Having A Baby With Two Mums – Practical Positives

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Nearly two weeks ago, while my daughter was still in hospital, I wrote a post about her birth and my experience of it as a lesbian non-birth mother. That post was read by far more people than I expected, and I’m still replying to people who’re responding to it.
I wrote it because I had to find a way to process what had happened, and because I felt very strongly that it was important to talk about an experience I’d not seen talked about elsewhere – what it’s like to be a lesbian mother (especially, a lesbian non-birth mother) in a busy hospital. I wasn’t sure what reaction to expect.

A few – very few – people did respond the way I’d worried they would, reading no further than the first few sentences and insisting ‘oh, I’m sure it’s just the same for fathers!’. But far more people got in touch to offer support and to make sure we knew that what happened with us wasn’t and shouldn’t be the norm. I’ve been absolutely amazed and impressed by midwives and doctors and nurses who’ve never met me or my partner or my baby, and who still wanted to reassure us. Amazing feminist friends – of both of ours – made sure we felt looked after.

Elisabeth is three weeks old today. She doesn’t (thank goodness) have meningitis, and she came home from hospital after some absolutely amazing, dedicated treatment on a ward that treats newborn babies like her. She has been losing a lot of weight, and we’ve had a slightly grim couple of weeks where we’ve had to wake her every 2.5 hours to feed her specified amounts of breastmilk, expressed breastmilk and formula – over a period of an hour or two, during which she would typically return said milk to us with additional gifts of stomach acid and horrified cries – according to what each midwife or health visitor hoped would keep us from going back into hospital. But, as of yesterday, she has stopped losing weight, is gaining weight and – best of all – we don’t have to wake her any more when she’s sound asleep in order to feed her! Hallelujah. We’re even enjoying her screaming!

In this post, I want to talk about the really lovely things that happened. That starts with the ward that got Elisabeth out of hospital. The huge difference here was consistency – and that’s a NHS funding issue. Instead of constantly being told one thing by one person only to have another one rush in to say something different, there were high enough staffing levels that we could be given a plan. I couldn’t stay overnight on this ward, but was encouraged to be there for all of the visiting hours. Everyone made clear that the parents’ room was intended for me as well as for Emma – in fact, they seemed surprised I’d ask. We had some brilliant support here, and especially from a hugely compassionate woman who immediately understood how to reassure Emma and how to encourage her with establishing breastfeeding, and who took the time to put us at ease by acknowledging we were a lesbian couple and casually mentioning that her mother was also married to a woman, and asking us whether the baby’s dark hair came from the donor, or because Emma carried a baby conceived from one of my eggs.

Some people, I know, seem to think this approach would be unwelcome. A lot of people act as if it’s almost rude to talk about the elephant in the room, the fact that here are two women having a baby. I’ve had quite funny conversations with people in the past, who practically walk into the conversation with a flashing light saying must not mention the sperm donor! over their heads. Of course, some people probably don’t want to talk about this stuff. But, in my limited and partial experience, more people do. Going to a fertility clinic can be a sad experience for heterosexual couples – the system is geared up to deal very gently and sensitively with people who have gone through loss and disappointment, people who may have just learned they can never have a child in the way they always expected they could, and people whose identities within their relationships are under profound stress. Awareness that fertility treatment itself might very well not provide any help, hangs unspoken over every conversation. For us, obviously, it was different. Deciding to have a child and picking a clinic felt rather exciting, and sitting in the waiting room looking at images of newborns felt positively romantic. So, we were glad when people – including the lovely midwives on the induction ward at the hospital – felt able to chat to us about this. If you think about it, it’s a variation on the normal chatter everyone enjoys around a baby. Does he have your hair? Will she have your chin? Do you think he’ll be tall like you? These are nice questions, and I’m glad the people who asked them felt able to do that.

