Never before had I considered children. Now I’m guardian to Jaz, my sister Reyne’s daughter.
Reyne first became unwell about 12 years ago. I can remember picking up the phone one night and her telling me, “I’ve just fallen over.” She started putting things in the wrong place. She couldn’t get her head round things. There was clearly something not right.
Eventually, she had a brain scan. It was a kind of brain tumour. It wasn’t cancerous but where it was in her brain was extremely difficult to manage.
I started looking after her. We were close. My mum was in her early 60s then and had been doing a huge amount of childcare for her. Reyne had got divorced three or four years before, when Jaz was just a few months old.
I think Reyne pulled me into supporting Jaz because she thought my mum couldn’t cope, would be too upset, because Reyne was in fact my mum’s support system. My other sister lived a considerable distance away.
Reyne had her initial surgery when she was 34. Initially it seemed to have been successful but she developed meningitis so she was in hospital for a long time. It took a while for things to right themselves. She also spent a bit of time being rehabilitated.
Ten months after her surgery she started to go back to work part-time. Jaz was just starting school at this point. I began to take more of a back seat in the caring but not for long.
Reyne found it very difficult to be back at work and she got quite distraught about that. She didn’t have the energy to make what she wanted to happen, happen, at home either. She’d say, “I don’t want Jaz to do this, can you sort it?” or “I don’t want to see anyone for a few days, can you sort it?” so I had to be a ‘bad’ person. I certainly didn’t become flavour of the month.
Reyne was only at work for a few weeks when she was due to go in for a one-year scan.
She went in for the second bout of surgery just over a year after the first lot. Over the next four months, she must have had two dozen different interventions, to drain fluid from her brain, to remove more bits of tumour. She kept developing different types of brain infections.
That’s when I started thinking as a parent, not just for Jaz but for my sister too – sitting down with her and having a serious talk, then getting a solicitor to draw up a living will.
Probably my sister’s greatest fear was that there would be issues with Jaz’s father. She wanted Jaz to have contact but she didn’t want her to live with him. I was a bit of a decoy, a way to prevent that happening, so Jaz didn’t go from our mum to her other grandparents and then to her father.
Reyne wanted more stability for Jaz’s future than she actually had in her present life. This was a wee girl who had already learned how to wear different hats. The divorce was acrimonious. When Jaz would go to her grandparents, they would take her out of the clothes she was in and put her in others without thought of the impact on her.
I never thought of myself as a strong personality, but I had to become an extremely strong character who was quite blinkered in my vision. My sole purpose became not just to look out for my sister but to care for and look out for Jaz, to make decisions about every aspect of Jaz’s life because her life shouldn’t be any more difficult than what she was having to go through anyway. To retain a sense of normality.
I went to the nursery and said, “OK, here’s the situation with her mum… I need a full-time nursery placement so that I can go to the hospital, look after this small person and work at the same time.”
Reyne died five months after her second bout of surgeries.
Jaz and I were together all that time, while Reyne was in hospital, me living in her house, ensuring as per Reyne’s wishes that Jaz maintained contact with her father for… I think it was one overnight per fortnight or per month and a couple of tea-time visits a week.
He knew Reyne had a brain tumour and that she was in hospital. He was just told what Jaz had to know, to stick to the story.
There were days before she died when I would go to the hospital to see if Reyne was having a good day before taking Jaz in to see her and it was an hour each way. I spent my life on the motorway.
You can’t bequeath a child in a will but Reyne’s wishes had always been that if anything happened to her, Jaz would be brought up by me – which sounded easier when Reyne was alive. By the time she died, I’d been supporting this wee girl for two years and seen her growing up.
A couple of weeks before she died, I got a sense of what was about to happen and I went to see a solicitor, to get advice on what my situation would be. The solicitor was not particularly hopeful as her father was alive and around in her life, on a pretty regular if not active basis.
So I had to prepare for what would happen to Jaz from the moment my sister died – of what would happen as a family, albeit a family who were poles apart. I would have to think about everybody who might feel they would have a vested interest.
One of the things in the background was Jaz’s father’s absolute dislike of gay people. His family’s approach was the same. I said to Jaz’s father, as soon as Reyne died, that we needed to sit down and talk about Jaz but he said, “No way. Jaz’s going to come and live with me.”
