Are we invisible mothers? Same-sex parenting and the straight gaze

Last weekend, the Guardian published a lovely piece written by an adoptive father, Ben Fergusson, describing his experience of raising his baby with his husband. It’s currently one of the Guardian‘s most-read pieces, and it’s both thoughtful and interesting, as the author teases out the ways in which his experience illuminates what we as a society think about gender and parenthood. Like Fergusson, I’m raising my child in a same-sex relationship; like him, I am not the biological parent. Unlike him, though, my partner is the biological mother – we don’t have experience of adoption. But what I think is perhaps most different is how heterosexual gender roles and expectations shape my experience of being a lesbian mum. I never read much about this topic until I had a baby; even now, searching hard, it’s not easy to find accounts that resonate with me, and so I thought it might be useful to share my own experience here.

I found myself nodding along to the experience Fergusson describes when he first became a parent. Expecting comments about his sexuality, he encountered something rather different:

When we ventured gingerly on to the streets of Berlin, what seemed to strike people was not that we were both men, but that we were both there. Why? Because all the other dads had gone back to work.

The default assumption is that the parent who is exists in the daytime, the parent who doesn’t go back to work, is a woman, and she’s on her own. As Fergusson points out, actually sharing the parenting of a small baby is both quite unusual (as he says, ‘Mothers we knew often told us that they were splitting things 50:50 with the father. When they described their weeks, it turned out that they meant 50:50 in the evenings and at weekends; and usually mothers did all the feeding’) and also quite useful: neither of you becomes ‘default parent,’ the only one who can settle the baby and the one who’s carrying the mental ‘load’ of favourite bibs or toys or signs of illness or current tantrum triggers. My partner Emma and I both (for reasons not entirely to do with choice and quite a bit to do with job markets) ended up doing a lot of overlapping parenting; we were often ‘both there’. We still are, and even though our daughter is three, I do notice other parents struggling slightly to negotiate the social interaction: do they invite us both for coffee? If not, which of us? We don’t quite fit, and it’s not so much about sexuality as about the expectation that there’s only room for one mother.

Yet, though this experience resonated with me, the rest of Fergusson’s article surprised me. Throughout, the author refers to himself and his husband in an uncomplicated plural sense: we, us. The responses he records are responses to ‘dads’. The fraught interactions he and his husband experience arise exclusively from social and bureaucratic failures to ‘read’ a relationship without a female primary care giver. There’s no mention of distinction between the two men.

This seems to me to be where Fergusson’s experience really, profoundly differs from mine. It could perhaps be that this is an effect of the difference between adoptive parenting and our combination of biological and chosen parenting. But, unlike Fergusson and his husband, we rarely find everyone treats us as ‘the mums’ – two people with indistinguishable roles and experiences. Instead, there’s a scramble to figure out how we map onto a heterosexual male/female couple – or even, how we map onto a more stereotypical butch/femme lesbian set-up, which lots of people (including lesbians) still seem subconsciously to expect. We have both, in different ways, felt suddenly invisible, slipping out of the expected role of the ‘mother’.

Everyone, but everyone, but everyone, wants to know why I didn’t carry the baby; if I’m lucky, there will be an explicit rider ‘now I would have thought, with your [awkward gestures at my actual human female body] … you know … I would have thought you’d be the one to get pregnant?‘ It’s tempting to make up responses. ‘You know, you’re right, I don’t know how we didn’t think of that!’ ‘Oh this? Yes, they make me wear a full-body condom to the fertility clinic so I don’t slip and get pregnant’.

My partner, who isn’t especially butch at all, is fed up with it. You can tell that our experience is a little like Fergusson’s, in that people automatically and always look for ‘the mother’. At a glance, they notice a woman in a dress in proximity to offspring and conclude that any other warm human body in the vicinity must be ‘the dad’. This perception isn’t based so much on looking at my partner and noticing what she looks like (or, memorably, whether or not she is in fact, at this very moment, breastfeeding). It’s a more dismissive and automatic interaction, which simply rests on the premise that, once you’ve identified an obvious ‘mum,’ you needn’t look further.

