As a child, I was embarrassed when my parents came to school. Looks of confusion rippled around the classroom as we entered — first me, then my mom, then my other mom . . . and then my third mom. As a non-traditional, lesbian family in 1990s America, being together in public felt nerve-racking.
So years later, at my college graduation, it struck me as ironic that I could maintain my composure. By then, the number of mothers cheering me on from the crowd had ballooned to 10.
How did we get here?
I was born in Minneapolis to two women who were a couple for 14 years. But then they separated. For the sake of telling them apart, we’re going to call one of them Vicki (because that’s her name). We’ll call the other “Mom 2.”
Vicki is my biological mother via a donor. She wears a tie-dyed T-shirt to any event and usually asks people if they believe in angels, or when they last relaxed outside. Her happiest days are spent listening to people share their passions and goals. Her parenting style was no different, except that she was strict about bedtime and limiting TV.
Mom 2 is the cool mom. She would rent Blockbuster movies and let me play “Super Mario” on the Nintendo 64. She also fell in love with a chaotic Mom 3 with two kids, whom I was told were my stepfamily. Busy and stressed, Moms 2 and 3 struggled to create a nurturing environment for their new nuclear family, leaving me with minimal attention and care.
Ultimately, as my biological and legal mother, Vicki decided that my time with them was finished. We packed up to move near extended family in Colorado.
If being rich in America was just about working hard, then all single mothers would be millionaires. Unfortunately, almost 1 in 3 is poor, and Vicki joined that statistic. We couldn’t afford luxuries such as vacations, meals out, or health insurance. But we were a team. She cobbled together part-time jobs and I focused on school.
Despite the constant financial stress, we tried to stay positive. The task was made easier by the new moms who entered our lives — although never through romantic origins. As I prepared to attend Hamilton College in upstate New York, Vicki called the school a dozen times with questions on navigating college. She worried about how I would fare on my own.
Her candidness touched some kind-hearted administrators and local alumni who volunteered to show me around campus. As mothers themselves, they empathized with her worries. They picked me up from the airport and helped me unpack in my dorm. These early acts of kindness turned into ongoing meetups and mentorship, followed by introductions to their friends, who in turn took me under their wings.
This amazing group of women became my surrogate mothers on campus — a role that became critical as I faced another challenge: Vicki’s unexpected diagnosis of Stage IV cancer. Without health insurance, she had been afraid to visit a hospital until it was too late. Her illness meant losing our rental home as she lived in the hospital and I found temporary shelter during school breaks.
All of my moms stepped in. Working together, they helped me pay for flights home, got me employed in paid internships, and let me crash on their couches.
When Vicki passed away a few months before my graduation, I might’ve felt completely alone. But I had a family with me. With diploma in hand, I waved at the group — all of the moms had come out to celebrate this milestone . . . and a few dads showed up, too.
These moms changed my life, and years later we remain in touch. Vicki and I worked so hard to achieve stability, but it turns out that success is rarely earned alone.
Michael Nelson is pursuing a dual MPA/MBA at The Harvard Kennedy School and The Wharton School. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. TELL YOUR STORY. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.