By Lucy Fry
More same-sex couples than ever are having children, but assumptions about such families are frequently out of date and off the mark. Lucy Fry, who recently became a mother with her wife Bella, busts a few myths.
When comedian and television presenter Sandi Toksvig and her then partner Peta conceived their firstborn by artificial insemination some 27-ish years ago, they were trailblazers for the LGBT community; a rare same-sex couple attempting the unparalleled job of bringing up children (three, in fact) in a fundamentally heterosexual world.
Almost three decades later, the familial landscape looks rather different: the latest statistics from Stonewall, the LGBT campaign group, stated that in 2015 there were 21,000 same-sex couples bringing up children in the UK. When I met my partner Bella nine years ago, she was already talking about motherhood (and she very much wanted to carry a child) whereas I was still wary; passionate about my independence and career as a writer, both of which I felt could be jeopardised by kids.
It took us a civil partnership (in 2010), five years of make-or-break conversations (I realised that if I truly didn’t want a child then I had to let her go – that her desire for motherhood was more important even than our love) and two further years searching for the right donor and progressing through two pregnancies (including one miscarriage) before our beautiful son Rufus arrived on 21 May. He has brought us unfathomable joy, along with a deepened sense of gratitude that his dreamed-of existence had actually become reality.
During that time we met and talked to a lot of other LGBT parents and discovered that they often found themselves at the receiving end of thoughtless – even if well-meant – comments and queries. Here we explode a few myths…
Myth 1: Conception via donor sperm always costs a fortune
Whether for a same-sex or a heterosexual couple, ‘alternative’ routes to making a baby are thought to be an expensive business. And most of the time this is true – I know one female couple who spent £27,000 bringing their daughter into this world using anonymous donor sperm via IUI in a clinic – but it needn’t always be.
Our decision to use artificial insemination at home – using a known donor we’d found via an online matching service who helped us without payment, inspired by genuine altruism and watching friends of his struggle with conceiving a child – meant that we spent around £300 on Rufus’s conception (costs included pregnancy, ovulation and fertility tests, website listings and insemination kit). And just for the record, artificial insemination, even at home, does not mean sex. Rather, it requires a plastic cup, syringe and a pretty robust sense of humour.
Do say Congratulations! (And leave it there.)
Don’t say So was it all terribly expensive?
Myth 2: ‘Sperm donor’ is a synonym for ‘father’
Although it’s an innocent mistake to ask ‘Who’s the dad?’ when you know a child has two mothers, it can be upsetting because it implies that having two mums isn’t enough to complete a family unit. There are, of course, cases where a female couple has chosen to share parental responsibility with a donor or male couple (this is called co-parenting), which means the child has an active father figure (or two) in their life. To confuse matters further, same-sex female couples often refer to their child’s ‘biological father’.
Everybody’s setup is individual. In our case, our donor has no legal involvement or financial responsibility, although we have discussed a friendly annual update, perhaps with a photo and the option of some contact between him and Rufus when Rufus reaches 18. For now, though, we are a happy family unit of two mums and one adored little boy. (We are both named as his legal parents on Rufus’s birth certificate – the law has allowed this for non-biological parents since 2008.)
Do say What a beautiful child!
Don’t say Who’s the father?
Myth 3: We don’t mind you asking lots of personal questions
If you’re nosy by nature, then proceed with caution! Facing the Spanish Inquisition about who and how and when has left me rather less enthusiastic about neighbourly dinner parties. Think about it this way: would you question a straight couple on the ins and outs (yes, exactly) of their sex life when you’re aware that they’re trying to conceive? Of course not. So why should we fess up about our equally personal insemination process? If we tell you we’re both parents to our child, then that’s the setup, end of story. Yet same-sex couples get quizzed this way all the time.
Rebecca Dunbar-Wells and her wife have a son and a daughter together, and took it in turns to carry their babies. They were constantly fielding annoying questions, says Rebecca: ‘One person was so confused he asked if we’d used a surrogate, another asked if our children were from a previous straight relationship and others assumed our children must have been adopted.’
Do say I’m a bit clueless about same-sex parenting, so feel free to educate me.
Don’t say So how does it all work? (While gesturing towards a womb).
Myth 4: If both parents are women, one must be ‘the dad’
It’s wrong to assume that one parent must always constitute a father figure. Just because I didn’t carry our son, doesn’t mean I’ve developed a hairy chest! Rather, he happens to have two mothers, because that’s what we’ve chosen for him. One day he may be angry about it (just as he may be angry that we won’t allow him to stay up until midnight aged three) but that’s our situation and we’ll do our best to offer him love, consistency and support as he makes his way through life.
