Why is queer parenting still stuck on the nuclear model?


Maeve Marsden

The distinction between 'accidental' single parenthood and choice leaves women between a rock and a hard place.

The distinction between 'accidental' single parenthood and choice leaves women between a rock and a hard place. Photo: Stocksy

 As a 32 year old single lesbian who has always wanted children, I find myself having increasingly awkward conversations about whether or not I might procreate solo, in my case with a known sperm donor. "I'm considering being a single parent," I say. "I have a male friend who is keen to donate." Then I brace for impact.

First, there are the obvious warnings about how much work it'd be having a child alone, as well as well worn tropes about the two parent imperative. Once they've critiqued my potential as a Mother, they pontificate on my choice of donor, questioning his trustworthiness and his ability to cope when little mini-hims burst forth from my womb. What if he wants the kids once they're born? Will we sign a legal agreement? Can you be sure he's healthy? Is he handsome?

Can you imagine how my friends would react if I queried their romantic partnerships in this way? If I asked whether their husbands had the best genes, or if they'd signed a pre-nuptial agreement; if I asked what the plan was when/if they divorced. What a buzzkill, right?

I was raised by lesbian mothers so I am used to my family structure challenging the status quo. 'Gaybies' like me have been a major talking point in the same-sex marriage debate. We've been painted as victims of the gay agenda by the Christian Right, and we've been held up as victims of the Christian Right by the LGBT community. Unfortunately, both sides of the discourse still focus on conventional approaches to making family: biology and genetics, two monogamous parents, and marriage.


What about more complex parenting arrangements? Polyamourous relationships or multiple parents, co-parenting friends or single parents 'by choice'? Why are these viable options routinely left out of the conversation? Our obsession with traditional nuclear families prevails despite a lack of statistical evidence these prerequisites have an impact on the happiness of children.

Scottish academic Dr Emily Falconer has a long-term interest in queer family structures as a woman raised with six parental figures (Her mother Ingrid, her donor and her donor's partner, Ingrid's ex-husband and two long term female partners). Her family and others with complex parental relationships currently have no legal - or cultural - recognition. Once she herself started to consider parenthood, she commenced research into attitudes on non-normative parenting.

She attended the Alternative Parenting Show in London, a big exhibition targeted at those interested in assisted reproductive technologies and adoption "for personal, academic and political reasons". At one session, Contemplating Single Motherhood, various Clinics promoted their catalogues of sperm donors to a room of eager women. Emily asked the counsellor presenting about services for those wanting to conceive with a known donor - a friend. The counsellor said they do not encourage known donors due to the potential legal ramifications.

"Are you interested in having a relationship?" she asked. "If you have a known donor, then you go on to have a relationship, your new partner cannot adopt the child because you can only have two parents at a time."

Emily was understandably frustrated at the counsellor's dismissal of her approach to family. "My fear is that the women in that audience were discouraged from using their friends as donors and that they would still feel like failures if they didn't find Mr Right. There was no room for alternative ways for making a family."

Dr Holly Zwalf has been chronicling her path as a queer 'solo parent by choice' on her blog, The Cabbage Patch Fib. She confirmed Falconer's concerns that both public discourse and the medical profession have yet to adapt to growing numbers of non-traditional families.

"I haven't found a single children's book that accurately represents my child's story of 'where did I come from'. The closest I've come across is a story about a single woman who does IVF but who is heterosexual and talks about not finding the 'right man' to have a baby with. I've used a black pen to adapt this one.

"From my very first appointment at the fertility clinic, I was painfully aware of how marginalised single queers are in the journey to become a parent. Not only do you experience the usual homophobia (the counsellor asking you how you plan to deal with the lack of a male role model in your child's life, or the endless forms tailored towards heterosexual couples), but you also deal with the double stigma of being a solo parent. If you 'accidentally' end up a single parent society pities you, but if you purposely go down that path from the very beginning people seem to think that you're either selfish or stupid."

This distinction - between 'accidental' single parenthood and choosing that path - leaves women between a rock and a hard place. You shouldn't choose to be a single parent, but co-parenting outside a romantic monogamous relationship, say with a known donor, is also deemed a risk to your future happiness.

I find it incredibly frustrating that my 14 year friendship with the man I hope will donate sperm for my children is considered less reliable than your 1 year romance with Mr Right. This imbalance is a symptom of the way we preference romantic love over friendship or independence, despite the fact that half the kids at school have divorced parents.

The LGBT community has been advocating for years that "love makes a family" – if we truly believe this rhetoric, we need to include single and multiple parents as well. I'm here, I'm queer, I'm making babies and I don't need your judgmental opinions on how I get it done.


Maeve Marsden is a freelance writer, director, producer and performer. She tweets from @maevegobash. Support her work at patreon.com/ladysingsitbetter