Becoming a Lesbian Parent: DCU lecturer Dr. Mel Duffy discusses the ins and outs of lesbian motherhood
Both of us understood only too well what it was like being different in Irish society. But like everything else, one never knows until one has a child what the reality of these things is.
My experience of being a parent
Life throws up many things, no more so than when I accepted that I was a lesbian I also grieved for what I thought I never would have. Namely children. Growing up in rural Ireland, family was the central feature of life. While I was brought up to have my own career, I also was aware that marriage and children were also part of that equation. Coming to terms with myself was also coming to terms with much that would never be for me. The heterosexual world as I understood it over 30 years ago was not for me with all its privileges and trappings. And so I worked on a life for myself and one always hopes that it would be a shared life. I never really believed that life should be lived on one’s own but maybe a series of sharing. However, what I never envisaged was having little ones in my life.
In April 2008, a baby boy arrived in my life. His mum and I had been together for eight years and we had spent much of that time toing and froing about having a child. We worried about what it would be like for her/him to have lesbian parents. Both of us understood only too well what it was like being different in Irish society. But like everything else, one never knows until one has a child what the reality of these things is.
Whatever about me as a parent, our beautiful little boy transformed me as a person. Parenting for me really means moving over and putting someone else centre stage. The bundle of joy became the focus, the little person that initially demanded his every needs be met. These are the things we do without thinking: they wake up at night, you are there; they cry in their cot, you are there. We feed, clean and comfort them. But most of all, in the early days, you drink the beauty of them and wonder how will you ever be good enough.
The reality dawned in 2008 that I was to all intents and purposes a nobody in the eyes of the state to this beautiful little boy. A midwife had a dilemma in handing him over to me, as she questioned who I was. All I said, I was his other mum and he would be fine! Equally his naming, we had two names and knew when we saw him one may fit or another would arise. I would say my presence disrupted or I was a disruption to the ebb and flow of the knowing of the world the midwives inhabited. We knew who we were, but they were unsure. But we survived and so did they.
As he grew he came into contact with the world and I with him. It was this encounter that made me realise that what happens inside your own door pales into insignificance with the reality of the expectations of the world. I had no voice, no say and whatever knowledge I had it meant nothing. The reality was, I could not take him to the doctor or the hospital should the need arise. His mother was designated as a single mother. The Irish state that never misses a trick insisted that I provide for him as I shared my life with his mother, but the state still did not recognise my position. This became my double edge sword; as far as I was concerned he was my son too, but all organs of the state did not recognise this. In fact, they could exclude you from caring for him. It was the othering that got me; for example, to be put down in Temple Street as ‘non-descript’ was painful to say the least. To be looked at, for you knew they looked, I often wondered what they thought? But do I really want to know? Probably not. But, for his sake, all of this had to be treated in silence.
So as he grew we added siblings, a brother and sister, so that he would have someone to share his life with other than us. We learnt that ‘no’ can be a difficult word to use but a very necessary one. Regardless of our sexuality, children are children, and parenting is parenting. You love them, guide them, laugh with them and at times cry for them, but no matter what, you will stand on your head for them and not think twice.
Parenting from my perspective is giving the children a set of values and an ethical code from which they will grow and work from. It is about standing back and moving in. Really, parenting becomes a dance, knowing when to speak up and when not to. One of my bug bearers is the notion that ‘boys will be boys’. I have never believed this, as for me, boys are little people who grow up to be men and it is a parents’ job to shape that man in the making. I do not believe that pushing, shoving, boxing, hitting or any aggressive behaviour is built into boys. No more than I believe that girls are natural carers. In other words, I do not do stereotypes as it denies the child to become whatever it is they will be. Life is full of choices and I see it as my job to help them in their decision-making and to have tasters of what they might like to do. My job is also to accept their friends and come to like them. It is not my job to socially engineer their friendship groups, as it is here that they learn to make judgements about the kind of person they want in their life. I am their ear where I listen to their joys and excitements, as well as their woes, and where necessary help them to realise whatever outcome is good for them. It really does not matter how I would do it, I grew up in a different time and a different Ireland. Their world is different to what mine was, and they will have to learn to negotiate their existence within an ever-changing world. As I see it, I try to develop trust in them, trust in me as a parent and trust in themselves to be able to make decisions that are right for them. It is not the big-ticket issues but rather the small everyday things that become second nature to them so that when the big issues arrive they are not floored by them. In a way it is incremental; if the small things take care of themselves then the bigger things are not as daunting.
On May 13th 2016, I became their guardian. Did it change how I am with them? No, but it did make my interactions with the world easier. I am more relaxed in the knowing that I have a legal safety net and can make statements for them in the comfort of knowing that I can. While guardianship is wonderful it is not the end of mine or their reality. Guardianship lasts until they are 18 years of age and then we are back to being strangers in law. It is amazing how legislators would think that this is good for the child and the person who cares for them. How do you explain to the child the day they are 18 that we no longer have a legal thread to our lives? My eldest who is eight, the other day asked me, why did I not adopt him and his brother and sister. I explained that the law did not allow it. He quizzically looked at me. You see he was very aware of the marriage equality campaign and the outcomes so he does not understand why it takes so long for the law to change. In the end, I gave him the legal document to read when I achieved guardianship. We sat as a family and he read it out loud with both his mum and I assisting when he came to terms that he did not understand. By the end of it he looked at both of us and stated ‘this was not good enough’ as I was his mum too. These for me are the moments of parenting that are the most difficult. How do you explain that the law prohibits a full family structure? After all, marriage is not based on gender, but the definition of legal family structures is based on gender.
Parenting for me then is meeting whatever appears to me from which angle it emerges. No two children are the same, and no two days are the same. There are times I am not bad at the parenting, but there are times I could have been much better. It is a learning curve and as they grow, I grow with them. They have brought a dimension to my life that is unquantifiable and immeasurable from the emotional spectrum of my being.