Katy Chatel: My life as a queer, single mum

So much of the world tells us mothers are soft and nurturing. I also see myself as a tough, brave, independent warrior. Photo / Washington Post, courtesy of Katy Chatel
So much of the world tells us mothers are soft and nurturing. I also see myself as a tough, brave, independent warrior. Photo / Washington Post, courtesy of Katy Chatel

As a child and into my early teens, I couldn't wait to be a mother. I figured my parents wouldn't want to hear that was my greatest aspiration. Growing up in an upper-middle-class family, I was supposed to go to college and find a career before planning a family. So, in the back of my closet, I hid my collection of thrift-store baby books, clothes and shoes. (Is there anything cuter than baby shoes?)

My mother told me she never considered if she wanted to be a mother. "It's just what we did in those days," she said.

I, on the other hand, pined for motherhood. And that made me feel like an outsider - because I was young and because I was queer.

Back in the late 1990s, when I came out as a lesbian in high school, I didn't have many examples of people who were both LGBTQ and parents. I knew they existed, but I didn't see such families in the Boston suburbs or later at my liberal arts college. The possibility of parenthood for me and my queer-identified peers felt so much further in the future than I envisioned.

It felt as magical and tied to chance as finding an abandoned nest of eggs in the woods.

It also felt like my desire to be a mother, especially a young one (I first tried getting pregnant at 21), flew in the face of feminism - and most of my LGBT peers considered themselves feminists. Where were the bold choices I was supposed to be making to escape domestic life? It felt nearly impossible to be both queer and a single mother by choice. None of us shaved-headed-pink-motorcycle-jacket-wearing-third-pronoun-using queers were expected to check the box "homemaker" or join a PTA.

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Those images of queers and mothers are stereotypes, of course, but I fell prey to them. Through my adolescence, I would often lie in bed trying to settle on an image of my future self: a scrunched-up baby hand in mine; a woman's arm draped over my shoulder; running with a child tucked into my shirt through the rain, looking at the stars, smelling the scent of another woman on a borrowed hooded sweatshirt. I wouldn't allow myself all of these; I didn't believe they were all possible.

So much of the larger world tells us that mothers are soft and nurturing. I have that side, but I also see myself as a tough, brave, independent warrior. In my late teens and into my early 20s, I took it as a compliment when I was mistaken as a boy. I pushed gender rules by peeing in men's bathrooms. For a couple of years, I had a shaved head and sometimes duct-taped my breasts flat; I wore leather jackets and boots. Sometimes men would give me subtle nods as we passed on the sidewalk. This encouraged me. How far could I go with expressing my masculine self?

I took my own rugged mother as proof I could do parenthood my own way. But how could I be perceived as a boy and a mother?

I felt lost in the space between identities. What's it called when you're in between? Indecisive. In transition. Jack of all trades, master of none. Was I really going to become a breeder? In my queer community, I feared I'd be judged as a traitor for buying into such a heteronormative tradition as procreating. Desiring motherhood made me feel not queer enough.

At this time, I was too young to fit in among established LGBT parents. When I was a student at Sarah Lawrence College, I started going to a group for prospective single lesbian moms. They met at the LGBT center in Manhattan; I'd take the Metro-North in after my poetry class while my fellow students would hang out at the campus pub or go to readings on campus. I liked these meetings; I was the youngest one in the group by a decade. None of them had children yet, either, but they were closer to it than my college peers.

The summer after my freshman year, I landed an internship with COLAGE, an advocacy group for the children of LGBT parents. It took some finagling to convince COLAGE to take me even though my parents were heterosexual. I fit there because one day I'd have a child who would be part of their constituency. I was moved by my experience at COLAGE's Family Week in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where children from all over the country would gather with their families. I loved the atmosphere there, but the parents didn't see me as part of their group, either.

After college, I fantasized about buying an old farm house with my friends, where we would raise kids and chickens together. (We'd call it the Baby Farm.) There'd be a room designated as a library, a jumbled basket of kids' shoes by the door, a board swing from a huge oak, plus a treehouse with a zip line. We'd walk around topless if we chose, start a family band, write sweet messages in special crayons on the bathtub wall, bake spelt muffins and take in stray animals. This was my private day-dreaming: Educated queers going back to a simple life would revolutionize parenthood. My senior year of college, my closest friends vaguely agreed such an idea would be cool. But no way did anyone want to do it right after graduation.

It wasn't until I dated a woman with a child that I could truly see myself as a parent. The harsh lines I'd seen between queer life and parenthood melted. There were so many names a parent could be. My partner honored my maternal and masculine self equally. I became seen in our community.

When I gave birth myself, I saw my nurturer and warrior selves working together; I didn't have to choose just one definition. Today's world, however, will allow my child more freedom to explore their gender identity and sexuality.

Finding a place to call home was hard. I spent 20 months toward the beginning of my child's life living in my parents' town in New Hampshire where I knew exactly no queer people. It was a strange feeling, having lived in LGBT-friendly Brooklyn and, before that, the Bay Area. It was also a rare chance to get closer to my parents and to live among many young mothers. In New Hampshire, I was fully a mother, but my queer self was quieted.

Less than a year ago, we picked up again and moved to Philadelphia. We've been here less than a year, but I have begun to set down roots. So much of my earlier struggle were my own imaginary boxes. I thought I had to have my first child before 25. I was 31 when I gave birth to Jessey.

Who cares? Well, I did - for a while. It was hard to let go of those childhood dreams of being a young mother, just as it was hard to see myself as a queer mum. But once I let go of rigid expectations, I was able to live the life I'd always wanted.

- Washington Post

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