November 2009

This is such a big topic that I’ve divided it into four instalments – preschoolers, primary schoolers, secondary schoolers, and issues for families that have started out as straight families with a parent coming out later on. Part 1 – preschoolers.

I don’t think that in Australia lesbian and gay families have it any worse than other minority groups. Non-Anglo parents need to think about how to shepherd their children through a racist society; parents of kids with disabilities need to figure out how their children can be included in the normal day-to-day activities and friendship circles of childhood.  I do think it is salient that we are the last group about whom it is legal to discriminate. Although people do still discriminate against Indigenous people, people with disabilities, Muslims, Asians, pregnant women, ad infinitum, they have to maintain a polite fiction that there is some other reason the person didn’t get the job/rental house/isn’t included in the social group. Meanwhile, gays and lesbians having relationships are openly being compared to incest in supposedly rational, decision making debate.

My two are very young, so they haven’t experienced any homophobia directly yet. However,  it is now that Elisabeth and I are laying the foundations for how Pearl and Louis see and respond to the world .

There are two parts, I think, to preparing our young children for the world into which we have brought them. One is seeing their rainbow family as a normal part of the rich spectrum of different sorts of families. The other is developing kids’ resilience, so that when the inevitable emotional disasters happen – homophobia-related or not – they are able to bounce back unscathed.

Learning about being part of a rainbow family

Preschool is a magical time, when our children see their own families as perfectly normal and the best of all possible families.  Our task as parents at this stage is to become comfortable with how we talk about our families to the world, and to be aware of how our own extended families position themselves in relation to our family. Grandparents have to learn how to come out too! We also need to practice how we are going to tell our children the story of how their family came to be. The more confident kids are with their own family story, the easier it is for other kids around them to take it for granted, too.

As our children become verbal, interact with other children, read books and watch television, they start to form concepts of the world. Childcare centres need to validate both parents. Grandma needs to be able to say “your mummies” without stammering. It’s easy to avoid gender stereotyped and nuclear family type books at this age – there are so many great books – and relatively easy, if you look on the net, to include in your bookshelf some fun kids’ stuff that include gay and lesbian families. We like Todd Parr’s Family Book and Okay Book, and have ordered this alphabet book for Christmas (disclaimer –  a friend of mine developed it). You can add in your own photos so we’ve included a couple of photos of two mummies. I’ve also been referred to Alyson Books, Buddy GDottie’s Magic Pockets, Learn to Include, Only Women Press, and Two Lives Books,  although I haven’t checked them out yet – hopefully some time I’ll do some reviews for you.

I also think  it’s important for my kids to get to know other families with gay and lesbian parents. They may not be our best friends (although some are!) but maintaining contact with other kids with similar family structure to ours will give them somewhere to go when they are older and want to talk about stuff without hurting our feelings (rainbow families suck!), or just be understood without having to say anything. In Brisbane I’ve been organising a Rainbow Families Christmas party for the past two years – I hope it becomes an annual event – come along if you are in town.

By the time they reach primary school age, our children will know there are lots of different families. Some kids have a mummy and a daddy, some kids have one mummy, some kids have step-parents, and some kids have two mummies or two daddies (or whatever permutation you have settled on). Some families come from different countries, some families include people with disabilities, and on and on it goes. Difference is no big deal.

Developing resilience.

I’m sure you’ve heard that from 0-5 is the most important time, developmentally, in a child’s life. How they learn to approach life now will determine how they respond to positive and negative situations for the rest of their lives.  Preparing our children for possible homophobia, and just other unpleasantnesses that life may throw up, involves promoting resilience in our kids – the ability to bounce back after setback.  Resilient kids are optimistic, have faith in themselves, and are able to identify and feel okay about their emotions. And we, the parents, have a lot to do with whether kids learn the skills they need to be resilient.

There’s a lot of great stuff about this at Half Full: The Science of Raising Happy Kids,a highly readable blog abut childrearing research maintained by a Berkeley University academic. For example, teaching kids how to be grateful will have an impact on their optimism.   They say gratitude is a learned skill, and parents can have a big impact on how much kids take notice of the good stuff in their lives.  There’s a recent post here on strategies to promote gratitude, which are mainly just fun ways of articulating the good things that are happening each day.

