepubescent mind. Two women can get married? Is that legal? Can they kiss each other? Can they have children? I gripped the outline of my inhaler in my duffel bag.
Of course babies were top of mind for me; I had been obsessed with procreating since I could stand on two feet. I loved nothing more than to watch a pregnant Lori Loughlin on Full House while clutching my copy of Robert Munsch’s Alligator Baby.
Pregnancy was fascinating to me, and I had a very simple view of it: I thought a woman became pregnant when the priest made that faithful marital declaration, “You may kiss the bride.” Obviously a man was absolutely necessary in this ideological equation.
It was no wonder I had an obsession with life in the womb and thereafter. Our culture has a way of bombarding young girls with baby-related toys well before they understand what any of it means.
I can remember flipping through the Sears catalogue and flagging pages with mini bibs and tiny strollers while my brother lusted over the latest Transformer. Toys in North America convey a very clear message: boys will be boys, and girls will be mothers.
This had me envisioning my future children on a daily basis. The details got oddly specific as time went on, but nobody seemed to find it as odd as I do now.
I would name my children Julie and Stephanie and they’d be tall with blond ringlets and crystal blue eyes. I’m not sure why my young Italian self thought my offspring would come out looking Dutch, but I guess genetics weren’t top of mind for me at six years old.
As I entered adolescence, pregnancy and motherhood were making headlines. Jon and Kate Plus 8 hit the airwaves, and the “Pregnant Man” graced the stage of the Oprah show. It wasn’t unusual to be at the grocery store and see women shaking their heads at Angelina Jolie’s adoption plans in the tabloids.
Non-normative iterations of motherhood were shocking the nation, while simultaneously calling into question what a “real” mother looked like. Critics made it clear: motherhood was a sacred bond belonging to heterosexual women in committed relationships. This started painting my motherly aspirations with a tinge of sadness that I couldn’t quite place.
At this point, my own notions of marriage and motherhood went dormant. In fact, I was skipping the boy crazy, writing-our-names-together-in-a-notebook phase that my peers were fumbling through.
I remember on the last day of Grade 8, our teacher asked what we were looking forward to most about high school. All of my male classmates said “more girls,” my female classmates said, “boys and/or a better social scene,” and I said . . . lockers. Clearly, I was thinking of a very different space to stash my goods than my male counterparts.
High school was a rollercoaster of denial. I worked my ass off instead of confronting any real emotions that crossed my mind. My mother asked about boys and I gave flighty answers to fill a weird void of expectation.
My peers experienced pregnancy scares and I came to the realization that I’d never actually desired any kind of intimacy with a man. I started thinking, would kids become a reality for me? Am I going to be a lonely, childless spinster who watches Maury to keep busy?
Then it happened. In a four-year whirlwind of confusion and panic attacks, I fell in love with a woman, and the fantasy came crashing down.
In this moment, gayness became so much more than coming out and seeking acceptance. It also meant derailing what my family and I saw as the natural progression of my life. What happens when you’re primed to desire motherhood above all else, but that path becomes obscured by who you fall in love with?
I came from a traditional family; my mother stayed at home while my father worked at a bank. They were both doting parents and treasured our family unit. I couldn’t help but to think I was to blame for throwing a wrench into destiny. How would my life eventually compare to the reality with which I was accustomed?
Essentially, admitting I was interested in women felt like surrendering to a difficult path of unachievable milestones. Dating, marriage, having kids, establishing a family — it all felt so out of reach in my tiny, teenage mindset. Suddenly, at the age of 18, I was thinking about the logistics of child rearing when I should have been thinking about homecoming and band practice. I was dealing in hypotheticals and yet they were so damn alienating.
As a result, I slunk into the first phase of grief: denial. I adopted some incredibly insensitive catch phrases, like, “Infertility is a blessing.” I was rejecting motherhood in a clunky and conspicuous way that drew attention and caused a lot of pain for others. I was distancing myself from the idea of kids and it was all so weak and fabricated that eventually I gave up on the whole façade.
