The Kids Are All Right ... Annette Bening and Julianne Moore star as lesbian parents
Are two mums better than one? The findings of a recent study would appear to suggest so. We examine the experiences of three female couples to see how they and their children have fared.
Do lesbian couples make the best parents? Taking the household in the 2010 movie The Kids Are All Right as a benchmark, you might suspect so. Stressed but responsible Nic (Annette Bening) and creative, easygoing Jules (Julianne Moore) have two teenage children - both of whom are smart, successful and decent at an age when most people barely qualify as human. Which is not that surprising, given how loving and involved Nic and Jules are as parents.
It wouldn't be much of a film without conflict, of course, and certainly not the kind to earn Annette Bening a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Jules's infidelity threatens to tear the family apart (as well as irritating some viewers, who wonder why a gay woman would have an affair with the distinctly hirsute and manly Mark Ruffalo). But even so, Nic and Jules - the first lesbian parents to anchor a mainstream movie, in a project Bening has described as "a labour of love" - are indisputably great at running a family.
But then two mothers are generally better than one, according to a study published in the US journal Pediatrics last year. It found that children raised by lesbian couples generally have greater academic success, higher self-esteem and fewer behavioural problems than those who grow up with heterosexual parents. A controversial conclusion, but not a hasty one: the couples who took part were recruited between 1986 and 1992, and research on their 78 collective children (now in their late teens) is ongoing.
Even the authors of the study admit that their subjects are not an average bunch. Each child is the product of careful planning and a considered desire for motherhood. But is there more to the report's findings? Do children benefit from learning about diversity and tolerance at an early age? Is an all-female parenting team particularly good for children? Here, three families discuss their own experiences. You can draw your own conclusions.
Veronique Maury + Mary Cunningham
Veronique and Mary have been together for 13 years. They have two daughters - Gaby, who is four, and three-month-old Harriet.
Veronique: I didn't actively think I wouldn't have children. But I didn't always think I would, either. Mary was the impetus for wanting to have children.
Mary: I suddenly thought, let's just do it. I decided that I'd ask Veronique's brother, Seb, to be a donor. We did think about anonymous donors. It's kind of an ethical, moral maze. It's quite difficult to go through all that.
Veronique: I think if there hadn't been any options, if we hadn't known anybody, we would still have gone ahead with an anonymous donor. But we preferred not to. We got to a point, having thought it all through, that we wanted to have somebody we knew. It seemed like a good solution and Mary popped the question on Seb quite suddenly, while he was at work. So he gave it some thought but pretty quickly he said yes, he'd be delighted. His involvement is whatever he wants, really. We didn't come to any formal agreement or anything.
Mary: We're all lawyers, so we didn't put anything in writing [laughs].
Veronique: We just said, look, we'll have all the responsibility, financial and otherwise, but we'd like you to be as involved as you want to be. We're already a very close family, so it didn't seem like there needed to be any formalities. Mary gave birth to Gaby and I gave birth to Harriet. So Seb's not the donor for Harriet. After a bit of thought, we decided to ask Seb's partner, Em - Seb's gay - and Em said yes, he'd be very happy to. Again, we didn't have anything in writing, but we had a discussion with Em that it would be a very similar situation [to Seb's]. And that was easier, because he had seen in action how things work.
Mary: Gaby knows it's slightly unusual to have two mummies. But that's her world. And then she's got a daddy, too. I've seen other kids go, "Eh?"
Veronique: It's more confusion than anything else at that age. I certainly hope by the time they're teenagers it will just be a non-issue. Also, kids will find anything to tease each other about.
Mary: I think if we moved out to the provinces, people might be a bit more confronted, but not here [the couple live in Sydney's inner west].
Veronique: If you have kids it does mean you're coming out a lot more, generally. You're filling in forms for childcare, meeting neighbours ... you're a lot more visible.
Mary: What I find quite shocking is sometimes politicians will say absolutely horrible stuff about gay families. And it's just ... how dare you? We're, you know, just doing our own thing.
Veronique: Sometimes we get lots of books out from the library. And we might just change the words - Mary might change the words from Mummy and Daddy to Mummy and Mum. And the next time I read it, I'll go Mummy and Daddy, and Gaby will say, "No. It's Mummy and Mum." Or the other way round - you go and try and change it and she'll go, "No. It's Mummy and Daddy."
Mary: There's no extra pressure [as lesbian parents], just the usual pressure of trying to do it all, all of the time. I think most parents feel that.
Veronique: I think I saw a report recently about part-timers - we both work four days a week. And it said something like, "A very low proportion of couples with kids both work part-time." I don't know what the statistics are, but I wouldn't be surprised if more lesbian couples made those sacrifices. It's well documented that the part-time workforce is largely women. Maybe there's less stigma for women to ask for part-time work. It really does make a difference to our family. I'm on maternity leave just now. But each of us has a day with Gaby outside of family time.
