Modern Life: Raising a Teen in a Two-Mom Household

What families today are made of.

16_040_0954_thayer-allyson-gowdy.jpg
Thayer Allyson Gowdy

"I always joke that Gloria Steinem was our matchmaker," laughs Julie Felner. "I met Amy 22 years ago at the Gloria Awards—the Ms. Foundation's annual tribute to feminist activists. I was an editor at Ms. Magazine, and Amy had been hired to make a video to commemorate Gloria's 60th birthday. I saw her from across a crowded room, and it really was love at first sight." Amy Harrison adds that while they didn't start dating until months later, their connection was undeniable. "Julie is so attentive," says Amy. "Whether it's running our garage sale or planning my 50th birthday party, when she commits to something, she's all in." Julie admires Amy's fearlessness and curiosity in the face of the unknown. "I can be a creature of habit, and she always helps me push outside my comfort zone. I also love her sense of humor and her wisdom. She keeps me grounded."

Staying grounded is especially important when you get unexpected questions about your family. The couple are well aware of the curiosity that can sometimes surround them. One of the most uncomfortable queries is when people ask who Cleo's "real" mother is, or assume that the one who carried the baby is a more legitimate parent. "Some ask because they've never met a two-mom family before and they want to understand," says Amy. "I answer, 'We both are,' and then explain that Julie is the biological mother and I am the adoptive mother," she states. "Families come in so many shapes and sizes. Even 'normal- looking' families are unique and varied when you take a closer look. So I'm always happy to engage in conversation with folks who approach us with love in their hearts. But for those who approach us with judgment I'm more defensive, because judgment and hatred harm children."

Julie says parenting is full of surprises. "It's been one of the most mind-expanding, heart-exploding, perspective-shifting, humbling, inspiring and wonderful experiences of my life." The married couple feel naturally protective of their daughter, and they worry about the exposure they will get from sharing their story and being more visible. "I think the hardest part may be reading any harsh comments after this article comes out, because I know there are still people out there who fear families like ours, and I am scared to have Cleo exposed to that."

The trio, who sit down to a strict no-phones-at-the-table dinner most nights (Julie is usually head chef ) say their main concerns are similar to those of their straight friends. "We want the same things many parents want—for our child to have the opportunities we had, and more," says Amy. "We'd like Cleo to be happy, safe and healthy, and to have a loving partner when she grows up. That's it, really. Everything else is gravy."

Tell us about your wedding.

"We had a commitment ceremony and registered as domestic partners in 1999—which was all we could do at the time. In 2008 we wanted to take advantage of legal marriage in California in case Proposition 8 passed, but the earliest appointment we could get at City Hall was on Election Day, at 5 p.m. So we got married the very evening California voters banned gay marriage. It was very bittersweet, and we spent a few years in legal limbo, until Prop. 8 was finally thrown out by the Supreme Court in 2013." —Julie

What it's like raising a teen?

"We say that in our house there are no off-limits emotions. Everyone's entitled to have their feelings. The trick is to remember that adage in the heat of the moment, and to let everybody express themselves and try not to take it too personally. Raising a teen is a huge lesson in being open to other people's feelings. It's a lesson I'm still learning." —Amy

How can mothers guide our daughters?

"We have to teach them to unpack the stories they're being told and sold by the media and popular culture—and to encourage them to seek out and create different narratives. We're not going to forbid Cleo from watching Gossip Girl, but we are going to have a thoughtful conversation about how women and girls (and boys and men!) are portrayed onscreen. We're going to talk explicitly about racism and economic disparity—and help her see the ways they're perpetuated." —Julie

Which of Cleo's qualities do you most love and admire?

"I love the way Cleo values her relationships and the loyalty she has for her friends. They know she will advocate for them, that she'll stand by them. That is such a valuable quality. This is how I know she'll do great things in life." —Amy

Do you find that you face challenges as a family with two mothers? If so, how do you deal with them?

"Honestly, it's been so much easier in the last few years. When Cleo was younger, we would always travel with a huge binder of paperwork—birth certificate, second-parent adoption papers, powers of attorney, our wills—because we had heard terrifying stories of children being taken away from two-mom families. Now it just feels normal, which is all we ever wanted." —Julie

What, if any issues, come up for Cleo, and how does she handle them?

I know this might be surprising, but I think Cleo's biggest issue with our family structure is not having two moms but being an only child. She is such a social and extroverted and peer-focused person, and she longs for kid companionship. She's handled it by creating a tribe of 'sousins' and 'fristers'—cousins and friends who are like siblings to her." —Julie

What's your take on the infamous work-life balance?

"To me, it's less about balancing two discrete realms and more about harmonizing all the ingredients of your life to get the right blend, and that right blend can change over time depending on your priorities. But I also think 'work-life balance' is a flawed concept because a big part of what prevents people—and women especially—from achieving that harmony is inequality. People in high-stress, low-wage jobs or women whose partners expect them to work full-time and maintain the household are always going to feel unbalanced." —Julie

What's your favorite part of the day?

"I love the end of the day, when dishes and homework are done and there's a moment to unwind before bed. When Cleo was young, Julie and I would take turns reading to her and that was so relaxing. Now if there's time, we squeeze on the couch together with the dog and watch a silly TV show before getting ready for bed." —Amy