Questions You Have but are Too Afraid to Ask {Lesbian-Parent Edition}

by Birth Without Fear on March 27, 2013

[Please keep in mind that these opinions are mine, with some help from my partner and a couple of other lesbian mums, and do not reflect the opinions of every lesbian mother on the planet. Some other women might share my opinions and agree with my ideas, and some might not. Such is life. Please don’t construct a stereotype of lesbian parents based purely on what I have written here…]

Let’s not beat around the bush. I’m a lesbian parent, part of a same-sex-parent family. Our daughters have two mums. Most people have questions about these kinds of things. So here it is, a list of some of the more common questions I am asked about being a lesbian mum…

“How do you decide who is the birth mother? Is your partner jealous about not being able to experience pregnancy and birth? Will your partner ever consider being the biological mummy to any future bubs? Do you think you would be jealous about not experiencing pregnancy and birth again?”

For us, and many other couples I’ve talked to, the decision is not a hard one. We didn’t lay out the pro’s and con’s and then make a logical and rational decision. It really was as simple as this: we both wanted to be mums, and I wanted to birth and my partner didn’t. So that’s what happened. After our first birth, which was a fairly traumatic experience for us, I didn’t know if I wanted to birth again but we did want to have two children, so my partner said she would do it. We tried a few times, but it didn’t work out, and then we both changed our minds – I wanted to birth and she didn’t really care – so we swapped back again and I birthed our second daughter as well.

In some relationships, both women want to birth. Sometimes age or fertility is a factor in the decision of who will birth. Sometimes work arrangements and finances and availability of maternity leave are a factor. Sometimes both women DO birth, taking in turns or even being pregnant at the same time.

As for my partner being jealous, I can say no, not mine. I don’t think so anyway… Some might be though. Or more likely, jealous of the romance of being pregnant – growing and giving birth to new life, and the eternal bond of motherhood. But that’s kind of an individual thing. And it depends on how you view pregnancy and birth and motherhood, and what you want to get out of it. Truth be told, sometimes I am jealous of her and her amazing bond with our girls. Sometimes it’d be nice to be able to comfort them with a cuddle, without them making a dive for boob (well, the oldest one weaned, but when she was breastfed!). If anything, my partner is probably secretly jealous of the napping during the day and random food cravings. I’d be jealous of that. Heck, I am jealous right now of every pregnant woman contemplating eating of tub of ice-cream and then having a little snooze!

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“So… um… how exactly did you get pregnant?”

This is the question I am asked most. For some reason lesbian pregnancy seems to baffle people; probably because assisted conception is just not something they’ve ever had to think about. I don’t mind answering, although I do wonder how often straight couples get asked the same question.

Artificial insemination at home is one way – a donor (who may or may not choose to take on a father role) ejaculates into a container, and then the sperm is sucked up into a little syringe, and the syringe is inserted into the vagina, sperm is squirted out, and with any luck, a baby is made! Artificial insemination at a doctors clinic or fertility clinic is usually very similar. Donor makes his deposit, the sperm is usually washed and prepared, and is inseminated either into the vagina (intravaginal insemination – IVI) or, more commonly, into the uterus (intrauterine insemination – IUI). Then there’s the next step of IVF and everything that goes along with that path, which is really only utilised if inseminations aren’t working or won’t work for various fertility-related reasons, much the same as a straight couple.

Can I just put it out there – sex with a man is rarely an option for a lesbian who wants to get pregnant. Forget that movie you saw, or that book you read, or that friend who told you about Sarah’s friend’s brother’s neighbour’s lesbian sister who decided that should would just go sleep with a man to get pregnant because ‘it’s the natural way to have a baby’. I’m not going to say it doesn’t happen. I’m just going to say that if someone identifies as a lesbian, then not having sex with a man is a given.

“How do you choose a sperm donor?”

Known, unknown, anonymous… Donor or father or ‘friend’ or ‘uncle’… this is probably one of the biggest and most important decisions to make. And every couple is different.

The first question is: do we want a known or unknown donor. Both come with benefits and challenges. Unknown donors can make conception and the early years uncomplicated – everyone knows where they stand and what their role is, no one can change their mind, the donor can’t come into the child’s life and want contact, the mother/s can’t demand support from the donor. This suits a lot of people but it has drawbacks, like when the child starts asking about not having a father, like not having medical history and information on hand whenever you need it.  Known donors suit some couples when they know someone who wants to be a donor, have an ‘uncle’ role, or wants to co-parent with the mother/s. This can be problematic when contracts fail, or the donor or mother/s change their mind and wants more or less contact than agreed, and the situation changes with a child in between dealing with the fallout.