Emotion coaching helps kids identify what they’re feeling, and says that all emotions are okay (it’s okay to feel angry/sad/jealous, and we as parents can help kids learn appropriate things to do with their negative emotions). I’m consciously practising this at the moment. Pearl shows her emotions quite strongly, and I’m catching myself trying to jolly her out of a sad moment, saying things like, “Look at the pretty flower! Smell! Here, do you want something to eat! What about a story?”. I’m trying to replace this with acknowledging, “Oh, do you feel sad? Poor Pearl, you feel sad.”

And then there is some interesting stuff about praise. It seems there’s a fine line between not praising kids enough, and praising too much. With too much praise, too generally directed  (Great work! You’re a great girl! That’s wonderful! Wow, you’re so smart!) children can become too dependent on external approval, and don’t learn the skills of working out for themselves whether they like something they have done.  I find this interesting, because I’m an over-praiser. I think my kids are wonderful, and I tell them all the time.  So at the moment, I’m playing with the idea of asking them how they feel about their play (“Look at you! You’re so high! Do you like being high up?”) rather than reflexively praising them (“You’re such a great climber!” ). It’s a slight difference, but one emphasises what they think of what they’re doing, and one is me giving a judgement of what they’re doing.   This blogger tries to work out the difference.

So, in the early years it comes down to: letting our kids know that our families are part of the wonderful range of family types, and helping our kids develop the emotional skills to deal with distress.

If you have toddlers, what are you doing to prepare your kids for life in a non-traditional family? If your kids are older, what did you do, or wish you had done more of?

Kelly, Sam and two year old Charlotte live in Perth, Western Australia. You can read more of their story at their warm and clever blog, The Muriels.

Who’s in your family?

Kelly: Immediate family is Sam, Charlotte, my mum and step dad, three dogs and a cat. Wider family also includes step grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles.

Extended family includes Charlotte’s donor dad, mum and sister and we have some close friends whom I would consider to be part of our extended family as well. Then of course we have our “internet family”.

Sam: Because we decided to be very public about our journey, sometimes it feels like half the population of Perth is our family!!

Where do you live?

Both: In the kennel zone of Southern River, Perth, Western Australia, but we’re trying to sell our house as we speak because one acre is too much to look after.  We’ve been there 16 years or so.

How did you create your family?
Our daughter Charlotte came to us after many years of IVF and infertility.  In the end, she was created with Sam’s egg, our known donor’s sperm and a lot of wishing and hoping.

Sam: We mixed a little bit of cute, with a little bit of funny.  A lot of smiles with some style, and a big fat happy on top!!  Okay, we did IVF!

Do you have a relationship with your donor?
We do have an ongoing relationship with Charlotte’s donor dad, his mum, sister and wider family in Tasmania.  Because they’re in Tasmania and we’re in Western Australia, the face-to-face visits are not as often as we’d like, but we treasure our time with them when we visit.  We are also in regular contact by phone and email.  Creating a child for us was always about providing her with the opportunity to develop a relationship with her donor, so we are very fortunate that our donor is willing to be part of Charlotte’s life and even more blessed that his wider family have also been embracing of us.

Give us three words to describe each member of the family.

    Kelly: really, only three? Sam: insightful, nurturing, smart (and funny).  Charlotte: bright, loving, hilarious.
    Sam: 3 words is virtually impossible!! Kelly: Beautiful, complex, hysterical!!! Charlotte: awesome, (delightfully) exhausting, precious!
What’s Charlotte’s current favourite activity? Reading, dancing and singing, animals
What’s your favourite thing to do together as a family?
    Kelly: Heaps!  The zoo, museum, wildlife parks, playgrounds, dancing, singing, etc, but the best fun we all have is spending time with Nanny and Pop at their property every weekend and just hanging out and relaxing together.
    Sam: It’s a toss up between lying in bed together on a Saturday or Sunday morning just enjoying being near each other, and the three of us dancing to the Wiggles which inevitably ends in all on the floor giggling our heads off!

What are some great kids’ activities where you live? Kindy dance time, swimming, Armadale Reptile Park, Perth Zoo, Perth Museum, King’s Park Ivy Watson Playground

How would you describe your parenting style?

Kelly: I’m a bit of a pushover actually.  She only need look at me with her big brown eyes and I’m done for.  We like to negotiate with her, we don’t like to physically maneuver her to do things we want her to do, we don’t smack and we don’t use time out (not to say we never will, just for now, it’s not what we want to do).  We’re hoping to raise a free-thinking, independent, creative person who knows right from wrong, not because we’ve ingrained it into her, but because she has developed her own sense of justice and has come to her own conclusions about the world in which she lives and how she behaves within it.

