I’ve never been good with small talk and I am completely allergic to other people’s opinions, so it’s no real surprise that I was not totally prepared for motherhood – and certainly not for being a mother to non-identical twin boys. As any parent of twins will tell you, when you walk down the street with a buggy so huge it looks like it could have been used in the last moon landing, people just want to talk to you. ‘Are these your twins?’; ‘I have twins!’; ‘My mum is a twin’; ‘I met a twin once’; ‘My favourite film is Twins!’ How are you supposed to respond? ‘That’s great to hear. OK, BYE NOW’?
When I first ventured into public, I avoided eye contact with anyone – mainly because I couldn’t bear the endless questions and looks of earnest compassion. I’d get into a conversation with someone that was so bland, I would be lulled into a false sense of calm. Then: ‘Gosh, I can’t imagine giving birth to two! Good for you,’ someone would say. And I would sit there, feeling like an imposter at the reminder that I’m not actually related to my children. ‘I’m not their mum,’ I’d say. ‘I mean, I am... I’m just not their biological mum. I’m their non-biological mum. I didn’t give birth to them. My partner did. She’s not here.’ Not awkward at all.
Often, when the babies were tiny, I didn’t have the energy to point out that she was the biological parent. But at other times, I felt obliged to explain my relationship to my children, because I want my family to be visible and I don’t want my boys, who are now almost five years old, to feel any embarrassment or shame about having ‘different’ parents. I know it’s the 21st century and we’re all meant to be forward- thinking, but the fact is, our family is still outside what is considered the norm. The Office for National Statistics estimated in 2018 that 7,000 same-sex cohabiting couples had dependent children, compared to 1.3 million opposite-sex couples.
Consequently, I’m always having to explain my situation as the ‘other mum’. It’s like I have to come out all over again. As a couple, we had come to the decision for my partner to bear our children quite quickly. The conversation had gone a bit like this: ‘Do you want to get pregnant?’ ‘I’m not that bothered to be honest...’ ‘Good, because I think I’d be jealous if you were.’ Easy.
The truth is that motherhood doesn’t begin and end with conception, pregnancy or even birth
We’d chosen to go down the IVF route and use sperm from a bank rather than from someone we knew. I felt completely fine about becoming a parent without the biological connection, but I did have some neurosis about whether my children would like me. I’ll be honest with you: lots of people don’t. I needn’t have worried, though, because as soon as they were born, I realised that these gorgeous _(_prune-faced) little lads needed me more than I could have ever imagined, and I was compelled to rise to the challenge of being their parent.
Both self-employed, my partner and I were able to share the role of primary carer 50/50. We did this because it was important for me to be as involved as I could, but we’re also fortunate as a lesbian couple that there is no societal expectation as to which one of us should stay at home. I’m not saying that because we are two women, the way we share childcare is better... OK, I am.
I think people assumed that because our boys have two mums, they’d basically have two of the same parent; they don’t. Chloe and I have very different strengths. Chloe’s amazing at creating innovative activities, while I, on the other hand, can’t be trusted with a Pritt Stick and glitter, and instead have been the one to immerse myself in the games and world they create. I’m not saying we’re perfect, but we’re pretty good at picking up the slack if we see each other exhausted or frayed.
I have felt a strong bond with my children from the day they were born, and this quickly transformed into ‘I would die for you’ all-consuming love. But I was still embarrassed calling myself a mum without having experienced any of the tough stuff that every biological mother has gone through. Even during innocuous mother and baby group chit-chat, someone would ask me: ‘Are those your boys? I’ve definitely seen them around at other groups.’ ‘That’s possible,’ I’d say. ‘I don’t always go with them.’ ‘Oh! I must have seen them with their dad,’ they’d say. And then, feeling uncomfortable, I’d deliver the punch line: ‘Yeah, you might have seen him. He’s about five foot two, blonde and a woman.
I didn’t share my feelings with my partner because, in truth, they felt self-indulgent. Besides, caring for twins meant I never had the energy to dwell for long. Being a parent is hard and, irrespective of your sexuality, it has an impact on your relationship. I had to quickly reconcile myself to the fact that my partner could no longer prioritise me.
Once, when they were very small, I took our boys to a café. They were both crying and I was coping as best I could: changing their nappies on a chair and wrestling to pour expressed milk into a flask. A woman approached me. ‘Hi, I’m sorry, but my friends and I have been watching you for ages and I just wanted to say...’ she started. Oh God – what? I thought. ‘We think you’re a hero! We can’t imagine how much work twins must be.'
In that moment, I realised she was right: having twins is bloody hard. My insecurity was misplaced, because the fact is that I was being a mum. My neurosis didn’t disappear overnight, but I was able to take stock and remind myself that I was giving my all. I wasn’t just getting up in the night – I was caring for our boys every day. I took them to mother and baby groups, I put them in the buggy and walked around in the cold just so they would sleep. I comforted them if they cried and distracted them if they were bored.
I was being a mum and – guess what – I wasn’t completely terrible at it. The truth is that motherhood doesn’t begin and end with conception, pregnancy or even birth. It begins the day you’re given a brand-new human and told that you’ll be responsible for them until the day you die. Five years in, our journey’s only just begun.
The Other Mother by Jen Brister is out now.