In Australia, it’s kind of 50-50 whether an unknown or a known donor is used by the mother/s. We can’t use anonymous donors (which are where the donor has requested to never have their information released); laws in Australia mean that sperm donors MUST agree to be available for contact once any child conceived from their sperm is 18 years old. Australian donors are also not able to be paid for their donation, which means that unknown Australian donors are incredibly wonderful and generous, and also in short demand. For us, we were extremely lucky that we didn’t have to import sperm from overseas. This was important to us, to make it easier for our girls to contact and meeting their donor. Plus, it’s bloody expensive to import sperm! But many Australian couples do import sperm from overseas, and prefer to do so, for various reasons.

“Is there discrimination with finding a supportive care provider?”

Generally not. Out of all of the fertility clinics I approached, only one was rude and dismissive to me when I rang to talk about donor conception and lesbian couples (but was very talkative and lovely when I rang the next day posing as a straight married women having trouble conceiving). We went with the clinic that was more open, and they weren’t hard to find. We also chose public hospital care (which is a fairly standard choice in Australia), and never had issue with any of the midwives or Obstetricians we saw in the ante-natal clinics. I do have to mention that we are very open and straight up about our relationship and family, and never really give medical professionals an option to assume anything about our ‘circumstance’. Throughout both births, my partner was always an active part of my labour and birth, and was made part of it by the midwives. Again, we were upfront and open about my partners role throughout the birth in our birth plan, so there was really no option for them to assume otherwise. If anyone had a problem with our relationship, I was totally unaware of it.

My advice to anyone who feels their care provider is homophobic or intolerant is to get a new one. You do not want to be about to give birth, and have a medical professional treat the non-pregnant partner like she is just some spectator witnessing the birth of a random baby, rather than a women about to become a mother.

“How do you make mum who isn’t pregnant feel included?”

The same way you make the non-pregnant parent of a straight couple feel included! Recognise that no, they aren’t pregnant, but yes, they are on their own journey to becoming a parent. That’s it, really.

“What were the responses from family members, and do they treat you as a family.”

At first, they responded really badly and no, not everyone treated us as a family. It took a while for family to ‘come to terms’ with the fact that a baby was happening, it wasn’t ‘just a phase’. It was hard because at a time that was supposed to be a wonderful joining of families and celebration of life, we felt unsupported and scared. There were threats of legal action, questions about whether we would be good parents, and I spent a lot of my pregnancy depressed. They are all ok now though, treat us as a family and respect us both as mothers. I wish it had happened from the start but sometimes it is better late than never.

“How do you do last names, and what steps do you take so that mum who didn’t give birth has legal rights to their children?”

There was never a big question about it; we wanted to share the same surname. I legally changed my surname while I was pregnant, and our daughters have our surname.

When our first daughter was born in 2008, our state didn’t allow us to both be on the birth certificate – my partner was not recognised as our daughter’s parent until 2010. Socially we were accepted by most people as equal parents, but legally, without a parenting order, I was the only one who could sign for our daughter or make decisions. If something had happened to me, my partner would have had to apply to the courts to be named legal guardian of our daughter. It was a scary thought.

Luckily for us, the legislation changed in 2010 and was made retrospective which meant that my partner was able to be added to our daughter’s birth certificate as a parent. We had our second child in 2012, and her name went straight on the birth certificate and was considered a legal parent automatically. Unfortunately there are still states in Australia and places around the world where non-biological mothers are not considered to be legal parents, and have to go through lawyers to have parenting orders drawn up and apply to the courts to be recognised as someone who can make decisions on behalf of the child. Non-biological parents sometimes lose the children they love and have raised because of the lack of legal recognition as a parent, and it’s heartbreaking.

“How do you respond to the question: ‘Who is their mum?” or “Who is their real mum?'”

I smile, and reply, “We both are.” With that, I tend to make it quite clear that I’m not entering into their little game of biology=real. That’s all they need to know. If they want to know about biology, they can ask properly and with respect.

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“How do you react when people ask about their dad, or ask who is the dad?”

