Daddy, Muma and Wawa:
co-parenting with Charlie Condou, his partner Cameron and good friend Catherine
You may know him as Marcus Dent in Coronation Street but Charlie Condou is passionate about gay parenting and whenever possible talks openly about co-parenting his children Georgia, 5 and Hal, 2, with his partner Cameron (the kids call him Wawa) and friend Catherine. Here the three of them explore why their set-up works so well, how they got over the shock of the arrival of child number two, and the reactions to Charlie’s storyline in the soap opera when his character Marcus fell in love with a woman.
How does Charlie see his journey coming to parenting that took place over five years ago, compared to how this journey is for the LGBT community now?
Charlie: “Until really recently, as a gay man it was just something you said wasn’t going to happen. That’s not true now with surrogacy and adoption and co-parenting options available and that’s why I think it’s really important to talk about it. A lot more gay men are going down the co-parenting route and a lot more lesbians are too because they don’t want to parent on their own.”
Charlie and Catherine have been friends for years and had talked about having a child one day but Catherine hoped she’d meet a life partner and have children with him. As years passed that man didn’t materialise.
Catherine: “Charlie mentioned it to me first, but I wasn’t ready because I wanted to do it the traditional way – I was hoping to meet ‘the one.’ It became clear he wasn’t going to show. I could have coped with not having children, but not if I hadn’t tried. I think I would have ended up a very bitter woman. I turned 40 and thought, ‘OK time to think about this differently’”.
By this time Charlie had met Cameron, who had married quite young and then come out, so felt he’d left the idea of settling down and having kids behind him.
Cameron: “So much of gay politics used to be about accepting being gay as being separate to being straight – it was opposition politics. I grew into being gay thinking I was the polar opposite of a straight person and I should be proud of it. When I was at university the more radical gays talked about straight people as ‘breeders’ and would slander them in that way – as if two wrongs made a right – if we were going to be called faggots and woofters then we needed to have epithets of our own for straight people. I don’t really think along those lines but it becomes a part of who you are. And then Charlie was talking about having kids and I was thinking, ‘but that’s what straight people do!’ I had to rethink it and realise, ‘no that’s what people do’. I realised I’d programmed myself into being something other then a person. It was like re-joining the human race. People talk about internalised homophobia, but maybe it reaches too far. In a way I didn’t believe that I deserved to have kids, so it took quite a lot of rethinking. I’ve noticed that orthodoxy is changing now.”
Charlie: “We were really lucky that Catherine and I had known each other for such a long time and then Cam and I got together. We had all discussed it before but then when we discussed it seriously we spent years talking about all the scenarios – how it would work. We made sure that we all have the same values about childrearing and found we all come from the same kind of families that value family highly.”
Catherine: “ I’ve run into trouble with boyfriends who don’t ‘get’ close family – mine is very close. It is important.”
Cameron: “It seemed like the whole process wasn’t going to be straightforward. You don’t just decide to have kids one minute and then go and have them the next week. It’s a gradual process and pretty hit and miss. We were just hoping it would work out. It’s unknown territory and there wasn’t any experience to draw on.”
Charlie: “We weren’t getting together just to have children, we wanted to build a family. Talking about it for the first time now, I wonder if that is what makes it work? We have the kids half and half but we try and do as much together as we can – we always spend Christmas and birthdays together. I think that’s part of the secret to our success. That’s not to say we don’t have issues, but they’re minor and we manage to fix them pretty quickly. That’s just down to communication, which we’ve learnt to do. On the big issues we stand together. That’s not to say Catherine doesn’t get annoyed with me because I’ve given them too much chocolate or I’m not cross with Cameron because he hasn’t put them to bed at the right time. What parents don’t have those issues?”
And what advice would they give around planning a co-parenting arrangement?
Charlie: “It’s about knowing you want the same things but at the same time being open to all possibilities and suggestions and change. You’ve got to be adaptable because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Cameron: “We’ve talked to a lot of people about how to go about this and some of them have been on paths to catastrophe because they don’t know their other partners very well and they don’t know if they have shared priorities. There are so many things you need to discuss like where your lives are going, how you’re going to be in the same place when your kids are older and in school – over decades. If Charlie got an acting job out in Sydney it just wouldn’t fly – not unless Catherine agreed to move out there too.”
As alternative parenting models have been on the rise over the past decade, several matching websites have emerged where people looking to co-parent can meet. What’s their opinion on meeting a co-parent this way?
Charlie: “You have to put the kids first as much as you can. As long as you have got yourself into a position with whoever you’re going to co-parent with where you know them well enough, and you know you’re on the same page, and you’re adaptable, you shouldn’t have any problems.”
Cameron: “You have to learn to draw boundaries between you and your relationship and the other people and their relationships. All these things have to be negotiated very carefully with your eyes open before you get into it. Either that or you have to be sure that there is so much good-will that you can negotiate your way through any crisis when it arises later. I think a lot of people don’t understand that, and of course they don’t because we don’t have the mental technology for it yet. A lot of people are going in blind. We just think, ‘no, you have to sit down and talk about it all in detail’. You can’t just think, ‘oh everything else will take care of itself’. You owe it to the kids to make sure that there’s some stable framework there.”
Once Charlie, Cameron and Catherine had discussed the concept of co-parenting enough they decided to have IVF using Catherine’s eggs and Charlie’s sperm. This was at a time when co-parenting between a gay couple and a heterosexual woman was rarely done openly. The first doctor they saw referred to Charlie as the donor. They found a more open-minded doctor. Georgia was conceived during their fourth IVF cycle. Hal’s embryo came from the same harvest as Georgia so effectively he is her fraternal twin.
