As the parent who didn’t give birth in a same-sex relationship, author Beth Lewis, 36, from Oxford, was made to feel like she wasn’t a ‘real’ mother to her daughter.
Like all new parents, the first few weeks after our daughter Thea was born in 2019 saw my wife Jannine and I not getting enough sleep, panicking about everything and feeling completely shell-shocked. But it was a visit to the health visitor that really made my world crumble.
We walked into her clinic where she looked at us and asked, ‘So who is the mother?’ We answered that we both were, and then she said, ‘But who is the real mother?’
She meant who had given birth, but words hurt, and after that, she only spoke to my wife. Most of her questions had nothing to do with giving birth or post-natal care, but it was as though I wasn’t even in the room. She didn’t know how to address me and I felt as though I was an imposter who was playing a part in being a parent when I wasn't a ‘real’ parent.
The health visitor looked at my wife and I and asked, ‘So who is the real mother?'
Our parenting journey
I hadn’t anticipated feeling like this. Jannine and I went into parenting quite naively, which I think you have to, especially in our situation. Couples in a heterosexual relationship - with no fertility issues - can make a passive decision to try for kids and just ‘see what happens’. For us, it means clinic appointments and an active process – and, if it works, it happens in nine months.
I've always identified as gay, as the word 'lesbian' carries a lot of political and social weight that I don’t feel represents me. I met Jannine at Oxford University in 2008. We were married in 2012 and after nine years together, we talked about having a child.
As the birth came closer, lots of things made me feel like I didn't belong, like I didn't have a place in this parenting journey
We decided that Jannine would carry the baby because it was an experience she wanted, so we went through IVF at the London Women's Clinic in Harley Street, where they treat many same-sex couples – it was inclusive and positive and I was always very much a part of the conversation.
Jannine and I had honest communication about what parenting together would be like. We discussed how I was worried about people making very base biological comments – like, ‘Oh doesn’t she look like Jannine as a baby?’ or ‘Hasn’t she got your ears, Jannine?’ – that would exclude me and put me in another box. She asked her family to be mindful of that, for which I was very grateful.
I felt as though I was an imposter playing a part when I wasn't a ‘real’ parent
Feeling left out
But, as the birth came closer, there were lots of small things that made me feel like I didn't belong, like I didn't have a place in this parenting journey.
I remember one time when I went shopping for baby clothes and got to talking to the cashier in the store. I told him that I had another week of freedom before the baby was due to arrive, and he looked at me and saw that I was very much not pregnant, followed by a real look of shock and confusion on his face. I get that, I understand how it could be confusing, but it was uncomfortable, and it just completely stopped the conversation.
Then, after she was born, if I took my daughter to the park by myself or we went out for a walk or to the shops, I’d get comments from people who would say things like, ‘Oh, she's got your eyes’, or they’d ask how old she is and then they’d say, ‘You look amazing’ because they thought I’d given birth so recently.
These people were strangers so I’d just say ‘thank you’ and move on, but it made me feel like I was lying, like she wasn’t my child and I’d been found out.
At first, I was terrified every time I took our baby out by myself – if she'd cry, I wouldn’t know how to comfort her because I wasn’t breastfeeding
There were scary moments as well. At first, I was terrified every time I'd take Thea out by myself – if she'd cry, I wouldn’t know how to comfort her because I wasn’t breastfeeding. It was also hard in the middle of the night to hear her cry and not be able to help feed her.
My wife was breastfeeding and I thought, ‘I can’t do anything here’, so I just tried my best to be as supportive as possible. My daughter was a slow feeder, so I’d set up an armchair, a snack, a drink and a laptop with an episode of Gilmore Girls for Jannine.
Swotting up on parenting
When I look back now, the only thing that I couldn't do at that time for Thea was breastfeed. I tried to make myself indispensable in other ways.
I’m a bit of a control freak and a planner, so I took it as my role to find out everything I could in terms of how to be a parent. I read all the books, I watched all the YouTube videos, I did all the research on the best bottles to buy and the different kinds of developmental toys.
This all helped me because it brought me a sense of control, of being able to say, ‘No, this is how you swaddle a baby’ or ‘That's happening because there's air in the bottle’ or ‘This is how we get out wind.’ And through this, I came to realise that mothering wasn't this innate thing that happens, that just because you gave birth doesn’t mean you have this innate knowledge.
If someone had told me this, I’d have realised no one knows what they're doing. I needed some reassurance that being a good parent has nothing to do with DNA.
It felt very lonely. I didn’t talk to any other mothers in the same situation about how I was feeling
When I looked online and tried to research mother-child bonding, it was all about breastfeeding. When we went to an antenatal class, there was nothing there to fit me. There was nothing at all out there for same sex parents, no reassurance or advice. It’s not only postnatal depression, the other parent can also get depressed and it's never recognised.
It felt very lonely actually. I didn’t talk to any other mothers in the same situation about how I was feeling. We don’t have a large LGBT friendship group and we were the first of our friends to have kids, plus we don’t have parents or grandparents living close by, so there was no support network.
A strong relationship
My partner was brilliant, though. This sort of thing can damage a relationship and we had our moments when it was three weeks straight of no sleep, but we were strong.
Jannine made as many accommodations as she possibly could, never making me feel like I wasn't a ‘real’ parent. When we decided what we should be called, she said that I should be ‘Mummy’ because that's the default and it puts me in the centre of things, while she's 'Mama'. Little things like that made a huge difference and her support made everything so much easier for me. It still does.
Becoming equal parents
It took about a year to work through these feelings. The six-month mark helped when my wife stopped breastfeeding and I felt like I became an equal parent where we could share all the responsibilities.
One of the great things about being in a same-sex relationship is you're not beholden to gender roles
One of the great things about being in a same-sex relationship is you're not beholden to gender roles. We’ve always been equal in our responsibilities and that's something that we've carried through parenting.
It's all been put to bed now, but there will be the occasional time where those old thoughts pop up again. Recently I was having a conversation and I said something about ‘after I had my daughter’ and I caught myself and thought, ‘Can I say that, because I didn't give birth, does that count?’ Certain phrases like that sometimes catch me.
But my daughter is now in nursery school, where we've never been made to feel any different from any other families, and, for 95% of the time, those feelings of not being a ‘real’ mother are no longer there. I am my daughter’s mother. No ifs or buts, and no ‘other’.
Her new novel Children of the Sun by Beth Lewis is published by Hodder on 25 May, (RRP £20).
For information and support on same-sex parenting, visit Proud2bparents.co.uk.