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The Same, But Different: Becoming A Mum When You're Gay

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Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
Now and again, Sam and Molly read their son Rory a children’s story. It’s one Sam wrote herself. In it, a girl meets another girl, they dance together and they fall hopelessly in love. “But then they wonder,” says Sam, explaining the story down the phone, “Why it is they’re so sad?" The two girls realise that what they really want is a baby, and so they travel to "the most beautiful place in the world" in order to have one. They arrive in Barcelona, meet a handsome (fertility) doctor, and the story ends, says Sam, with the birth of a boy – “the most loved baby boy in the world.”

Sam tells Rory this bedtime story for a few reasons; to help him understand how he was made, so that she doesn’t have to sit him down at the age of 11 and shock him with the news that his dad is a Spanish man his mums don’t know. She also tells him so that the idea of two women having a child together seems perfectly “normal” in his mind, and so that, if anyone ever says anything hurtful about his parents in the future, he’ll feel loved enough and secure enough to deal with it... or so, at least, she hopes.

Since 2002, same-sex couples in the UK have legally held the right to adopt a child, allowing both people in a same-sex relationship to have their names sit on an adoption certificate. It’s only since 2009 however – a measly seven years ago – that parents of the same sex can both be named on a child’s birth certificate. If they go through a licensed UK fertility clinic, they don’t actually have to be married or in a civil partnership to qualify as a child’s legal parents – the birth mother can choose who is to be put on the birth certificate as second parent.

This choice technically gives same-sex couples an equal footing to heterosexual couples when it comes to having children. The reality, however, is that while same-sex couples in the UK might enjoy legal equality today – the right to marry, co-parent and adopt – their lived experience of bringing up kids in a same-sex household will not always feel equal. This can start right from conception, since two women or men cannot biologically have a child together (yet), and manifest in expensive fertility treatment, encounters with homophobic healthcare professionals, and difficulties finding a sperm donor or surrogate.

Whoever that donor was, I bless him every day of my life

Sam and Molly met ten years ago, entering into a civil partnership in 2013 and deciding to have a baby together three months after. At first, they tried to use a sperm donor they knew – a friend – but Molly was struggling to fall pregnant by him. The man also began to want more involvement in the baby’s life than the couple felt they could offer, so they decided it would be a better idea to travel to Spain, to a clinic with a good success rate for women over 40 like Molly. There, they underwent in vitro fertilisation (IVF) with an anonymous donor. Molly gave birth to Rory nine months later – something Sam describes as a miracle; “Whoever that donor was, I bless him every day of my life,” she says.

IVF can be pricey, costing up to £5000 a try, but is often the best bet for women with low fertility – whether that be due to their egg count, their age, or both. Sam said that, for her and Molly, the UK fertility clinic they visited slapped them with a huge bill each time they walked through the door. Meanwhile, Sam says they offered little emotional support for Molly as she was having to inject herself in the stomach with fertility drugs, and have fertilised eggs inserted into her womb repeatedly. All with no guarantee of falling pregnant. The whole thing felt incredibly cold and clinical, says Sam. “You think people will be kind to you and when that doesn’t happen it’s quite a difficult experience.”

Sam and Molly did not investigate the NHS as an option for their baby’s conception; because of their ages, they were “in too much of a hurry to get on with it”. Jane, 29, from Derby, however, is in the process of trying to conceive a baby on the NHS with her partner Kate, 33. The couple already have two sons, T, 9, and J, 5, who were born by Jane’s ex-boyfriend, with Kate now acting as their step mum. They’ve been undergoing fertility testing for a third child at Birmingham Women’s Hospital. Spread out over three appointments with waiting lists, the testing part alone takes around six months, explains Jane. Insemination plus sperm will cost them £1,700 for a first try, plus £200 for sibling sperm, which would mean they could have another baby with the same DNA later on.
They’ve chosen this route, says Jane, because they found that Birmingham is a lot more affordable than other parts of the UK, but Jane still can’t help finding the price tag discriminatory. “If things are really equal then why do gay couples have to pay for artificial insemination at all?” she asks, pointing out that women with fertility problems are able to access up to three rounds of fertility treatment on the NHS if their GP refers them. Meanwhile, according to LGBT charity Stonewall, the NHS generally expects female same-sex couples to have tried to conceive six times using artificial insemination they’ve paid for themselves before they would be considered for NHS-funded treatment.

This, says Jane, “still goes on the logic that being gay is a choice, a choice which you have to pay for.” The cost of insemination on the NHS means that not all gay couples can afford it – some having to opt for the less reliable method of finding a sperm donor and inserting the sperm manually at home, for example. Jane finds the lack of funding options for gay couples objectionable: “Every human being deserves the right to have a child and we are lucky enough to earn the money, but if you don't have it, well, I can imagine people who have had one night stands in order to get pregnant – which is degrading, violating and can ruin gay relationships.”
If all of this sounds daunting, that’s because it is. Prospective parents Jessica and Alice have had to spend a long time researching their options – a process Jessica calls “confusing”. When they went to their GP to ask what these options were, she says, “Our GPs didn't even know what they could offer us on the NHS – they knew they wanted to help but they weren’t sure how.” In the end, the couple found most of the information they needed at the Alternative Parenting Show, an expo for single women, people with fertility issues and LGBT people looking to start a family. “It gave us everything in one place” she says, "it was great, even if we did awkwardly bump into a few people we know.”

