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. www.kaseyedwards.com

37 comments

  • "who identifies as heterosexual" - This wording irked me in the original article, almost as if it was saying Breanna could "claim to be heterosexual", yet she wasn't. We are people, first and foremost, and anyone with a new baby is deserving of congratulations, regardless of the circumstances. It is akin to having multiple children; by my thrid, and then particularly by my fourth, so many people said very little, or assumed they were unwanted accidents and only said we needed better contraception, whereas to the new parent, their newborn is special and unique and absolutely amazing, whether it be their fourth child or the child of homosexual couples or single mums. I canot understand people who are not happy for another in a situation so special, although I can understand children asking questions like what both mums are called, this is perhaps generally curiosity and not bias.

    Commenter
    Sam
    Date and time
    May 01, 2013, 9:01AM
    • Yeah, this article seems to assume every curious question is a sign of being "uncomfortable". Can't we be curious? The man on the tram was obviously inappropriate, but kids should be able to get away with questions (they do about everything else) and I think even co workers and friends should. It shows interest, not discrimination.

      Commenter
      Alice
      Date and time
      May 01, 2013, 9:36AM
    • The man on the tram was definitely inappropriate, but Ms Pilgrim-Byrne's response didn't exactly make the situation any less uncomfortable than it needed to be.

      Knowing full well what the man meant (which of your mothers gave birth to you), how difficult would it have really been to simply say "We are both her mothers, but if you meant which of us was the one who gave birth, that was me/my partner".

      Commenter
      Markus
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      May 01, 2013, 11:20AM
    • Agreed, this is a messy article.

      One of the messy elements is using the word parent interchangeably, as society does.

      My view is that the non-biological parent of a newborn or adopted child can be congratulated, but hasn't done much yet to earn praise; that comes over a lifetime.

      Similarly I didn't expect to receive praise when my wife gave birth, happy tidings at most.

      Commenter
      Bejo
      Date and time
      May 01, 2013, 1:07PM
  • ...or, given our social mores and manners, perhaps it's time that our bureaucracy listened to the will of the people.

    Commenter
    Miss Jane
    Date and time
    May 01, 2013, 9:27AM
    • I'm a lesbian parent, and when I meet new two-mum families, I get around to asking them a lot of the questions listed here. Not because I am uncomfortable - because it's interesting. I also also talk to my foster parent friends about how their kids came to be in their lives, and I talk to immigrant friends about their experiences. I like knowing interesting stuff about people.

      It's all about context, though. The article about Brenna Harding that made a completely irrelevant point about which mother gave birth to her really made me cranky. And it's a different thing to ask a two-mum family about the creation of their children during a rainbow babies picnic than it is to address a child in a supermarket queue about who their 'real' mum is. Time and place and relationship all matter.

      Commenter
      red
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 01, 2013, 9:48AM
      • Who'll teach the boy child to go to the toilet properly? Who'll teach him how to throw a ball, or go fishing with dad, or any of the things a man can show his son that their mum's can't?
        Why put a child at a disadvantage from the outset? It's not fair.

        Commenter
        Snidery Mark
        Date and time
        May 01, 2013, 10:21AM
      • @Mark - lol, your mother never showed you how to use the toilet? Are females not capable of playing sports or going fishing? Your argument is air tight, I must say.

        Surely, you must be trolling?

        Commenter
        Luke
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        May 01, 2013, 10:38AM
      • @ Snidery Mark - Based on the state of the toilet after most men have visited, I would say that not many fathers are doing a great job of teaching their sons how to "go to the toilet properly" - unless by "properly" you mean miss the bowl completely and aim for the seat or floor???

        Commenter
        deliria
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        May 01, 2013, 10:54AM
      • Um, Mark? One of my 28 y.o. male friends was brought up his single mum and had no close male relatives. She managed to adequately teach him how to toilet himself. He can even use a urinal, like a big boy. He loves to play footy and cricket, but does not fish.

        Is that ok with you? Or is he at some kind of disadvantage?

        Commenter
        Donna Joy
        Date and time
        May 01, 2013, 11:00AM

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