Lesbian mother-to-be and Master of Nursing student Kristal Rose O’Neill gives us the low-down on the new wave of lesbian mothers in New Zealand – the joys and pitfalls, challenges and aspirations.
When it comes to academia, the GLBT community is well covered – many scholars choose our community as the focal point for their study and from their hard work, we learn more about ourselves and the way we work. Kristal Rose O’Neill is one such researcher.
Kristal chose the lesbian baby boom as her focus for her Masters of Nursing. As a lesbian herself, Kristal has had an interest in the experience of lesbian women within healthcare and was prompted to undertake a thesis which contributed to knowledge of lesbians and their relationships. There are increasing numbers of children being born to lesbian couples in New Zealand – the lesbian baby boom – who have planned their children together, known as “planned families”. Kristal’s work is focussed on the impact planning a family can have on lesbian couples.
Two years after commencing her research, the lesbian baby boom is of personal interest to Kristal – as you can see from the photo above, she is just weeks away from giving birth to her and her partner’s baby! Learning about the baby boom before she began her own journey has helped Kristal draw parallels between her own experience and her participants’ foresight as her own journey progressed. Here, Kristal outlines the joys and pitfalls of becoming a lesbian parent.
Over time, plenty of research has been undertaken that focuses on heterosexual couples’ transition from coupledom to a family. In heterosexual circles, this transition from “just the two of us” to nuclear family is largely accepted as being a difficult and strenuous time – the transition impacts on the couple, changing the dynamics of the relationship; it can lead to dissatisfaction as roles are also polarised (male/female-breadwinner/housewife). However, there is a lack of research within both a New Zealand and international context which addresses the question of how becoming parents impacts on the lesbian couple relationship in planned families. This study sought to address this gap. The findings emphasised a unique experience of this transition which impacted on the lesbian relationship.
Eight amazing and generous women were interviewed across three of New Zealand’s metropolitan city areas, all of whom had conceived children within planned families and were recruited through advertising. All women, along with their partner (or ex-partner), had primary parenting relationships with their children; none had co-parenting arrangements. The women were all Pakeha/European and all had completed university study ranging from Diploma to Masters level. They ranged in age from their early 30’s to late 40’s.
In particular, the women were asked to identify key changes which were of significance in becoming parents. These changes were explored in relation to how they affected the relationship. Women were also asked about the responses from friends, family and health professionals during the transition to parenthood and data was analysed using queer theory.
Many rivers to cross
It was found that lesbian women face a number of challenges in the transition to parenthood. Lesbians must go to lengths to achieve a pregnancy, as they must find a suitable donor before attempting to conceive. This could be challenging for the couple, as well as time-consuming and sometimes costly.
Post-birth, participants reported experiences similar to heterosexual couples. Exhaustion ruled. One participant said, “I felt like I went a bit loopy for a while”. Tiredness impacted on the relationship by changing communication (more arguments), sexual relationships (less sex) and also impacting on shared leisure time and personal freedom.
Women found that they prioritised their parenting relationship rather than their couple relationship, which meant that some had feelings of being displaced or distant to their partner. Despite these challenges, some women reflected upon strengths associated with their relationship in becoming parents “cos you see each other when you’re at your most vulnerable ever, but also when you’re at your strongest”. There was also a sense of appreciation and feeling “privileged” to have had children, particularly given the long periods of time some couples had spent in planning and conceiving. Clearly all couples strove to give children healthy and loving homes.
The naysayers surface
Sadly, couple relationships were impacted by societal heteronormativity and homophobia. Several couples had faced challenges in relation to maintaining acceptable boundaries with their donor. This impacted on their relationship as they were forced to negotiate territory with donors which they had not foreseen. “We should have been a lot clearer”, one woman said in hindsight. Couples needed to defend their relationship, as this was instrumental in them being the primary parents for their children. While responses from others, such as friends, were relatively benign and generally supportive, family responses could be hurtful or negative, particularly in the stages of planning or following the announcement of a pregnancy for instance. Others had encouraging and positive family support, which couples valued.
Despite some familie’s initial reactions, most who struggled with the two-mother concept were supportive as time wore on. However, an emphasis on biology (the donor being the ‘dad’ for instance), meant that there was a lack of recognition sometimes apparent for non-biological mothers. Participants therefore needed to constantly ‘come out’, not just as a couple but also as a family, so that the two mothers could be recognised as two mothers!
In terms of health professionals, responses to the couples ranged from positive and supportive, to insulting and misinformed. For some women, negotiating the health care system involved issues of power dynamics; women were therefore afraid to challenge judgemental attitudes. “But it was just because they had so much power over our lives that really mattered,” one participant said of her experience within a fertility clinic.
Several women had struck health professionals who failed to acknowledge the couple relationship appropriately or had moral objection to the family. One participant gave a shocking example.
“She had the most appalling ideas about lesbian relationships… she said things during the interview like ‘it would be better for the child if you found someone in the pub, slept with them and got pregnant, because at least then your child would know who the father was’.” Unsurprisingly, it was found that lesbians seek lesbian-friendly health professionals. Interestingly and perhaps encouragingly, women who had younger children reported more positivity and acceptance within society and the healthcare arena than the women interviewed with older children.
A world of opinions
Lesbians exist within a world where their identity and relationships are impacted by the attitudes and perceptions of others. With the addition of children comes unique challenges that must be negotiated in being a “lesbian family in a straight world”. While this study had many interesting findings, further research is required – particularly in the area of finding people from diverse cultural backgrounds to interview.
The study also concluded with a number of recommendations. Increased visibility and legislatory protection are required to assist lesbian couples on their journey to becoming a family. It is recommended that professionals working within teaching, nursing and social work professions are assisted in education around planned lesbian families, and are trained in providing culturally safe care to couples and their children, as this is fast becoming a family of modern day New Zealand.
Kristal Rose O’Neill
Kristal Rose O’Neill (Roache) – pictured with her partner, has a BHSc, Masters of Nursing, RN and was awarded the Frontier Medical Award for clinical and academic excellence in her BHSc. Kristal entered a Mental Health New Graduate programme and completed a PGCert in 2005 and in 2008 completed a PGDip with Distinction. Kristal has worked fulltime as a mental health nurse and more recently as a clinical educator. Her first year of Masters research was funded through Te Pou as part of the Clinical Leadership Programme. Kristal extends special thanks to Dr Helen Hamer and Dr Robyn Dixon who supervised this thesis and to the participants of the study.