A Different Way by Kerryn Phelps

Marriage equality and medical activist  Dr Kerryn Phelps wrote this beautiful tribute to same-sex partnerships, the joys of raising a family and the real challenges couples experience when they’re not recognised equally in the eyes of the law. We encourage you to read this and vote yes.

I was raised in a ‘traditional’ Australian family on Sydney’s northern beaches, with a mother and a father and a younger brother. My parents grew up during the Great Depression and they believed that education, working hard and saving were the fundamental elements of success.

My parents liked to go boating and fishing, so I knew how to handle a boat and untangle a fishing line from an early age. My mother and father were also DIY types, and through my mother I learnt to sew my own clothes, while I was often at my father’s side learning to paint the house or put up wallpaper or fix broken appliances. My father also taught me how to bodysurf, how to kick a football and how to hit a cricket ball. While both of my parents were interested in sport, my mother was more focused on the academic side of my life than my father, so she was the one who oversaw homework and liaised with my school. Unusually for the time my father and mother both had careers and they shared the household duties. So I grew up not thinking that a ‘father’ had to conform to any particular gender stereotype.

I met Michael when we started high school at age 12. We began dating in Year 10 and we married at 22 in my final year of medical school. We had two children, Jaime and Carl, in quick succession. My second marriage, to Jackie, was a little less conventional and a lot more complicated. Marrying Jackie took two trips to the other side of the world, decades of activism and a global movement for marriage equality. We are legally married in the USA but not yet in Australia. Jackie and I have co-parented my older two children for 20 years, along with their father and his (now) wife, Dani. Jackie and I together adopted our youngest daughter, Gabi. That took another round of activism for the adoption laws in New South Wales to be changed so that we could both adopt her. Previously, federal law barred same-sex couples from legal recognition under the Marriage Act. So only legally married couples and single people could adopt. A same gender couple would have to propose one of the parents to do the adopting as a ‘single’ parent. The situation made no sense, and fortunately our state parliamentarians at the time agreed, and the law was changed by a slim but significant majority. As I said … complicated.

Gabi has since told me that one of the best days of her life was the day she heard she had been adopted and was issued with a new birth certificate listing Jackie and me as her parents.

At the time of writing, our whole extended family is excitedly expecting our first grandchild.

When Jackie and I started on the marriage equality activist path in 1998, same-sex parenting was barely a blip on the radar. Back then, parents of a young person ‘coming out’ might go into meltdown for the lost dream of grandparenthood. Now they are more likely to start a discussion with their gay son or daughter about assisted fertility options, donor sperm or surrogacy, and who is going to take parental leave.

The world has moved on and so has the concept of ‘fatherhood’. When I say moved on, I am understating the situation. Same-sex parented families have been to parenting what Uber has been to the taxi industry: a disrupter forcing a rethinking of ‘the way things are done’. Try as it may, society has never been able to force every family to conform to the mixed-gender parenting model, despite sometimes relentless pressure.

In World War II, many women were left to parent alone. Not by choice, of course. These courageous women were required to face their own battles raising their children in a social environment that did anything but encourage careers for women, even those whose husbands never returned from war. Many women at that time sought support from other widows in a similar situation.

Then came a time in the middle of the last century when TV shows like Leave it to Beaver and My Three Sons and other media imagineerings tried to construct a monochromatic view of parenting and family life for the post-war generation. The notion that there is a stereotypical binary ‘mother’ and ‘father’ role has always been, in my view, an artificial construct. For many, it is a case of the proverbial square peg in a round hole.

Certainly the women’s movement has proven that women want choice in how to live their lives and balance career and parenting. Similarly, many men do not want to be cast in the ‘breadwinner’, ‘mow the lawn’ and other ‘boy jobs’ role and might just want more time to spend with their children growing up.

Unlike the fatherless families of the wartime generation, same-sex couples have disrupted the ‘traditional’ notion of parenting by design rather than by being caught up in the unintended misfortune of history. There are no accidental pregnancies for same-sex parented families. In my experience as a GP facilitating fertility options for my patients, I know the careful thought and planning that goes into the decision to create a family and what a child will mean for the relationship and for each parent’s career. Because there are no societal assumptions about who will take on the initial primary child caring role, it is up to the expectant parents to work out the allocation of parenting responsibilities based on what works best for them. And because there is only one gender of parent, each parent does what he or she is best equipped and inclined to do, rather than feeling compelled to take on a predetermined task set.

You just can’t hear enough of the ‘children need a mother and a father’ mantra, can you? I am sure the religious conservatives think that if they repeat it often enough it might actually be true.

Unfortunately for their argument, studies of same-sex parented families show that the outcomes for the children are AT LEAST as good as for children raised by a mother and a father, by any measure. I don’t even have to stray into the territory of family violence or child sexual abuse statistics to make that point.

