Tag Archives: Family

What having two mums taught me about feminism

When I moved primary school aged seven, my family met with the new headmistress for a preliminary interview. She cut a formidable figure, with her stiff black dress and long grey hair pinned tightly back into a bun. Everything about her seemed evocative of the schoolmistresses of past – she was entirely traditional in appearance and presentation. This older woman though, was unfazed by my unusual family circumstances. Instead, we played a game. “Who does the cooking?” she asked, as my brother and I squealed “both!”. “Well then, who washes the car?”

As an adult, I look back on that game and its significance grows. Most children of heterosexual parents would not have been subject to such a playful experiment, because parental roles would have been taken for granted according to the sex and gender of the adults. Our society typically pegs mothers with domestic duties whilst fathers are viewed as breadwinners. And supposed personality traits accompany these roles – women expected to be nurturing and emotional; men viewed as level-headed and practical. No assumptions were made about my family: we were given the freedom to choose.

Of course, some people did try to force my mothers into typical gender roles, assuming that in the absence of a man to do so, one of the pair would play the fatherly role. And it’s only natural that there were some divisions of labour in our family; my mothers had different preferences and these were reflected in the activities they spent the most time on. The important thing was that their gender didn’t automatically ascribe their role within the family – their own inclinations did. And very often, they both partook of the same activities: they both cooked and cleaned, they both mowed the lawn and assembled IKEA furniture, they both took us swimming at the weekend, and they both pursued their own careers.

My brother and I grew up with no belief that our biological sex or gender set us apart in any meaningful way, or that any roles or behaviours were inherently gendered. We saw our mothers cooking (alas, there was in fact a general lack of baking in the house), and we saw them operating drills (well, admittedly, just one of them was handy with the DIY…). Similarly, Reuven and I were brought-up in a fairly gender-neutral way. My mums play-wrestled with myToys brother, but his biggest delight was gymnastics, not football. And whilst I spent great swathes of time playing with my soft toys and dolls, I could just as easily be absorbed in lego and playmobile.

The two of us were encouraged to be open in our ambitions, to be who and what we wanted to be. If I wanted to, I could grow up, marry a woman, and live in a commune. Or I could marry a Prince and live in a sparkling neo-classical palace, Disney-style. I didn’t really want to get married at all, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that I knew that all of those choices were open to me: I was certain that my parents would support me whatever I did, and that any choice I made would be seen as a legitimate one. My biological sex and gender didn’t pre-determine anything about my life: I was encouraged to consider every possibility, and to believe every option equal.

At this point I want to add a quick disclaimer that there are lots of heterosexual families out there who have similarly questioned traditional gender roles; doing so isn’t unique to LGBT+ families. What matters is talking about gender from an early age – having conversations about what sex and gender mean, whilst rejecting the idea that someone’s biological sex should limit them in any way. Feminist principles need to be explicitly discussed, as well as being modelled day to day.

My own feminist understanding definitely matured as I aged. There are so many different societal issues that are core to feminism today. From the sex industry to the food we put in our bodies, education to domestic violence, the portrayal of women in the media to our reproductive rights. The list is endless; indeed I don’t think there are any issues untouched by feminist concerns.

For me, feminism at its most basic will always be connected to my early years though – it is simply about the right of all children to enjoy the childhood I was privileged enough to experience. For girls to be able to wear their hair long or short, without commentary or judgement. For boys to benefit from the men in their lives, but recognise that their mothers can provide for all of their varied needs. For teenage girls to choose to study the sciences in the same numbers that they opt for the arts, and vice-versa for their male peers. For all children to know that they can be exactly who and what they want to be when they grow up (and that they should respect the choices of other people too). That’s obviously quite an over-simplification of feminism, but a good place to start, and a good thing to aim for. Feminism has always seemed natural to me, and I’ve always been proud to identify as a feminist thanks to my childhood. Feminism is about equality between the sexes, and equality between our boys and girls is a great place to start.

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In loving memory of my granny

My Granny

My Granny

It’s five years now since my granny passed away. She was a wonderful woman and I’m sure I’ll continue to miss her throughout my life. I’ve been thinking recently about the important role of grandparents and other relatives in a child’s life. I think the measure of a good family member might just be whether someone is loving, generous and self-confident enough to welcome new members into their family. I couldn’t have asked for a better granny, and this post is in memory of her.

