I didn’t know I knew the sound of Liliana’s footed pajamas against the hardwood floor balcony. The step just before the staircase is the loudest spot in the entire house, perhaps inconsequential if not for living with a six-year-old. Her little feet don’t yet know to shuffle around it. I heard the noise distinctly over the silly romantic comedy on tv and looked directly above me to see her bed head peek over the railing. I put down my glass of wine, jumped from the couch, and quickly tiptoed upstairs to where she stood half asleep, rubbing her closed eye with one hand and pressing a wad of toilet paper to her nose with the other.
During several years when I was her age my nose bled nearly every other day. I don’t know what to attribute the episodes to, maybe stress, dry skin, the weather or some combination. My parents bought a lug of a humidifier for the room my younger sister and I shared, placing it between our twin beds against opposite walls. My dad would twirl a single q-tip along the edge of the Vaseline jar and swab the jelly in the crevices of my nose. I’d fall asleep to the low purr of the humidifier each night.
I knelt before Liliana and cradled her face in my hand, checking her forehead and cheeks for heat, then scooped her into my arms. With my free hand, I grabbed two q-tips, our mini jar of Vaseline, and soaked a washcloth from the linen closet in warm water, then carried her back to bed. She let me gently wipe her nose clean and listened intently as I shared about my frequent childhood nosebleeds, consenting to the same care my father taught me. To help her fall asleep again, I snuggled next to her and softly sang her favorite lullabies, love songs I’ve sung to her for the last year and a half.
Lil doesn’t immediately take to strangers and has no problem communicating her discomfort. In rare form, we clicked almost immediately. A couple weeks after her mother and I started dating, I met her for the first time on an early October morning. An unexpected fart cut through expectedly shy introductions, stirring up a much-needed fit of laughter. She reminds me today she didn’t fart on me, but in my general direction. I could only be so lucky.
She calls me her MooMoo, a creative, mom-adjacent name holding considerable weight as another person in her village. Mom especially belongs to the two people who conjured her up together. Elle wasn’t enough to describe who I am to her, just as my partner’s kid certainly explains but doesn’t honor the fullness of our connection. I tell her in jest how lucky she is to have so many mothers. She’s my baby’s baby. She's my baby. She became so very quickly and will remain so forever. I am thankful my partner and her ex-wife parent so intentionally and expansively, there’s room for the love Liliana and I carve out for ourselves.
I am not her mother, but I mother her, too.
I’ve proudly collected every piece of art she’s created and gifted me since before my partner cleaned out a drawer and gave me a key to the home we share. In my makeup bag is a plastic ring she asked me to keep after I informally moved in. I wore it faithfully on my pinky until my finger itched with irritation. I schedule my work life and life’s work around the half week stretches we have together. Her car seat has a permanent place in my car alongside water bottles, snacks, art supplies, and books galore. I take her to school and pick her up on our days more often than not, and in between, I put in shifts at work, flexibility a request and requirement so I can parent how I desire. When the weather allows, we bask in the sun at our favorite park a short drive away from our house. Liliana and her mother are my family, divinely and purposefully chosen. The evidence manifests in car rides and homework routines, tooth wiggling and made-up songs and morning hair styling, to Vaselined noses in the middle of her mother’s overnight shift. These are labors of love not required of me as her non-custodial, legally unbound MooMoo.
She shows me how big love is and can be. How is it possible to love a person so much the verb itself anchors and moves me in ways that don’t make sense, yet do?
Long before the October morning of our meeting, I wrestled with the implications of dating a parent for the first time. I could draw on my identity as an older sister and cousin, or my work as a youth educator and on-call babysitter to make ends meet. But parents can attest no single set of experiences can ready people for raising a child, for holding full responsibility for their safety, wellness, and growth in a world of debilitating danger and endless possibility. Nothing could prepare me for mothering Liliana save for simply mothering her, following my partner’s lead and gladly serving as a trusted adult among so many in her life.
Liliana is an artist, socially constructing the power of chosen family, friendship, and community in her drawings, paintings, stuffed animal and Shopkins collections, and lego designs. She illustrates us, her mothers and each member of her family filling the two places she calls home. Her artistic representation of family reveals the nuances of simple ideas. Behind each picture is the political nature of nontraditional family values and ways of being.
Parenting in and through partnership means I choose to love and care for Liliana with her mother, but in many ways, our connection is invisible and rendered unprotected. che gossett cautions:
"love not as property relation but as the end of property relation."
Liliana doesn't have to be my daughter for an outpouring of mothering and relating between us to be real. It just is. We can and should allow our love for one another to transform family structures that condense blood relation and belonging down to ownership and re-center bonds formed and strengthened by choice and commitment. We are, in effect, queering our understanding and practice of family.
My partner and I talk regularly about Liliana’s growth and changing needs, what we want to work on in ourselves as her stewards, how to better protect and provide for our family, and yes, how we might navigate relationship with each other and Lil should we ever part ways, by choice or circumstance. We have to, to sustain our selves and our family in unknown territory. Reality is my partnership and mothering are inextricably tied, a connection that could very well be complicated or broken by factors in and outside our control. My choice to partner, to mother, to family necessitates contending with this reality, embracing it and building within and beyond its boundaries every day. We choose each other and live accordingly and exceedingly.
When I formally moved in a year ago, my partner imparted to me that at her age, Liliana would not recall many concrete memories of her life before me. I am firmly rooted in the picture of Lil’s life and lead my own with her in mind and heart, always knowing exactly what’s at stake.