They don’t have dads, they have donors. Wonderfully kind, compassionate, and generous men who chose to be donors, not dads. We haven’t robbed any man of his rights; we all entered into this willingly. Besides, ‘dad’ is just a word, a social construct – making a baby doesn’t make a man a dad, and a man can be a dad without making a baby. So just because a man donated his sperm, doesn’t make him a dad. It does make him totally awesome though.

“What does your daughter call you both? Doesn’t she get confused with having two mums?”

She calls us both mum. She has different names for us, so sometimes she calls us that too. And sometimes she uses our first names. No, she doesn’t get confused. Just like she doesn’t get confused having more than one uncle, or more than one grandma, or more than one dog. We are different people, and easy to tell apart… She doesn’t seem confused anyway… it’s other people that find it hard to get their heads around.

“Do you think having lesbian mums will affect your daughters’ choice of relationships when they are older – do you think they might choose to be lesbian because their mums are lesbians and they is comfortable with it, or do you think it wouldn’t make a difference in their choice?”

Oh yes, most definitely. Just like my straight parents influenced my choice to be… oh wait…

The answer is no. It’s not a choice. Like straight people don’t choose to be straight, I don’t choose to be a lesbian. I am who I am. I love who I love. My girls will be who they are, and love who they love.

“Will you be upset if your daughters are straight?”

No. Their sexuality is none of my business, and certainly not worth investing my emotional energy into. Why would it be? What right do I have to be upset about something that has nothing at all to do with me?

I want a lot of things for them… to love and be loved passionately, to have trust and to hold trust, be respected by and respectful to their partner, and above all all, blissfully and unashamedly happy. If they have this in their lives, my heart will be happy. Whoever makes them feel this way will have my acceptance: male, female, or otherwise.

“Are you worried about how other children will react to your family dynamic, and if your children will get picked on for something that isn’t their fault?”

Yes. But not because of the children. Children are the most accepting and open beings on the planet, born without any bias’. That’s why I work with Kindergarten children (on the record, I’d rather work with 24 four-year-olds than an office of adults. Seriously. I’d take the responsibility of 100 children over an office of adults.). Children learn bias, and I worry that there are adults raising children to be hateful and intolerant, and it will end up effecting my girls.

On the other hand, I was picked on for countless things… I had red hair, crooked teeth, freckles, and I was short, and was reminded of it all the time. The girl who sat next to me had a ‘haircut like a boy’ and she got picked on all the time. There was a boy who was really, really tall, and the poor kid copped it all the time. Non of those things are our fault either, but we were picked on. It happens. I can’t protect her from the world. But I’ll try damn hard to build her self-esteem and her confidence and her self-assurance so high that people can pick on her, and she brushes it off with grace.

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“I don’t agree with same-sex parented families because research shows that children do better in opposite-sex parented households.”

Hey! Wait a minute, that’s not a question… But I’ll respond…

Ah, that research. It goes a little something like this: “Adolescents in married, two-biological-parent families generally fare better…” (p. 890)
from Manning, W., and Lamb, K. (2003). Adolescent well-being in co-habiting, married, and single-parent families, Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(4), pp876-893.

Can we take note here, that although anti-gay activists use this as ‘research’ against same-sex parents, the focus is on step-parented and single-parent families in contrast to a consistent family unit; families where children lived between two homes, as opposed to families where both parents lived under the same roof. The four types of families a categorised as ‘two married biological parents’, ‘single mother’, ‘married stepfather’, and ‘cohabiting stepfather’. No same-sex parented families were even used in this study, which means it’s kind of a no-brainer that you can’t apply the results to same-sex parented families. Especially same-sex parented families where the family structure is consistent! But people do, so I’ll continue…

I could also turn the research around to say that it actually works IN FAVOUR of same-sex families: the results suggest that perhaps it is NOT the fact that the parents are opposite-sex couples, or the fact that they are married, OR the fact that they are biological parents, it’s actually a far more logical explanation, and that is that children do better in families where the family structure is consistent throughout their lives. OR maybe it IS the fact that the parents are married, and perhaps this should be a great way to push for same-sex marriage, because children do better with married parents. Because really, isn’t it logical to conclude that a consistent family structure is more favourable over one that is changing a lot – parents separating, parents adjusting to the new structure, step-parents entering the family structure… An opposite- or same-sex parented family, where the two parents who are able to provide a loving, respectful, safe environment to raise their children in the same family structure consistently throughout their childhood, is logically more favourable than any family parents separating and remarrying. (Not that it is wrong to do either, no judgement towards separated, remarried or single parents, but as parents we all want consistency for our children, and a relationship break-up and family restructure is not exactly one of those things we plan alongside planning children.)