Mary: If you didn't think about it, you'd just keep having more children. But if you did think it through, you wouldn't.
Veronique: But we do have to think about it. It's not going to happen by accident! - Alyssa McDonald
Lara Farnham + Ruth Overton
Lara and Ruth have been together for 10 years. They have seven-year-old twins, Bell and Isaac, and Ross, who is 3 1/2.
Lara: We both wanted the experience of carrying a child but as Ruth is a little older we decided she would go first. It was important for us to have known donors. We found the right man, who we spent time building a relationship with before Ruth got pregnant. It wasn't something we treated lightly. He wasn't able to donate to us when I wanted to get pregnant, but luckily a close friend of ours offered to help.
Ruth: We wanted the children to know who these men are. We don't call them dads - they are donors, although the word doesn't quite match or fit the role they play in the children's lives. We see them once every couple of months and the relationships have developed over time. The whole process was quite intense, but we're aware that these fantastic men have helped us out in the most enormous way.
Lara: A tremendous amount of trust, love and respect has built between us and the donors. Aside from the fact they helped create them, it's great for the children to have male input, along with their grandfathers, uncles and friends.
Ruth: A child's well-being is down to the quality of parenting. Academic results are a little bit about a child's ability and 95 per cent about support from parents. Lesbian couples have to work so hard to have families - for that reason there's a possibility you make more of an effort. What children need most is unconditional support and love. I don't think it has anything to do with having two mothers.
Lara: We are doing everything we can to equip our children with the right language and attitude. The main thing is for them to feel they can talk to us.
Ruth: You'll always come across people who are prejudiced. What's amazed us is that we're going through it as adults. Lara and I have tried to look at prejudiced behaviour from a seven-year-old's point of view and teach skills to deal with what may come.
Lara: The desire to be as involved as possible in our children's lives is part of the reason Ruth does volunteer work as a school governor. We want to be right in there and know what's happening. Having a close-knit community has been pivotal for us.
Ruth: There's this idea that because we stand out from the norm, we have to be better than it. There is a pressure to justify the fact we're lesbian parents, but we're doing the best we can. - Shahesta Shaitly
Laura Marakowits + Natalie Buschman
Laura and Natalie have been together for seven years and were married in Belgium in 2006. They have two children, Sanne, 3, and Quinten, 7 months.
Natalie: We met while on holiday in South Africa. I'm from Belgium and Laura is American. We were introduced by mutual friends and neither of us saw it coming, not least because until I met Laura I had only been in heterosexual relationships. It was quite the whirlwind romance.
Laura: It was a reach for both our families, initially. Natalie had never dated a woman before, much less announced she was going to marry one. She's from a small village in Belgium and gay marriage is recognised over there [as opposed to civil partnership]. I'm from a conservative town in Virginia, so when we told my family we were getting married it took a while for my dad to agree to come - he was expecting protesters waving banners, which wasn't the case at all. I guess there was a natural element of fear there for us, but they're totally fine with it now, especially since the children arrived - how could you not love your grandchildren?
Natalie: I definitely wanted children all along. The relationship wasn't going any further if Laura didn't want them - it was a deal breaker for us.
Laura: For me it wasn't a must, but I was open to the idea if I met the right partner, because I knew I was never going to be the one who had the children. It felt like a natural progression in our relationship and I thought Natalie would be an amazing mother.
Natalie: We planned and researched our options thoroughly beforehand and, of course, we had to decide what method we wanted to take. It was about finding the process that we felt most comfortable with. We'd initially considered a friend based in the US who was happy to help us, but we felt it could over-complicate matters. We decided to go for an anonymous donor instead.
Laura: I think we plan a lot more than a straight couple would. Natalie and I were discussing how we'd pay for the children's education before she got pregnant. It's all to do with having to make such an effort to try to have children - you're constantly reminding yourself what you went through to have them, and that it was a more conscious decision than if you were to accidentally fall pregnant.
Natalie: For us, our focus is to be honest about our sexuality and open to any questions we're asked by our children as they get older. We probably emphasise how special they are and how special our family is a lot more than straight families. Sanne is only three, but she's already being asked questions at nursery about where her daddy is and why she's drawing two mums - we just make sure she feels secure enough in our family to answer.
Laura: We've had a wholly positive experience so far - people's attitudes have moved on so much in such a short space of time. We can make our own choices and not feel marginalised. It feels as though the wider society realises we're just a normal, boring family - we don't spend our days swinging from chandeliers. - Shahesta Shaitly
Courtesy of Sunday Life
It's a loaded question, Why not Two mums better than ONE mum and ONE dad.
In the lesbian world, the question of a male involvement is not considered.
The lesbian world encourages women to pretend to be straight to gain a man for the sole purpose of providing s.p.e.r.m and child support while limiting his role in the children's parenting to that of an anonymous s.p.e.r.m. donor.
Children who don't know their father is, have entirely very different opinions about the value of a father.