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"I Wish Our Default Was Expansiveness When We Talk About Family"

February 23, 2021

Diana Whitney
Q&A
// Courtesy of the author

Jennifer Berney’s debut memoir on lesbian family-building, The Other Mothers, starts with an early encounter with the term “test tube babies,” weaving her personal journey to parenthood with history and culture narratives that illuminate who we are and where we’ve been. 

Berney chronicles the obstacles she and her wife Kellie faced while trying to become parents with profound vulnerability, exploring the history of the fertility industry and the LGBTQ+ community. She discovers that being queer meant having the chance to “define family on her own terms.”

I stayed up late finishing The Other Mothers, desperate to know if Jenn got pregnant — and how! — and what the baby was like, and how Kellie felt about it all. Spoiler: the birth of their son is the most moving childbirth scene I’ve ever read.                     

I got the chance to speak with Berney from her farmstead in Olympia, WA. We covered everything from gender roles in parenting to her family’s new cow, Molasses. 

Author

Diana Whitney: 

Let’s start with Olympia, where much of the book takes place. I love how you write: “Our grunge was grungier, our rainy days were rainier, and our queers were queerer.” What’s it like living there now that you’re older? 

Jenn Berney:

I’m less connected to the Olympia arts scene and more grounded in the agriculture community now. Kellie and I happened to move up the road from this cool farming community right outside the city.

We’ve got about 12 acres, near a collective of folks who have their own projects going on. It’s been pretty amazing. We've had a chance to learn from them and work with them.

Their sheep come graze on our pasture during the spring and summer months. They’ve helped us set up a greenhouse. During COVID, your neighbors become your community in a different way.

DW:  The memoir follows your journey to motherhood from before you met Kellie to your family life now. When did you realize you were writing a book? 

JB: It’s funny, I told myself I was writing a book while I was in the midst of trying to get pregnant. I think it was a way for me to handle how it had turned into this long, drawn-out process. That way, anytime there were unexpected twists, I felt like they were material. The project was on the back burner for years, until I wound up helping a friend with her memoir. I had so much fun helping find a structure for her story that I started to work on my own.


DW: Tell me about Kellie. She's so vivid as a character from the moment she walks into the bakery where you’re working, with her Carhartts and ponytail and her old Ford pickup out front. What was it like for you to create her on the page, and how much a part of the process was she? Did she read your early drafts? 

JB: She did not read early drafts. Once, when I brought the manuscript to a workshop pretty late in the writing process, I got a critique that her character was too perfect. That cracked me up. Because I don't feel that way about our relationship, although I love her deeply. But I found the critique comforting, that I’d portrayed her in a way that was likable. I hadn’t thrown her under the bus.

DW: I once heard Cheryl Strayed say on a podcast that when you’re writing memoir, you should assume no one in your family will ever read it. Otherwise you’d never start.

JB: That’s true.

DW: Let’s talk about gender roles in parenting. You say in the book’s last chapter that Kellie does all the mowing and gutter cleaning and home repair, while you’ve done the childbearing and breastfeeding and now the homework help and bedtimes. How has that been for you in your partnership?
JB: I think we very intentionally went into parenthood with me as the primary caregiver. That was my pitch. People don't necessarily understand that, they’re often incredulous. I don't know if it's because we're lesbians, but there's this assumption that of course we would default to equal roles. But I felt okay going into it with that intention. It was clear to me that this was how Kellie might be open to starting a family, which was not a dream and a vision for her like it was for me.

DW: What’s it like being the primary caregiver during the pandemic?

JB: It’s been intense. Right now I’m working from home and my kids (ages 8 and 12) are schooling from home. Kellie’s job remains outside the home, so she and I are in constant dialogue about how to bring things into some kind of balance. Like a lot of primary caregivers right now, I don't really get a break, unless I go to lengths to arrange one.

DW: I’ve always idealized what parenting roles would look like in a lesbian relationship, maybe because I’m a queer feminist in a hetero marriage. And I really admire the intentionality you and Kellie bring to these questions. My husband and I kind of defaulted into traditional gender roles when we had babies, following the path of our parents before us, and sometimes I feel trapped in the mother-wife role. Do you ever have moments when the enormity of being the primary caregiver feels too much, especially because it’s not really valued in our culture?

JB: I absolutely do. Something I struggle with is that I wind up with the same set of resentments that a lot of straight women in my role have. It’s a weird experience to see myself reflected in a discussion about straight culture, yet not reflected because I'm not a part of straight culture. Take the conversation on emotional labor—

DW: I’m glad you brought up emotional labor!
JB: That conversation will focus on straight couples and then mention studies on gay couples. It’s always this passing reference about how great gay couples are at finding balance. And I’m like, Whoa, I don't think it's that simple. Even though I'm married to a woman and dividing labor with a woman, there’s a lot of cultural baggage to how we see ourselves in these roles. I find myself craving a more complicated and nuanced cultural conversation around gender identity and gender roles, and how different families are navigating all of it.

Part of why emotional labor is so difficult to negotiate in a relationship is because it is, to a degree, invisible. And we don't have great models for how to value it.

DW: The historical framework in your book is really powerful, how you discover that the roots of gynecology and the fertility industry are inextricable from the history of patriarchy, heteronormativity, misogyny, and racism. I recognized Dr. Norman — the all-knowing male doctor who pokes at you with metal instruments and dismisses your concerns. I feel like every woman and gender-nonconforming person has encountered a Dr. Norman. Do you see hope for the medical system to evolve? 

JB :I find hope in looking back, in learning about models that once existed, like feminist health centers. I'm curious about how we might emulate those in new ways today. In my research I met a non-binary midwife who consults with clients via zoom, all over the country. There are people now who are actively working to bring the industry up to speed.

DW: Yes! Last year I met a queer doula who supports LGBTQ+ couples through the birthing process. 

JB: Now that you mention it, I just learned that the midwives at the birth house where I had my second son are starting to do IUI (intrauterine insemination). That makes me curious if there's stuff going on in the home birthing and midwifery community that can lead to better care on the conception end of things.

But I don’t want to put too rosy a glow on it. Many lesbian couples are still diagnosed with having “Male Factor Infertility,” like Kellie and I were. 

DW: That diagnosis is absolutely unbelievable. You write that “we still have much work to do to become a culture that supports LGBTQ people to become parents.” What are some concrete ways we can do this, at an individual level?

JB: We can start when we talk to our kids about reproduction. That’s a powerful moment. We do so much unconscious normalizing of the family structure — that it’s one mom and one dad who have always been married and will always be married. That's really strange when you think about it, because there are so many families who don't fit that now.

I wish our default was expansiveness when we talk about family. I wish there was an acknowledgement of the multiple ways that children in this world are conceived. Then some kids wouldn’t walk around feeling like the weird exception.


DW: I realize now that I didn’t do this — I told my girls when they were little that there was an egg and a sperm and a mommy and a daddy. Only later did we start expanding the concept. Are there any kids’ books you recommend that embrace the whole spectrum of family-making?

JB: Definitely What Makes a Baby and Sex is a Funny Word, both by Cory Silverberg. And it would be helpful if there was more representation in the kinds of media kids consume. 

DW: What shows and music have been getting you through the pandemic?

JB:
The album that’s helped me through is Saint Cloud by Waxahatchee. It took me maybe five listens to fall in love with it, and now it just gets better and better. And Kellie and I have been watching The Crown, which is great because I start to fall asleep in front of it. 

DW: Has anything else sustained you?

JB: We ordered 25 chicks towards the beginning of the pandemic. And now that they’re laying, we’re selling eggs, and there’s this rhythm of being outside and doing animal-related chores. Plus, we just got a cow.

DW: A milking cow?

JB: Eventually she’ll be a milking cow, she’s young right now. But it’s a new thing for me to connect with a big hooved animal. It feels like she's got this huge gentleness, with those wide brown eyes. I’ve also been paddle-boarding on the Puget Sound and watching the seals. I’m learning about my environment and the land I live on in this new way. Most animals in the wild don’t really care about you, but the seals are curious. What I love is feeling like I'm seeing and being seen. There's a validation there.

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