After a difficult pregnancy and birth, my girlfriend and I were terrified that our baby was seriously ill after he was whisked away to the special care unit on his second day of life. I was so afraid he’d be scared in the nursery all alone, and I needed to explain to the hospital staff that my girlfriend Lesley was his other parent and she should be allowed in to see him as well. I imagined all the things that could go wrong; I imagined having to deal with them on my own while she was kept outside.
So far, we had been treated with kindness and respect, but that was during the birth when all the attention is focussed on the baby. Now, with our heads spinning from exhaustion, we not only had to make the right decisions about our child’s care, but we also had to convince the hospital staff of our right to make those decisions together. If they didn’t accept that we were a family, she might not even be allowed in to see the baby because only close relatives are allowed. Nobody should have to rely on the kindness of strangers at a time like this.
Luckily, the nurses were fantastic. They didn’t even blink when we told them. The best part was that our son made a full recovery and now everything is fine.
This was 13 years ago, in a large teaching hospital in London, England. Would things have been different in a small town? What would have happened if homophobic policies or just plain ignorance had taken over?
At a conference on post-partum depression last winter in San Diego, psychiatry professor Lori Ross realized she was the only researcher looking at how post-partum depression affects queer women. A lesbian herself, Ross wanted to make things easier for queer women in the healthcare system, especially during pregnancy and childbirth — a time when we can feel particularly vulnerable and invisible.
Last year Ross, a researcher in the Women’s Mental Health And Addiction Research section of Toronto’s Centre For Addiction And Mental Health (CAMH), set up a pilot study with three focus groups of women who were trying to conceive or who already had infants. The project has since grown to become Mothering On The Margins (MOMs).
“Participants in the pilot felt they were being pushed to the margins by systems and policies that created barriers for queer mothers,” says Ross.
From the information she gained through these three discussion groups, Ross wanted to construct a questionnaire that would be relevant to queer women who were starting families.
“All the research instruments we have to talk about parenting have been developed for heterosexual couples,” says Ross, who teaches psychiatry at McMaster and U of T. “We feel it’s not safe to assume they will adequately capture the issues that are relevant for queer women.”
For example, the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, used extensively to assess mental health during and just after pregnancy, has never been validated for use with queer women.
This year, Ross is embarking on phase two of the MOMs project, with the help of research partners like Toronto’s LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans] Parenting Network and the Dykes Planning Tykes parenting course. This time around, Ross is following 60 women who are either trying to conceive, currently pregnant or parenting infants.
Ross and her colleagues wanted to recruit more women of colour to participate in this phase of the study. Ross explains that these women aren’t well represented in what little research does exist, and although she’s reluctant to speculate why this is, she wonders if more women of colour are parenting older children, born in heterosexual relationships before they came out, or because of concerns about being stigmatized by coming out. She hopes to have more insight into this as the research progresses.
So far, one of her most significant discoveries has been that queer women tend to find that the time around conception is the most stressful of the pregnancy; heterosexual women usually experience the most stress post-birth.
In addition to the challenge of finding a donor or getting access to insemination at a clinic, and the issue of adoption if the biological mother has a partner who wishes to be an equal parent, lesbian couples who want children can be surprised by the questions that arise over each partner’s parenting role.
“Women are socialized to be mothers so lesbian couples have a very different experience from heterosexual couples where one partner has been socialized to be a father,” says Ross.
The upside of this is that lesbian moms reported more day-to-day involvement from their partners, as compared to some heterosexual mothers who complained that their male partners didn’t help enough.
Another cause of tension for lesbian and bi mothers is coming out over and over within the healthcare system. There is the uncertainty of what the reaction will be to a lesbian-headed family, and dealing with homophobia or ignorance can make an already nerve-wracking time much worse.
“It’s always in the back of your mind, what they’ll say,” says Lisanne Lieberthal, recalling a couple of tense visits to Sick Kids’ Hospital with her infant son Dexter.
Fortunately, unlike some of the other women in Ross’s study, Lieberthal says she and her partner had “a great experience” with the healthcare system. They had two midwives — one lesbian and one straight — and baby Dexter was born at home. At one point, they dealt with a new family doctor who insisted on addressing all her questions to Dexter’s biological mother. They moved on to a different doctor.
Ross notes that even something as basic as what your child will call each of you must be negotiated by lesbian parents. For most of the women in her study, the question is not yet relevant because their children aren’t talking, but some couples decided to let the child come up with their own words, others chose two words that mean “mother,” for example the Spanish “mami” or the Hebrew “imma” for one, and “mummy” or “mama” for the other. “You can define what parenting means for you and your family,” says Ross.
Sarah Blackstock and Juana Berinstein have a four-month old daughter. For now, they’re Mami and Mama. “Eventually she’ll come up with her own names,” says Blackstock.
Although the couple had hoped for a home birth, complications arose and eventually their daughter was born at St Michael’s Hospital. “We were very clear that there were two mothers for this child,” says Blackstock, but that didn’t stop the hospital from identifying one parent as a visitor. The staff wasn’t hostile or puzzled; they were just “reluctant to recognize our family as legitimate.”
Both of these couples intend to go through the adoption process, ensuring that they are equal parents in the legal sense, but at the same time they don’t feel that they should have to go through the extra step. When a married heterosexual woman gives birth to a child conceived through donor insemination, her husband is automatically listed as baby’s father; he doesn’t have to adopt the child. In both Quebec and British Columbia’s birth certificate forms say merely “parent,” enabling both women to be recognized.
“We considered going on a road trip to give birth, just to make that statement,” says Lieberthal. “It doesn’t seem right that within Canada [the policies are] different.”
Blackstock went further and phoned the Registrar General Of Ontario to voice her frustration with the system.
“We have to go through a lengthy and expensive adoption process. It’s a double standard,” says Blackstock. “We’re encouraged to really nurture our children, and we know that having supportive adults in a child’s life will make them happy and healthier. We should have legislation that makes this easier.”
Neither couple will be challenging the law in court — for now anyway. “When you have a newborn, your life is so full you don’t have the energy,” says Blackstock.
As well as officialdom’s difficulties, homophobia and misunderstanding can also be found closer to home. Both these couples say that their extended families have adjusted, but there were questions and reservations at first.
When Lieberthal told her mother that her partner was pregnant, the response was, “But when are you going to have a baby?” Lieberthal responded that both she and her partner would be the child’s parents and now the families are “absolutely wonderful.” For Blackstock and Berinstein, “some people needed reassurance that the child was just as much their relation, even if they didn’t have a biological link.”
It can also be hard to get the extended family to accept that the donor, if he’s known, is a donor and not a parent.
“This child doesn’t have a father,” says Blackstock. “We say to people ‘You have to accept this if you want to be part of our lives.'”
Although she’s studying only women with infants, Ross is looking at the way queer parents divide up the day-to-day work of child-rearing. Lieberthal went on extended parental leave last November, but she still struggles at times to be identified as Dex-ter’s mother.
“I don’t want to be perceived as the babysitter [in public] when he says, ‘Where’s Mama?’ and I say, ‘She’s at work.’ I know I put myself in the third person, [referring to herself as ‘Mummy’] to make it clear to him and to anybody who’s listening.”
Blackstock believes that ultimately all these experiences will make queer families stronger.
“Our daughter is going to have to confront discrimination in her life. Life is full of struggle and if this is the biggest thing she has to confront, she’ll be a really lucky person. I hope she’ll learn how to fight for justice and how to fight [all kinds of] oppression and discrimination.
“Frankly, I pity the person who gets in the way of my partner, our child and me.”