There is no one way to be a mother. Over the years, the cultural concept of ‘mum’ has slowly shifted and while there are still plenty of naysayers, the majority of people will accept that motherhood has no one look, job or role. However there are still more cultural barriers to break down, as laid bare by reactions to same-sex parents.
The experience of being what is known as the 'non-bio' or 'non-carrying' mum is a bit different from the majority of mums' experience, especially during the first nine months. Motherhood as a concept is still primarily bound to pregnancy, which the non-carrying mother doesn’t experience; the closest approximation to the non-carrying mum's experience, then, is that of fatherhood. But it is obviously ridiculous to suggest that carrying a child is the only way to be a mother. Biology is not what makes a parent but that can feel like a difficult leap for some to make.
This can lead to a lot of questions and anxieties for non-bio mums. But as for all queer families, the lack of an exact roadmap of what your family should look like is also incredibly exciting. You can define and redefine motherhood for your family and those around you. Plus, it helps that you can choose who carries.
Refinery29 spoke to 23-year-old Rhiannon, a personal trainer, about beginning to navigate life as a non-bio mum as her pregnant fiancée, Meg, approaches their due date.
My partner Meg has always wanted children and always wanted to carry children. Each of their own! It was always a given that she would carry the first one: she's five years older than me and the risk of problems is higher, and I've never been that keen on actually being pregnant. Maybe I'll get that instinct to do it in a few years, we'll see.
We did IUI (intrauterine insemination) twice – the first time it didn't happen for us. Obviously if you're trying to conceive naturally it's disappointing each month you don't get pregnant but it's extra disappointing when you've spent so much money, and you've had all the tests done, and there's been such a big build-up. Luckily we tried again and it worked the second time so we're super grateful for that.
We went through the London Sperm Bank and the sperm ranges in price: you can have a lower motility, which starts from £900 (approx. $1700 AUD), and then the higher the motility, the higher the price – up to £1,500 (approx. $2800 AUD). [Note: According to IVF Australia, it costs at least $1,855 to use a sperm donor you know, or you can spend $150 to be added to a sperm donor waitlist, and pay $785 to access an Australian donor.] On other sites it can be even more expensive, especially when pictures of the donors start getting involved. Where they can charge you and make money they will, nothing was for free – all the tests and consultations and everything would add at least £150 (approx. $280 AUD) to the bill each. Over the two turns we've probably spent at least £6,000 ($11,300).
It's a shit-ton of money. I know there's big debates about fertility funding for same-sex couples at the minute and that would be nice, but we never fully looked into it as we believed it wasn’t available for us. It was too much stress going through the NHS [the equivalent of Medicare in Australia] and that’s the last thing you want when you’re trying to have a baby. I'm just grateful that we're in a position to have children anyway. A couple of decades ago it wouldn't have been as easy.
The pregnancy is going great. Meg is a trouper and there have been no complications but we’re both exhausted all the time. I don't know how Meg is carrying a whole human in her and growing it and feeding it. As the non-carrying partner, you're a bit out of the loop for the nine months because there's not much you can do. I'm super excited for him to get here so I can then get involved, pull my weight a bit more and earn my title as a parent.
Something I do think about is that if you are biologically related to the child and they're born, they're 'yours' regardless of what you do or don't do. I know it shouldn't matter and it's really not that big of a thing to me. But something that crosses my mind is that I need to go above and beyond to make a point that I am this child's parent. I know it shouldn't be like that but there's a part of me that needs to fulfil that desire, that need.
I know that I am his mum as much as Meg, and anyone that matters to us sees me as that. But occasionally things happen that remind you you’re not always seen that way, like when we're in a midwife appointment and hear other people referred to as 'dad' or 'mum' and I'm always referred to as 'the partner'. It's like they're not sure what to say. People have actually asked me a lot: "What are you going to be called then?" Someone even said to me: "Are you going to be called mummy or daddy?" She was a bit older and didn't mean anything by it. Where I live in the UK (Norwich) is not backward, just there's not a lot of colour, diversity or difference. So sometimes people literally just haven't seen a lesbian before and don't know how to react. But it's not malice so I don't get offended by anything anyone says unless it's obviously offensive. The way I see it is that I don't know a lesbian couple who've had a baby myself, I've never seen that dynamic. So I didn't have anything to go on! Let alone some 52-year-old cis straight woman who has never probably left my city. It's a learning experience for everyone around us.
Once he’s arrived, we can’t get away from Meg being a primary caregiver while she’s hopefully breastfeeding because that's just what the baby wants. But because we don't have a set of ideals and stereotypes to follow along with, our personalities will naturally dictate our roles in the relationship. It's got nothing to do with the fact that I'm the slightly more masculine-presenting one so I'm going to take him to the football games! I'm going to be the one working so there will be some things I just can't do because I won't be there as much as Meg. But we'll just see how it goes. You can't plan these things.
As soon as he was conceived I was his legal parent. We're not married or in a civil partnership yet so we had to go through the clinic and sign some consent forms to make me the legal parent. If we hadn't gone through that route, I would have had to have formally adopted my child. I haven't got any fears or worries about that. My biggest worry is when he gets to school. Where we live isn't the most diverse place in the world so he will probably be the only one of a handful of children with same-sex parents. I worry a bit about navigating that whole system and making sure we’re treated the same as mum and dad, for him and for us. But honestly, I haven't really thought about what could go wrong or what struggles we're gonna face. I feel like if you think about those things they end up coming to you in some form. So I'm just trying to stay positive and hope that whatever happens, we'll just navigate to the best outcome.
I feel like in the LGBTQ+ community we're so scared because all we see is horror stories a lot of the time. We very rarely see happy families portrayed doing everyday, normal things and getting through life with limited problems when it comes to sexuality. So I'm just trying to think like that.
The most important thing for me is that people treat the non-bio parent the way they would the bio parent. Don't ask silly questions, like: "Are you worried you're not going to be related to them?" "What are you going to be called?" Even though they're not offensive questions, you wouldn't ask a dad that, you wouldn't ask the carrying mother. Just treat us exactly how you would any normal pregnant couple! We're not different from any other family, we're just two girls having a baby. That's it.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity