Family on Our Own Terms
Raising children with multiple parents, rethinking the labor of care, and making it up as we go.
We’re queerer and weirder than we ever have been; for younger generations, gay marriage is now as unspectacular as getting a divorce. Yet, the alternative family is still a sensitive subject, especially when such families include children. As Lee Edelman describes in the book No Future, the child occupies a sacred place in the intricate equation upholding society as we know it. It took the world centuries to get to this place, where couples invest eighteen years, lots of money, and immeasurable psychic energy and pain to turn babies into law-abiding citizens, workers, tax payers, and future parents. Much of that history involved breaking up communities and isolating people from each other, because the most effective way to get people to leave their homes and go work for someone else was to leave them with no other option.
Society may view alternative families as a scary threat because they represent a return to trust in the abundance of community and a strengthening of solidarity between people. Of course, people have always done family differently than modern TV commercials suggest we do. Queer people re-defining family as chosen family. Grandparents raising their grandchildren. A collective of friends and partners parenting the same child. Friends and parents taking turns caring for and supporting each other.
What is it like to be part of and raise children in an alternative family? We asked Althea, Lauren, and Emily to share their stories.
You Can’t Own a Child
Every night the baby wakes up at 3:15AM, I put my breast in their mouth and we lie there sweating together in the bed. They suck until my nipple bleeds a little bit, and then I take them to Marie’s room. Kalen and Marie get startled and then Kalen says, “Are you ok?” and I say, “Yeah.”
When no one is watching, I let my wavy zone around my body spread out and be with the baby in their gelatinous world and we remember where they were before – a coal in a mountain or a folded piece of paper in the sky – but usually someone is watching. There are seven of us in the house. We take turns changing their diaper, bouncing them on the big rubber ball, hanging ribbons and colorful trash from the ceiling fan for them to look at.
The baby doesn’t love me any more than they love the ceiling fan or the sound of a vacuum cleaner on the white noise app on my phone. Our relationship is not yet contained, not yet rewritten as human emotion. They smile at me when I have the right feels for the feeling flowing through them so they feel me and that feels good.
I don’t take care of them because I love them. They are not a labor of my love. I take care of them because they are here and it feels good, and scary and I like it.
Sometimes I want a social justice kid so bad, so we can fit in with those social justice families and feel like there are real paths toward total freedom besides marronage or violence. But it’ll never happen, because to fit in with the social justice families you have to believe in justice.
Sometimes when people realize we don’t have a normal two-parent family, there is another family form that they also find acceptable, which is that of the promise. For example if we said, here are the six people who have made the commitment to be co-parents. The promise is co-opted because it is easily mobilized for control. It is a form of agreement that thinks in terms of ownership instead of relationship, and prioritizes the owner’s title (“parent”) over the lived experience of who’s caring for the child. It treats the individual (the parent) as the most legitimate party, and destitutes the collective of interdependent caring people. Making an official or binding agreement like the promise is an attempt to control the actions of all parties involved, including the child.
And of course, none of this guarantees that the promise won’t be broken. State-sanctioned and “biological” commitments alike are subject to termination, as we are witness to all forms of abandonment, breakups, and reconfigurations. We are witnesses to the families that are not biologically related whatsoever, and those who did not get their money together first, those where no parent has a career or a car, and those in which there are no parents at all. The nuclear family and the promise are a pair of myths. Above all, they are forms of containment.
People can make commitments and promises if they want to, but I will not enforce or uphold them. What I will do is:
Treasure and celebrate every single moment that you are around. And that uncontrollable feeling that we are in it together. Even when I or you are not.
— Althea Baird takes care of a five-month-old with six other freaks and aunties in a house in Philadelphia
Splitting up as Partners, but Not as Parents
I rent a house in the north of England, in a small post-industrial town on the border between Lancashire and Yorkshire. I live there with my seven-year-old daughter. Her father, who works nearby, lives with us in the week, and most weekends (he bunks in our daughter’s room) as does my lover, A, who still lives in Wales but frequently stays with us, sometimes with his son.