Having said that, we’ve found that it’s easier to adopt different roles. Since my wife is breast-feeding and currently not working, for instance, I’ve fallen into more of a ‘provider’ role. Other couples do it differently, such as Louise Enderby, mother to three daughters (22 and 19-year-old twins), who says: ‘My partner, the birth mother, went back to work – she could never have done the playground stuff – whereas I left work without a backward glance and raised our children for 12 years.’
Do say Are you both working at the moment?
Don’t say Which one of you is ‘the dad’?
Myth 5: Being genetically unrelated to a child makes it harder to bond
‘What rubbish,’ says non-biological mother Louise Enderby. ‘I was in love with my partner’s baby the minute we knew she’d conceived – especially because we had to go to so much trouble to get her. She was a double miracle!’ And I agree. As if love were so simple as to relate only to genetics. Yet I’ve been asked whether I worried I would be ‘unable’ to bond with our son simply because I wouldn’t be able to stare at him and see my own physical characteristics shining back.
For a start, nurture counts for a lot. Secondly, every child is an individual and they’ll let you know sooner or later that your genetics aren’t going to stop them doing whatever they want. And lastly, Rufus has none of my genetics and yet I felt love envelop me the first time I held him (while also being grateful that he won’t be endowed with my family’s propensity towards a monobrow).
Do say Your son/daughter is gorgeous. How are you both getting on with parenthood?
Don’t say Have you struggled to feel bonded, given that he/she’s not really yours?
Myth 6: Names are confusing, because you can’t both be called Mummy
My wife and I haven’t yet figured out what our son will call us. Yet we are regularly questioned on this issue of naming, by people disproportionately worried about whether Rufus will be confused – a common query from straight couples. ‘I gave birth to our son, the eldest, and he calls me Mummy and calls my wife Mama,’ says Rebecca Dunbar-Wells. ‘When my wife was pregnant many people asked us if our second child would call my wife Mummy and me Mama, as if the name Mummy had to be linked to the biological mother. In what world would it make sense for siblings to call their parents by different titles?’
This also applies to same-sex male couples. As one of two fathers of a seven-month-old son (via egg donor and surrogate), Neil McDonagh says: ‘We don’t even tell anyone who is the biological father out of the two of us. It’ll be up to our son to decide what he calls us – one of us might be Dad and the other Daddy, for instance, but we won’t actively try to confuse him by calling ourselves the same name.’
Do say Do you have a preference as to what he/she calls you?
Don’t say You can’t both be called Mummy, surely?
Myth 7: A child brought up by two women will be gay
I’ve often joked with friends that Bella and I won’t know what to do with a child who’s heterosexual, but it’s exactly that – a joke. I couldn’t care less what sexuality my son turns out to be, or whether he chooses any one way to identify. Nor do I believe that growing up with same-sex parents will make him more inclined to be non-heterosexual himself (just as I don’t believe growing up around two women will make him more inclined to love only women).
Most same-sex couples share our view. ‘I think my daughter is straight,’ says Suzanne Lavelle, who has a ten-year-old adopted daughter with her female partner. ‘We’ve brought her up to think she can love whomever she loves, but she’s showing a preference for boys and as parents we’re completely happy with that. Just because she’s been brought up by two women doesn’t mean she’ll automatically become a lesbian!’
Do say How amazing to have two such loving parents.
Don’t say Surely they’re bound to be gay, with two mums?
Myth 8: Two female parents must consider men unnecessary
In my experience, same-sex female couples tend to feel little discrimination towards straight people – and it also follows that they tend to feel fairly positive about men. Not only because, much like women, they can be excellent company but also, in our case, because our much-loved offspring came about as a result of the altruism of a man who was willing to donate his sperm.
‘People make this assumption that if you’re growing up in an all-female household you won’t know how to interact with men, but our daughter has great relationships with boys,’ says Suzanne Lavelle. ‘She has male teachers, boy friends at school and male neighbours – there’s no casting men aside in any way, shape or form.’
Bella and I consider it important, particularly as two mothers, that our son has positive male energy around him and are taking active steps to ensure that he gets this. That’s why, for example, we’ve gone down the traditional route and given him one godmother and two godfathers and have chosen men who are creative and loving people who don’t try to be anything they’re not.
Do say Love and consistency are all children need, right?
Don’t say So do you hate men?