Flicking through a newspaper left in a cafe yesterday, I came across a predictable opinion piece focusing on Mothers’ Day. What was less predictable about it was that it was aimed at women who aren’t mothers. It wasn’t a child-hating call to solidarity from a childless woman, neither a judgemental or pitying address from one mother to none. It was just acknowledging attitudes towards motherhood and non-motherhood. This made me think about how the word ‘mother’ categorises and stereotypes women in much the same way as the word ‘lesbian’. People derive from it assumptions about your role within relationships, your place in society, and your attitudes and values.
My own thoughts on motherhood can be loosely organised into three strands: 1) being a lesbian mum 2) being the mother of a gay child, and 3) being a lesbian who doesn’t want children, or isn’t sure. I should say at this point that I am speaking from opinion, not any kind of authority, on this!
Some of the general mum stereotypes are that (on the positive side) you must be unselfish, caring and with your priorities right or (on the negative side) that you are constantly frazzled, can only talk baby and are uninterested in a career and unreliable as an employee. In addition to these, lesbian mums also have to contend with the constant coming out at nursery/school, and the equivalent of the idiotic question of ‘which one’s the man?’, being replaced with ‘which one’s the dad?’. They also face a greater level of intrusive, personal questions, which are somehow considered ok to ask a gay person but which you would never ask a straight person; such as ‘how did you get pregnant?’, and ‘how did you decide which one of you would have the baby?’, ‘Is [the other mum] ok with that/are you worried it will affect your relationship?’. When children of lesbian couples (or single parents) are older, there’s all the worry over homophobic bullying, not to mention the moral panic from fundamentalist Christians and right wingers about the ‘sanctity of the family’ and the presumed damage that a lack of father figure will do to a child. All of this ignoring straight single parent families, and despite the fact that a 2010 study following children of lesbian parents from birth to adolescence found that these children score similarly to children of heterosexual parents on measures of development and social behaviour. They even score higher in terms of self esteem and confidence.* This was regardless of whether the children had a single lesbian mum, or two.
Something that really is missing for lesbian families is more opportunity to socialise with others. There are some good Rainbow Families events in London, but (according to a lesbian friend with a child), these are often focused around high income brackets, and I doubt that such good networks exist outside of London and Brighton.
So what about being the parent of a gay child? This is something that we can all have a view on from being the child. As it’s relatively rare for a gay child to have gay parents, a friend of mine once commented that a lot of gay people don’t have ancestry for this part of themselves, which is partly why LGB history is so important. Yet, we do all have our own ancestry and it’s the family that bring us up that largely influence how we feel about our gay identity. We all know people with horror stories of parental rejection or disapproval over their sexuality, but it’s still interesting (and shocking) to me (and my parents) that parental homophobia overrides maternal and paternal instincts and also that it is so widely tolerated in society. For me, there is no condoning parents who forsake their children, but I have a lot of empathy with parents also being on a journey in getting their heads around their child being gay. Surprise, shock and worry are not the same as homophobia. Neither is wanting to examine the nature/nurture part of it. For people in their thirties and over, the parent generation was not brought up with gay assimilation and so it does take a shift for all of the facets of a gay identity to come into consciousness. For many parents, it isn’t that they think badly of having a gay child – they may just never have had to think before about what it means to live as a gay person, and challenging received or unconscious ideas about this takes time. When someone comes out, they have usually had a long time to process their sexual orientation intellectually and emotionally, whereas most parents won’t have, so it’s only to be expected that they may need some time to do this – but that doesn’t mean they don’t accept having a gay child or that they won’t come to embrace and celebrate it. So what I’m saying is that gay children should have some patience and empathy as their parents are also on the coming out journey. And they may also need to be educated about gay language, culture, rights etc, just as we had to educate ourselves – no one is born knowing this stuff just because they’re born gay.
Lastly, what about lesbians who don’t want children, or aren’t sure? This is an interesting one, as I’m not sure that lesbians who choose not to have children are actually judged as negatively by society as straight women who make this decision. If a straight woman doesn’t have a child, she risks being seen as obsessed with her career, selfish, or somehow unnatural if she doesn’t have biological or maternal instincts. Yet lesbians having children can also been seen as unnatural by some groups, so those who don’t have children are somehow seen to be ‘doing the right thing’. Another reason why lesbians might not be judged for not having children is that there is less expectation for them to – given the limits of some people’s imaginations about how this could be possible. Obviously this thinking is fundamentally flawed, and I think I’d rather be seen as selfish than unnatural, as at least the latter is a relative rather than fixed label. And yet, it’s the ‘selfish’ argument that actually bothers me most about being a childless woman, especially as it often comes from women who are mothers. I am neither career obsessed, nor (I hope) completely selfish. I give plenty of my time and emotional energy to my family and friends, and their children. I also like children and certainly have maternal instincts. I just don’t really have the biological instinct to have my own child, at least not now (which is probably just as well in terms of finances and relationship status). So this means adoption might be the best route in future, but this is one that is made harder for straight and gay parents due to the amount of social services hoops that (perhaps rightly when dealing with vulnerable children) have to be jumped through. Not to mention the homophobia that exists within some services, such as religious adoption agencies.
My obvious conclusion in discussing all of these strands is that we need to accept and celebrate diversity in attitudes towards motherhood, just as much as we do with female and lesbian identity. It takes all sorts, and all that!
I should add, at this point, that I am very fortunate to have a mum who is my unconditional champion in all areas, including gay rights, and friends who are amazing mothers, who neither conform nor subscribe to any of the stereotypes mentioned here. And I will celebrate all of them today. #HappyMothersDay
*TIME article on the lesbian parents study http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1994480,00.html