‘I Was Raised By Two Mothers’

Chloe Benjamin, author of best-selling novel The Immortalists, remembers her unconventional and magical upbringing in San Francisco

Chloe Benjamin

by Chloe Benjamin |
Published on

Mom and Molly met at church, shortly after Mom and Dad got divorced. Mom had never dated a woman before. ‘I fell in love with the person,’ she explained, once I was old enough to understand.

When Mom told her parents, she was so pale, so wrought by worry, that my grandparents feared she had cancer. Though my grandfather was an Episcopalian minister, he and my grandmother have always been progressive: they were delighted to hear the issue was not cancer but bisexuality. Mom was an actor while Molly, a trained journalist and former competitive tennis player at Stanford, worked in technical writing.

It didn’t feel as though there was anything unusual about having two mothers. I had plenty of friends with divorced parents, like my own. My brother, Jordan, and I split our time between Mom and Molly’s house and our dad and his wife, Ellen’s. But Mom and Molly’s was our home base, the place where our dressers and stuffed animals were.

After my parents’ divorce, when I was six, I didn’t expect to have another sibling, so I was stunned when Mom and Molly told us Mom was pregnant. I was nine when Gabe was born. As the youngest and most fortuitous among us, we adored him. We invented songs about him and sang them in unison, like characters in a musical. Until his teens, the entire family called him Boo. We had a name for Mom and Molly, too. It captured their quirkiness and bond perfectly: Momolly.

Gay marriage would not be legalised in California for almost 10 more years, so Mom and Molly were domestic partners – the certificate hung in our hallway. In 21st century San Francisco, it was not taboo to have two moms, but then neither was it normalised. The mother of one of Gabe’s friends forbade her son from coming to our house.

In elementary school, I was fiery, ready to pounce on anyone who used the word ‘gay’ as a pejorative or insulted my moms. When a classmate called them lesbos, I told her off. Hiding the truth about my family was inconceivable. Besides, I was proud to be their daughter. Molly was resourceful: when I wanted a chess set, she made one from clay. In place of fancy art, Mom typed her favourite poems and framed the print-outs. My brothers and I were raised by a gregarious and loving hodgepodge of family friends, like Rain and Sally, our chosen aunties, who’d lived in a commune, worked at Apple and been seat-warmers at the Oscars. They all came to our place for dinner parties, a Tracy Chapman or Bonnie Raitt CD playing. I remember lying in bed while the party continued downstairs, listening to the low rumble of voices and music – the feeling of safety and joy, the sweetness of it.

In middle school, I became aware of what made Mom and Molly different, and something unfamiliar began to grow inside me: shame. When I made new friends, I agonised about when to tell them I had two moms. Sometimes, it was easier not to say anything. One of my closest friends would occasionally speak disparagingly of gay people. Her comments silenced me: I can count on one hand the number of times I mentioned Molly’s name in her presence.

My mom began to ask why I never had friends over. I couldn’t tell her the truth: that it was easier to invite them to Dad’s house, where we had 700 TV channels and two heterosexual parents. I felt profoundly guilty. My new discomfort was a betrayal of them, but also of myself: of my beliefs, my values, and the nine-year-old who was so much braver than the same girl at 16. When it came time to apply to university, I only looked at ones on the East Coast, an entire country away.

I told myself that I was lured by the romance of those old liberal arts universities, all gold leaves and red brick, but I was also eager to escape. I didn’t want to be different. Back then, openly gay celebrities were limited to trailblazers like Ellen DeGeneres, Ian McKellen and Rosie O’Donnell.

University didn’t turn out the way I’d imagined it. To my surprise, I was age- inappropriately homesick – so much that I spent my junior year ‘abroad’ back in San Francisco. I lived across town, but spent plenty of time with my parents – especially after Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. We’d always been close, similar in our emotionality as well as our love of cosy days spent indoors. But that year our bond grew even deeper: her diagnosis made the threat of loss agonisingly real. At her urging, I finished my senior year back in New York, but I was distracted, incomplete. The last of Mom and Molly’s parties took place in summer 2010. I’d graduated and would soon leave for Wisconsin to begin a masters in fiction. Our friends gathered, drinking margaritas, while Mom made tacos. To experience these fixtures of my childhood is something I’ll never forget – especially because a year later Mom (now cancer-free) called, distraught, to say she and Molly were breaking up. I called my now-husband and wept. I couldn’t say I was shocked: in recent years, I rarely saw them hug or kiss, and I couldn’t understand why they didn’t choose to marry as soon as it was legalised in California. Still, I’d hoped I was wrong. The grief I felt about Mom and Dad’s break-up was different, more symbolic, for I had little memory of what it was like as a nuclear family. But I knew what life was like with Momolly, what life would never be like again.

I have wondered if I feel particular grief out of defensiveness for them as a gay couple. During my childhood, right-wing politicians bemoaned the destruction of the traditional family and scientific studies assessed the extent to which children of same-sex couples were emotionally or otherwise disadvantaged. Perhaps my self-consciousness about Mom and Molly’s break-up is a consequence of the pressure on same-sex couples to beat the odds, as if only by living up to the ideal of marriage – a lifetime together – can gay couples prove they deserve access to the institution. How better could Momolly prove the naysayers wrong than by staying together?

But what the critics can’t touch is the bond Mom and Molly shared. They can’t disprove our authenticity as a family of 17 years’ standing. We may not have been normative, but what we lacked in traditionalism, we made up for in love – in magic.

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