Sam: Lazy… I mean laid back!!

How do you feel being a ‘rainbow family’ influences your parenting?

Kelly: I think we’re both more hands-on than we might otherwise be if we were an opposite sex couple.  We are not restrained by the expectations of our genders.

Sam: We’ve seen enough “ugly” in the world to ensure that we’re fair, just and open to all possibilities – unless of course we’re in the middle of a two-year-old’s tantrum, then it’s a case of ‘whatever works’.

How has your relationship with your partner changed after children?

Kelly: I have gained so much respect for Sam as a parent – she truly rocks at this parenting gig and we have learnt and are continuing to learn how to approach parenting as a team, with a united front!  I suspect this will be even more important as Charlotte gets older.

Sam: We had a wonderful relationship before, now it’s wondrous as well!!

Anything about rainbow parenting you didn’t expect?

Kelly: I tend not to differentiate between rainbow parenting and just plain parenting.  I mean, really, at the end of the day, what’s different?  We all change nappies and wipe noses and read bedtime stories and work out how to deal with things for which there are no instructions.  We’re actually all in this together and I fail to see how separating us by some imaginary rainbow divider helps anyone.

Sam: Just how darn accepting people would be, we expected a few more “pregnant pauses”.

How has your extended family responded to the creation of your family?

Kelly: No issues at all with my family.  They have been supportive and brilliant from the beginning and I’m grateful for that every day.

How do you respond when people assume you’re part of a straight family?

We don’t often have people asking us about our family – I suspect because we’re so up front about who we are that there’s nothing left for them to ask. We are always out to everyone – there’s no pride in shame and we don’t want to raise Charlotte to think there is something to hide, because there isn’t as far as we’re concerned.  We always correct people if they assume heterosexuality. Occasionally, I’ll need to say, Charlotte has two mums, but the response has always been positive. I can’t really think of any situation that we wouldn’t – unless it involved an immediate threat to our physical safety.

How do you model pride in rainbow families to Charlotte?

Both: By being open and honest about our family structure.  By never hiding that we are a two-mum family – which is not to say that we shout it from the rooftops at every given opportunity, it just means that we explain who we are to people when we’re asked.

Have you experienced any difficulties as a rainbow family?

Kelly: None.  With hand on heart, we have had nothing but positive experiences as a family with two mums.  That’s not to say that people don’t say things behind our back, but what we don’t know doesn’t hurt us and any such bigotry is not our problem.

Sam: Well, besides the need for medical intervention to actually get pregnant, no, none that stick in my mind.

What advice would you give someone embarking on a rainbow parenting journey?

Kelly: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.  Be completely certain it’s what you want and if you are partnered, be absolutely positive that you have all your “partner” stuff sorted before bringing a child into the world.  It’s the most awesome thing you will ever do, but nobody should do it without an enormous amount of care and thought beforehand.  It will absolutely turn your life upside down, but if you are ready for it, those changes will be for the better and you won’t be able to imagine your life pre-child(ren).

Sam: Given the nature of the journey it’s a very taxing and difficult time.  Keep a sense of humour!!  Be kind to each other and remember why you’re doing it.

What supports (rainbow or straight) do you recommend?

Both: Our family and friends provide us with any support we need.

You can find Kelly, Sam and Charlotte at

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Wednesdays I’m allocating to general parenting issues. Stuff that’s not rainbow-specific, but that I’d like to give some thought to. As I have toddlers, it’s going to be a bit skewed to issues for people with little kids. If there’s something you’d like to discuss,  send me a suggestion or feel free to offer to write a guest post.

Some time ago there was a series on the ABC where the filmmakers followed six different sets of new parents, all using one of three styles of parenting on their brand new babies. The parenting styles they chose were: a very rigid, routine system; a follow-your-intuition approach; and a very connected style of parenting following the Continuum Concept. I booed the  woman who was instructing the new parents to be rigid and distant, rolled my eyes at the wishy-washy ‘intuitive’ style, and thought I could never keep up with the demands of the constant-contact approach.

In many ways, I don’t think parenting style matters. A great blog I consulted often in the early days is Ask Moxie.  She has a sensible, middle of the road approach which advocates not getting carried away by any particular parenting guru. If I have the best interests of my children at heart and I am responsive to them – if something’s not working, change it – then I think I can’t go too far wrong. I’ve been to two different parenting seminars, and both of them warned that if I didn’t follow their approach, my children were more likely to become drug addicts. I don’t think that drug addiction (or the myriad other things that can go wrong) is caused by refusing to allow my children to sleep in my bed, or conversely, by co-sleeping with them until they are five.

