From lesbian feminist to gay granny
Penny Ward is 62 and looks after her two grand-daughters regularly. Here she reflects on coming out when her sons were young, their paths to parenthood and being comfortable with her sexuality when others were not.
“Cover yourself up, Granny!”
I am taking my eight-year-old grand-daughter swimming.
“Most grannies wear bras,” she notices, as she primly manages to get her costume on before she gets her pants off. She obviously has more style than I do. I explain to her that it is a women’s changing room so it is OK to strip off, but she is not convinced.
I want her, and her four-year-old sister Zoë, to grow up to be strong, thoughtful young women, and already they are so far along that road that I have no fears for their future. They teach me a lot about life.
Their Dad was my first born, and they broke the mould when they made him. I remember once telling him to act his age, and he replied, “But I’m only a little boy, Mum.” I’d been thirty-three when I had him, and always anxious about him and his wee brother. In contrast, my son was barely twenty when he became father to Lucie, and he and his partner seem so casual and laid back.
He had been exactly Lucie’s age when I suddenly realised I was a lesbian, and had to make some gut-wrenching choices between following my heart and looking to their needs. My sexuality was too important to ignore, but on reflection, I may have expected too much of my little lads, aged just six and eight. But when their dad moved out, a lightness entered our lives. I was happy, working full time, a single mum, stretched financially, tired, but laughter and love and friendship and feminism took his place. And maybe I didn’t really listen hard enough as my wee boys tried to explain how hard it was having a lesbian mother in a small town. I didn’t see anything to be ashamed of, why should they?
And now, twenty years later, I am joyfully embracing granny-hood, and as ever, get it wrong sometimes.
But I get it right occasionally too. My sons grew up strong and tall, and creative and hard-working and I am proud of them. Research shows that children brought up in lesbian households do as well as those with straight parents; academically, health-wise, size-wise – no difference, but the children of lesbians tend to be more empathetic adults.
So I tend (maybe optimistically) to assume that having a gay granny is no bad thing for my lovely girls. And that can cause conflict. Sometimes I need reminding I am just a granny, not their mum and dad, and it is not my place to do anything else but love and cherish, buy school shoes and host family dinners.
I know things have changed since I was a young mum. Not overheating a wee one to avoid cot death means I worry no end about cold feet; baby led weaning seems such a time-consuming way when a bowl of mushed mince and tatties is quicker to shovel in. If you ask my advice about parenting, I have some answers. What I haven’t learned to do is zip it when no-one asks for my opinion!
As gay grannies go, I am lucky. From Lucie’s earliest days, my son and his partner referred to me as Granny and my partner as Granny Jane. They never questioned whether it was good or bad for their kids to spend time with us. When Lucie was about four, she asked Jane why she shared my bed. “It’s cosier,” replied Jane, which seemed the perfect answer at that stage. We hadn’t discussed it, assuming the girls would come to an awareness in their own time, and I have a stash of books about same-sex parenting to help explain more if I need to.
In contrast, Jane’s son (who was in his thirties and a highly qualified professional who should have known better) feared that his unborn son would be bullied in primary school for having lesbian grandparents. It is the only time in my twenty years as a gay girl that I have ever experienced prejudice, and over the years Jane has been scared to fight my corner in case she gets cut off from her grandchildren.
It raises a point; she had remained in a very unhappy marriage until her sons left school; had not come out to them when she had a much younger lesbian partner, and couldn’t believe that her oldest could behave in such a way. Perhaps if she had followed her heart, been honest in the first place, she’d have had a son able to see she was happy, safe and loved.
Jane and I split up two years ago. I was unable to cope with being side-lined and banned from visiting her son’s house, and Jane could no longer stand my anger. It was sad, but the little ones missed her cat more than her, and accepted quite readily that she’d gone back to her own house. I think it was at that point I recognised that she hadn’t seen them as being her grand-children, and hadn’t really bonded with them anyway.
My new partner doesn’t live with me, and I don’t expect her to love my grand-daughters as I do, although she enjoys being with them. Eventually, the girls will ask about the relationship and they will then be ready to understand that women can love women and men can love men. I don’t think it will be a problem.
Being a granny is magic, and not just because you can hand them back (although, yes, that is true!). I love the girls as I loved my boys; because we are family and my love is unconditional. I recently realised that if my sons were in a burning building, I would trust them to find their way out, and I know that if they couldn’t, I wouldn’t be strong enough to lift them out. But if my grandchildren were in danger I would not hesitate to go in.
Because gay or straight, being a grand-parent is such a privilege, and an important part of children’s lives. I feel blessed to have the chance to be that person.
Penny Ward is 62, lives in north-east Scotland and is author of The Jewel, the story of the challenges a family face when one teenage son is left with a child and the other is emerging as gay.
Published by Fledgling Press and available as an e-book on Amazon, price £2.39.
First published issue 6, spring 2013. To buy a paper copy click here: issue 6