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.