At first I thought I’d misheard, but when the health worker at the baby clinic handed me back my daughter after weighing her she unequivocally said again, ‘Go to Daddy.’ ‘Daddy’! I had actually bothered to do my make-up that day, and was wearing hoop earrings (albeit with a Ralph Lauren shirt and chinos), surely she wasn’t seriously mistaking me for a man? ‘Is Daddy going to bring you back next week?’ she asked my four-week-old, Ettie, who she also kept referring to as ‘he’, possibly on account of her blue babygrow.
My wife Jen and I looked at each other with eyebrows raised, Ettie spewed a little bit of milk from the corner of her mouth in protest, but none of us bothered to correct her. Some people see what they expect to see; just like a baby in blue must be a boy, a baby must have a mum and a dad – entertaining any other possibility (even when it’s wearing lip gloss and staring you in the face) is an intellectual leap too far for some.
The thing is, this health worker was ignorant but meant well and, often, as same-sex parents, it’s just easier to let such profound misunderstandings slide. But then there are the situations I’m unwilling to write off. One of those came when I informed the HR department at work my wife was having a baby and I was given the paternity leave policy, which referred throughout to men and fathers. I work for a multi-national communications agency, an organisation that needed to do better.
That no one thought to change the language of this policy before presenting it as relevant to me as a woman made me feel angry and indignant that I was expected to conform to a heterosexual family paradigm. So I promptly made my feelings known to anyone who’d listen, including my CEO, and I couldn’t have asked for a better reaction. We changed every mention of ‘father’ in the policy to ‘parent’ and every mention of ‘men’ to ‘people’.
But amending words is easy; what’s harder will be changing the policies themselves. As non-traditional families become more common, I hope every business will look at their parental leave offerings. (At the moment ‘legally’ the ‘Other Mother’ is entitled to the equivalent of paternity leave or of course co-parental leave. There are no concessions made based on the gender of the parents.) The challenge will be reconciling equality and difference, because there are nuances to surrogacy, egg sharing and other such parenting arrangements that need to be considered. This is an opportunity to discuss workplace diversity as a real lived experience not a buzz word.
So much of the literature around parenting assumes heterosexuality and maybe it’s unrealistic of me to expect anything else. The app I used to track our pregnancy and find out what item of fruit our foetus was as big as each week was a celebration of the most pink/blue kind of heterosexuality imaginable. It was aimed at mothers but included offensively basic advice for dads too, such as ‘your wife may be more tired than usual so offer to cook dinner’. I also learned how to throw a man-friendly baby shower: ‘Go easy on the pink and realise that most men don’t find jelly beans in a baby bottle all that adorable’. What killjoys! The more I learned about ‘men’ from this app, the happier I was not to be having a baby with one.
We arrived at our first NCT class expecting the same levels of banal binary straightness. Imagine our surprise, then, to find another lesbian couple in attendance. At first I thought they were probably just good friends, but it quickly became clear we weren’t the only gays in Blackheath Village. Since having Ettie I’ve realised there’s a great network of same-sex parents in London, and even in my local area. Recently, I met gay dads and their baby in the nappy aisle of a local Sainsbury’s. We swapped numbers and arranged a coffee date and it’s been so interesting to share our journeys to parenthood.
Not being ‘special’ at the NCT class was strange. I had only just perfected my patient but unapologetic tone when describing our experience of finding an anonymous sperm donor at a Danish sperm bank (it’s a bigger database than the UK equivalent) and using Intrauterine insemination at a Harley Street clinic – a simple procedure that joyfully worked first time. I was almost offended that no one asked for any such details. Not once did the NCT tutor talk about ‘fathers or husbands’, she always said ‘parent or partner’ in a way that felt natural (unlike our hypnobirthing instructor, who kept getting in a muddle as she attempted to include Jen and me when talking about a ‘man’s special role’ during labour).
After our final NCT class, two What’sApp groups were set up, one for the mums, the other for ‘partners’. I was given the option to sign up to either but chose ‘partners’, ready for some bantz with the ladz and the other ‘other mother’. Alas, the messages extended to perfunctory birth announcements and a mix of thumbs up and clapping hand emojis in response. So, I joined the mums group instead – they swapped tips, asked questions, offered support. It was much more what I needed while I was on parental leave and was happy they welcomed me into the coven.
We decided that Jen would ‘go first’ based on our work situations. She had just gone freelance as a travel writer and I had just accepted a new job in advertising. The plan is for me to have our next child and I’m really conscious of what a unique perspective this will give me. Yes, I’m a mum already. Actually, I’m Mama and Jen is Mummy, at least until Ettie is old enough to decide for herself what to call us (what if she designates me Dada after all!), but my relationship with my daughter isn’t the same as Jen’s. I feel absolutely that she’s my child, her not sharing my genes has nothing to do with how much I love her, but mine and Jen’s roles are different in the ways a mother’s and father’s roles are.
I’m carrying the car seat, assembling the pram, doing more of the heavy lifting, because Jen is still recovering from labour and often has a baby latched on her breast. Plus, now I’m back at work and she’s on unpaid maternity leave, I’m paying for more and Jen is cooking more. But these things are all circumstantial and not because I’m mirroring some outdated gender stereotype. The real difference is that Jen carried our baby for nine months, she breastfeeds her every hour of the day, there’s a physical, biological connection there that doesn’t belong to me, and that’s OK. I’m lucky that I might experience this in a few years. I wonder, given the chance, how many men would think the same.