Finn Mackay is a feminist activist who doesn’t fit into society’s assumed gender codes. Her partner carried and gave birth to their son, now almost 2 years old. In her guest blog Finn explores her experience of motherhood as a lesbian parent
Finn’s blog: finnmackay.wordpress.com
It took me over three months to be able to say my son’s name out loud, especially to his face. It felt uncanny and ridiculous. Mid-sentence I would freeze, self-consciously substituting with, “the baby” or, “the new baby”. It was as if acknowledging him in the act of naming would conjure him into being. The truth I was avoiding was that he was already all too real; this was what I could not believe and in many ways still cannot.
A week into the brave new baby world and everything was a blur, I had to remind myself to breathe; it felt like several years had passed already. Then, our baby actually stopped breathing. My partner Rosie saved his life. She gave him CPR on our newly fitted carpets in the house we had just moved into, on the phone to the call-handler waiting for the ambulance, which came within minutes we later found out, though it did not seem like that to her.
When I got the call from the hospital I was at work, ironically it was the first time I’d left the house since the birth. I’m ashamed to say the first thought that came into my head was that if this had to happen it was better it happened now when we didn’t yet know our son. The thought made me feel cruel and heartless and wonder what the hell was wrong with me and whether I could ever really be a parent. I walked back and forth several times between the bike racks and my office, unable to decide whether it would be quicker to cycle to the hospital, and eventually asked a colleague to give me a lift.
Running into reception I felt as if I was in a scene from Casualty, and only more so when I tried to enquire about my son and partner and a hushed, hesitant silence fell over the receptionists behind the desk. Everyone in the waiting room was staring at me as I was directed to a small side room, it occurred to me that my son might be dead. I distinctly remember thinking that if this had happened there was no way Rosie and I could stay together. Then, out of the staring stillness I was rushed into an emergency room where frenzied activity was unfolding like a ballet. In the centre of it, like Jesus on the cross, was our tiny, tiny baby boy being lifted up and down like a rag doll, his eyes shut, his arms held out splaying tubes and wires. Rosie was sat on a tall, metal stool that resembled the vintage seating from school science labs and the table she was next to appeared huge, but it may have just been that our son was so small, he looked like a pale fleck on the black rubber surface.
Rosie was distraught and then I was distraught at seeing her and we both clutched at each other. I was suddenly preoccupied with the concern that my muddy, high visibility cycle jacket probably wasn’t the most hygienic thing to be wearing in that context. Meanwhile, there were many doctors around the table, performing their tasks in what seemed like slow motion, giving instructions in calm voices and conversing in words and numbers that I couldn’t understand. Looking back on it now it was serene, they never bumped into each other, they never rushed - they exuded competence. Our son was helped to breathe; I sat and watched his minute rib cage through his jaundiced skin as his chest heaved in and out.
Later, when he was stabilised in the High Dependency Unit of the Children’s Hospital, the generous specialist nurse looked at us together, and at me, and she said appreciatively: “you can’t take your eyes off him”. The truth was I just didn’t know where else to look. His eyes were closed so it was easier to look at him, and definitely easier than looking at my partner who I wasn’t quite sure I even knew any more.
I am what is called an “other mother”, a same-sex parent to my son who I did not carry. I make up for this by now carrying him everywhere, to the point I have contracted a mysterious ailment known colloquially as ‘mother’s thumb’, or more formally De Quervain’s Tendonitis. After a search online an archived article from The Daily Hate informed me that this condition is now rife because mothers aren’t as strong as they used to be back in the good old days when we had outdoor toilets and had to wash our family’s clothes in a communal scullery. Sedentary roles behind computers now make us unequipped for the physicality of child rearing, lifting and carrying. I started to notice all the mothers at groups wearing little wrist and thumb splints, pressure wraps and bandages. In the end I got one for myself; I’m wearing it now.
I realised early on in this parenting journey that my suspicions and concerns about myself and my capabilities were well-founded. Indeed, as I had feared, I am much more of a cat person than a baby person. I just do not have the patience and passion required. I did not lack self-esteem or a sense of life’s purpose before-baby, and I do not find either of those enriched or awakened post-baby. Perhaps they have even declined, as the academic and political activities that used to fill my spare time have had to fall by the wayside in favour of sleeping and doing the laundry. I cannot get excited about latchkey boards and I spend too much time wondering why Pando in Bing appears to have no parents and no trousers. Walking into draughty halls full of waddling toddlers makes me want to poke my own eyes out with a plastic safety spoon, and this overwhelming feeling is not dissipated by the promise of a cup of a tea and a bourbon at half time.
To add to my woes, as an Othermother at these groups, fellow parents are often unsure as to who or what I am. It probably doesn’t help that I look much younger than I actually am and don’t fit gendered codes about what a woman should look like, never having identified or presented as feminine. Unlike some lesbian parents, I’ve never had to have those awkward conversations about bleeding nipples or night feeds and pretend I know what women are talking about as they assume biological motherhood onto everyone within sniffing distance of a nappy. Usually I end up on the margins of these groups, and I don’t think this is due to homophobia as such, at least not with any intent or consciousness. I think it is a widespread and common response to gender difference. That response is to freeze, and in that frozen stasis is how we remain as we stiffly navigate what are really quite intimate moments, sitting in circles, sharing a mat or beanbag for various baby activities, singing together. This means that I am not questioned about our son in the same way that Rosie is.
