March 4, 2010

Kids serve on home front in culture war

— We interrupt the debate over same-sex marriage in Maine for this important reminder:

Let's all be careful. There are children out there.

No, not the hypothetical children who, according to those advocating the repeal of Maine's same-sex marriage law, will be lost in some kind of moral abyss if gay and lesbian couples indeed are allowed to marry here come November. Not the kids who allegedly can't grow up to be normal, healthy adults unless they're raised by both a mother and a father because why?

No, we're talking real kids. Kids who, as you read this, already have two moms or two dads and are doing quite well, thank you very much. Kids who, in the coming weeks, will inevitably turn on the television and, in just 30 seconds, hear one ''expert'' or another talk about them and their families as if they were some kind of sociological train wreck.

Kids like Maya.

She's 8 years old, the adopted daughter of Sarah Dowling and Linda Wolfe. Her two parents -- Sarah is ''Momma,'' and Linda is ''Mom'' -- rescued her as an infant from a life in Vietnam that would have been infinitely worse than the one she enjoys now as a happy, well adjusted fourth-grader growing up in Freeport.

Some would say Maya's too young to notice, let alone understand, the maelstrom now swirling around her as the campaign to repeal same-sex marriage in Maine shifts into high gear. But they would be wrong.

''Maya announces to us whenever any of the campaign ads are on the television,'' Dowling said last week. ''If we're not sitting in the living room, she comes and gets us to tell us the ads are on.''

And therein lies the dilemma for Dowling, a social worker, and Wolfe, a nurse practitioner: As Maine works itself into a lather over the effect of same-sex parenting on children, how do same-sex couples already raising families here protect their kids from the fallout?

For starters, by talking about it.

Twice next month and again just after the Nov. 3 referendum, Youth Alternatives Ingraham's Child Advocacy Council will hold evening sessions for same-sex parents and their children to talk about how the campaign ''messaging'' is affecting them right here, right now.

The evenings will begin with a shared meal. From there, parents will gather in one room, teenage children in another and younger children between 6 and 11 in another -- a chance for all three groups to sit down with people just like themselves and reflect on what it's like to be living at ground zero of a culture war.

''These kids, they're going to school, they're out in the world,'' said Lauren Grousd, who chairs the Child Advocacy Council. ''And they're exposed to a) the media messages and b) what their peers might be saying in school or what they're hearing adults say. And we're hearing from parents who aren't sure what their kids are bringing back to them -- and what their kids aren't bringing back to them.''

Truth be told, it's not a new phenomenon in the Dowling-Wolfe household. (In addition to Maya, the family includes three adult daughters by Linda's previous marriage, two sons-in-law and a grandson born just last Tuesday.)

Back when Maya was in kindergarten, she came home one day and announced to her two moms, ''Somebody told me that two girls can't get married.''

It wasn't as much a statement, Dowling recalled, as a question.

And so she carefully explained to Maya that while Momma and Mom did indeed have a wedding ceremony at Bowdoin College back before Maya was born, the minister had to cross out the part on the certificate that said, '' under the laws of Maine'' because the state didn't allow two women to get married. Instead, she told Maya, the minister replaced ''Maine'' with ''God.''

A similar sit-down occurred two years ago when the Maine Supreme Judicial Court cleared the way for same-sex couples to both adopt a child -- making it possible for Wolfe to join Dowling as Maya's legal parent.

Once again, the couple found themselves explaining to Maya how until now, the official documents making her part of the family hadn't completely reflected the reality of the family's day-to-day life. But now, they said, she had a new document stating she officially has two moms.

''We have a lot of conversations about paper in our family,'' Dowling said with a smile.

Dowling has spoken with some same-sex parents who think younger children are oblivious to the referendum fight -- and are best left in the dark as the airwaves fill up with ''Vote Yes'' and ''Vote No'' ads. She disagrees.

''At 8, her bubble is already getting smaller,'' Dowling said. ''She's moving away form parent influence to peer influence.''

In other words, Maya is going to hear and see things about her family in the coming weeks -- some good, some not so good -- regardless of what filters her mothers might employ.

Better to talk about it, Dowling said, than to deny it's happening.

''Philosophically, I don't want to shield her,'' Dowling said. ''This is the world we live in -- and there's no use in pretending.''

Dowling even recently considered slapping a ''No on 1'' sticker on Maya's backpack. But in the end, she didn't.

''I felt like I didn't want to put her at risk,'' she said. ''And I feel sad about that.''

But she and Wolfe will bring Maya to the Youth Alternatives Ingraham sessions on Oct. 1 and 8 and again on Nov. 5. Dowling has even volunteered to run the discussion for the younger children -- a group she suspects might well have the most to say.

If nothing else, Dowling said, it will reinforce what Maya already knows: She has two mothers, two grandmothers, three sisters, two brothers-in-law and now a new nephew -- all of whom love one another and adore her. Her family, despite what the TV ads might say, could not be healthier.

''We're just normal people. We do normal stuff,'' said Dowling. ''I have to get Maya out of the house early for soccer pictures tomorrow and then she's got a birthday party and I teach Sunday school and my mom's 85 and Linda's mom is 83 and we take care of our mothers and, you know, it's pretty boring stuff -- nothing that any other Maine family doesn't do.''

Looking ahead, Dowling said her biggest fear is that the bombardment of negative messages will change how Maya sees all that.

''I'm afraid that she will feel bad about her family,'' Dowling said. ''That she will take a message to heart that we aren't a real family.''

It's a legitimate concern -- although Maya, even at 8, already knows mindless hype when she sees it.

Just the other day, she walked into the kitchen and told her moms, with obvious exasperation, about what she'd just seen on television.

And no, it wasn't the latest ''Yes on 1'' ad.

''They're talking about Michael Jackson again,'' Maya announced. ''Why are they talking about Michael Jackson again?''

Now there's a tough question.

''It totally cracked me up,'' Dowling said.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

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