Now, Jessica and Alice have decided that using an anonymous donor is the most straightforward option for them, after considering the complications of involving a friend or family member. They’ve signed up to a sperm bank, and are waiting for the right guy to come along. Jessica has a sperm bank app on her phone; you get a notification when someone new donates, along with their basic information like ethnicity, height and eye colour. “The sperm goes fast,” she says, “so if you want it you have to ‘Buy It Now’”. The sperm costs £1000, and then it’s a further £900 for insemination at one of the sperm bank’s sister fertility clinics. “It’s not very romantic, is it?” she jokes.
Even after a child is born, same-sex parents face specific hurdles that straight parents do not. Marie, 33, is a nurse from London. She explains how the focus shifts from an anxiety about the science behind it all to the more social side of things. Marie has been with her partner Anna for five years, they’re in a civil partnership, and gave birth to their adorable son Max four months ago. Marie says the strangest thing about being a gay mum is the feeling of invisibility. “When we are out and about with our son, I feel like the public see us as a mother and her friend helping out, purely because same sex parents are still a rarity.”

Although their interactions with healthcare professionals were mostly positive, Marie also details an “upsetting exchange” with a nurse who came to their home one week after their son was born. “She hadn’t read our notes and asked us 'where's the father?'" recalls Marie. “Her attitude throughout that first meeting, when we were such new and fragile parents, made us feel judged and unsupported.” And then there’s prenatal and postnatal appointments; it wasn’t always her experience says Marie, but sometimes she felt left out; “the healthcare professionals would direct the conversation to Anna as the 'birth-mother' and ask for her opinion about decisions relating to Max's welfare and healthcare. Perhaps this is how men feel during the process too.”
One thing that Marie will have to consider as Max gets older is how she will talk to him about the fact he has two mums, and she is vocal about her concerns that he'll be "bullied or treated differently" because of it. Pink Parents is a UK organisation specialising in supporting LGBT families. “It is highly important for your children to understand what it means to be homosexual and what having same-sex parents means for their lives,” reads the website, before continuing ominously that “they must be clear that homosexuality is not a disease and that there is absolutely nothing for them to be ashamed of.” The website warns of adverse reactions from children, including feelings of anger, confusion and fear.
Jane says talking to her kids about her sexual identity wasn't quite this gruelling; “I was always open with the boys about what being gay means so they were very accepting when I first told them about being with Kate. The youngest has never really known any different.” Tom, her eldest, has said that other children don't always understand why he lives with two girls but he isn't phased by it, he just thinks they’re “a bit silly for not being able to understand.” Jane thinks that part of the reason her kids have reacted so positively is because she is calmer and more in tune with them now. “I am different as a gay parent – better – maybe that’s due to being in a happy, loving relationship.”
While Sam’s experience of becoming a mother in a lesbian relationship has been, by her own admission, a positive one – she says Rory has been met with endless kindness and excitement by the people in her life – she attributes their fortune mostly to the fact that they live in London, a relatively accepting city. She’s also found parts of the process tough; dealing with the thought of a man’s sperm inside her partner was particularly hard, she says. And now that Rory has been safely delivered into the world, the family still experience the odd moment of homophobia – searching looks in the street, parents carefully moving their kids away from Rory in the sandpit. Every time it happens, says Sam, it hurts.
Marie says that, despite the hiccups she’s had at antenatal classes and with the odd healthcare worker, generally, their interactions have been positive. As time passes, they feel less and less “different” to straight couples as same-sex parents, and, obviously, they share the same challenges and joys as any parents would, regardless of the set up. “We are his parents and we will love, nurture and provide for him as a heterosexual couple would,” she explains. “If anything, many female friends who have raised children have commented on how lucky he is to have two mothers, especially in this early stage of his life when he needed lots of what you might call ‘mothering’.”
Regardless of how “different” same-sex couples feel – for better or for worse – one thing seems clear: that the cost of having a baby within a homosexual relationship is incredibly high, both financially and emotionally. For Jessica, as lucky as she feels that the clinics exist, and that both her and Alice can have both their names on a birth certificate, there might always be an element of starting a family that feels bittersweet; “I know Alice will be an amazing mum, but I still feel deeply sad that Alice and I aren’t able to have a child that's half mine and half hers genetically. It’s something I’ve talked to my straight friends about a lot and something they don't really think about until I mention it. They take it for granted."

Names have been changed.
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