Previously, A lived in a caravan on his son’s mother’s family farm; they ate and socialised together as an extended family in the farmhouse. When I arrived on the scene I too was invited into the fold; oftentimes we have all socialised together, current partners and their ‘exes,’ plus dogs and children. Nobody’s role feels permanent or strictly defined, and for me this produces a genuinely empowering recalibration of ordinarily stultifying roles, which are also structural conditions.
When we split up, someone suggested to my daughter’s father that he get a solicitor, so I can’t take his child away. This is the sharp end of normativity: at the point of uncoupling, the knives are unsheathed. But the love that was born with the child, however platonic or erotic that love might have expressed itself, engulfed us in a relationship that lasts our lifetime, though both of us have occasionally wished to be released from it. And yet, this relation is just as important for our well-being as well as for the well-being of the child. Pain may well be reduced by the ‘cleanness’ of an incision, but I have never yet witnessed a predictable outcome in any of my own break-ups; each has its own particular bitter or sweetness.
Maybe my own tempestuous family background has programmed my cells to recoil at anything that resembles a conventional structure; there have been times I have found myself back there, living that way, enacting the roles commensurate with that structure which are, in spite of gestures to the contrary, stubbornly embedded. It is not unproblematic to create something that feels right in the midst of an established structure - the family - with its over-determinations on both sides.
Living with a child and two men, for example, I often find myself in a whorl of service-exhaustion, feeling like a housewife/companion/mother to many and that my libidinal energy is under threat of extinction. At other times, when I am absorbed in the dasein of everyday life, being fluid, making work, cooking and eating well, earning a bit of money, I feel confident in the relational collaboration in which we are all networked, edges touching edges, services flowing freely amongst bodies, and mostly we are unified and stronger together, against the multitude of voices issuing from the comfort of complicit conventionality, articulating pity or revulsion.
So, fuck the voices when they say I commit cruelty. Even in the patriarchal order of the family, everyone is making it all up as they go, even those fortunate enough to have precedents upon which to be guided through. Though we may go forward blindly in unchartered territory, having no precedent and precious few skills learned from our parents but resistance, we go with vigilance and faith and a desire for reparation for ourselves, the children we are, and the children we have made.
—Lauren de Sa Naylor writes, mothers, and garment trades on the border between Lancashire and Yorkshire, in the UK. She works in text, collage, film, and publication.
Look out for Each Other and Let the Care Flow
It’s last night of the week before I pick my three-year old terror/wonder up from their papa’s house, and I’m drinking a cider while ushering friends out my door. Some of us have plans to reconvene for brunch the next morning anyway. As people rush to make the waiting cab, requests are coming at me: “Babe, can you bring the groceries I left in your fridge?” “Can I leave this coat here?” “Give this to your roommate in the morning for me?”
“Hey, it must be so nice to have a break from parenting on Friday nights!” someone calls to me, laughing as she pulls boots on, and I laugh back. It’s true that I’m not parenting in that moment, but it’s also not true.
One of the weirdest and most generative piece of parenting within the queer circles that I move through has been the experience of reconceptualizing what organizing can look like in my life. I’m a chronically overbooked single parent and full-time grad student. I can’t really attend meetings that last longer than an hour, or participate in most demos. But being the primary caregiver of a young child means that my day-to-day life is structured around care, and this is labor that I use tactically to help support the people I love. I am often at home making food in the evenings for me and the kid, so I often feed my friends. I’m not always good for in-advance plans, but I’m great for last minute rides to the airport, for text-message crisis support, for a last pair of eyes before you send out that open letter to the world. This isn’t about “parenting” my friends. But it is about recognizing the tools I have access to right now, and valuing the shifts in energy that parenting brings to my life.
As people I love start to leave the house, my answer is yes sweetie, of course hon. In the morning, I’ll pick up my kiddo and we’ll walk over to my friend’s place. I’ll give her back her groceries and a book she left in my car. At brunch someone will play with the toddler while I catch-up on gossip, and I’ll make plans for a dinner next week.
— Emily is a brown femme parent, living in Vancouver, BC on unceded Coast Salish Territories.