rainbow parenting

This week I read Van Reyk Baby Love: Gay donor father narratives of intimacy (This links to the whole journal in pdf; scroll down to p44).

Van Reyk suggests five categories of gay father involvement in their offspring:

Step-parenting (co-parenting a child that your partner brought to your relationship); co-fathers (planning and creating a child with a partner); known donors (biological fathers through donor insemination who have little involvement with their offspring); donor dads (biological fathers who have regular contact with their offspring, but limited responsibility and obligations); and co-parenting (biological fathers who are very involved with their children and share responsibility for childraising).

As you can imagine, problems arise when one party assumes they are in one category, and other the party is expecting a different category of involvement. The mothers think they’ve contracted a ‘known donor’, but he thinks he’s a ‘donor dad’. Before the reality of a child, people can also misjudge what category of parenting would suit them. I assumed I’d love a co-parent, imagining someone who’d swan in every second weekend and take the child off for a night. Elisabeth wanted an anonymous donor, but we compromised with a known donor with no parental responsibilities. Now, I can’t even let grandma babysit them! So I’m very glad Elisabeth talked me out of my postmodern idyll.

We saw our donor Harry and his boyfriend Morgan this week. Elisabeth and I have been discussing how we are going to represent Harry to Pearl and Louis. We don’t see him as a ‘dad’, as that has so many social meanings that aren’t appropriate to our situation, but we don’t want the kids calling him ‘sperm donor’ – it seems too clinical (and how much do we want our kids tossing about the word ‘sperm’ in the playground?). ‘Dad’ as a concept is popping up in their story books, and of course they have many friends who have dads, as well as having many friends who don’t. So we’ve settled on ‘donor dad’, although in our minds, Harry’s (and Morgan’s) role is more that of an uncle. Harry chuckled a little uncomfortably when we talked to him about it – I don’t think he’d thought about wearing the label ‘dad’ in any form. From the perspective of Pearl and Louis, I think it’s going to be important to have a person to put in the ‘dad’ category, and then they can decide how to conceptualise that relationship for themselves.

Morgan’s young brother (early teens) has been asking Harry questions about the children. ‘What do you call your relationship with your kids?’ he wanted to know, so we talked about that one as well. I suggested ‘donor kids’, as in, Pearl and Louis are my donor kids. It sounds sort of friendly and not too clinical and there is a strong sense of relationship there.

On Essential Baby (you can only get in if you’re a member) there’s a thread on lesbian parents and donor sperm at the moment. Mostly, people are wondering about how to represent donor half-siblings. Some people are surprised and hurt to discover there are donor siblings, and feel they need to maintain the integrity of their own nuclear family. Others are seeing it as a chance to establish and embrace an extended family. (See Meet Deanna, Sue & Noah for an amazing story of responding to discoveries of donor siblings). Our donor has another child to Agnes, who lives in England. Liam is two years older than Louis and Pearl. Possibly because they live overseas, we haven’t found this at all confusing or threatening – we just tell our kids that Harry has been a donor for two families. We mothers all feel that it’s important for the children to know each other and to work out for themselves what their relationship will be. I conceptualise it as a kind of cousin relationship – we send him Christmas and birthday presents, and we video chat about once a month. It also helps that we really like Agnes and would want to be friends with her anyway.

It’s interesting and challenging to be making our way through linguistically uncharted territory. I think the most important things for our kids is to come up with some describing words so they have a way of storying their experience; and to be truthful right from the start. The more they hear their own story, and similar stories, from the womb, the more easily they’ll represent themselves to others and move confidently through a world that doesn’t often reflect their reality.

I was interviewed last night by a professor of paediatric nursing from Curtin University in WA. They’re doing research into rainbow families’ experience of health care service providers.She asked a bunch of questions about my family and my family of origin, and then about interactions I’ve had with health service providers, both for myself and seeking health services for my children.

I felt a little boring as I haven’t had any negative experiences from health service providers, although obviously it’s important for researchers to hear positive stories as well. Elisabeth and I have only had respectful, delightful interactions with the doctors, nurses, obstetricians, lactation consultants, dermatologists, opthalmologists and paediatricians with whom we have had interactions so far. If anything – and I presume it’s just part of the comforting patter – they tend to go in the other direction and enthuse about how wonderful it must be for our children to have two mothers.

I don’t know if this is the case for everyone, so I’ll be interested to see the results of the study. We are educated, assertive, middle class women. We live in a capital city. We have the resources to shop around if we feel we are not getting good services. And we are quite confident in our sexuality and our parenting – we’re not closeted and we don’t feel we are compromising our children by bringing them into a family with two mothers, so we are not open to being made to feel guilty by other parties.