After the hospital, another lovely experience was seeing the registrar when we registered Elisabeth’s birth. We turned up expecting to have to wade through reams of paperwork and acres of documentation we’d brought, but in the event we were in and out in a few minutes, with only the basic necessities noted – and the registrar was very excited as we were the first female couple she’d registered under the new law that allows us both to be parents. This brings me on to what I wanted to set out for people reading this post. When we registered Elisabeth, we both got to be on her birth certificate, because we are both her parents. And this is something that many people don’t know you can do. Here are the legal facts (bizarre and delightful as they are):

  • If you are a lesbian couple and married (or, even if you’re a heterosexual couple and married), a child born within the marriage is presumed to be the child of both spouses, unless established otherwise. This delightfully eighteenth-century sounding law still holds.
  • If you are (like us) neither married nor in a civil partnership, you can still put both names on the birth certificate, like an unmarried heterosexual couple. You must be treated at a registered clinic and you must use sperm from a registered donor bank, and you must fill in paperwork to acknowledge that you plan to be co-parents.
  • If you do this, your child will be able to trace his or her sperm donor aged 18. The donor is entitled to refuse, but our clinic (like most clinics) provides a statement from the donor. Our donor left a really nice message explaining that he had donated because his wife had difficulty conceiving (you can do this to offset costs), and saying that family was important to him. We could relate to this and thought our daughter would appreciate understanding his perspective.

The legal side of things is surprisingly easy, but not very well known – a lot of people have told me I’m not the baby’s legal mother, or have been concerned I (or Emma) would not have legal rights. But it’s amazing to me how quickly laws have changed. For all of the time I was in school, Section 28 – the law that made it illegal for schools to promote (or, in practice, discuss) ‘pretended’ family relationships between two women – was in force. That law was only repealed in England in 2003, when I was 19 and Emma was 22. Such a lot has changed since then. More will change. This isn’t a typical ‘Easter’ post, but for us it feels appropriately like a new beginning.

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26 thoughts on “Having A Baby With Two Mums – Practical Positives

    • Thank you so much! I’d never have thought that the support of people commenting here would mean so much, but it does.

  1. This post has made me smile much more than its predecessor caused me to grimace. I am so happy for you; all three of you are gorgeous (and I generally prefer kittens to babies).

    I’m curious — are you prepared to divulge why you opted for Elisabeth rather than Elizabeth? You are far too thoughtful for that to have been a random choice.

    • Oh, thank you!

      I quite like kittens myself. Elisabeth does a good compromise by making cat noises in her sleep.

      Elisabeth was because we both like Lis as a shortening, but not so much Liz or Lizzy (though, inevitably, that will be what she prefers, I’m sure …), and also because my partner’s middle name is Elizabeth and we wanted her to be different. It might lead to a lifetime of resentment at a different spelling, but I hope not!

  2. I am so happy to read this post, and see that nice things are still happening in the world! Thank you so much for sharing it with us all.

    Lots of blessings for you and Emma and Elisabeth.

  3. A lovely post, and I thank you. I hope that when you are so inclined you will continue to update us on the adventures of Elisabeth, Emma, and Lucy.

  4. Thank you so much for the update – I was wondering how you were all doing, after reading the earlier post. It’s particularly helpful for me to know what to do about my own flashing sign of ‘must not mention the sperm/egg/womb donor’ when meeting babies whose parents are of the same sex!

    • Thanks! And yes … I couldn’t guarantee some people wouldn’t prefer a dignified silence, but having spoken to others in the same boat as us, I think for most couples, polite and friendly questions are just nice.

    • It’s not a taboo question. We don’t plan a specific male role model – I’m never very convinced that men and women are innately different in the ways they parent, anyway. Besides which, we’re quite different as two women, so I would think there will be plenty of opportunity for her to see different ways of being a happy adult.