Within a couple of days of my sister dying, I had to get an interim order to make sure Jaz wasn’t removed before time had been given to thinking about what was best for her – not just what we all thought, but what might be right. It was up to me to start the process because without doing that, I had no legal right to look after Jaz.
A couple of weeks later, I took Jaz for one of her usual tea-time visits to her father’s and when I went back to get her, she wasn’t there. I was met by her father and his father, to say that they’d taken her and she wouldn’t be coming back. They said I wouldn’t be seeing her again, that I was a horrible lesbian and all that kind of stuff. That’s putting it very simply. You can imagine…
It was six weeks before it was resolved. I didn’t know where she was. I was devastated.
We went to court for residency. There was an interim order that Jaz would return to live with me until custody was resolved, as I had been the significant adult in her life for the last two years but we had to maintain contact with her father.
What followed was two years of heavy artillery fire. I tried to keep things as normal as they could be for Jaz, though what she was being faced with from them was, “Your aunt’s a dirty lesbian.” (Imagine… she was only six!)
I wanted to make sure that this wee person’s life was as safe and secure as it could be and I felt that I was probably in a better position to offer that than anyone else.
Her father, her grandparents on that side of the family were, I learned, absolutely horrible people. It became really obvious to me why my sister had divorced herself out of that situation and been so clear in her wishes, that while she wanted her daughter to have contact with her father, she didn’t want him to bring her up.
When I would go and collect Jaz after a couple of hours at her dad’s, he’d start ranting. I’d take her to the car as I wanted to spare her from it. He’d say things like, “You’d better check your car, they can be very unreliable.”
I kept doing what I’d promised to support her and continue her relationship with him but every week I’d take her with my heart in my mouth, not knowing if she’d come back.
She loved her grandparents so I even let her go with them to their caravan, as she’d done before – but one day, they didn’t bring her back. They gave her back to her father who absconded abroad with her on a false passport. I thought I’d never see her again.
Again, through the courts, we got her back. He kept trying to show I wasn’t fit but by taking her out of the country despite the interim order, he was interfering with the legal process.
I had to go through all sorts of psychological interviews but he never had to answer to things he did, like sending anonymous letters to my employers, saying I was selling drugs to young people, because we couldn’t prove it was him. I was called up in front of my boss at least twice, because they can’t just ignore accusations like that – but even when we got a handwriting expert in, who said it was Jaz’s father’s handwriting, the courts wouldn’t take it seriously.
At one point, two weeks after my sister died, I had to call my boss in the night, after dodging reporters at my house when Jaz was with me. Because of the job I did, I had to tell him what the papers would say next morning.
My mother through all this was devastated. Not only had she lost one daughter but her other daughter had been outed on the front page of a tabloid newspaper. My mother never rejected me but she was a devout Catholic. It must have been really hard for her.
My friends were absolutely outraged on my behalf, saying, “I wouldn’t let them do that to me” but it wasn’t about me. It was about Jaz. I couldn’t retaliate; it wasn’t in Jaz’s best interests. Nothing to do with me wanting or not wanting children, I was fighting for this wee girl.
After a couple of years, Jaz and I moved to a small town nearby. She kept going to the same school. I was always careful to change only one thing in her life at a time. Her mum had died, then – a while after – my other sister, her aunt, had died and a year later my mother, her grandmother died, so she had all that and she was in the middle of a court battle.
Not long after we moved, her father leafleted our street and a couple of streets close by with a copy of one of the newspaper articles and an anonymous note saying, “A lesbian has moved in. Watch out for your children, she’s a predator” – or words to that effect.
It was only when Jaz decided that she didn’t want to live with her father and went to court, on her own, aged 9 and said that she didn’t want to see him that it was resolved.
At the end of it all, I finally became her legal guardian. We can’t find a precedent for a child being awarded residency with a gay guardian when there’s a biological parent still alive. Maybe we are the precedent?
The court told Jaz’s father to keep away from her.
She was still seeing her grandparents on trust that they wouldn’t force her to see her father. What I didn’t know was that they were constantly drip-feeding her: “Your father misses you so much. It’s not nice of you, not to see him.” They bought her pencils with her name on but it was his surname, which she’d never used in her life.
A couple of years ago, she was due to go to stay with her grandparents and she asked me to put some things in her bag. At the top was a diary and I looked at it, thinking, ‘What’s this?’ and it was full of Jaz writing her concerns about things her grandparents said and did. Lots of stuff that was really anti-gay.
