Are we as comfortable with same sex parents as we think we are?

Penny Wong and Sophie Allouache with their daughter Alexandra.

Penny Wong and Sophie Allouache with their daughter Alexandra.

Imagine becoming a parent and not receiving any sort of acknowledgement or attention. It sounds unlikely in a day and age when both parents are encouraged to turn up to obstetrics appointments, ultrasounds and birthing classes. But it's a common occurrence for same-sex couples.

When Eilis Hughes' daughter was born, for example, some people didn't even congratulate her partner Kristen or understand that she too had become a parent.

"People know how to talk about mums and dads but they don't know how to talk about the other mum," Hughes says.

While we claim to be fine with homosexual couples with kids, cheering when federal minister Penny Wong hit back at Joe Hockey’s, insinuation that heterosexual parents are superior and tuning into Modern Family, the fixations of heterosexuals often betray our awkwardness or unease.


One such unexamined prejudice manifests in an obsession about who the "real" mother or father is. The issue recently reared its head in commentary on Brenna Harding's Logie acceptance speech in which she thanked her two mums.

Writing in Sydney Morning Herald, Steve Dow commented: "In the hotel room upstairs, her biological mum Vicki proudly watched her daughter's win on television, while Harding's other mother, Jackie, did the same from the family's home in Sydney's inner-western Earlwood."

While Hughes understands people's curiosity, it can be hurtful to continually focus on the child's genetics, since the heavy implication is that the non-biological mother is somehow less involved or a less legitimate parent.

"If the parents were heterosexual and they'd used a sperm donor, the story wouldn't say that the biological mother was upstairs in the hotel room and the non-biological father was at home," Hughes says.

"The mechanics of how my daughter was conceived is the least interesting part of my family, and after I stopped breastfeeding it became irrelevant as to who is the biological mother. I wish people would just stop asking about it."

Mother, poet and same-sex parenting advocate Kelly Pilgrim-Byrne describes the time a man on a tram asked her four-year-old daughter who her mother was.

"Seeing us both sitting next to her, the man asked who her mother was and she replied, 'they're both my mums'. He then laboured the point and told her that she couldn't have two mums — it was impossible and only one of us could be her mum."

Pilgrim-Byrne intervened at this point and told him that her daughter does in fact have two mums and a donor dad and that there are many different types of families.

"His wife ticked him off and apologies were forthcoming," Pilgrim-Byrne said. "It was good for our daughter to see that we were unashamed of our family structure and it was a great opportunity to nicely educate the man on a different reality."

At times, even well-meaning comments and questions can come across in an insensitive way, and while curiosity is natural it may not always be appropriate, particularly in front of children.

Helen Sheehy writes in Natural Parenting, "There is the immediate moment of hyper awareness ... Will my children experience discrimination as a result of their response? A situation which the majority of parents might experience as social chit-chat becomes a place where I may have to protect my child."

Writer, activist and lesbian mother Jacqui Tomlins uses the inevitable questions as an opportunity to break down negative stereotypes.

"As long as people are being sensitive and considerate, I think it's okay to ask questions, because in many ways it helps with education and it's better than silence," Tomlins says.

"I am not the biological mother of my three children, but yet I've spent the last 10 years as their primary carer. Biology and genetics are important to my kids' doctor, but they are totally irrelevant to how much I love them, and how I love them and [how] much they love me."

Other common questions Tomlins fields in playgrounds and at school pick-ups are "What do the kids call you?", "What happens on Mother's Day and Father's Day?", "Do you know your donor?", and "Do you consider the donor to be the kid's dad?"

Another indication we're not as comfortable with same-sex parenting as we'd like to believe is our attitude to the child's sexual orientation. In his coverage of Brenna Harding's speech, for example, Dow wrote, "Harding, who identifies as heterosexual, has gone on to campaign for same-sex rights on behalf of her two mums, including organising the 'Wear it Purple' float in last year's Sydney Mardi Gras."

No other Logie winner or nominee's sexuality was considered newsworthy enough – or any of our business – to be reported.

"I would have thought we'd got past that but clearly not," Tomlins says. "There is no logic to any of this. I had two straight parents and I'm still gay. Just because we are gay doesn't mean we are going to have gay children. They might be, they might not be. It's up to them."

The 2011 Census reported that just over one in 10 same-sex couples had children — including adult children — living with them in their family. This includes children from a previous opposite-sex relationship or from within the same-sex relationship.

Given that these families have bureaucratic and legal status, it's perhaps time that our social mores and manners caught up.

Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of four books: 30-Something and Over It, 30-Something and The Clock is Ticking, OMG! That's Not My Husband, and OMG! That's Not My Child.