Many people still think about family in the context of blood relations. It’s understandable why that is to some extent: when you have a child or grandchild who is related to you by blood, it’s easy to think about the genes you share and which bind you together.

Non-biological parents in LGBT+ families don’t have a genetic connection with their children, but their role in their children’s lives is still that of a parent. They’ve chosen to create and raise a child, to nurture and parent them. They’ve actively and voluntarily taken on the role and relationship of a loving mother or father.

For grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives, the experience is a different one. My granny wasn’t tied to me by blood, but neither did she deliberately dream me up into existence, as my non-biological mother Deborah did. My granny’s role was neither defined by genetics, nor purposefully crafted. What that meant is that she could have chosen to reject me, to refuse any relationship with me. She wasn’t my biological grandmother, and being a grandmother in any other way would have been her choice, a choice she could have made or resisted. Had she spurned a relationship with me, that would have been the end of the story. Blood didn’t link us, so our relationship was defined entirely by our personal connection, and if she didn’t want one, I would have been left without one.

Luckily, that’s not what happened in my family.

My granny and grandpa accepted me wholeheartedly. Visiting their house in rural Scotland, I was just one more of a big bunch of messy, noisy grandkids. They treated me and my brother Reuven exactly the same: even though their genetic relationship to the two of us was different (as Deborah carried Reuven and Leah carried me), their familial one was not.

Having grandparents, aunts and uncles who accepted me unconditionally as Deborah’s daughter has been extremely comforting. When family is defined as a biological fact, relationships can become fractured, but they can never be entirely called into question. When that biological connection isn’t there, there can be a lot more uncertainty about your position in a family.

When I’ve been up in Scotland visiting family, I’ve never felt different to my brother or cousins. And for that I thank my granny and grandpa. When I was born, at the end of the 1980’s, LGBT+ families were not too common. And yet my granny and grandpa never questioned my right to belong in their family, my position as Deborah’s daughter, or their role as grandparents to me. They took on that role willingly, and built a relationship with me. It wasn’t a role they created, but it’s one they accepted and enacted when they easily could have chosen differently.

Granny and me

Granny and me

I’ve always felt comfortable and confident in my own little family unit, but it’s nice to know there’s a bigger support system around us, and that I fit into Deborah’s family too. Homophobia is never easy to deal with, but it’s much worse when it comes from friends and family and there are certainly children out there who haven’t been as lucky as me, who have been rejected by their wider family because they possess different genes.

So that’s why my granny was an amazing woman – because she had room in her heart for one more grandkid, even if I didn’t physically resemble her. And that’s why when I have kids, some time in the future, I’ll remember to tell them how awesome their progressive, tolerant, loving and loveable great-grandmother was, back in the 1980’s. I feel privileged to have called my granny just that, precisely because she welcomed me and extended that privilege to me.

Coming out as a member of an LGBT+ family

One of the things that people often forget, is that coming out never happens just once. You don’t decide to take the plunge, and bang, that’s that (well some people try to get the whole thing over in one facebook post, but Grandma may not be on facebook, and certainly the new colleagues at work twelve months down the line may need to learn afresh). Instead, coming out is a regular experience, repeated frequently in all sorts of situations and to all sorts of people.

There are lots of reasons why it may not always be necessary to come out in every situation. It really is down to the person and context. You can’t gauge the reaction you’re going to meet with – and when the threat of violence or discrimination exists, it is perfectly within a person’s rights not to reveal their sexuality. Much as I think it’s important to have proud, out LGBT+ role models, not everyone is in a safe position to be out, and it’s understandable that people may not want to risk their income, that chance of promotion, or their safety.

I’m in the position where I sometimes need to out my family’s status. It can be a funny balance. I don’t necessarily want to be shouting it from the rooftops the first time I meet someone (firstly, because it seems a little arrogant – that person may not care less), but equally, it feels weird that I can be close to people and they may not know, because it’s not every day that a relevant conversation starter comes up and so I may not have had a chance to break the news.