I asked Jaz about it and she broke down. There had been a lot more like that and she just couldn’t take it. They didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. It was very subtle.
In the end, we wrote to them saying it couldn’t go on and now Jaz doesn’t see them.
Actually, it was more complicated than that. At one point, they told Jaz they were thinking of moving to our town and it freaked her out. They didn’t see anything wrong with it but Jaz was so upset I had to write to them and say they were free to do what they liked but if they moved here, we would need to move away.
One of the good things about the house we’re in now is that Jaz is safe. She can go to school and we know she’ll come back.
By “we” I mean me and Hazel and her girls. I met Hazel through work.
After my sister died I took some time off work. I have to say that throughout all this, my employer has been great, really supportive. I went in to see my line manager, in preparation for going back to work. The conversation I was having was, “I don’t know if I’m fit to be a parent” and that’s when Hazel walked in, my new senior manager.
The first thing I thought was, ‘She looks so gay.’ As far as I’m concerned, Hazel was the last person to know she is gay.
I was in a relationship at that point or just coming out of one. I’ve always been gay. When other young people were going off to see their boyfriends, I was going off to see my girlfriend.
I came to know Hazel as a fantastic person, great fun. I knew my job well but we were just getting into a new area of work, so we had opportunities to get to know each other. I thought her outlook – “mañana!” – was great.
We had a work night away and she had too much to drink and told me that she was married and in a mess.
We had a few coffees together and I said she needed to take a step back. She thought she might be gay and she had a kind of old fashioned presumption about what people would think. I said that until that point in my life when I had found myself in court and on the front page of newspapers, being gay hadn’t affected the way my life had gone so maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to take an honesty trip.
I tried to support her but I tried to hold her at arm’s length until I saw she was sorting herself out. If we were going to develop a relationship, it had to be serious. I didn’t have the heart for an affair. I had enough going on in my life; I didn’t need to be caught up in another mess.
By the time we got together, my other relationship had dissipated. Once Hazel split up from her husband, we started to get close very quickly.
Our involvement wasn’t overt, even in front of Jaz, who knew I was gay. She just saw my friendship with Hazel as bringing two new friends for her – Rosie and Isla, Hazel’s girls. We took it very gradually. As Hazel says, it was six years before we really moved in together.
I did sometimes think, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?’ I’m a very quiet, peaceful person and I thought, ‘Can I do this, take on another two children?’
I’m not a very confident parent. Part of me thinks, ‘None of these children are physically part of me so what right do I have to parent them?’ I think that’s why I parent from a practical perspective, rather than a mothering perspective. So although we have two cars, I’m insistent that our girls need to know how to catch the bus, whereas Hazel might think, ‘I’m their mum, I’ll do that.’
Parenting has changed me hugely. I’m always worried about the next thing. It’s hard to know whether that’s about parenting or the experience we’ve been through.
I look at our three girls and they are wonderful kids, really well balanced, brave, and feisty. I think we are so fortunate. Then I look at Hazel and we are such polar opposites that I wonder if somewhere in between our differences we have been lucky enough to strike a balance. Hazel chose to have children – I was the kind of person who would just get up and go travelling.
I think as gay parents, people think we must be liberal but I’m quite strict. They are not allowed Facebook, I don’t want that in my house.
Is it different if you’re a biological parent? When I think what I went through to get Jaz, would I have thought differently if I had been her biological mum?
Isla and Rosie have their father, too. We hear them say, “My dad says…” but I can’t imagine them saying, “Alex says…”
I know I have invested a huge amount of time and effort in my girls, more so I think sometimes than some other parents. I deal with all three of them the same, because they’re not mine. I am intensely aware that because I’m not a biological parent, I have to work super hard to be a good one. Instead of just saying, “Go to bed,” I jump through hoops thinking if it’s the best thing for them, where most parents probably don’t think twice about it.
I don’t want anyone, ever, to be able to turn round and say, “You were crap at it.”
You don’t need a licence for a child – Jaz’s father didn’t – but I had to prove myself. If I’d remotely stepped out of line all that time with Jaz’s father, the sky would have fallen in.
Jaz is 16 now. She has always been a lovely person. I am so glad I went through those years of heartbreak because if I hadn’t just kept my head down and kept taking the punches, maybe she wouldn’t have had the chance.
Read Hazel’s story