There's a modern lesbian fairytale that begins with a woman who
loves another woman and ends with the birth of a baby equally
wanted and wished for by both, no matter which one gave birth. It's
a nice story, and for very many women it even happens that way in
real life. But for others, it's not quite as simple as that.
These days, lesbian parents benefit from greater legal and
social recognition than ever before. It's easy to forget what a
relatively new social phenomenon these families are. But there is
very little in the way of a social narrative - a story widely
understood within the lesbian community and the wider society - to
reflect and explain our feelings and experiences around
The fairytale I mentioned is, in some respects, a revision of
its heterosexual parallel, but while we have an understanding, even
an expectation, of male ambivalence towards impending parenthood -
the panic at the prospect of new responsibility, the bad behaviour
that often ensues, the redemption in the experience of fatherhood -
we have no narrative to explain what's going on or what will happen
when a lesbian wants a baby and her partner… isn't quite so
"There are women who really want children and there are women
who are ambivalent about it," says Paula, who co-parents her
partner Tula's daughter Kizzy. "I'd thought about it and for
various reasons decided that I didn't want to have children of my
own. So then your partner says that she wants kids and you go, 'Oh.
Oh dear'." The situation can, she suggests, bring up issues about
yourself and your own decision. After all, aren't all women meant
to want babies?
"You can feel yourself getting slightly defensive," agrees
Sarah, who had also concluded that she was not mother material
before her partner brought up the issue. "You question yourself
about why you don't want to be a mother. We accept that straight
men might not want children, but the converse narrative for women
is that you do. Not wanting children may be slightly harder for
women to admit to."
There are many reasons why someone might balk at the idea of
parenthood. Women I spoke to cited money issues, feeling too old
for the challenges and already having raised children of their own.
Some just know that parenthood is not for them, and all these are
valid positions. But for many, the objection is simply the fear of
Paula's partner Tula remembers first raising the baby question,
to an enthusiastic response, when they were still in the first
flush of romance. "The resistance came when it became clearer to
her that I was getting more serious about it. When it was a
faraway, fun thing that we might do one day - like driving across
Europe - it was fine, but when it got closer as a reality, she got
very panicky." There followed a long period of discussion.
"I don't think at any point I said I definitely don't want to do
this," says Paula. "I love kids and I love Kizzy, but at the time I
felt it was just fabulous what I had with Tula and I didn't want
that to change. I don't think that's a lesbian thing, it's generic
that people don't want their relationship to change and having
another little person in the equation definitely makes it
Tula could identify with Paula's worries, but she felt driven by
something that overruled her other desires. "Everything logical in
my mind told me I didn't want to do this," she remembers. "I had a
great life, I was having fun, I had a girlfriend I was really into,
we had great friends, we partied, we got to stay in bed all
weekend. But there was a bit of me that just really wanted to do
it. I never believed in a biological urge until I experienced that,
but there was nothing rational and pragmatic about it."
With her biological clock ticking, Tula decided she couldn't
keep waiting for Paula to come around: "I said, 'I'm doing this,
with you or without you. It's your call. You can leave me; I don't
want to leave you. But I'm going to start making a plan."
The pair began vetting potential donors, eventually found a guy
they both really liked and started inseminating. But it was only
after Tula became pregnant that she felt she was really "on board"
with the plan, admits Paula.
Kizzy's arrival was clearly a revelation. "The birth was
fabulous, she shot out of Tula like a rocket and I was the first
person to hold her, which is really important to me. I vividly
remember every minute of that night. It was amazing," Paula
recalls. "My relationship with Kizzy now is so important. The time
we thought she had meningitis, I felt something was getting ripped
from me. I couldn't bear it. You feel that love, but when it's
threatened, it brings home how important it is. My life now is Tula
Another co-parent whose experience parallels Paula's is Ben,
whose partner Anna gave birth to their daughters, Lucy and
"I never saw myself pregnant," Ben explains. "I am a butch and I
never wanted to be a mother in that conventional sense. In fact,
although in the outside world, I'm seen as one of my children's two
mummies, I don't see myself in that role and neither do they.
"We talked about having children very early on in our
relationship, but at that point it was only a dream. When it became
a real possibility, I was very into it. But our first pregnancy
ended in miscarriage, which was devastating for both of us." During
this period of mourning, doubts set in for Ben, though not for her
"We talked about it and she told me how important it was for
her. When you have a deep love for your partner and this person has
always been there for you, you want to honour them. I thought,
actually, I must do this for her."
Since the birth of their children, the satisfactions of
parenthood have outweighed the inevitable pressures. "The biggest
issue for me has been the change of priorities. It's how it takes
over - your headspace, your physical space. Children need a
routine, so your life and your social life all fit in around that,"
she observes. "But I find the family bond amazing - the
unconditional love of these children, who you see growing up. And
because I'm not the birth-parent and have no blood connection to
them, what I do is talk to them. We discuss everything. What is
amazing is how much they accept your influence. It's a powerful
bond. They have my mannerisms. They repeat things that I've told
them, they believe what I say. They are my daughters."
The endings are not always happy. For some couples, one
partner's desire for a child will always be a dealbreaker. In
researching this article, I heard tales of ambivalent partners who
bailed out following the birth, even one who ran off when the
ultrasound showed that the expected baby would be a boy.
While the lesbian partners of women who want babies are not
expected to front up the sperm as straight fathers are, their
involvement is not insignificant. For gay women, getting pregnant
is a deliberate process, and often an expensive one. No "whoops! I
forgot my pill!" trick for us. It's not surprising that the
would-be mothers among us would like their ambivalent partners
firmly on board.
"I think it would be my girlfriend's ideal that we were totally
going into it together and that isn't quite the case," admits
Sarah, whose partner is currently trying to conceive.
"I feel I'm letting her down a bit, but I've tried. I'm quite up
for the job; I'm sure I could do it, but I don't have the
overwhelming drive to do it that she has. I don't know if that will
shift. I thought I had to get to a point where I felt equally sure
and now I've accepted that I'm probably never going to get to that
The lesbian parenthood narrative tells us that we must be
equally sure, but most of us aren't. In reality, it probably
doesn't matter that much, as straight guys have known for years -
and Paula has learnt.
"Don't think about it too much," she counsels. "You can dissect
it until the cows come home - of course it's a big decision. But if
it's not both of you throwing yourselves into it, if you are the
ambivalent one, you've just got to think, 'Fuck it, just do it'.
Because it's brilliant.
"Everything gets managed. Life is different now. You can't be as
indulgent and self-centred when you have kids. Kizzy's happiness is
central. But the times that I can have with Tula are really
special. I probably appreciate her more now than if we hadn't had
Kizzy. And I appreciate her as a mother. Doing what she wanted to
do has made her happy, and that's really important to me."
ILLUSTRATION BY GEMMA RANDALL
This article first appeared in DIVA magazine, November