Next I moved onto anger. I dated people who adamantly opposed kids. I was briefly “the other woman” so I could prove how little investment I had in traditional courtship and family planning. My aggression pushed away my closest friends and family. I distanced myself from everything I cared about. I thought, how is anyone expected to be happy and well-adjusted when they’re anticipating their cultural shortcomings a decade in advance?
Halfway through university, I entered a state of bargaining. I thought, any relationship I pursue will have two uteruses. Children will be wholly possible, one way or another, especially with medical advancements. I should just embrace my desires and love to my full potential. I returned to the notion that love could bring a child into the world, despite obvious obstacles.
And then, I met the love of my life.
In an ideal world, I would say that meeting my life partner eased my concerns on the topic of motherhood. I would outline our 10-year plan and explain how we’ve made peace with the cards we’ve been dealt. Unfortunately, I was naive to think that she had any way to resolve this tension that exists within our community.
The reality is, many years into the relationship, our plan for our future family has only gotten more complex. She is a great listener and succeeds in validating my reproductive concerns, but she struggles to conceptualize our future family and how it may come about.
For most couples, planning their progeny in their mid-20s means deciding on whether they might desire kids one day. For lesbian couples, it means determining who is willing to have the kids. By what methods? At what time? To what price point? This is all assuming that you are a cisgender woman and have fully-functioning reproductive organs.
This leads to the exhaustion of bearing heavy communicative responsibilities before they become consequential. It puts a lot of stress on young love. Every time I hold a baby, I glance at my partner with that melancholic look that says, “Will this ever be us?”
My partner and I have to think about the cost of conception. We have to accept that part of the reproductive process will be outsourced and will be a clinical experience. We have to designate part of our income at age 23 to what may be a difficult and disappointing process at age 30. And all of it, for me, is shaded with the grief that we’ll never look into our child’s eyes and argue over which of us they resemble most.
When a heterosexual couple experiences the inability to reproduce between the two of them, we call it infertility. We have language to discuss their grief and longing. There are thousands of articles on the topic to foster solidarity between struggling women.
When a homosexual couple must outsource parts of the reproductive process, they’re overlooked. There is no language to discuss this longing that lacks posters in the doctor’s office and reality shows on television. We are expected to navigate this territory on our own, as people who’ve made a “choice to lead an alternative lifestyle.”
We are the same women who cradled baby dolls in our youth and fantasized about our future children’s names, yet our presence remains absent in many discussions on reproduction.
Why was no one talking about this? Why did I feel like I was picking at a void that would eventually swallow me whole while other people went on with their seemingly-merry lives? It wasn’t until I expressed my grief on the subject that others followed suit. Anytime I hinted at my developing reproductive woes, it was as if I had given the winning blow to a very sad piñata.
From conversations within my friend group to private chats online, women of all ages and stages of queerness came out of the woodwork with their own unique concerns. I had opened the floodgates on something that I’d felt very alone in for half a decade, and it was both shocking and exhausting to process it all at once.
Women like me are yearning to talk about this looming grief, but there is no language or general discourse from which to base these conversations.
We’re expected to deviate from the narrative of motherhood that has been expected of us with little to no feelings of loss or resentment. We’re supposed to act as if we didn’t spend the first decade of our lives playfully envisioning motherhood just to realize that our lives would not follow that normative trajectory.
I am damn proud to be gay, but I am not proud of how much we’ve bottled up our feelings on this topic, and how little we’ve been encouraged to contribute to the general discourse on reproduction. Our thoughts are valid, and we deserve to talk about this on a personal level, as well as in articles and in doctors’ offices.
I am disappointed that this essay doesn’t already exist in an easily-accessible spot on the internet. Most importantly, I am saddened by the number of friends I spoke to before writing this who said they’ve had this on their mind since their first encounter with queerness, but nobody has ever given them the opportunity to talk about it openly.
Reflecting on this collective pseudo-grief and making sense of the feelings surrounding it is key. I think about my swim instructor from time to time and how she somehow kickstarted this journey. I wonder how she would feel about being that person for me, starting a fateful conversation that I still hold in high esteem, 15 years later. Perhaps she’s had these exact same thoughts, laden with the exhaustion of constantly being confronted with a less than ideal truth.
On second thought, I was probably just in love with my swim instructor.