When I am with him I dress my son in clothes that I like, and my partner does the same. It turns out that I have much more conservative and gender normative tastes than she does. However, this does not mean that when we are out together he resembles a child soldier, or a marine. His blonde hair is long at the back and he has plenty of pink clothes and animals feature more heavily than diggers or cars. I have active and healthy disrespect for the sexed territories of clothing and toys in shops and I buy him things from both sections or aisles – it is really outrageous that baby clothes are segregated like this in the first place. Because of this, he is routinely read as a girl. What we have noticed is that people rarely comment on this misreading with me, but they do feel able to challenge Rosie, to the point she finds it quite inhibiting and uncomfortable. This has been a bit of an insight for her, because that discomfort is how I have experienced many of my daily interactions for most of my life, as I’m directed to the wrong toilets, given funny looks buying sanitary products or referred to as ‘mate’ by the bus driver.
If anything, being an othermother has gendered me for the first time in my adult life. When our son was little I wore him in a sling, and I can remember the feeling of disjuncture and rupture when a street performer called out: ‘let the lady with the baby through’ or when the older woman on the bus asked me if my husband had to work away a lot. Equally there have been the occasions I fly a flag for young fathers, like the woman who approved of my parenting and commented that I didn’t even look old enough to shave. Perhaps because people are unsure what I am, they are unsurprised that my child also does not clearly fit into the pink or blue box. As they avoid conversation with me at the best of times in all those baby groups, on things as innocent as spilt juice or half term opening times, they are hardly likely to talk to me about gender assumptions. Sadly, they don’t hold back with Rosie, who looks more ‘normal’ than I and perhaps therefore more approachable; the comments she receives show how rigid and sexist our society remains. She’s been asked why our son’s shoes are pink, why he was wearing a pink and white apron to eat in when he was weaning and why his hair is ‘so long’.
As a feminist activist, none of this has surprised me. I am not one of those people who has a political or environmental awakening upon the realisation that the sorry state of society will affect my own offspring long after I’m gone; I’ve always felt like this and didn’t need to have a baby to want to change the world. That this constricting gendering process is now happening so close to home only provides further evidence for what I already knew. It doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking to think of our beautiful baby son policing his very first passions or joys due to the gender insecurities of wider society, peers and adults alike. At the moment, he is very into butterflies, or, as he says ‘buff flies’. We found him a second hand coat covered in butterfly designs. It is clearly meant to be a ‘girl’s coat’, as it has a pink lining and buttons on ‘the wrong side’. Now it is his coat. He loves it, but our world is one where in the future he may choose to leave that coat at the back of the cupboard, and that is a concern because of what else might be left behind; a passion for the natural world, a delight in colour, a curiosity, a kindness for other creatures? All of us, but perhaps especially parents, should reflect upon the things we ourselves left behind, and the people we might be now if we hadn’t been cajoled, steered and directed onto certain paths that were laid for us the day we were born. Gendering is learned, and it is brutal. I am sorry that it does and will happen to my son and I remain determined to change this, not just for him but for everyone.
Somehow our son has now managed to make it to over one year old with us as parents and even with his pink shoes, butterfly coat and too long hair. We held a picnic in the park to celebrate his first birthday. I knew that I would be expected to say something at this monumental event, but that whatever it was it had better not be the truth, so I kept the speech vague and thanked all those around us who have provided welcome support. Due to the sleep deprivation and the permanent pre-menstrual symptoms that parenting a baby engenders, even this short thanks moved me to wrenching tears and I shuddered while giving out the baked salt dough hearts with imprints of his miniature human hand.
People often refer to me as “a mum” and sympathise that it must be hard to juggle full time work while in “mum mode”. Because we are a same-sex couple people assume that we must have gone through great challenges and expense to bring our son into the world, they spring wistful tears as they imagine our joint struggle to achieve what every woman supposedly wants. That is indeed solely in their imagination; the truth is that we must be the only lesbian couple in the land to have had an unplanned pregnancy. All the statistics were against us and we were working on less than half a chance it would succeed at all. My partner found a friendly, gay sperm donor who mirrored our values and vision and she set about trying to get pregnant. This involved some charts, a thermometer and a sterilised olive jar, or perhaps it was a honey jar, we can’t remember now but it was probably something equally unbearably middle class; and with that, she got pregnant almost straight away. It was earlier than either of us had expected.
Conceiving was easy, but Rosie’s pregnancy was not. She immediately got hyperemesis, a terrible condition we learnt a lot about as it became clear the constant vomiting day and night was beyond the ‘normal’ morning sickness. My partner was lucky, she was only hospitalised once, but it did not feel lucky and the pregnancy did not feel like a blessing or a joy for either of us. At four months in my father died suddenly of a heart attack and I drove us up to Scotland while Rosie spent the entire five hour journey in the passenger seat, being sick in a succession of paper bags; I then marked my birthday while organising my father’s funeral with my sister and mother. Perhaps, just like everyone assumes, it was indeed a time not without great challenges and personal expense, though not in the way people imagine. The whole pregnancy was like a kind of trauma I still don’t feel I’ve recovered from, but baby care is unforgiving and cares not for your personal demons or pain. It requires living in the moment, but the moment never eases it just goes on and on like a very fast travellator you can’t step off.
Our son is now nearly two years old. His precise age will obviously translate into some number of months but I can’t speak that language yet. He gets more real every day, and, in a sort of reverse version of The Velveteen Rabbit I get more worn as this process continues apace. I still don’t feel like a parent, whatever that may be; I still can’t quite believe him. As he runs around the house, passing unnervingly close to table edges and other hazards, I wonder how he got here and I wonder at the calm little new spirit that is emerging amongst the falling debris of our previous life. So, nearly two years on, or twenty two months to be precise for all you fluent speakers of ‘mum’, he is beginning to sink in and get under my skin. Now I call him by his name and I look right at him. He looks right back; his eyes aren’t mine, but they still reflect me.
Finn Mackay can be reached via her twitter account: @Finn_Mackay
Finn is looking for participants for a reasearch project into Lesbian/Queer Masculinities. To find out more and get involved go to: https://lesbianqueermasculinities.wordpress.com/