The concept that ‘mothers do this and fathers do that’ is as limiting and unrealistic as it is anachronistic. A family with no father or two fathers begins the parenting discussion without any preconceived notions of which parent has which roles in a child’s life. The science is in: the children are alright.

We – and by ‘we’ I mean single-gender parented families – are accused by some religious conservatives of promoting ‘genderless’ parenting, like that’s a bad thing. In truth, there is nothing ‘genderless’ about families like ours. It is simply that both parents happen to have the same gender, but we are not clones of each other. Mothers and fathers are people first. Each person brings to the role of parent their unique attitudes, skills, personalities and perspectives.

Take our family as an example. Jackie and I are determinedly feminist and unapologetically female. Jackie works from home and I largely work out of home because that is what is practical for us. Jackie manages the household because she likes doing it and I don’t. I take our daughter surfing, kayaking, stand-up paddle-boarding, skiing, and swimming and I take her to her hockey and touch football matches because those are my interests. We both discuss politics and current events with her. We both monitor her study and academic progress, but Jackie is more directly involved in day-to-day communication with the school because of her background in teaching. I take on any medical problems for obvious reasons. Jackie is better at nursing our daughter when she is sick and working out the ups and downs of the day-to-day life.

Have we ever had any gender issues or role conflicts within our family? To be honest, we have not. The only time we have had to bring in a ‘sub’ was the annual school Father’s Day breakfast. Gabi’s school sends out a sensitively worded invitation to attend with your father or other significant male. Through high school Gabi has attended every year with her grandfather, Alfred ( Jackie’s dad), or her uncle Phillip. No problem.

Families where there are two fathers or two mothers have given rise to a fascinating new social phenomenon. The conception inquisition. I remember in the early days of IVF when multiple pregnancies suddenly became more common, a parent with a twin pram would be asked by friends and family or even total strangers if they were IVF babies or naturally conceived. Patients of mine would tell me they were taken aback at this questioning and had to work out ways of telling people to mind their own business.

Same-sex parents now find themselves in a similar situation. Jackie and I had this experience all the time with Gabi. Being a family without an obvious sperm provider, we still see people looking at her then looking at us to see which one of us is the ‘bio-mum’. They usually tell us that Gabi looks more like Jackie but acts more like me. All very amusing when they are told she is adopted.

Sometimes they openly ask how she came to be with us and about her ‘bio-dad’. Mostly this is very good-natured curiosity, but it is remarkably common for couples to be faced with an inquisition about how their children were conceived, who the sperm donor or surrogate was, and whether the children see their bio-dad or bio-mum. Highly personal questions. Imagine bowling up to a male-female couple with children and asking them whether their children were biological or adopted, or how they conceived their children. Did they need a sperm donor? Or an egg donor? Or a surrogate?

Families with no father are not a new thing. Families with a stepfather are not a new thing. Families with two mothers or two fathers are still a bit of a novelty and so we still have to develop a framework of social ethics and good manners around these conversations.

Along with social ethics, we still have to develop a language around different parenting models. I remember decades ago the conversations about the prefixes Mr, Miss, Mrs, Ms. It still grates on me when I am making a booking for a patient with a female-sounding name and a receptionist asks me ‘Is that Mrs or Miss?’ The question I am being asked is ‘Is this person in a legally recognised marriage or not?’ The same distinction is not made for males. They are all Mr. Unless they are not, and prefer to be known as Mx.

Then we went through the husband/wife/partner labelling debate. Many still assume that a person who refers to their ‘partner’ is either unmarried or gay. That’s why it was so confusing for the media 20 years ago when Jackie and I started referring to each other as ‘wife’. Yes, we deliberately commandeered the language for political purposes and, yes, it worked. The words we all use can have a powerful, subliminal effect of changing mindsets.

I believe we have reached the stage in our cultural evolution where people who are parenting children can self-label in any way they choose. Call yourself a parent, a mother, a father, a co-parent, a member of a parenting team or whatever works for you and your family. We can liberate ourselves from the old constraints of rigid role definitions for ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’ that still carry the last-century messaging about who performs which roles in a family by liberating the language.

In fact you can look up ‘fatherly’ in a dictionary and really not enhance your understanding of what that even means. It usually delivers words like ‘protective’ and ‘affectionate’, and the unedifying ‘like a father’, which believe me has nothing to do with being male or female.

Each member of a parenting team brings a unique perspective to the task of child raising, whether father and mother, two fathers, two mothers, one parent and a step-parent, or one parent. All of these options plus or minus a tribe of aunts and uncles, grandparents and friends.

What is truly important is providing a home with love and safety for children growing up, and preparing them with the skills they need for independent life as adults.

2017-09-27T17:22:36+00:00 September 7th, 2017|