Last week, my boyfriend emailed me a link to a study that says kids who grew up with two lesbian parents turn out just fine and, in some cases, even more well-adjusted than their peers raised in traditional families. I was touched that he had sent it and forwarded the study to my two moms and my sister Cade. Everyone responded instantly, our emails filled with exclamation points. We were happy that our family was recognized in a positive way. Although my mom’s response was “tell me something I don’t know,” this must have felt like a small victory after so many years of struggling to come out and have a family.
This study followed families for 17 years, from the time the mothers decided to have children and into their teenage years. One of the conclusions, that kids raised by lesbian mothers scored high marks on self-esteem and confidence, isn’t surprising. A part of what helps a child’s own self-esteem is her relationship with her parents and the examples they set. My moms were always honest with me about who they were and where they came from, sharing their stories about how they came to be, and then how I came to be. These are their journeys, their freedom battles, and their struggle.
Would they be harassed if they kissed on the street? How about in a restaurant? Was having a family even possible?
My moms are 15 years apart in age. Born in 1940, Russo is the older mom and Robin is the young one. When Russo was 15, she went to see a psychiatrist and confessed to him she thought she was gay. The shrink laughed, told her not to worry, and to “come back to me when you have six children.” Twenty-five years later, she would go on to have two children—with a woman.
By the time my moms met in the late '70s, Russo had been married twice. Her first husband was a moody Italian named Salvatore Russo. They were in acting school together with Al Pacino, who was so poor at the time that he could only afford rubber shoes. She took Russo as a last name and kept it after their divorce. After she became a lesbian, friends nicknamed her “Russo” and it stuck. When I’m not calling her mom, I use her old nickname, the one that came from her life before me.
My other mother, Robin, describes her childhood as being in black and white, as if she were watching her own life on television, observing from the outside. After she came out in college, she says all of this changed. She was suddenly an active participant in the world and met Russo a few years later. Now everything was in color.
For my moms, coming out was only the first hurdle. Displaying their relationship in public was a political choice and possible risk. Would they be harassed if they kissed on the street? How about in a restaurant? Was having a family even possible?
Robin’s family didn’t approve of her being a lesbian and didn’t take well to her new partner. Even worse, her parents were horrified when she announced they were having their first child. Robin’s relationship with her parents deteriorated rapidly and her connection with her siblings remains distant and strained.
And yet my moms set out to start a family anyway. They were given a hand-drawn booklet that taught lesbians how to inseminate themselves using a turkey baster. Russo was inseminated with a known donor first because she was older. Robin was inseminated less than a year later with a different known donor. My sister Cade and I were born, their family complete.
From then on, my moms fought to defend their choices as parents. They were ferociously committed to the idea that we were a “real” family, despite people saying otherwise. We weren’t a family in the traditional or nuclear sense, but we were in the most important ways. We were a unit, a team, a group united by love. This meant dinner together every night and family vacations to Provincetown, Massachusetts. There was Boggle, the tooth fairy, Sesame Street, family pets, and school plays. Only one childhood staple was absent: Barbie. They worried she would give me a bad body image.
"I couldn’t exactly imagine myself there in the roaring “normal” world of condoms and weddings, but being gay never seemed right either."
We are a family of four women and our lives were full of unity, respect, and a lot of honest discussion. Having two Jewish mothers meant plenty of food and almost as much talking. Sometimes the talking turned to yelling and tears, but that’s what worked for us. As a result, a relationship based on truth and respect was born. Be who you are and we will love you for that, they told me. I was encouraged to think independently and to follow my heart, just as they had. When I had problems we talked about them, whatever they were, without guilt or shame.
When I was younger, the question of how I would “turn out”—straight or gay—weighed on my mind. When raised in a heterosexual household, the assumption is generally that you will be heterosexual, get married, have kids, the whole nine yards. Growing up, I was very conscious that I would be straight or gay, one or the other. My tween years flew by with what sounded like the suspenseful Jeopardy song counting down in the background.
If I were a lesbian, I would be just like my parents, which seemed the more comfortable, safe choice. Ironically, being straight psychologically felt riskier because it meant that I would no longer be a part of the queer culture I grew up with. When I was young, my family marched in New York’s gay pride parade. Would I have to watch from the sidelines if I turned out straight?
The whole idea of being heterosexual seemed foreign and somehow glamorous to me. Would I be one of those ladies I’d spotted on the street wearing high heels and kissing a tall man with muscles and stubble? I couldn’t exactly imagine myself there in the roaring “normal” world of condoms and weddings, but being gay never seemed right either.
Then, when I was 17, I had my first love, a very nice teenage boy from Boston who played guitar and loved Bob Dylan. While my sister had been known for her makeout sessions with Theo on the back stairs of our high school, she had recently come out as a lesbian and here I was—in the throes of realizing I wanted to be with men. Living in a household full of women made me think that the male body was alien only to me, however, having spoken with my friends, I don’t seem to have been any more in the dark about the male form than they were. I was scared of having sex, yet I was dying to, and I was questioning whether it was it OK.
When I was a teenager, I would often go into my parents’ bedroom in my pajamas to say good night. I’d sit on the little couch we called the day bed and snack on cookies while we chatted. One particular night when I was going on about my boyfriend, my parents propped up on pillows watching Masterpiece Theatre, my mom said to me, “Oh, just go do it already—and stop talking about it!” Somehow she knew everything and I hadn't even told her. I felt a complete sense of relief. My neurotic teenage mind needed to hear that it was OK that I was straight and that I was having sex. She sensed that and gave me her blessing.
Watch the Trailer for Ry Russo-Young’s Film You Won’t Miss Me
I still seek my mothers’ blessing in many ways. I directed two independent feature films, the most recent film, You Won’t Miss Me, was at Sundance Film Festival and comes out in theaters this October. When they saw the film, my moms had trouble articulating why they liked it and didn’t have the language to help me make it better. We can talk about so much and yet, my parents can’t solve all my problems. Maybe it’s taken me longer to grow up because we are so close as a family.
There’s that song that goes “To know know know you is to love love love you… and I do.” My moms’ history is part of who I am and how I see the world. My family will impact the way I want to raise my own children and the kind of relationships I have with them. It will affect the films I make and the relationships I have with friends and lovers.
At my mom’s birthday dinner, my boyfriend noticed that after 30 years together my moms still hold hands at the table like teenagers. He was impressed by the strength of their relationship after all this time. I smiled and took his hand, trying to imagine his face in 30 years.
Ry Russo-Young is a filmmaker living in Manhattan and an Oberlin College graduate. Her second feature film, You Won’t Miss Me, premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and won a Gotham Award. The film will be released theatrically in October 2010. Her first feature, Orphans , received a Jury Prize at the 2007 SXSW Film Festival and was released on DVD by Carnivalesque Films.