It’s a snowball (ie word of mouth) sampling method, so if you’re willing to be interviewed, you can contact Rose Chapman: R.Chapman(at)email.curtin.edu.au

Some of Santa's favourite families have two mummies

Yesterday in Brisbane, Santa made time in his busy pre-Christmas schedule to drop in on the (second) annual rainbow families Christmas picnic.

There were about thirty families there; mostly mothers, but some grandmothers, donors and assorted ring-ins.

It’s a delight seeing my children respond to it from year to year – this year they were really engaged with the races, and quite excited about seeing Santa, although they didn’t know who he was or what he did – just that ‘Santa’ was something one was meant to get excited about.

At this time of year, difference from the mainstream is highlighted.  The representations are Mum, Dad and two or maybe three angelic blonde children. Hale and hearty grandparents who are clearly still married to each other look on adoringly- no messy running between divorced grandparents between breakfast and dinner.

Pearl gives Santa a careful once-over

From the marketing, I would assume that stepfamilies, separated families, single parent families, people with disabilities, non-Anglo families and gay families don’t celebrate Christmas.

It seemed important to me to start up a Rainbow Families Christmas Picnic. As my children get older and understand more, Christmas will become more and more heteronormative.   Advertising that convincingly reproduces gender stereotypes. Mr & Mrs Claus. Years and years of soppy Christmas special movies yet to come! We’re all gathering to celebrate the quintessential nuclear family – the Virgin Ideal Mother Mary, the macho, protective, strong silent Joseph, and the perfect baby Jesus, ‘no crying he makes’ (how did they know when to change his nappy?). I want my kids to have a moment where they can stop and say, ‘Look, here are a whole bunch of families like mine, all celebrating Christmas’.


Do you feel a need to queer Christmas? How do you make Christmas an event that includes our children? That celebrates families – all families? At the time  of year when family is exalted to ridiculous, unsustainable heights, how do we deal with our messy networks of relationships? Or are you happy to accept Christmas for the odd hybrid of sanitised religiosity and rabid consumerism  it offers?

Radical Christians suggest that Jesus himself lived in an unconventional family as an adult – living unmarried with Lazarus, Martha & Mary would have been highly scandalous at the time.

Jesus had two dads, and look how he turned out!

Santa takes a break with Mrs Claus

Today’s post is written by J-Le,  who blogs at The Twinkle in My Eye. She lives in Melbourne and has a two year old daughter with her partner.

Last weekend, masses of people around Australia protested about the Federal government’s inaction on marriage equality. This followed a Senate enquiry, initiated by Sarah Hanson-Young of the Greens, into the topic. And here I am writing about it on this rainbow families blog… but is marriage even a rainbow families topic? My instinct is that same-sex marriage isn’t primarily about families – indeed the Marriage Act itself makes no mention of children – but if you’ve been following the debate you’ll know that opponents of same-sex marriage have made it into a debate about families. And as rainbow family advocates, we can’t ignore this, regardless of whether we want to be married ourselves.

At the Senate enquiry hearing, the opponents were all Christian, as were some of the advocates for same-sex marriage, interestingly enough. The opponents mostly insisted their position wasn’t religiously-based (which is just as well because we do pride ourselves on being a secular society). Their position on marriage can be summarised by these direct quotes:

· “Out of all human relationships the union of a man and a woman is fundamental to our continued existence. (Australian Family Association)

· Marriage is not simply a loving, committed relationship between two people but a unique kind of physical and emotional union which is open to the possibility of life. (Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney)

· “It is possible and does happen for two men or two women to have a loving relationship. The question is not whether they love each other; the question is what is best for the children. (Australian Christian Lobby)

Clearly opponents of marriage equality believe that marriage is about families and children, and not about love and commitment between two people. They brush aside the obvious drawbacks of their argument – we allow infertile, post-fertile and couples with no intention of putting their fertility to child-bearing use to marry – with an argument along the lines of “even if they don’t have children, it’s sort of like they can, even if they can’t.” (I kid you not – read the transcript here ). They insist that a child is best raised by a mother and father who are biologically related to them. Single parents are “heroes”, but same-sex parents in committed relationships are wrong, wrong, wrong. They are in denial about the fact that gay people have children – always have, and always will, and these days in increasing numbers – and that the communities and governments of most Australian States have accepted this. They think that by disallowing same-sex marriage that children won’t find themselves being parented by two people of the same sex. They are forcing the marriage debate to be about what’s best for children, and this may be their downfall.

