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.

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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?

*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.