LGBTQ motherhood: “What it means to have not been able to become a mum”

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When Rosie came out in the late 80s, parenthood was largely unavailable to gay couples. She explains how she handled her desires for a child, and how she feels about it now.

When I came out to my mum as an 18-year-old in 1988, she was accepting and encouraging. She was unusually progressive for the times. Yet one of the sadder conclusions she drew from my disclosure was, “I won’t get any grandchildren then.” 

That was the blanket assumption back then. Lesbians were not parents. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government had just introduced Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which outlawed the promotion of homosexuality. IVF was only a decade old. And it would be twenty years before the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act would recognise same-sex couples as legal parents of children conceived through the use of donated sperm, eggs or embryos.

I moved to London, started partying at gay clubs and discovered an alternative sense of family that centred on friendships rather than traditional models of marriage and kids. Embedded in a supportive queer community where parenthood felt equally impossible for all, I made peace with the prospect of never ever becoming a mum. Yet as time wore on, as I crept into my 30s, I began to feel more and more conflicted. Whenever I fell in love with a new partner, I would think, ‘What would our children look like?’ I would dream about those children at night and then wake up to a nagging sadness that they did not, and could not, exist. 

Even though attitudes towards gay people were shifting and becoming less hostile throughout the nineties and noughties, I was deeply in love with a deeply closeted partner. Her parents couldn’t even accept the relationship. We were just friends. If we did try to find a way to have a child together, then how would we explain it? And, besides, how could we afford it? We both worked in the arts. If I knew anything about IVF, I knew that it was prohibitively expensive and often unsuccessful. I regularly joked on stage about my not-entirely-insincere search for a sperm donor among the somewhat unpromising ranks of my male comedy colleagues.

It was only really in 2017 when I began hosting a radio show alongside my friend Heather Peace that I felt that gay parenthood was suddenly a reality in my immediate personal world, in my consciousness. Heather was pregnant with twins, having already had one daughter with her wife Ellie. Just like me, she describes coming out as a teenager as having been “tinged with sadness” due to the assumption that it meant “giving up the traditional route of family and kids.” She gets really emotional about the fact that she was eventually able to access that route and largely credits Ellie for making it happen.

At 42 years old, she was considered a geriatric mum. I was four years older. And I’d only just met a new partner. The timing didn’t seem quite right to suddenly start talking babies with her. I was happy for Heather, and happy that the world was changing. But it was bittersweet. It felt like I had only just missed my chance at parenthood by the narrowest of margins. 

As it happens, my new partner became my fiancée and we have found joy in our dog and two cats. They’re our replacement kids. And I’m happy with our life. (It turns out that pets don’t need home-schooling!)

A friend of mine was more fiercely determined than I to find a route to motherhood whatever it took. When Fran was in her late 30s and struggling to meet a woman that she wanted to settle down with, she decided to embark on the IVF journey on her own. She had a number of failed attempts and a miscarriage and describes the process as an “emotional rollercoaster”. When she hit 40, her fertility levels decreased. She pinned all her hopes on one last embryo, her last shot. It was a success and she loves being a mum. However, she says it is difficult to find a place to feel like you really belong when you’re “surrounded by heteronormative families.” 

Same sex motherhood
Same sex motherhood: The experiences of gay women wanting a family have changed since Rosie came out in the 90s

Other friends have also fallen into parenting later in life by becoming involved with women who had previously had children during heterosexual marriages. They describe these connections with their new stepchildren as “amazing” and “incredibly important”.

However LGBTQ people go about becoming parents, it is still uncommon. The most recent number of same-sex couples living in the U.K. as recorded by the Office for National Statistics is 232,000. Yet the most recent figure for the number of same-sex couples raising children is just 12,000. As Heather Peace points out though, “It can’t happen by accident. So every child that comes into one of our relationship setups is madly, madly wanted.”

If I could travel through time back to the moment just after my mum had made the grandchildren comment, I think I would say to my younger self: “Parenthood will be possible if you decide you really want it. But only just in time for you. You’ll have to be a bit of a pioneer and you’ll have to be extremely choosy about who you get romantically involved with. But it’s there as an option. Things will change. I promise.”

It’s likely that Mum would still have never have met her grandchildren, she died when I was 28. So, time might still have played a frustratingly cruel trick. Yet this advice from the future might just have altered how I calibrated my own choices around motherhood.

Rosie Wilby is the host of The Breakup Monologues podcast and author of the forthcoming book of the same name (Bloomsbury, 27 May 2021)

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