I would basically identify myself as an Attachment Parent , although with twins it’s difficult to be purist about anything. However I do have a touchstone of general ideas about childrearing that I like to consider when I am making day-to-day decisions. So,

  • I believe that children are born with an innate desire to grow up and develop and be the best they can be, and to be community minded and social and loving and kind. It’s simply my role to allow this to happen.  My theory is that I don’t need to teach my children to be independent – that they will naturally reach for independence when they are ready. I don’t need to teach them to be kind, or have manners, or be interested in learning  – I just have to create the conditions for them to follow their innate desire to do these things.
  • The children don’t have to fit into our life. We aren’t a couple anymore.  Elisabeth and I elected to have children, they are part of our family unit, and we are creating a different sort of life together. We don’t want to go back to where we were before them. We want to journey together on this wonderful adventure they have triggered.
  • I’ve developed an idiosyncratic evolutionary perspective that I’ll often consider before deciding how to respond. As in, “Probably in the caves they didn’t freak out every time some food fell on the floor, and they survived”. It’s not ironclad – in many traditional cultures one twin was left on a hillside soon after birth, so I certainly don’t think that just because it’s traditional that it’s better – but it helps me keep a sense of perspective. In tribes, they didn’t have gymbaroo or early Italian classes and they managed to survive. There’s such a variety of childrearing practices across cultures that whatever you are doing is probably normal somewhere. A Ugandan  man who goes to the same playgroup as me said, ‘Of course you sleep with  children! Children need to be with mother! Father can go sleep on couch for while’.
  • I like to keep in mind the sort of young people I’d like to raise. Confident, creative, socially aware, emotionally intelligent and in touch with their passions. Is what I’m doing today helping to move them in that direction?

One thing having twins has taught me is that what’s right for one child is not necessarily right for the other.  Pearl and Louis are very different.  One thing my partner Elisabeth has taught me is that what’s intuitively right for me as a parent is not intuitively right for everyone else. She and I parent differently – not unmanageably so, but enough so that we’ve had to negotiate keeping our mouths shut when the other is in charge. So far, the children seem to be doing okay with this.

So, what’s right for you?

When I first had my two children, I was looking for an online place to discuss rainbow parenting.  I found lots of great blogs by other rainbow families talking about their own experiences, and I blogged about my own, but I didn’t find anywhere that people were talking about general rainbow parenting issues.

My two are two years old in a couple of weeks and I think I have a couple of minutes of extra time in my day, so I’m going to try and create that space. I’d like to post three blogs a week: a rainbow parenting specific post on Mondays; an irregular general parenting post on Wednesdays; and a “meet a rainbow family” post on Fridays. While the Queensland same sex parenting campaign is still going, I’ll post a summary of our actions for the week on Saturday evenings.  I’ll trial it for three months to see if other glbtiq parents are keen to discuss some of these ideas.

When I was pregnant, I imagined that it would be really important to have lots of lesbian mums to hang around with during the week. Pre-children, most of my closest friends were other lesbians. Now that Pearl & Louis are here, I spend more time than I would have imagined possible just hanging out with straight people. They are other mothers whom I’ve met through playgroup, or pre-natal yoga, or the Breastfeeding Association, or just befriended at playgrounds. On the weekends we do regularly catch up with other lesbian headed families, but, simply due to compatible routines and geography, most of the women I spend time with through the week are in straight families.

We may move in different circles before the fact, but once we are parenting, rainbow parents have a lot in common with heterosexuals.  The daily grind is the same. The immediate worries are the same – are they teething? What should I do about Pearl biting Louis?  What am I going to cook for dinner? Why doesn’t my teenager talk to me anymore? I like knowing families in our local community, I like that the neighbourhood children are growing up together, and that we can problem solve, and that I can demonstrate that really, same sex families aren’t that different after all.

Except when we are. Rainbow families are deeply radical, despite – or possibly even because of – the day to day similarities. Just by our existence, our insistence that our children deserve to move through the world with the same sense of rightness as everyone else’s children, we challenge people’s perspectives on gay people in our society.

Despite disguising ourselves as ordinary people, our experience of parenting has some elemental differences.

