Beyond the couple
We have noted that in partners’ narratives there is a tendency to locate their commitment to their current relationship in terms of a life stage (see Chapter 4). Most saw their marriage as arriving at a particular stage in both a relationship and in life more broadly. The couples were conscious of their peers (whether heterosexual or not) and of their siblings, moving through identifiable stages such as ‘settling down’ or parenthood, and they were aligning their own relationships with what was going on around them. They were also aware of their parents’ ‘traditional’ hopes and expectations about relationships. All of these factors meant that almost all the couples we interviewed had turned their attention to the question of becoming parents.
Eight of the 25 female couples already had a child or children but none of the male couples had children. Of the eight female couples with children already, five were planning (or hoping for) another child, and of the remaining 17 couples, nine had plans either to adopt or to conceive a child through sperm donation at some time in the future. Only four positively did not want children. The male couples were in a different position, however, because those who wanted a genetically related child could only go down the surrogacy route which for most seemed rather remote. Options to adopt or foster were mentioned by eight of the 25 male couples, but these were always rather tentative plans for action in five or ten years’ time:
[A]ctually we’ve even, and this is probably a bit premature but, we’ve even you know skipped over the subject of maybe one day fostering or something. You know we haven’t had an in-depth conversation about things like that ’cause it’s too early days for us to talk about that and we haven’t got the room anyway, but you know, I think longer term I’d be quite interested in that and I think you might be as well, so you never know.
Among these young men there were those who very much did want to have children but who felt that the process of becoming parents was rather alien and outside their possible scope of action. As Oliver (210b) puts it:
Just the ways of procuring a child for a same-sex male couple – all of them seem to be fraught with difficulties for the child and for the parents.
However, the majority of the male couples did not include parenthood in their plans for the future. Some thought it might be wrong for gay male couples to have children. The main reason was their concern for how such a child might be treated in school, and this was often combined with the idea that there are enough children in the world already and that it would be better to adopt than to create a new life. Some simply said they thought children would not fit in with their lifestyle, particularly with holidays and ‘hedonism’, but one man felt even more strongly that it was wrong to have children:
I believe in a biological evolution sort of thing. I believe gay people are a control measure to keep the population down.
So although our male couples had thought about or were thinking about the possibility of having children, it did not seem as if they were influenced by a strong cultural narrative which associated civil partnership or ‘settling down’ with an inevitable desire to have children or become parents. The men could still find a comfortable cultural location outside the perimeters of parenthood (Stacey, 2006). The narrative of not having or not wanting children was still available to them, and for the majority this was perfectly agreeable space to occupy, as Otto’s (212a) comments indicate:
I don’t have a sort of need for my genes to be carried on in any way and the older I’ve got I think the more certain I’ve become in my belief that I just don’t think it’s part of who I am to actually want to have children.
It was rather different for the women for whom having children was more readily envisaged, and also more likely to be seen as desirable. Of course for the female couples it was not possible to leave getting pregnant to chance or fate; they had to be active in taking steps to achieve a pregnancy or they had to start adoption proceedings. In doing so they often became reflexively engaged in negotiating diverse possibilities. Two of the couples had actually started formally down the adoption route and were being interviewed by social services. One couple had given up on adoption because it was too taxing, and instead had decided that one of them would have to conceive a child through sperm donation. Like the men, these women often thought that it was more ethical to adopt than to bring new life into the world, but few had any experience of really trying to adopt and many who spoke of it seemed rather ill-informed about the actual process. As with some of the male couples, the women often expressed a wish to have children but not immediately because they needed to be more financially secure or they needed to have a larger home to live in. For those who were postponing having children, there was no urgency to explore avenues to conception or adoption and so it is not surprising that their plans were vague. One female couple and one male couple were also facing the issue of mixed – race parentage and so were having to think about whether they could or would be able to adopt a mixed-race child. As noted above, only four of the female couples said that they actively did not want to have children, and although she too was in a minority, Olga (126b) expressed views not utterly unlike those of Otto’s above:
I think the logistics of how lesbians come to be parents really put me off. […] I really don’t like any of the donor insemination really, of those kinds of ways of getting pregnant […] because it’s not natural […] I feel like if somebody isn’t meant to get pregnant, then that is nature sending a strong signal that that it’s not to be. And to me that doesn’t matter about the sexuality of a parent. I feel the same way about straight people who are infertile. I don’t see why they have the right to have children, and I realise that’s quite an extreme view and a lot of people would be quite upset by hearing that. But I think that if you’re trying to get pregnant in that way and it’s not working, there’s probably a good reason why, and it might be best not to interfere with it. And also this child, some day you’re going to have to explain to them how they came to be. And I can’t think of a way of explaining to them how we got the sperm, how we went about [it], I just don’t feel comfortable with that. It doesn’t seem like a very honourable thing to do in a way.
Nordqvist (2011a; 2011b) has outlined the kinds of problems that lesbian couples have to overcome if they are going to try to achieve a pregnancy through sperm donation, whether through private arrangement or through infertility clinics. Finding a sperm donor via the internet or through friends’ networks is not easy and is fraught with potential legal and interpersonal difficulties. For example, it is necessary to decide what role a known donor might have in raising a child, or it may be necessary to overcome many misgivings in acquiring sperm from a stranger in a purely financial arrangement. Equally, going to a clinic can become very expensive and the selection of donors may be quite limited. In addition, the process of trying to adopt can be quite soul-destroying not least because the couple may not meet the strict matching criteria set by a given local authority, or they may not be able to endure years of waiting for a suitable placement (Treacher and Katz, 2000). These difficulties place same-sex couples in highly stressful situations if they want to have children or additional children. Two couples (Hailee [120b] and Dawn [120a], and Kathryn [105a] and Louise [105b]) seemed to be the exception to this because both already had a child and the sperm donors they used were willing to donate again so that they could have a genetic sibling. Kathryn said:
I think we’ll have two children and that’s probably going to be it, children-wise. I always only thought I wanted two children. In recent years we’ve actually said it would be really lovely to have more children but I think because I’ve had health complications before, touch wood everything’s ok with this baby, we just feel we’ve been really lucky, somebody donated sperm to enable us to have a family and it would almost be tempting fate to have any more and we shouldn’t be too greedy really; we feel very lucky to be in the situation that we’re in. So I think we just need two, it’s more than our share sort of thing really.
By comparison, Doris (104a) and Maria (104b), who also already had one child, tried to get pregnant again by buying sperm via the internet but it failed and so they decided to settle for just one child. In this regard, same-sex couples face an entirely different set of circumstances compared with the majority of heterosexual couples. For them it is much harder to move on to what might be regarded as the ‘next stage’ of a relationship, and these difficulties create both opportunities and disadvantages. Among the opportunities for our couples was the sense of being unencumbered and the possibility therefore of travelling abroad or even settling abroad, especially where one partner was not British. Plans to travel were a strong theme in how these couples envisaged their futures. Another strong theme was the idea of moving to a more ideal location. This might be ‘to the country’, or to a more congenial city like Brighton, or just to a bigger city like Manchester. These joint projects were ways of mapping a future together so that life as a couple was also an active project, not simply a relationship.