Charlie: “ The first six months of Hal’s life were insane and knackering. We only had the kids half the time as well. It should be really doable but it was insane how hard it was. It was harder because I was working away in Manchester a lot. Catherine was doing two kids on her own and Cam was doing them on his own so essentially two people single parenting. I’d get home on the weekends knackered from work but I’d get as full on with the kids as possible to give the other two a break and make up for the time away from the kids.”
Catherine: “You don’t realise it but having one child is easy!”
It’s common for two parents in a relationship to lose sight of that relationship under the weight of the intense demands of two young kids. Charlie and Catherine had been close friends for years. So how did adding children affect their friendship?
Catherine: “I saw Charlie doing an interview on some morning show [with another member of the Coronation Street cast] and I remember them having a laugh and it being very jokey and chatty. I texted him saying ‘we don’t have that anymore.’ It’s there, but what we do is hand over children and talk logistics. I missed the friendship. When you have kids you stop looking at each other because you’re always looking down at the children.”
Charlie: “We did have to change how we were doing things because all we were doing was handing kids over.”
“You can’t base anything on the first few years. It’s so different to the rest of your life with children. We were all working so hard, it was insane but now I feel like I’m getting a sense of myself back.”
Parenting two young kids alone can be challenging, but what about parenting together?
Cameron: “Having three parents there at once is too much. Everybody has their ideas of how things should be done and that can be confusing for the kids. We’ve learned that when we’re all together at least one of us parents has to pull his oar out of the water.”
What about when someone doesn’t agree?
Catherine: “We all work very differently – Charlie’s very good at being direct. I can’t get the words out – I get very emotional. I find if I want to say something that’s difficult I write it in an email, park it, then I can go back to it. When the children are at Charlie and Cameron’s place I have no control. That’s fine because I completely trust them but they do things differently and it’s learning that different isn’t wrong. I found that the biggest learning curve for me. The big stuff we’re absolutely on the same page with, it’s the little things that can be an issue. I think you learn a lot from watching other people doing bad parenting and saying, ‘oh, I’m not going to do that’.”
Cameron: “We’ve learned to keep our hands off each other’s lives as much as possible. It took us a while to learn that. Individuals have different priorities and you have to learn to accept them and let go of control – when you love your kids it’s very difficult to ease off the control when they’re not in your domain.”
So they’ve found their feet parenting in a three, but what about when Catherine meets someone?
Charlie: “lt’ll be interesting. It’s going to be tough, having another male around. We’ll deal with it when it happens. Our roles are very clearly defined at the moment, but you have to be adaptable. Obviously we really want her to meet someone because it’ll be great for her, and what’s great for her is great for the kids.”
Catherine: “I think I’m better girlfriend material now because I’ve cut my teeth on this relationship. Before, I saw a man and I thought how I could change him, whereas now I’ll be much happier with whoever comes along. I just can’t quite get my head around introducing someone to my life right now, but it’ll change – once Hal’s started nursery and I have time off and I’m guaranteed more then five or six hours sleep a night, and also I’ve got something to talk about!”
What would Catherine say to women thinking about co-parenting with a gay couple?
Catherine: “It’s well worth it, but I really had to unhook myself from the expectation that they were my husband. They do that for each other, not for me. That was my s**t, not theirs. My friends have become that for me. It really did feel like we were writing the book. There was no reference point. You look at all those parenting books and guides and there was nothing. Now it’s sort of everywhere. There are other children with two mummies and two daddies in Georgia’s school.”
The legal situation in co-parenting set-ups can be complex and interestingly despite the amount of planning they did, the three of them are not all legally responsible for their children.
Charlie: “Catherine and I are the legal parents. Cameron is in a really tricky position legally. If he and I get married it would make a difference.”
Catherine: “It concerns me for him – if Charlie and I fall off a cliff he would rely on our families’ good natures. But it’s absolutely down to what the law says.”
Charlie: “It’s interesting because I think we’ve come far enough now that if that were to happen and it did end up in the courts they would find it in Cameron’s favour because of the parenting.”
Gay parenting can be complex. Aside from the logistics and legalities to negotiate there are various compromises that need to be made to make it work. Alternative families are gaining visibility, with more and more in the media and on TV. Charlie had plenty to draw on for his role in Coronation Street.
Catherine: “There was this fantastic moment where Marcus [the role Charlie plays] was mirroring life, although Charlie was playing Cam in the relationship.”
Things got really complicated when Marcus, a gay character, fell in love with Maria, causing much furore in the media.
Charlie: “I spell it out quite clearly. All they wanted to do was look at what happens when a gay man who is comfortable with his sexuality falls in love with a woman. I was really shocked by the amount of bi-phobia that came from the gay community. It surprised me: we’re the last people who should judge other people on who they’re sleeping with. Some of the stuff that was said was really disgusting. I thought, ‘It may not happen to you but it does happen.’ We’ve moved on and it’s important to show that sometimes sexuality is complicated for people. I think it’s hard because Marcus was, or is, a very good role model.”
Marcus wanted to settle down with Maria and have a family, but was entrapped by a male lover and Maria catches them together.
Through friendship and communication, this parenting trio has avoided soap opera-sized dramas at home. They liken their parenting set-up to an amicable divorce – a description often used by other LGBT co-parents. But somehow this sells them short – their family model comes from its own solid, positive place.
Words: Hannah Latham
Photos: Sarah Wheeler, SW12 Photography
This article was printed in We Are Family magazine issue 6, Summer 2014. Details may have changed - please do not rely on this information solely when making decisions - do your own research, make your own checks and get legal or health advice as appropriate.