Being a Mom in an All-Woman Family

A Conversation with June Presslaff
May 3, 2021Aron Hirt-Manheimer

June and her partner, Betsy, adopted two girls from Guatemala and raised them together until Betsy died of cancer four years ago. June talked with me about the great joy she felt in fulfilling her dream of becoming a mom and the challenges she and her teenage daughters faced after suffering such a tremendous loss. What does Mother’s Day mean to you?

Mother's Day has always filled me with the strongest and deepest feelings -- love for my mom, love for my daughters who made me a mom, and love for their birth moms.

How did you feel when you came out to your mom?

Though I didn’t think she wouldn't love me for being gay, I struggled with the prospect of disappointing her. People weren't really out like they are today. The ones I knew personally who came out had to contend with some really tumultuous situations with either a parent or a sibling, and that frightened me.

How did your mother react when you came out to her?

She had known Betsy as my really close friend and enjoyed spending time with her. When Betsy and I  were in our twenties and getting ready to purchase a home, I said to my mom, “I really want to talk to you about something.” I think she knew what I was about to say and had been waiting to hear it for a couple of years. When we had the talk, her eyes filled with tears and she said, “These are tears of joy that you don't have to carry this anymore.” She was happy and grateful that my partner in life was my dearest friend.

Did you and Betsy have an equal desire to be moms?

Yes, but for different reasons. My desire grew out of feeling incomplete, of an emptiness in my heart that I knew motherhood would fill. For Betsy, family was always of paramount importance in her life.

What made you decide to pursue an international adoption and why Guatemala in particular?

After two years of research and planning, we decided on international adoption, as it was the path taken by gay friends and, therefore, a bit more familiar. What drew us to Guatemala was that the babies there could be placed with foster parents and be held and loved in a home environment. Both of our girls had that experience.

What was it like going to Guatemala to adopt your first daughter?

The process and the wait were excruciating. From the time we first saw a photo of Graciela until the time I could bring her home took six trips over a span of 14 months. Only I could be present in the court, because we could not apply as two women. My mother accompanied me on one of the trips. Much to our surprise and relief, it only took four months to adopt Eliana, whose name in Hebrew means “God has answered.” We brought Eliana home nine months after Graciela had joined us.

Were you able to meet their birth mothers?

I met Graciela’s birth mother very briefly when she was required to appear in the adoption court. The atmosphere was very harsh and coarse, intensifying the pain she must have felt at that moment. I hugged her and presented her with a heartfelt letter in which I promised to do my absolute best to love, care for, and cherish Graciela. I did not have the same opportunity to meet Eliana’s birth mother.

When you celebrate Mother's Day, do you include the birth mothers?

As a couple, part of our conversation on Mother’s Day has always been around the pain, loss, and strength of our daughters’ birth mothers. When the girls were little, we would say, “You are special. You each have three strong mothers -- mommy, mama, and your birth mother -- who all love you.” Like most families, we would do something fun and celebratory on Mother’s Day.

Why did you feel the need to emphasize that your daughters have “three strong mothers”?

As a family that looks different, we wanted to teach them that difference is beauty. We wanted to acknowledge that they would not exist without their birth mother. That's first and foremost. They were going to be raised by women, and Betsy and I wanted to model where their voice could come from, where their strengths could come from. I think we succeeded. When a representative of Bryn Mawr College asked Graciela why she chose an all-women school for her first year of college, I heard her say, “Well, I was raised by very strong women.” Eliana also has seen the larger circle of women, our friends, who have modeled what strength looks like in a community of women.

Betsy was sick for only four months before she passed. Being such careful planners, how did you use that limited time in planning for your daughters’ futures?

I told Betsy that I would be strong for our daughters, then 13 and 14, and continue to raise them with the goals we had set about how we wanted them to respond to people, react to people, and treat people. Do we treat people with kindness? Do we listen respectfully? Do we want to grow to understand things that are beyond us? Do we know what is truly important in life and what is inconsequential? My barometer on how well I am doing as a mother, especially after losing Betsy, is based on how my girls are doing.

Is there anything you'd like to tell them?

I'm proud of their goodness. I'm proud of their moral compass. I’m proud of their strength. And I’m confident that their contributions will make the world better.

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