I am a gay man in my 50s, with a teenage daughter, Leigh. Leigh’s mother, Wendy, is a straight friend, with whom I co-parent.
I’ve been together with my partner, JJ, since before Leigh was born. I met JJ around the time Wendy and I were discussing having a child so it wasn’t about the three of us having a child together. It was, ‘This is happening, so if we get serious, Leigh is going to be around.’
I always knew I was gay. I was out to my family, I was very confident about it.
Wanting to be a dad was there, part of me, all my life. I was always very comfortable around children and work with them professionally.
Then, when I was a teenager, I realised it wasn’t going to be possible. In the late 70s/early 80s, surrogacy or adoption weren’t really options.
That it wasn’t going to happen for me felt like a huge gap, a huge loss, throughout my 20s. I had come to terms with it by my early 30s but it was always something I felt sad about. I busied myself with other people’s children, living in a big communal house with gay men and a straight couple who had a child.
Then Wendy, a friend in her early 30s, asked me if I wanted to have a child with her. It seemed like something really special to offer and I was delighted.
We’d been friends for several years and I knew she wanted to be a mum and hadn’t found the right partner but I knew other women in similar situations, so I hadn’t expected it. We were just out one day for a drive, a walk, whatever we were doing – and she just asked me very directly.
I think that from her point of view, there had been previous conversations, where she’d sounded out how I felt about children but I’d been unaware of what was going on.
She’d obviously been through a longer process than me – but I didn’t need to think about it for a minute!
I couldn’t have done it if I couldn’t have been a dad who was really involved but she wanted someone to co-parent anyway. Wendy wasn’t living in Scotland at the time and we needed to be in the same place. We waited a year until the practicalities of moving had been sorted and Leigh was conceived at the second time of trying, at home, using artificial insemination.
It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.
We knew the optimum time for Wendy to conceive and we saw it as having one opportunity for it to work that month. It wasn’t dressed up in any kind of ceremonial way. It was low key: ‘Now it’s time to do this.’ It didn’t work the first time and the second time, it did.
It’s funny, the questions you get asked. People think there has been a sexual relationship. There were two camps: one asking practical questions about how we did it and the other, “That’s fantastic!” – an emotional reaction to what a big decision it was for us.
Family and friends responded very positively. They were very respectful of the choice we’d made. I met Wendy’s family before we tried and she met mine after, when she was pregnant.
It all happened kind of quickly. Because we didn’t want to put any pressure on ourselves, we thought it might take a while to get pregnant – and then it didn’t!
Leigh was born at home, at Wendy’s. I was there with another couple of friends that Wendy wanted there. It all went very well, a very positive experience.
I went along to prenatal appointments and classes. There was nothing about me being gay. I think they just assumed that if I was there, I must be the dad. I was just a man.
Leigh was breast fed until just short of her first birthday, which had implications for where she could stay, so it was about 11 months before she could stay over with me. For the first year I stayed at Wendy’s a lot, especially when Leigh was first born and about two nights a week after that.
I wasn’t living with my partner JJ at the time but I can imagine that if I had been, that would have been an additional thing to negotiate.
Later Leigh stayed with me two nights a week. I cut my hours at work so I had a day off to care for her for a year or two. Wendy took extended maternity leave.
We worked out the finances as we went along. I wasn’t earning very much but the money stuff wasn’t an issue. I don’t have much memory of it so we must’ve worked something out. We just got by.
I suppose we just got into a routine from that point. Routines are very important to Leigh. Wendy went back to work. We were lucky in that family and friends helped with childcare. We lived very close together, which made it easier.
Having a child with someone is personal, profound. Wendy and I each wanted a child. We were friends and we thought we were being radical. Really we were doing something ordinary. We were being a mum and a dad. You don’t realise how intimate and intense that is. Your life becomes focused on this small person. Time passes very quickly. Suddenly you look at the other parent and think, ‘Who are you again?’ You have to take a step back and revisit your initial relationship. I think some heterosexual couples get through that and some don’t.