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When I was little, the problem was handily solved by the fact that everyone at school knew. My parents would always explain the family set up to any new school, and my class teachers were fully on board. I guess that when I was five I also assumed that there was nothing particularly abnormal about my family, and the questions I in turn faced weren’t so lengthy, so ‘outing’ my family was a relatively quick and painless process that didn’t lead to debates over the Sochi Winter Olympics or gender roles in modern families.

By the time I was at secondary school, deciding who to discuss my family with was more of a complicated choice. The first time one friend came round to my house, I deliberately sought her out to explain my family structure, so that she wouldn’t be surprised on arrival. I remember having to do a presentation in German on ‘Meine Familie’, complete with a photo. I pulled a friend aside to ask what I should do about grammar. She suggested I describe one of my mums as my au pair. Hell no. I was ready to go to battle with my German teacher, should he fault my ‘Ich habe zwei Mütter’ as a simple mistake.

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First day of term

What always felt weird, was not knowing who did know, and who didn’t know, precisely what. At a post-party sleepover, aged sixteen, with a girl in my year group whom I’d never been particularly close to, I was surprised to find out that she didn’t know about my family. She said the only thing she knew about my family was that we scraped the butter rather than dug at it (really? Is that gossip worthy?). Somehow I’d imagined that my situation was prime gossip, and that the news got around (I’m not sure I can be blamed for thinking so considering that when I was younger kids I didn’t know would sometimes shout to me about my family from across the street or in the park).

That my family wasn’t prime gossip, could be put down to a number of reasons. Perhaps my friends didn’t find it that new or exciting – it simply wasn’t worth talking about. Perhaps they didn’t know how to talk about it, or they were a little embarrassed even. Maybe some of them hadn’t fully grasped the concept, it was so alien, and they had assumed that one of the women in my life was an au-pair or aunt.

Certainly there were lots of times when people only saw what they wanted to see. When I was sixteen I was invited along to my own parents’ evening for the first time, and I decided to take both of my mums. We were sitting in front of my History teacher who was discussing my performance that year. She looked up, “Who’s mum?”. Instantaneously, my parents answered “We both are”. She blinked a few times and continued, stuttering a little (this same teacher apparently told my brother she thought I was Native American…so…).

When I went to Germany on my German exchange (and after my exchange partner, Lise, had stayed for a week at my house in England), Lise’s mother picked up a photo of my family and pointed to everyone asking who was who. When I repeated ‘mutti’ twice, she couldn’t accept it. My German wasn’t advanced enough to push back much when she authoritatively declared ‘Tante’. She had insisted on identifying the carrier of both my brother and I; to this day I don’t know what she fully made of the family.

During my twenty-five years, there have been times when I’ve been fierce in describing and, when need be, justifying my family. There have also been times when strangers enquire about my ethnic background (quick hint: don’t do this to the person sitting next to you on the bus – she will think bitter thoughts), a conversation which will end up ‘So is your mother or father Indian?” to which I will mutter ‘father’ through clenched teeth: it’s not always easy or appropriate to explain the particulars of your family to someone you’ll never meet again.

Similarly, when a colleague asks about my weekend plans, I might say that I went to an exhibition with my ‘cousin’ or ‘friend’, as shorthand for describing my half-brother’s brother, Conor. The reason why? If every time I mentioned him I described our exact familial link, that’s what the conversation would become about. Sometimes I’m alright with that, and happy to explain our connection. Sometimes though, I just want to discuss the exhibition, or the cocktail bar, or the birthday party, without necessarily being sidetracked into a more complex conversation with someone I don’t know that well, and in that case, it’s easier to describe my relationship with Conor using a term that does justice to the strength of our relationship and that is understood by my colleague but need not be further questioned. On a little side point, Conor’s term for me, his half-half sister, is one I find adorable!

