Rose and I talk a lot about having kids. When, how, child raising values, options for donors, financial pressures, housing challenges, and the unique concerns and possibilities afforded by a pair of women in a relationship. (we are by far luckier than a pair of guys in South Australia trying to start a family – sorting out a donor is a lot easier than finding a surrogate) Financial is a messy, tricky one. I don’t want to raise kids in poverty. On the other hand, our poverty, here in Australia, is comparable to some pretty serious wealth in many other parts of the world. It’s a weird one. We’re working on various options for long term financial survival despite health and disability issues. Rose’s job is a blessing in this respect, and I’m trying to juggle my health, my business plans, study, and home life. Some days it feels like it’s all working out, others I’m buried by it all.
I recently discovered that if Rose and I have a child together, that we cannot have both of us on the birth certificate as parents. I’m crushed. I’d been told that this was possible now in South Australia. Apparently there’s a time factor. Both same-sex parents can only go on the birth certificate if they have been legally recognised as defacto partners for several years. This seems arbitrary and ridiculous to me. One night stands resulting in pregnancy are recognised, while both of us loving and planning and being cautious about living together before we’re ready have to go to such lengths to prove we are parents. I hate it.
One of the challenges I find is that culturally we have this idea of the real Mum. A lot of us don’t fit it. A step mum isn’t a real Mum. A transwoman can’t be a real Mum. An adoptive mother isn’t a real Mum. And the first time someone asked Rose which one of us was going to be the real Mum, I realised that we weren’t going to fit it either. One of us, the one who carries the child, is seem as the real Mum. The other of us will be the other mother, an oddly dispensable role, and one with eerie echoes of the creepy bad character from Coraline. The person who isn’t on the birth certificate, who has no automatic legal recognition, and who is often seen as a kind of watered down, inadequate father, or an unnecessary duplicate. A kind of spare Mum, in case something happens to the real one.
Gender roles can be a real headache. I hate them when I’m in a relationship with a man. I hate them when I’m in a relationship with a woman. I hate being asked ‘which one of us is the man’ as if being male and being the ‘dominant’ partner are synonymous, and as if every partnership must have a man or a man substitute in it to be legitimate. I find it deeply offensive to be told that ‘all relationships, even gay ones, have a male and a female in them’, and Rose and I have encountered this idea more than once! Or to be asked which of us is the ‘butch’ one, or which is the man of the household. (obviously, that’s my cat, Sarsaparilla) One of the funnest things for me about dating a woman is that there are no clear social roles. Who pays at dinner? Do you open doors for each other? Who cooks the BBQ’s? You get to define all these between the two of you to be whatever you like. This is awesome! You can figure out what suits you with a whole lot less social friction around defying traditional gender roles. Unless of course, you’re in networks who need women to be ‘girly’, or need one of you to be clearly defined as the ‘manly one’.
The same gender role issues happen when you start planning a family. I don’t like being seen as a castrated father to a child Rose carries and delivers. I am a real mother. The clearly defined roles of mother and father that have been inherited from a terrifyingly rigid 1950’s model, get instead broken down and parcelled out to each parent, each aunt and uncle and family friend and godparent and grandparent. Everyone brings something different, something unique, to the life of a child they care about. We’ve spent so much time in our culture having arguments about gender and how being a mother and being a father is different, more or less important to a child. Gender is important, if for no other reason than it is an intensely key aspect of how our society thinks about and treats people. But, like relationships, parenting roles work best when they’re fitted to skills, interests, and passions, rather assigned based on gender.
People are often baffled or weirdly thrilled when Rose and I tell them we each hope to carry a child. On the one hand, this fits us neatly into the gender roles of female. On the other, it defies the belief that even queer relationships have strictly separate male and female roles. And here’s the real kicker – to both be legally recognised as parent of our own children, we would have to be living together in a defacto relationships for a number of years – which is assessed by welfare and would radically reduce my pension without considerably reducing our expenses. This doesn’t happen for any other type of relationship. I could live with my sister or any other family member, any friends, anyone else in the world, provided we’re not having sex. We could raise children together, share household responsibilities, in all other ways be a family… we could even be ex’s or one could be full time providing care for the other through sickness or disability. But if we are currently in a sexual relationship, I become immediately forced to be financially dependant on Rose, and both of us struggle to pay the bills. You know what – I realise that we’re so used to this idea it seems ‘normal’ to us, that we have spent a very long time building our notion of family around a sexual relationship between a single couple, but I’m repulsed by this. It makes me feel like my government is prostituting me. Rose and I could support each other as straight single Mums, raising each other’s kids together, we could relate as sisters, we could build our own family on any number of wonderful different ways, but sex is different. Sex means I can’t maintain my financial independence, my own balance of power, my separate self. We’re a halfway secular country still running on ideas of ‘becoming one flesh’. This makes people like me highly vulnerable. I have watched so many people, often but not always women (that’s another post!), become so vulnerable because of our ideas around housing, finances, and sex. It’s time for change. If we want to stop the merry go round of vulnerable people winding back up on the streets or in shelters, we need to make it much, much easier for them to explore new relationships without losing their housing or income! This bizarre privileging/excluding of sexual/romantic relationships apart from all other kinds of relationships is so unnecessary. Families come in many different formats. Love is what binds us together. There are platonic flatmates out there with 1,000 times the compassion and devotion to each other than exists between some mothers and their children, or some husbands and wives. Sex with someone should not collapse you into a single legal entity, financially or in any other way. We are beyond this now, thankfully, here at least. We are not property. We are not resources to be sold or bargained over. Marital rape is a real thing. Domestic violence is a real thing. Queer relationships are no longer illegal or mental illnesses. Fostering, adopting, kinship care, and step families are part of our normal family make-up now, as are extended communities of ‘family’ we may have no blood or marriage ties to. More than one sexual partner in our lifetime, casual sex, poly relationships, and defacto relationships are happening all the time. When our laws around tax, marriage, lineage, and legal standing haven’t caught up with the social changes, people are highly vulnerable, such as trans people having their marriages dissolved whatever their wishes. People get hurt!
So, Rose and I live in separate houses, because it has worked for us. It keeps us both independent financially, it gives us each a sense of secure home that isn’t threatened by hitting a rocky patch in our relationship, (because we have not got our shit together around housing and homelessness in this culture!), it holds onto my public housing unit while we try to decide if we’re financially secure enough to let it go, and stops our cats from killing each other. We’ve made it work for us. We love our little commune of close friends. It’s unusual but not unheard of, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived in adjoining houses, as do/did Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter. We’ve taken the challenges and found a way to make them work for us. We’re now faced with the bizarre scenario that the only way we can both be entered onto the birth certificate of our child (and therefore legally recognised as joint parents) is to trek across state borders towards the end of pregnancy, and make sure that we give birth to any children in Victoria, where the laws are different. The only alternative is to give up on the birth certificate and pay lawyers a lot of money to draft parenting agreements. But that empty box on the birth certificate, it’s haunting.
We’ll figure it out. We’ll be okay. We’ll make it into an adventure, a wild story to tell, I hope. We are so damn fortunate, we have so much protection and so many rights, bought through much struggle and courage by people who have come before us. We have some of the most beautiful friends and family in the world, people who see us as people rather than living embodiments of gender roles. People we love as family, who are excited for us and supporting of us. We are blessed indeed. But this mess around both of us being recognised as mothers makes me very angry. We deserve better.