There is also plenty of research that supports the idea that child outcomes of children from same-sex parented families are equal with, and sometimes slightly better than, opposite-sex families in terms of social, emotional and academic performance.

beach maternity Jane Gilbey Photography

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about same-sex relationships at school. Why is there such a big push to teach children about same-sex parented families?”

Repeat after me: Talking about same-sex parented families is NOT talking about same-sex sex. When you talk about opposite-sex parented families, you don’t need to talk about sex… do you? Does sex define family dynamics? I didn’t think sex had anything to do with it…?

Yes there is a big push, and it’s important. And I could write a whole blog post on this. Taking about families and excluding lesbian-parent and gay-parent families is… well, excluding. It sends the message that our family shouldn’t be talked about, or doesn’t deserve to be acknowledged. Some people talk about lesbian-parents with embarrassment  which sends that message that it’s embarrassing to talk about our family. What you DON’T say is as powerful as what you DO say. You don’t have to spend hours explaining it, and please don’t because we’re not that interesting. It’s about being casual, dropping it into conversation, and letting your children grow up knowing that families are different. Yes, most kids have a mum and a dad, but some don’t, and that’s ok, as long as children are loved, and nurtured and safe, then that’s all that matters.

Sex education is a totally different thing, which I haven’t really given much thought to be honest, but I continue to hold the opinion that silence is oppressing and what you DON’T say is as powerful as what you DO say. Excluding a topic is excluding the people to whom the topic is important. And really, if you son was gay or your daughter lesbian, and they never talked about safe sex for gay men or lesbian women, wouldn’t you be worried about their understanding of what is safe for them? And trust me, talking about being gay or lesbian isn’t encouragement to ‘turn gay’. Most gay or lesbian people grew up around heterosexual discourse, and we’re not heterosexual.

What are the major challenges you face as a lesbian couple with children, and what are the solutions?

The biggest challenge is the heterosexual discourse – the use of language under the assumption and idea that everyone is straight. Forms that assume every child has one mother and one father, forms that assume you have an opposite-sex partner, languages that excludes our family, teachers who force children to make a fathers day card despite there being no father (yes this happened to us last  year). During pregnancy we faced doctors who wanted to know about ‘the father’ even aftre being informed that we use a donor, our HypnoBirthing instructor who absentmindedly read meditation scripts to us including phrases like “your husband” despite us being in a private class… Comment at the supermarket like “I guess you know what causes pregnancy now…?”. Throughout our parenting journey, people just make random comments, asking “does she look like you or her dad”, or “I bet your daddy will be busy when you’re older”. And then they act shocked or embarrassed and just walk away from us when they find out. It is always better to ask than to assume. But of course, if you aren’t ready to hear that a child might have two mums or two dads, don’t make any comment at all.

And then there is the silence, excluding our family by omission, quietly implying that our family is full of embarrassment and shame… media that portrays only opposite-sex couples and families and excludes diverse family structures, hesitation when discussing gay or lesbian relationships or families, teachers who cringe and awkwardly stumble on the words “mums”, people who avoid mentioning our daughters two mums… What you DON’T say is as powerful as what you DO say!

“I think that homosexuality is against my religion, and I believe it is a sin. As devoted believer in ‘insert religion here’, I have to oppose people who go against the word of my religion.”

I believe that hate against another person is sin.

Ok, so I’m not a Christian, my beliefs align with Buddhism, but I believe Jesus was probably real, and was the same as the Buddha and Mohammad (sometimes I think maybe they were the same person, long ago, and the different religions are just different people’s interpretations of the same wonderful, loving person, but I digress…). I believe this person radiated love and light, and practiced kindness, and compassion and forgiveness. Anyone who says they ‘believe in’ Jesus/Christ etc should believe in living out kindness, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance… From everything I have read, I’ve never heard of a single story where they practiced hate. People who stand up and shout out hate in his name have lost the meaning and foundation of his life, and I oppose any person who thinks that hate is an appropriate response to love.

And one last word… there is no man of the relationship. We’re lesbians. We’re both women – and that’s kind of the point.

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Unwatermarked photos from Jane Gilbey Photography

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