We had a parental agreement done soon after Leigh was born. It was very straightforward. It’s something you have to do together. Leigh has both our surnames. Wendy’s is her last surname so that’s the one that gets used at school. I’m often referred to as Mr X rather than Mr Y.
Before Leigh went to nursery, we were both keen to make sure people understood Leigh’s family. The last thing we wanted was for Leigh to draw a picture of her family and for someone to say, “Who’s that?”
That’s when I realised there’s a constant ‘coming out’ you have to do. Leigh will always have a gay parent. From the moment the pregnancy happens, there’s a story you have to tell. I’ve been explaining it ever since. The reactions I’ve had have always been positive. The constant explaining can be a bit tiresome but it’s part of the choice you make and I think it’s a responsibility you have to take for as long as you need to take it. Leigh takes it on herself more, now that she’s 15.
She hasn’t had any problems with it as far as I know. I do explicitly talk about that with her. I made a point of it when she moved up a school and I’m sure I would have been aware if there had been anything. I don’t doubt for a moment that she hasn’t overheard language that might be offensive or comments about my being a gay dad but there’s nothing that ever seems to have bothered her, nothing I know about.
It was something I was always concerned about, because it’s not in your control, so it’s a reality you may have to face. All you can do is be honest and give your child confidence in the language to use – because if there’s any secrecy, a lack of honesty in yourself, that’s going to be the weakness that’s exploited.
It was quite challenging for JJ in the early days but now he’s Leigh’s dad and she has a good relationship with him. Leigh can’t shake a stick without seeing a dad! Wendy has a long-term partner too and they have another child, who will stay with me sometimes. Knowing her too has been important because she’s Leigh’s sister and we are a family.
When Wendy and I first met each other’s families, there was never any expectation that we would be like in-laws. My family were local, Wendy’s were not. Leigh has good relationships with both families. She is also part of my partner’s family, so there’s no shortage of family in her life.
When you construct families like this, you can’t overly define the roles people will play. They’ll emerge. But you can’t under-estimate the biological link between the child and its mum and dad either. When I lived in the communal house, before Leigh was born, it was fascinating to see four gay men working out what kind of uncles they were to the child and the bond the child had with its parents.
When we had Leigh, I didn’t know anybody else who had done this. I knew there were other guys in heterosexual relationships who had had children then come out, but no-one in my situation. I know someone else now, who has become a dad recently but he’s the only one.
There are clearly some gay men who get it, who want to be dads and others who don’t. If you do, there’s just a bit more planning that needs to go into it. It’s probably the same with heterosexual men – some want children, others just do it because it’s expected. As a gay man, you need to have an extra drive or desire to do it which heterosexual men don’t even need to think about… No, that’s not fair. There are straight men who have difficulty conceiving.
I would do it again – yes! – but I’m getting a bit old now. If I was in my 30s now I would be more proactive. I’d look at surrogacy and adoption. They have a cost, they can take years and a large amount of commitment, even now, but they are real options. If it’s something you want, it’s something you’ll work around. It’s a fundamental human need, if you’re driven to be a parent.
If it’s something you don’t want, you shouldn’t do it.
My advice? If you’re going to have a child with someone, your relationship will change. If you think that’s just in heterosexual relationships, you’re kidding yourself.
Being a man who is a parent is more important to the role you play in your child’s life than being a gay dad. And you have to work out your role in relation to the mother. I think motherhood is a very powerful connection, different from the one a child has with their dad and you have to work that one out. Everyone’s different and everyone’s style is going to be different. It’s difficult to explain or understand until you’re doing it.
Parenting with someone else is difficult. There are going to be hard times and times when you feel you can rely on them. It’s not something you do in the short term. You are tying yourself to that person for life, good and bad – and you have to retain your respect for that person as a parent, for the rest of your life, for the child.