I was 28 years old and newly married when I started talking to my partner, Kellie, about having a child. I always knew I wanted to be a parent. Kellie had never been sure. We had married anyway, sure the problem would resolve itself. If we had been a straight couple, it probably would.
Sometimes straight people have lengthy discussions about whether or not they want to become parents. Sometimes it takes them months or even years to make and rethink plans, to come up with ideas about how to pay for daycare, where to go to daycare, and who is changing diapers.
Sometimes they do. Often they don’t. Often, for better for worse, heterosexual couples just go ahead and have kids. Sometimes conception happens by chance: a condom breaks, an IUD fails. Sometimes conception is intentional, as in, let’s just try once and see what happens. Sometimes bodies make choices in the heat of a moment while the prefrontal cortex, lulled by arousal, is too calm to protest.
When we talk about planned and unplanned pregnancies, we pretend there is a clear line that separates the two. On one side are the babies who came into this world with a clear intention. On the other hand are the unexpected babies. However, this is not the case. Line up the babies and you have a spectrum, a whole range between planned and unexpected, with most of them sitting somewhere in the middle.
A recent study showed that women who wanted to have children are far less likely to choose long-acting reversible contraceptives such as IUDs and implants. In other words, the woman who says she wants a child in three years’ time is not so inclined to choose a form of birth control that is almost certain to support that plan.
In some ways this is not rational. If you know you want to have a child in three years’ time, make sure you don’t get pregnant early. In another sense, these decisions perfectly follow the sly logic of the heart: sometimes we want to leave a little space in life so that our dreams can surprise us. We may not really want total control over our life course.
According to a survey by Pew Research, when asked why they chose children, almost half of all parents said, “There was no reason, it just happened.”
But for most lesbian couples, a baby cannot “just happen”. Almost all babies born to lesbian parents sit at the planned end of the baby constellation. I say “almost” because there are sapphic couples where one partner is trans and has semen to offer, or couples who are not monogamous where one or both partners occasionally sleep with men.
And I’m sure there are lesbian couples out there with willing male friends who got pregnant on a whim, a lark at the end of a joyful or noisy evening. But for the most part, lesbians as a group need to approach parenting with intent and caution.
For many, this is not only due to the biological hurdle, but also because we don’t have a clear idea of queer parenting.
In theory, I grew up knowing that lesbians could be parents, but I’d never known a family with two mothers. I’d never seen one on TV or read about it in a book. This is how often the weird works: we are told it exists but the evidence is withheld. Queer families may be everywhere, but they are often not seen.
Kellie had always been part of a huge strange community in her adult life. She had a few lesbian friends who raised children as single mothers, but she didn’t know any strange couples who raised children together. The role of the adoptive mother who would become parents side-by-side with the pregnant mother was undefined and frightening for her, a role that could not be guaranteed.
Would she automatically love her child? Would their lack of biological connection make sense and be obvious? Would it hurt her? Kellie barely spoke of these fears. Instead, our discussion has been coded. When she said, “I hope our babies look like you,” I said, “I hope they don’t look like a stranger.” I picked up their fear and carried them. We had never heard anyone talk about such things before.
Kellie had to consider her own private feelings and then the reaction of the whole world. When heterosexual couples decide to become parents, they need to worry about money, space, careers, and how to deal with gender roles.
Queer people, like those in other marginalized groups, have to consider all of these things and more: we don’t know how our children are being treated or who might try to take them away from us. We don’t know how our children will feel when asked, “Where is your father?” or “Why do you have two mothers?”
In the years after marrying Kellie, I felt a twinge of jealousy every time a straight woman I knew revealed a pregnancy that was both welcome and unexpected. “It just happened like that,” an acquaintance could say, a hand on her belly.
I wish pregnancy could happen to me, I didn’t have the pressure to think it through. I was sure that if Kellie could simply consent to parenting through her body, not her mind, we could avoid conflict – if one day we could just slip under the covers and be sloppy. A child could just “just happen”. I wish such a life change could come to me suddenly and easily without my asking for it.
But I had to ask. I had to ask a lot and keep asking. Our decision to have a child required a dialogue that spanned years of our lives together.
And of course, once we got the question of whether we would have a child, we still had to ask how we would introduce ourselves.
Jennifer Berney is a writer, teacher, and parent based in Olympia, Washington. Her upcoming book, The Other Mothers, tells the story of her journey into parenthood and the obstacles she faced as the odd woman in the fertility industry. https://jenniferberney.com/
(This essay was adapted from The Other Mothers: Two Wives’ Journey to Find the Family That Always Was Theirs. Copyright 2021 by Jennifer Berney. Published by Sourcebooks. All rights reserved.)