I often try to use language in a way that will signify my non-traditional family to those who are more aware of the particular significance of my chosen words. An example is my avoidance of the word ‘dad’, substituting for ‘parents’ when necessary. For instance, I frequently find myself in group situations when people will discuss what their parents do, naming jobs, before asking me what my mum and dad do. I’ll answer “Well one of my parents does X, and the other does Y”. This is my attempt at challenging the assumption that I have a father, without having to outrightly announce that I have two mothers. This is in much the same vein that many lesbian and gay people will respond to a question about their husband or wife by responding with the gender-neutral “partner” – it’s a subtle hint for those who will be (positively) receptive, and enables the conversation to continue without fully sidetracking it, while allowing room for someone who is more curious to ask for more information should they so wish. In a way, it’s leaving the ball in the other person’s court.

My family are mine and I could not be more proud of them. That not everyone I ever meet and converse with knows of my lesbian mothers, does not mean I am any less proud (heck, I’ve decided to become an online ad for LGBT+ families). It simply means that some stories require a little time, or a little intimacy, to be fully appreciated, and when I discuss my family with someone, I always want to be able to do their wonderfulness justice.

Five reasons why having lesbian mothers can suck

  1. When you yell “mum!” two people answer back from opposite ends of the house
  2. Menstrual cycles within the household are in-sync, so for 7 days out of every 28, nobody will take you swimming
  3. Mother’s Day cards inspire anxiety: it’s hard to find one without the competitive superlative ‘best’ or ‘no. 1’
  4. When cold callers ask for your mummy, you shock them by asking “which one?”
  5. When friends ask if your parents are divorced, you have to explain they’re merely separated…because they were never allowed to get married in the first place

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On language

So one of the things that slightly grates, is when I’ve just referred to my sperm donor, and in response, the person I’m talking to refers to my ‘dad’. I always correct. For me, the man who donated sperm to enable my conception, and has played no part in my life since, is not so familiar as to be granted such a personal familial term. 

Every family has its own language. Sometimes I’m dubious – as was the case when I babysat two young children of a lesbian couple, who knew one member of the couple as their mummy, and the other by their name (a naming structure which belied the relationship structures in that family). I’m not a big fan of granting parents radically different positions in a family. However, I recognised and accepted that that was the way that particular family had chosen to relate to each other, and so I respectfully repeated their own language whenever appropriate.

Just as my sperm donor is just that to me, and not a father, my brother Reuven is my brother, plain and simple. We may only share half our genetic material, but we’ve been brought up together and our ties are much stronger than those I might share with any other genetic half-siblings. I do have a half-brother, Daragh. Like Reuven, we share the same sperm donor but were birthed by different mothers. Daragh I do call my half-brother – because we have different immediate families. So although Daragh, Reuven and I have the same biological relationship to each other, the terms we use to describe our relationships reflect our familial links, and prioritise these above our genetic ones.

So what do you do when you come across a child or adult who comes from an unusual family structure? Simple – you listen to how they describe the people in their life, and you echo back that language. I had a situation at school once, when I was about five or six. We were studying the life cycle of a frog, and in her narrative, our support teacher referenced the role of mummies and daddies. During the ensuing conversation, little me piped up “I don’t have a daddy; I have a sperm donor”. This was immediately rubbished by the support teacher, who told me that of course I had a daddy – everybody has a daddy. She explained that her little girl didn’t see her daddy, but she still had one, and so did I.

Naturally I went home perplexed and recounted this to my parents. In their typical fashion, they decided to talk to the school – it’s not ok for a teacher to critique a little girl’s sense of self (and if you don’t see what the problem was consider the time a dinner lady told me I was a lovely little Indian girl, then to my response that I was Indian and Jewish, told me it was simply impossible). The school was great and completely backed my parents up. And I went home the next day happy in the knowledge that whilst the teacher’s little girl might have a daddy, I didn’t, and that both situations were perfect for both little girls.

If you’re deciding to start a family and worrying about labels – don’t. Your family will exist exactly as you define it, which is about the language you use, but far more importantly, the behaviours you enact. My brother and I have different relationships with both of our mums, but that’s not down to who carried us in their womb for nine months, but rather the 20 plus odd years of parenting that have followed. Language is important, but connections are far more so. Nothing that society says can change the love a family feels for one another, and a generic dictionary definition certainly can’t capture the complexities of modern relationships. So next time you find yourself discussing somebody’s family with them, don’t argue technical terminology, accept personal vocabulary.