She’s Not My Mother, She’s My Parent
A Response to Darren Rosenblum’s Unsex Mothering: Toward a Culture of New Parenting
Professor Rosenblum is right, but my son got there first. Michael had the idea of “unsexing motherhood” back in 1995. I thought it was brilliant then and still do. I have come to believe during the intervening sixteen years that unsexing mothering is also critical for the welfare of children and the progress of gender equality. My kids come first—so, first, a little more about Michael, and then a little more about Rosenblum’s exciting article.
Michael was small then. His muscled little legs stuck straight out from the front seat of our 1991 Toyota Corolla, which he named “Silver Bullet.” Maybe I focus on his size because now that he is 21 he fully takes up the legroom of any car’s front seat. Maybe I focus on his size because I came to see how wise he was when he was such a little boy. For whatever reason, that’s the first image that comes to mind when I think of the day his pre-school friend asked him about me, “Michael, is that your mom?” as the three of us drove off in the fall field trip caravan to see how apple cider is made.
His backseat friend might have asked the same question of anyone. Kids like to know who they are with, and there’s a certain status in having your mom be one of the drivers on a school field trip. More likely, the friend was a little puzzled because he had probably seen another woman drop Michael off at pre-school in the mornings and assumed she was Michael’s mom.
His assumption was correct. Tracey had given birth to Michael five years earlier on September 26, 1990, with his sister, Alex, and his father, Gene, waiting anxiously to greet him. Tracey is my partner; she and the kids and I had begun living together the previous fall.
I remember how quickly Michael responded to that question, “Is that your mom?” Without pausing or turning his head, he replied, “No, she’s not my mother, she’s my parent.” That either satisfied his friend or puzzled him into changing the subject, for in the next minute he was on to other topics, including whether I had any treats in the car and how long it would take to drive to the apple farm. For Michael and his friend, this exchange was likely never revisited again—certainly not between them and likely not in either of their minds. For me, it was one of those moments that altered forever how I thought about my personal and professional life.
It altered my professional life because at the time I was teaching a new course and writing about law, gender, and sexuality. All of the materials we had covered about the conflation of gender and sexuality in law and culture suddenly took on new meaning. As my students often say, I “got” it. Michael’s answer to his friend amplified for me the thickly gendered roles of parenting and how those roles constrain both men and women. Michael’s answer also amplified for me how narrow our law was in insisting on just two parents, and how deeply challenging same-sex parenting was to traditional notions of parenting—not only due to sexuality but also due to gender.
Michael’s answer also created a seismic shift in my personal life. For the first time I realized that the fact that Michael already had a mother and father did not keep me from being a parent to him. Indeed, his answer made clear that he thought of me as a parent already even though the law did not recognize me as one nor did I yet recognize myself as one. This insight brought me both pleasure (he trusts me, I have a place in his life) and fear (could I measure up, did I want this commitment?). I realized that I did not have to be his “mother” or his “father” to be his “parent.” I could just be me, and indeed, to this day both kids refer to me as “my Kellye.” “My Kellye,” a “parent,” neither “mother” nor “father.”
Our family was fortunate that some years later the law recognized what we already knew: our children had three parents. I adopted the children with both their mother’s and their father’s consent in 2003, when Michael was 13 and his sister was 15. At the proceeding, the judge asked each child whether they wanted me to adopt them legally. Alex made a passionate speech about justice and equality; Michael, with head down and hands in his pockets, said only, “I don’t know what the big deal is, she’s always been my mother.”
What had taken place in eight years to make me now his “mother” when at five he had been so clear that I was his “parent” but not his “mother”? Arguably two things, both of which Professor Rosenblum understands. One is that the intervening years had conditioned Michael and us into society’s expectation that a parent had to be one or the other—a mother or a father. And since I was biologically a woman, he had two mothers. The second change, though, was that during this period I also occupied a space in his life that mapped onto traditional “motherhood” more closely than “fatherhood.” While I did play a lot of sports with him, I was also the primary parent in our house for many of the years of his early life when my partner practiced law at a big firm and I had more schedule flexibility as a professor. I did most of the cooking, got them to and from school, made special “treat trays” at night during movies, was at home during school breaks, and generally have a strong nurturing (“mothering”) disposition to go along with all of those more specific tasks. In other words, my role and my biology fit more closely with our culture’s sexed view of motherhood.
When I left being a professor to become a law school dean in 2004, I often felt that I had also left my role as a “mother.” My work life made me a much less involved and present parent. Did I become a father? My role in many ways started to look much more like traditional notions of fatherhood: gone from early morning to late at night, clearly the “bread winner,” limited involvement in school and home activities, etc. I often wondered if I had been in this role earlier in the kids’ lives whether they would have come to think of me as their “mom.” Probably—for exactly the reasons Professor Rosenblum points out: motherhood belongs to women.
I am sure that many men were and are doing far more “mothering” of their children that has not been and is unlikely to be recognized any time soon. While I agree that it would be best for our children and society to unlink parenting from gender, Professor Rosenblum’s well-founded argument will have an uphill battle. As many have noted, gender roles run deep and are fiercely policed in our world. Moreover, when sexism has denied and taken so much from women, what incentive is there to let go of one of the places where female superiority is often recognized—mothering? In the short term, that is a hard question to answer. In the longer term, of course, Professor Rosenblum is right: sex roles imprison us all.
While I am not optimistic that Professor Rosenblum’s words will have much impact, I do think that his life will. I hope he appreciates how transformative his everyday acts of parenting are: in ways large and small, he and his partner are unsexing motherhood every day. He may not be his child’s mother, but he is her parent. And that is all that matters.
 Dean and James W. Mifflin University Professor of Law, University of Washington School of Law.
 Darren Rosenblum, Unsex Mothering: Toward a New Culture of Parenting, 35 Harv. J.L. & Gender 57 (2012).
What a great story! It made me think about the strong socio-cultural conceptions we have about what it means to be a "good mother" or a "good father." Then I realized that we also have this pretty strong conception about what it means to be a "good parent." It's interesting to think about where these identites overlap and where they don't.