  • A bunch of research indicates general structural differences in rainbow families: that same sex parents have a more egalitarian division of domestic tasks, and that they share childrearing more equally, that they tend to report higher levels of happiness after children, compared to straights, whose happiness goes down (some research here, for more references, go here). The children are less rigidly gender stereotyped, and have a stronger sense of social justice (Kumari-Campbell).
  • Rainbow families do not often see themselves reflected in the media. If they are, it may well be in the form of a sensationalised controversy indicating how destructive same sex families are to children and  society. While mainstream books, TV programs and movies may well represent non-Anglo people, people with disabilities, and even childless gay people, there are very few representations of same sex headed families. Those that do slip through are met with family values sponsored outrage
  • Unlike our child-free gay and lesbian friends, decisions about being out are with us every minute of every day. Every time someone asks, “And what does your husband do?”  I have to make a decision about coming out. For me, it’s not a decision any more. I feel a responsibility to my children to model pride in our family, so I am always out. I don’t want my children to feel they have to hide anything.  From what I’ve read, children of lesbians and gays feel most shame in early secondary school, so I have a few years to work it out (Here is the best reference for this assertion I can find right now, although I have read a full article somewhere).
  • Rainbow families will often have put a great deal of effort into creating a family, and that effort permanently is on display. People regularly ask me how we got pregnant, who got pregnant, whether the other one now wants to get pregnant, or whether we adopted. I appreciate people’s candour, and I’m happy to demystify, but I understand that it can get wearing. For straight families who’ve struggled and used IVF, after a few years no-one will remember or care how they got pregnant.
  • If I’m out and about with my kids and without my partner, we’re invisible to each other. You know what I’m talking about. I used to have a dog. When I was out walking my dog, other dog walkers would smile and nod, and often stop to exchange a few words. When my dog died, suddenly I was invisible as a “dog person” to other dog owners. No one stopped and smiled! When I’m out and about with Elisabeth, other lesbians can see that we’re a couple. When it’s just me and the kids, I’m merely a frowsy hassled housewife taking up too much footpath space.  We’re not a community that can recognise each other at first glance, and this can be isolating.
  • Rainbow families are often negotiating different levels of acceptance within their own families. My own extended family has been great on both sides, but according to some research (Du Chesne & Bradley), the most distressing non-recognition for non-biological mothers comes from their own family – non-bio grandmothers who won’t recognise their daughter as a mother, for example.
  • In Queensland and South Australia, the non-biological parent will not be recognised as a legal parent. Usually people are surprised to learn this. So the non-bio parent cannot (legally – in practice they often do) take the children to medical appointments, stay overnight if they are admitted to hospital, pick them up from school*, take them on aeroplanes*, sign permission forms eg for school outings and other daily stuff.

Of course, our stereotypical “mum, dad & the kids” option is but a small chunk of the myriad ways of manifesting family . Stepfamilies, single parent families, adoptive families, multiracial families and families with a member with a disability will all have their own challenges because of falling outside the norm. How “normal” is that norm, nowadays, anyway? Our particular challenge is that despite mountains of research that says we are doing okay (even better than okay), and our kids are doing okay, our right to existence continues to be challenged.

How do you think rainbow families are different? And how does that affect you?

*Non-bio parents can do these things if they have a signed letter of permission from the bio-parent.

My apologies for my slackness in updating this blog.

The campaign for same sex parenting recognition in Queensland still continues apace, although it does seem to be going on and on forever, doesn’t it? I think it’s a ploy to wear us down.

Some recent news:

  • You’re probably aware of Lawrence Springborg’s proposed amendment to the surrogacy legislation, with surrogacy remaining a criminal offence for same sex couples and single people, and recognition of lesbian parents removed from the bill ‘to be debated separately’.  Louise did a radio interview with Sunshine Coast ABC radio, which you can listen to here. I like her focus on ‘discrimination’, emphasising the human rights angle.
  • I went to the GLBTIQ community event at Parliament House, where I met John Paul Langbroek and Lawrence Springborg in the flesh. They seemed perfectly pleasant. This was the week before Mr Springborg’s announcement, which made me wonder why he had bothered attending.
  • Seeing as we had such an instant rapport at the Parliament House event, I sent both Mr Langbroek and Mr Springborg a (handwritten!) letter talking about my family and how the current legislation affects us. I included some family snaps and the digital story “Where did I come from?” I showed you a while ago.
  • Last week, thanks to QAHC, I did a mailout to all the MPs, sending them the flyer on same sex parenting research
  • And some positive news: apparently lesbians do a better job of raising children! (Who’d have thought?)

Keep visiting your MPs!