The results can be funny. Last autumn, I went to the first meeting of a local playgroup and chatted to a woman who said her sister was about to undergo fertility treatment with her wife. ‘Oh, that’s our situation,’ I said, nodding. She was bemused and spluttered ‘but … I’m sure I’ve seen a man going in and out of your house?!’

They can also be quite sad, or a bit startling. At a conference this January, I brought my daughter along for the break and a colleague I don’t know well reminisced happily ‘oh, she’s getting so big, I remember when you were pregnant!’ I jumped: very, very few people know when I have or haven’t been pregnant, and she wasn’t one of them. It took a minute for me to recover, join the dots, and explain gently ‘I expect you actually remember my partner’s pregnancy?’

And they can be quite hostile. Like Hannah Gadsby, who describes the experience of being perceived as male and then revealed as a ‘trickster woman,’ I grew to dread a certain kind of interaction, as casual conversations rapidly somersaulted into awkward territory. Sleepless nights? Us too. Breastfeeding with formula top-ups? Yes, we had to, she was tube-fed early on and kept losing weight. Oh, so how did you deal with your cracked nipples? By the time you’ve explained that the lactating body in question wasn’t yours, you feel as if you should have somehow flagged this up before the conversation started, or at least had the decency to indicate your status as a fraudulent, non-biological mother at some point before your interlocutor arrived at the difficult intimacy of describing her nipples.

It was difficult for us to anticipate how much this would impact on our own relationship, and our own identities as mothers. When society expects one mother in a relationship, it’s hard not to feel redundant if there are two of you. Whether you are constantly presumed to be ‘the dad’ or treated as a fraud for not being the biological mum, it’s easy to feel knocked off balance; out of place. I remember a quite impressive number of kindly friends sending me Finn MacKay’s interesting article about her experiences of being a gender nonconforming lesbian non-bio mum, and feeling quite unexpectedly resentful of the ease with which she wrote ‘I am what is called an “other mother,” a same-sex parent to my son who I did not carry’. For her, the term – the cutesy rhyme, the neat and pleasing snappiness of it – seemed to fit, to work. For me (and especially when bewildered friends wondered why I wouldn’t necessarily identify with MacKay’s gendered experience of parenting), it was a bit a slap in the face.

A lot of people will rush to tell you that same-sex parenting is accepted these days; that everyone is ‘past’ being discriminatory. In some ways I think this is on the way to being true (right-wing backlashes notwithstanding). But what being a parent has taught me is that, if we’re becoming more accepting of same-sex sexuality, we’re still struggling with gender. Like Fergusson, I expected to get comments about our sexuality in relation to our parenting; that barely happens. It may be that, if we were two women who performed distinct ‘gender roles’ akin to ‘daddy’ and ‘mummy,’ we’d notice less of a response; it might even be that if we were two women who both wore dresses or both wore jeans, that we’d avert some of the assumptions and knee-jerk reactions. I don’t know.

It’s funny how things stay with you. Reading Fergusson’s article, I was aware of how often it’s the smallest comments – the ones speakers probably imagine to be mere slips of the tongue – that sink into the memory and come back to niggle at you.

When my daughter was a few weeks old, I ran into a former neighbour as I walked down the street on which I’d lived before I moved in with my partner. We went through the usual two-step of congratulations, goodness, I had no idea, how old is she, wow, you look amazing, when did you give birth? At this point, I hadn’t had to answer that question often, and my reply was matter-of-fact. ‘Oh, she’s not biologically mine – my partner gave birth.’ The poor woman froze for a moment, then said brightly ‘well I’m sure it doesn’t matter at alldoes it?’

She meant it nicely. She meant, I am sure, to communicate her tolerant views; to stress that my lack of biological maternity was irrelevant; unimportant. But I wanted to say, yes, actually, it does matter. We need to start recognising and making visible, and accepting, that parental roles outside that of biological motherhood do matter.