Being a gay parent
By Lisa Charlwood-Green, Founder and Director of The WOW Network
Becoming a mother for the first time was a truly exhilarating feeling. My partner and I were overwhelmed with love for our new son. But whilst she had spent the last nine months nurturing him, protecting him and meeting all of his needs, I felt unable to form a bond with my child, side-lined by society and unable to speak to anyone who was going through what I was.
As a gay mum, whose partner carried, I know that my feelings are not unusual or wrong. Society struggles, even now, to think about a child having any less than two heterosexual parents at birth, unless something awful happens. Solo parents, who choose to bring a child into the world on their own, are often branded selfish, uncaring and cruel.
Same-sex parents are usually subjected to a barrage of questioning, usually around what sort of opposite sex nurturing or influence will be present for the child. In our case, we used a known donor, who has quickly been integrated into our family as ‘Daddy’, spending time with our children at regular intervals and building a strong relationship with them.
However, I don’t believe that it is necessary to have a father or indeed mother, omnipresent in a child’s life. Studies have suggested that children of gay parents are on average happier and more intelligent. I will also wager that they are more resilient, after years of answering questions about their less-than-nuclear family, and justifying their existence to strangers.
My journey to becoming a parent started when I met my wife. She was particularly keen to have children, and her biological clock was ticking loud. And so the discussion began. For most lesbian couples they will consider a number of options, from Intrauterine Insemination (IUI) to adoption, from unknown donors to a shared parental agreement.
We both agreed that our utopia was an at home insemination, from a known donor who would have a small amount of involvement in the child’s life. We have been extremely lucky, as this is almost exactly what we got, with the added bonus of our donor playing a more fatherly role when he sees the children.
My wife was at this point my civil partner, and having the strong maternal pull (and being 13 months older, as I often remind her!), we opted for her to go first when trying for a child. We were extremely lucky – she got pregnant very quickly and happily.
I, on the other hand, felt very lost. I wasn’t the father of this baby, I had very limited choices and decisions to make in the pregnancy, and I didn’t know anyone who was going through what I was. Whilst I didn’t feel jealous of my wife, I did feel pushed out, especially at hospital appointments where I wasn’t even acknowledged. I don’t necessarily think that this is a purely gay phenomenon, as I have heard from many men who had the same experience, but I do think that men are more likely to be able to seek reassurance from other men – I really didn’t have that in my situation.
I believe that medical professionals should treat each neonatal situation by acknowledging the partner or support person of the pregnant woman – acknowledge their presence, their concerns and their feelings. They need to be reassured and informed just as much as a birth mother, so they can be a great support and the more rational thinker when all of the pregnancy hormones are in full swing!
Without real-life support, and struggling with my feelings, I realised I needed some extra help. At this point I did my research and found an excellent book, ‘Confessions of the Other Mother: Non-Biological Lesbian Moms Tell All’ by Harlyn Aizley, which is a collection of accounts from lesbian non-biological mothers, ranging from step-parents, to adopters, to women in my situation. This book was so helpful to me; I recognised my feelings and emotions in the words that these women had chosen to share, the sense of being a ‘fake parent’, distanced from the process of pregnancy, and unable to envisage how or even if it would be different post-birth. I felt useless, detached from the process, and without a place, due to not being acknowledged as a parent by either the medical professionals or anyone outside my immediate family and close friends. People who had never met my partner were asking after her, and not me, something I found both odd and excluding. This was frustrating for me and I found it difficult to express my feelings – I wanted to ‘protect’ my wife from emotional upset, so I confided in my mother, who could sympathise, but not empathise.
My wife was very understanding and kind, others less so. I was frequently asked when I would have a child, and ‘reminded’ that “He’s not your son, (your wife) is the mother”. This was shocking to hear at first – the people saying this to me were wholly accepting of civil partnerships, my relationship and of gay people in general. They did not speak with malice, but as they saw the situation, one woman having a baby, with a supportive partner, rather than a parent. I tried to see each occasion as a learning experience for them, using the analogy of an adoptive parent, as most people would think it cruel to describe them as ‘not real parents’. Words can hurt though, and the first time the conversation happened, I went directly to the toilets for a good cry afterwards.
I have no real advice for coping with this, for some it will hurt you deeply like me, and for others you may not even hear the comments. Make sure you have someone to speak to though, and understand that if you parent – you are a parent, regardless of any biological ties or ‘unconventional’ relationships.
For those who are reading this as a heterosexual, cis (non-trans) person, looking for advice on how to treat me or others like me, I would say – don’t assume. If a woman tells you their wife or partner is pregnant, don’t assume that they are the default dad, the second mother, or only acting as a supportive partner. You don’t know. They could be all or none of these things. Instead, try acceptance. Try not asking a million and one questions, about how they did it, what medications they used or who should go first. Instead say “Congratulations! Are you excited?” Open up the discussion with them in the lead and focus on what they want to tell you, not what you want to know.
Post-birth, I am happy to say that everything fell into place for me. I was able to care for, bond and interact with my son, and we formed an instant connection on the night wakings when I would sooth him back to sleep.
Registering our child was another hurdle – although the law had changed some 18 months previously, it took two hours to register the birth, as we had opted for an at home insemination, which apparently confused the registrar. Knowing your facts is so important – essentially if a same-sex female couple are in a civil partnership, or are married, both go automatically on the birth certificate, providing that no intercourse with the donor occurred. We stood firm, and we are both on both birth certificates, although we are down as ‘Mother’ and ‘Father/Other Parent’ which is not ideal. In England I believe that you can opt for a different birth certificate, with ‘Parent 1’ and ‘Parent 2’ as the titles.
Later down the line, we decided it was time to try for another child, with the same donor. This time, however, I would be the one to carry. I must admit to not being particularly bothered – my own biological clock has never rang out, unlike my wife’s, but my maternity leave allowance was significantly better, and as this was prior to the shared parental leave, this fact won out.
Having had a slightly unpredictable cycle, I monitored my temperature, took vitamins to increase my luteal phase and, after eight months of trying, I invested in a digital ovulation monitor, which helped me understand my cycle better. Using this meant that I got pregnant the same month, which was great news.
Then came my pregnancy, which was very different from my partner’s. I had a litany of health complaints, mainly due to the amount of water surrounding my child, further complicated by the fact that this baby was a real kicker! With this child, my wife decided she would rather not know the sex (I got to decide with our first), so it was only when he was born that we met our son. During the pregnancy, I felt as detached from my child as I had in the first pregnancy, which in a way was comforting, as I realised that I bond well with my children when they are home and dry, so to speak. I am the same with many things in life – I find it hard to enjoy things until they are actually upon me.
Bringing our children up has been at times a struggle. Finding our way as two mothers, facing a barrage of questions from strangers (some well-meaning, some not), has required us to beef up our communication skills with each other and get a lot more resilient. It was also hard not to compare things – our pregnancies, birth stories and parenting styles are all different, so we have had to work together to ensure that we are consistent and strong as a team. We both suffered from post-natal depression, which is something we could share after the fact, as being in the midst of it makes it hard to listen to anyone’s advice.
Being a gay parent is a lot like being a regular parent, except for the discrimination, questions from strangers and battles for equality. Whatever path you choose, whether it be a clinical procedure, adoption, or any other way, you will have your own battles to fight, your own path to find. But, at the end of the day, you will have your child, or children, perhaps a partner, and the love you have in your own little family will give you the strength to carry on, to the next day, and the day after that.
FOR FURTHER ADVICE, CONTACT:
Lisa Charlwood-Green, Founder and Director of the WOW Network, www.thewownetwork.co.uk