When Heather Has Two Mommies was first published in 1989, the world was a very different place. Ellen DeGeneres, still ostensibly straight, was a bit player on a forgotten sitcom about real estate. k.d. lang, not yet an out icon, had just won a Grammy Award for country music vocal performance. And the Supreme Court of Canada was still a decade away from acknowledging that same-sex couples were entitled to the same rights as their straight counterparts. I was eight and had no idea that Heather and her mothers even existed—let alone that they were the subjects of a picture book that would become the 11th most-challenged title in the United States in the coming decade.
Reportedly the first lesbian-themed children’s book ever published, Heather Has Two Mommies was written by Lesléa Newman, a Brooklyn-based feminist activist. But the book doesn’t read like a revolutionary statement. It’s a bucolic, day-in-the-life vignette about a toddler, her pets, her parents and her first day of school—and her subsequent realization that not everyone shares her two-mom family structure.
If anything, Newman’s book is remarkable for its portrait of a teacher who not only recognizes difference, but celebrates it. If there’s a moral to the story, it’s that no “normal” family exists—we’re all just variations on infinite themes.
I grew up in the most nuclear of nuclear families, the eldest of three relatively well-adjusted kids raised by two (straight) parents who are still together. My household was progressive and loving; even as an eight-year-old, I could grasp that not everyone was like me, and that difference wasn’t something to be feared. And in that context, I don’t know that I could have appreciated why Heather Has Two Mommies, as gentle and unassuming as it is, matters.
But all these years later, now that the book is being re-released in a 25th-anniversary edition (with mercifully updated illustrations—the originals have the vague creepy-Russian-folktale quality that was not unusual in feminist-geared kiddie culture during the ’80s), I get it.
Here’s why: Six days before my partner, Lisa, gave birth to our son, Ezra, our friends and family threw us a baby shower. The timing was unexpected; Ezra arrived six weeks early, though he was, thankfully, perfectly healthy.
We had been somewhat ambivalent about the idea of a shower—why should people feel obligated to buy us things just because we were having a kid—and resisted registering at baby-gear stores. But the more we thought about it, the more we warmed to the idea of gathering together with the people we loved the most, the people who’d supported us through the whole process of unconventional conception. And while we weren’t sold on the prospect of loading up on stuff, we found an alternate solution. We’d ask everyone to bring a children’s book that meant something to them.
Remarkably, there was very little overlap in people’s choices. Ezra’s library is an amazing reflection of the people in his orbit, a collection that ranges from Ferdinand and Frances to modern classics by Maira Kalman and Christine Baldacchino. Our shelves overfloweth with Dr. Seuss and Sandra Boynton. We were lucky enough to receive a beautiful set of the complete works of Ezra Jack Keats, who inspired our Ezra’s name. When we’d unwrapped all of the shower gifts, one title was missing from the pile: nobody chose Heather Has Two Mommies.
I wasn’t entirely shocked. It’s possible our friends assumed we’d already acquired a copy. More likely, they wouldn’t peg that particular picture book as a life-changer. But over the past 10 months, as Ezra has developed his own strange and wonderful personality, and as Lisa and I have realized how much we’re involved in shaping not just that personality, but Ezra’s sense of self, I’ve found myself appreciating the value of Heather and her moms.
We read to Ezra about all sorts of characters and scenarios, and we want him to grow up understanding the diversity of the world that surrounds him. Yet every so often, we encounter a story element that’s so removed from our own personal experience that it feels like a painfully poor fit.
Even Dr. Seuss, with his made-up words and nonsense worlds, has his flaws. We habitually insert a gender-neutral pronoun into The Foot Book, where male and female are presented as binary opposites. A dad-centric line in One Fish, Two Fish initially gave us pause. Happily, Ezra’s swimming instructor, Vlad, saved the couplet, which now reads: “Why are they sad and glad and bad? I do not know, go ask that Vlad.”
Even before I was sure I wanted to have kids, I knew I wanted to read to them. And as someone who grew up hopelessly immersed in literature, I’m acutely aware of how much we look to books to reflect some element of ourselves back at us. Lesléa Newman claimed she was inspired to write Heather Has Two Mommies for precisely that reason. Way back in the ’80s, before LGBT families were validated by both the law of the land and the mores of pop culture, she encountered friends, two women, who’d recently become parents. The new moms lamented the dearth of children’s literature that represented their own reality; Newman sought to remedy that with her vision of Heather.
Today, we may be surrounded by stories that echo our own increasingly complex family and relationship structures, but I still have a soft spot for that first, gentle celebration of difference.
Sarah Liss is a writer and editor in Toronto, and one of two moms to a 10-month-old with a pretty fantastic sense of humour.