Can you tell us how you decided to start a family and the journey you took to get there, including the method you used (IVF, adoption, surrogacy, etc.)?
My partner and I had been talking about having a baby for years. I would often have dreams I was pregnant, that I was holding the baby's little hand, then wake feeling bereft. To make it a reality we saved some money so both of us could have a year off with the baby, moved to Canberra to be close to my family, and got jobs with parental leave options. We played the long game. We are both transgender but are fortunate enough to be able to conceive a baby together.
In your experience, does the LGBTQ+ community face unique challenges when starting a family?
Yes! Unless you happen to have sperm, an egg and a convenient place to gestate it, or the ability to foster, adopt or join another family, it’s very difficult.
More broadly I think a lot of Queer people have a hard time on the way to parenthood. Whether it’s years of uncertainty with IVF or adoption, knowing your baby is growing but on the other side of the planet, navigating the ethical and legal issues around donors or trudging through the heteronormative, cisgender hell that is the birthing system.
I also think it’s hard for Queers to even arrive at the idea they can have a baby. We have to unlearn queerphobic ideas around ‘who deserves family’ and ‘who is safe around children’ before we can even consider it.
On the other hand I feel Queers are uniquely placed to start a family. We have more flexible ideas around what makes a family, gender expectations and parenting roles. As a community we are more engaged in conversations about race, class, disability and consent. Queer cultures can also be creative and vibrant. These things combined make a wonderful environment for children to grow up in.
What were the major hurdles you encountered in your journey to parenthood, and how did you overcome them?
As the birthing parent the major challenge I encountered was mental illness. I experienced an acute period of perinatal anxiety and depression around week 7 of pregnancy, which came with a generous dose of suicidality.
After the thrill of realising I was pregnant wore off I was overcome with dread; what have we done? Have I ruined my life? Will I miscarry? What if I do something that hurts the baby? What will happen during birth? As my body shifted and changed I felt like I was trapped on a train with no way off. A part of this was hormonal, something I had no idea about and had not prepared for.
I got through this period by asking for help. I leant on my partner and asked for support however I needed it, day by day. I made a choice to tell people I was pregnant before week 12 so I could have friends to call on when I was low. I went to my GP, renewed my mental health treatment plan and recommitted to seeing my therapist. I prioritised exercise as best I could with my morning sickness. I ate a lot of Big Macs which was a vibe, and helped in its own way.
I got through that difficult mental health period, and another far more severe one immediately after birth. As a parent I am still coming to terms with the fact that two contrary things are true for me; I hated pregnancy, and I am unspeakably grateful that I was able to experience it.
Could you touch on the emotional and practical aspects of your journey to becoming a parent, including the process and the eventual outcome?
After trying for two months we conceived. We were privileged in that it happened quickly for us; we have many friends and family where this was not the case.
My partner and I were both excited then keenly anxious about having a baby. I wanted desperately to be accepted into the ACT midwifery continuity program but didn’t hear from them. I was sure that being trans and mentally ill would disqualify me as ‘too complex’ but in the end we were accepted at week 16.
The midwife I was assigned at first was not what I needed. As an overwrought queer with a lot to say, I found it less then encouraging when she dismissed a swelling episode as “the changing of the seasons” rather than a red flag for pre-eclampsia. Like any sensible, grown ass adult I got my mum to call and have me reassigned. My new midwife was kind, collaborative, smart and immune to woo woo. I tear up thinking about her even now.
On January 25th I was induced and gave birth the morning after. I had had an epidural which felt at least as good as finishing my masters degree. When I gave birth the first thing I said when they put our baby on me was “red hair!” as I wept with my partner.
What has been the best part of becoming a parent, and how has it changed your life and perspective?
I have the life I wanted, it’s astonishing. I have a baby. I get to be a parent. Alongside the person I love. If my joy isn’t coming across enough in these statements it’s because I don’t really know how to put it into words.
Everything has changed. I feel like I used to be so sure that I was right about things. I have been shattered by parenthood. Absolutely turned inside out. I’ll constantly think “this is definitely why he’s crying” or “this is how we should do things” then be objectively, categorically wrong. It’s been very humbling to realise that I can’t explain the unexplainable, and so much about parenthood exists outside of what I know.
Were there any unexpected costs or financial challenges to starting your family?
Because of my mental health and risk of preeclampsia I needed to see a GP fortnightly for monitoring. She bulk billed me as much as she could but it still added up.
If you could go back and do anything differently in your family-building journey, what would it be and why?
If I could do anything different during pregnancy I would educate myself on all the different and equally valid ways of feeding a baby.
Without realising it I had a strong bias towards direct/breastfeeding. But when the time came I found making milk and nursing to be profoundly stressful. I was plagued with worries. How do I hold him? Is his latch right? Am I making enough milk? Am I in oversupply now? Why does it hurt so much? Do I have mastitis? What is happening to my poor nipples? Does he need to eat now? How about now?
Even after my mental health tanked postnatally I believed that the exhausting task of making milk was my job and anything else meant failure. I’m not a woman, I’m trans masculine, but even still I had this inexorable and bizarre feeling that I was failing at womanhood. If my Mum, sister and cousins could care for their children in this way, why couldn’t I?
It took me two months to finally give myself permission to pump instead, then another three months of pumping eight times a day (that’s every 3 hours, including at night) to realise that it wasn’t good for me or my child. Pumping physically and psychologically removed me from my baby at a time when I needed to be close to him.
I remember reading an article that said “breastfeeding doesn’t make a healthy baby, a parent does” and feeling it shift something in me. In my life I have managed to let every other imposed gender expectation go, in the end this was no exception.
Direct/breast feeding works beautifully for many families and brings parents and babies closer. It can be a truely joyful experience, but for me this just wasn’t the case.
If I could have done anything differently before becoming a parent it would have been to immerse myself in the thousands of unique stories about how to get a baby fed. I would have gone to sleep every night muttering “fed is best” rather than my subconscious refrain of “breast is best”.
Over time I have let go of the incongruous shame I felt about formula feeding and started enjoying nourishing my baby in a way that works best for all of us. An unexpected benefit of this is that it democratised feeding. My partner’s ability to provide sustenance for our baby is a precious thing for both of us.
What advice would you give to others in the LGBTQ+ community who are about to start their own families - what words of wisdom or encouragement would you share with them?
Plan for a marathon, but know you can do it. Wherever and however you find family is valid and beautiful. For Queers who want children and live with mental illness, know that even when I was at my most unwell I was able to get through it. When I felt at my core that my young family wouldn’t make it and I just couldn’t survive, we still did. And we are doing so well now.
If I can suggest anything else it’s to find people going through similar experiences. It’s a life raft. If you live in the Canberra region hit us up—we run Seahorse Playgroup, the Rainbow Families catch up for our area.
As a small aside, I would strongly recommend reading You’ll Be A Wonderful Parent by Jasper Peach. It’s an excellent celebration of Queer families.
If your children are old enough to understand, how do they feel about being part of a rainbow family? If comfortable, could you share their perspectives?
Our baby is very little but I sing him this song I made up:
‘You are part of a rainbow fam, soft masc and hard femme/
You can be whatever you like, straight as an arrow or a massive dyke/
We’ll love you whoever you are, if you’re like us or you travel far/
You’ll never need to feel alone, because you’ll always have us as home’.
I hope as he grows we’ll help him understand who we are and where we’ve been, and for us to have the courage to let him decide how he feels about it himself.