If indeed they are interested in what’s best for children, then it seems inevitable that the Federal government will one day catch up with the State governments who are one-by-one realising that children raised in same-sex relationships do not experience harm and should be given equal protection and recognition in law, just as the State governments are progressively doing in the area of assisted reproduction.

One of the opponents of marriage equality suggested that “law reform supported by the Australian community has given them (ie us) equality with de facto heterosexual couples.” And of course he is right. Our relationships are now recognised by the Commonwealth as being de facto, giving us and our children equal treatment under most Commonwealth laws (with the exception of marriage, adoption and surrogacy). But there is a danger in us settling for this level of almost-equality, because being unable to marry continues to place us on a tier below heterosexual couples. And this translates into family and social differences, which can be subtle but significant. We call each other “partner”, which has become an impotent word, equivalent to girlfriend/boyfriend, with none of the unspoken implications of wife/husband. Our partners can remain invisible to family and society. If one of us dies, we’re not considered to be a widow. And when our daughter asks why we’re not married and we tell her we’re not allowed, I fear we will be faced with one of those pre-schooler whines of “but why?” and we would be obliged to say that the government thinks our relationship is not important enough. And I hardly think it is in the best interests of our child to have her believe that her family is less important in the eyes of our government.

I don’t think marriage is about children. I think it is about commitment and love and I think that any two adults who enter into such a commitment voluntarily should be supported and their love celebrated. We’re not trying – to quote a Catholic bishop at the Senate hearing –  to “steal marriage” (yes, he really said that). We’re trying to embrace it. And I think the more visible our rainbow families are in the debate – showing that you don’t need to be in a heterosexual marriage to perpetuate the species, and showing that kids don’t need two opposite-sex married parents, both biologically related to you, in order to be a good and happy personthe weaker the opposition arguments become.

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?

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.

If you’re in Brisbane, join us for the Rainbow Families Christmas Party. It’s on Sunday 13 December, from 9.30-11.30am. Extended family, donors & friends welcome.

For more details, the flyer is here.

*Preface: I must emphasise that we collected approximately 200 letters in support of same sex parenting. The naysayers were definitely in the minority.

Today I went along to Brisbane’s International Lesbian Day function. PFLAG had kindly paid for us to have a stall to let people know about the same sex parenting & altruistic surrogacy campaign, and we spent the afternoon with a pile of pro forma letters to MPs, asking people to write to their own state Member while they were there.

A few people refused to sign, quite adamantly. “I’m having a terrible custody battle with my ex and I don’t think non-biological parents should have rights,” was the line I counted from at least four women. One woman stood by the stall for a couple of minutes, talking others out of signing. “Don’t sign this, it takes away the rights of mothers,” she told another passerby, who wandered off, confused.

I was flabbergasted at the time, and have been angry since. Lesbians and gay men are at a crossroads. We haven’t had recognition for so long, and in some cases this has worked in our favour. It was very pleasant to be on the single parents’ pension, even though I was in a relationship, for the first eighteen months of my children’s lives. In the lead up to June 30 this year, I heard of two couples who were moving into separate houses so they would not be considered couples and lose their welfare benefits. We are being forced to assess our relationships. In this relationship, are we truly interested in being interdependent? Or are we just living together because it’s easy? Are you Ms Right, or just Ms Right Now?

For lesbian biological parents in the states where our partners aren’t recognised (Qld, SA, Tas), it’s easy to cop out. We can make a decision to co-parent, then walk away.

Let’s assume that the ex-partner was terrible. Say she was violent, or emotionally abusive. You don’t want her having contact with your (joint) kids. I get that. We’ve all had partners we’d rather forget about. But when do we get to decide that they are meaningless in our children’s lives?

I know that the legal system leaves a LOT to be desired. I don’t doubt that the woman standing in front of the stall talking people out of signing feels like she has really been done over by the legal system. But she did choose to have a child with her horrible ex-partner. These are important decisions we are making, not throwaway ones. Straight women have children with f*@%wit men all the time. It’s unfortunate, it really is. And I know we choose these partners due to our own horrible childhoods, bad parental role models, co-dependence and socialised female roles. But the horrible straight men are still their children’s fathers, even when the parents separate.

These are kids we are creating. We need to think about the weight of the decisions we are making. If you choose to create a child with this person – whether they are biologically connected to the child or not – they are going to be in your life, and your child’s, forever. Yes, we will make mistakes. And that is where the legal system, mediation & counselling, with all their faults (and they are significant, so lobby to change those) come in.

And non-biological parents getting recognition is not “taking away the rights of mothers”. They ARE mothers. That is the point.