  5. So glad to hear Elisabeth is home where she belongs. I hope her health is perfect, now and in future.

    I have to wonder, because my DS1 was hospitalized for a bit at a few days old, if you were able to be happy to be accepted unquestioningly into the “parents’ room,” or if you liked the access but hated the actual ROOM as much as I did…

    Don’t get me wrong; I was VERY grateful there was a room available. I wouldn’t have left the hospital while my son was admitted. I’d have slept on the floor if necessary. I was hormonal, emotional, worried, exhausted, and a mess. My husband had to spend some time at work by that point (he’s a scientist with animals and experiments that carry on with or without him being there to manage things) so I was alone there a lot over two nights.

    The parents’ room, though, is seared into my memory as a torture chamber! It was innocuous enough (decor, decent bed), but I didn’t have my baby; I had to use a hospital breast pump bolted to a large cart every hour, trying and failing to produce sufficient nourishment for the new love of my life; it was also bitterly, freezing cold! (Boston in winter, and the thermostat for the parents’ room also controlled the neighboring doctors’ break room that would boil while I froze.) I’ve always wondered if I was unique in that hatred for the space where I ached for my baby to be “given back.”
    ???

    • Thanks so much! Sorry for the delay replying … I’m sure you understand why!

      I’m so sorry you had such a rotten experience with the parents’ room. I do think that, often, hospitals are particularly agonising places in terms of being separated from loved ones.

      So we were actually very lucky with the set up in this final ward. What I referred to as the parents’ room (that’s what they called it) was simply a room with a fridge for people to store snacks, a kettle and supplies for tea, and a table and sofas. I’d initially assumed I wouldn’t be allowed in to make Emma a cup of tea, but actually they had mums and dads both going in there.

      The great thing about this ward, though, was it was set up to keep the baby with a parent – so Emma, by this point, wasn’t a patient in her own right, but was kept on the ward 24/7, as the baby’s main care-giver. So she had the baby with her all the time, and the parents’ room wasn’t a place she had to go when the baby was taken away (that sounds awful!) And expressing when you’re not near the baby must be so dispiriting – it’s against what your hormones are telling you, isn’t it?!

      So, no, we didn’t have that particular struggle, and I am so sorry you did!

  6. Just catching up with your story, sorry I missed your update.

    I’m glad your experience on the paediatric ward was so much better. You’re right that it has so much to do with NHS funding, and the settlement worked out for maternity in particular. On a postnatal ward, the babies are somehow not really counted as ‘patients’ – even though they may need a huge amount of input and care from midwives/maternity support workers/nursery nurses and indeed have medical needs. 25 full beds, might mean 50 ‘patients’ (perhaps a few more including twins, perhaps fewer if some mothers are without babies who are in a neonatal unit). It is assumed that mothers will provide the bulk of the care to their babies, even though these mothers may be unwell themselves (or at the least, recovering after birth). Since well mothers and babies tend to be discharged quickly, the majority of the mother-baby pairs on a postnatal ward are actually unwell (one or both members!). So, midwifery staffing ratios are worked out on very old-fashioned assumptions about acuity, and then staffing of postnatal wards can be depleted because midwives there are needed in other areas of the hospital (for example, to care for women in labour). Until the staffing ratios on postnatal wards reflect the acuity of the patients cared for, we will never be able to give the quality of care that we want to give. Awful for women and demoralising for staff too.

    Having said that, though some of the things you complained about in your last post would have been better with more resources, a great deal was attitudinal and cultural – the whole baggage of other peoples unexamined heterosexist assumptions that you had to deal with. I really hope that you have approached the hospital to raise those things, or plan to do so, if you can bear to.

    Very sweet baby pictures, Elisabeth is a lovely name.

  7. Aw, so small and fragile – keep a good eye on that baby.
    It s ridicoulus, that some people think it s better to give a baby into the hands of abusive heterosexual parents than two loving homosexual ones.

    • Good luck! You will be a wonderful queer mom. 🙂 I think (now with five months’ perspective …!) it’s a great thing to do.

  8. Pingback: Having A Baby With Two Moms | The Mommy Diaries

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