Tag Archives: lesbian mums

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.

Does race matter when choosing a sperm donor?

Another question that could have been included in my recent post on Questions not to ask the mixed race daughter of two Jewish lesbians, but which I thought deserved a bit more space, is why my parents chose an Indian sperm donor? It’s not the question itself which bothers me, but some of the assumptions that can lie behind it: had my parents chosen a white sperm donor, I very much doubt that their decision would be subject to questioning – even though the broad category of ‘white’ can still encompass many differing cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

The act of choosing a sperm donor can be more or less complicated dependent on personal preferences. Primary decisions need to be made around the role and relation of the donor – whether he is someone known, and potentially involved with the child, such as a relative, friend, or friend-of-a-friend, or someone entirely anonymous. Basic non-identifying factors are typically considered, such as height, hair colour, medical background and blood group. And finally, some prospective parents are interested in more than mere appearance and health, considering the donor’s personality and achievements, such as education level, musical talent and sporting prowess; looking at childhood photos; and reading letters from the donor explaining his decision to donate.

For my own parents, the criteria were pretty simple. He had to be:

  •         A man, with functioning sperm
  •         Healthy, and free from any genetic diseases
  •         Willing to donate sperm for a second child in a couple of years’ time
  •         Happy to be contacted should my brother or I wish to later in life

Clearly my parents erred on the side of nurture in the great nature v nurture debate; picking a neuroscientist wouldn’t necessarily ensure that I’d grow up to be bright, and seeing as they’d be stuck with me regardless they might as well just let nature do its random thing and focus their efforts to mould me into a tolerable human being on the parenting side of things.

In actual fact, the sperm donor who finally ended up contributing to my existence, was the second man my parents tried to conceive with. We’ll call the first man Pietro.

Pietro was a man known to my parents, and he was half Indian and half Italian. The plan was for Pietro to play a role in my life. For a good two years, Leah tried to get pregnant with the aid of Pietro’s sperm, but to no avail. They had to pretend to be a heterosexual couple to seek treatment on the NHS (luckily, things have moved on since the 1980’s). Turns out that Pietro’s sperm weren’t quite up to the job, so Leah and Deborah had to find a new donor. Race didn’t really come into it – having two healthy babies was the primary concern.

Leah and Deborah could have used a sperm bank, but at the time these were uncommon and unregulated (until the passing of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990). Men donating to sperm banks were also guaranteed anonymity, and my mums wanted to make sure my brother and I would have the choice to make contact with our donor when we were older. In a sense, their desire to give us choice therefore limited their own.

As a sperm bank was ruled out, my mums placed advert and half a dozen men responded. Of these, a couple weren’t willing to forego their right to anonymity, and others were unsuitable on health grounds. The man they chose was the best respondent by far, fitting all of their criteria. He also happened to be Indian. Race was never a dealbreaker. My mums certainly weren’t going to decline any suitable candidates on racial grounds. Heck, they were lesbian mothers who knew to expect a certain degree of ignorance and intolerance – they weren’t intimidated by adding more layers of diversity to the family.

Furthermore, my parents knew that they wanted my primary identity to be a Jewish one, and Jews of different colours and sub-cultures can be found all over the world, including India. Had my parents used a white donor, who’s to say that I would have been any culturally closer to my biological roots? There’s arguably as big a gap between a tall, athletic, light-haired Dane (Danish donors being particularly common) and my Ashkenazi, Mediterranean-looking birth mother, as between her and a small Indian man. And as my mums wanted to give birth to a child each, they couldn’t choose a sperm donor who looked like the other mother, as some couples choose to do so that their children can resemble both parents.

My parents chose to use the sperm available to them, and not to worry about the race of its donor. Like any good parents of biracial children, they believed that race wasn’t all-important, but acknowledged that it was meaningful. When they’d planned a child with Pietro, he had been expected to play a part in educating us about our heritage. Although this wouldn’t be possible with the eventual donor, who wouldn’t be involved in our lives, my parents had still spent two years thinking about the relevant implications of having mixed race children, so when the best potential donor turned out to be of Indian origin, my parents couldn’t see a reason not to use him.

When you have a child, there is a lot you can’t control, and some things that you won’t share with your child but which you have to learn to deal with quickly. Your child might have a physical disability or medical condition. They might be transgendered, have learning difficulties, or be a genius. Good parents will adjust to their child’s circumstances – raising them in recognition of their personal needs, even when they don’t share the exact same position.

Similarly, my parents knew my race would make me different and they parented me accordingly. As I grew up, they had age-appropriate conversations with me about racial identity. They filled the house with books and films which featured people with different skin tones and bodies, belonging to different races and cultures. They replaced words in fairy tales – turning Goldilocks into Shoshilocks. They bought me brown dolls (which was surprisingly hard to do at the time – I remember Leah being thrilled on finding one in a charity shop). The only Barbie I owned was a Pocahontas (though I’m sure that’s also in part due to their feminist sensibilities). They based themselves in a diverse city and made sure I mixed with other non-white children. They encouraged me to embrace my Indian heritage, but allowed me to self-define as I wished.

So I guess the point of this post had been to say that whilst my donor’s race was not at all important, mine and my brother’s is, and has been treated as such by our parents, but not to the exclusion of other aspects of our identity – race is just one feature of who we are. Racial identity is far more complex than somebody’s external appearance, and my brother and I differ in the ways we identify and perceive ourselves – to be half Indian was never a guarantee that we’d turn out a certain way. My parents did an excellent job of bringing us up to be proud of who we are and aware of what it means to be mixed-race and brown. I’m pretty sure though, that had my parents used a white sperm donor, the child I would have been would be fairly similar to who I am today. Certainly my life has been shaped by being half-Indian, and I have a high awareness of issues around race, but it’s only been one of many influences in my life. Mostly, I’m just glad that I’m happy and healthy – which was always my parents’ number one priority.

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Five further reasons why having lesbian mothers can suck

  1. When you attend lesbian nights out as a  twenty-four-year-old, you invariably end up bumping into your mums’ friends, who babysat you as a youngster
  2. Dates turn into coaching sessions when the guy sitting opposite, apropos of nothing, says “So I totally agree that gay people should be able to get married but I really worry about the impact on the children”
  3. Applying for the very lowest level of national security clearance takes you almost a year longer than most of your colleagues and you assume that’s because the form forces you to document four separate ‘mothers’ and write explanatory notes in the margins – the Government’s relationship options don’t quite cover the bases
  4. Your biggest struggle at university is learning to cope with toilet seats being left up
  5. You’re the most unfashionable kid at school, because your mums don’t teach you how to apply make up and don’t own any high heels you can borrow for the school disco – instead you turn up to hikes massively over prepared