In praise of lesbian mothers

How does living in a lesbian household affect the children? The evidence so far points to positive role models for both sons and daughters, discovers Andrew G Marshall
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Few topics stir up the passions of both the tabloid press and dinner party conversations like lesbian mothers. After recent stories about lesbians wanting to adopt and the Child Support Agency demanding the names of men who donated sperm for do-it-yourself insemination, lesbian parenting is firmly on the political agenda. Worried commentators and family campaigners have stressed how the needs of children should come before the rights of mothers. But what are the problems, if any, of being brought up in a lesbian household? Sometimes it seems that everybody has expressed an opinion, except those best qualified - the sons and daughters of lesbian mothers.

"I remember my mother asking me if I knew what a lesbian was, but being only seven I didn't really realise what she meant," says Lara Streatfield, 23 and a civil servant, whose mother came out to her children after her marriage failed. "To us as kids it all seemed quite natural and we just accepted the situation. The only time it didn't seem natural was when I told other kids that my mum was a lesbian and they didn't know what it meant either - that's when I realised it was something different."

Her brother Nic Streatfield, a 25-year-old travel consultant, was less likely to tell other people at school: "I felt what did it matter, why did it need to be raised? Your parents' sex life, what's it got to do with anything else? It's loose information you don't mention - especially when there are more important topics like football. I never lost any friends over it".

One of the fears expressed for children from lesbian households is their vulnerability to playground cruelty. Lara soon found a way to be open and protect herself: "I was very careful about who I told because when you're a kid you don't want to be different. Our mum's girlfriend at the time was called Sam and when I talked, other children would assume I meant a man. I wouldn't necessarily correct them."

When the pressure was really on both children were proud to stand up for their mother: "When there was a group discussion and someone was being quite homophobic I'd let them work themselves up and tell them 'actually my mum's a lesbian'," Nic remembers. "That normally stopped the conversation."

Psychologists always stress the importance of role models for children, so how do the sons of lesbians mothers cope in an all-female household? Nic can remember only one occasion when he was uncomfortable. "I felt very strange being male when my mum took me to Greenham Common. I got on the bus and I was only 11 and all the women were shouting for me to get off the bus because it was an all-woman movement. My mum stood up for me but I couldn't understand why they were against me."

Both children have maintained contact with their father and Nic claims to have found all the male company he needed at school. "Friends say I've done well out of it and how hard it must have been - it's just the way my life has been and to me that is normal. I've always related well to women and most of my friends are women, that's a result of my feminine orientated upbringing - I got the masculine aspects in the playground. I feel quite balanced. I was the agony uncle at school and friends would speak to me openly about their problems, knowing I wouldn't be embarrassed about anything."

Nic seems to be the sort of 'new man' that modern women are demanding - in touch with his feelings, genuinely respecting and treating women as equals. Lesbian mothers can also provide a modern role model for their daughters. Olivia Tyler is a 53-year-old businesswoman who recently married for the second time: "By my mother making her own choices and playing the provider for her girlfriend, Olga, she gave me permission to take control of my life, too." Olivia was 14 when Olga moved in and already had questions about her own sexuality: "When I realised I was growing into a woman I was horrified. I felt a woman's life was not worth living; we're talking the Fifties, being at home, being under someone's thumb, cake-making. It just did not gel with me at all. My mother's example helped me break through the Fifties stereotype."

Family campaigners are often most worried that lesbian mothers will turn their children homosexual or, worse still, put them in danger of being molested. "When I told one man about my mother, he asked 'has your mum ever come on to you?'" says Lara. "I just went 'excuse me, that's like asking me if my dad had ever hit on me'. He obviously thought homosexuality was perverted in some sense. It's ridiculous."

Nic even feels that his upbringing made questions about his own sexuality easier: "We all go through a conflict, an inner one, even if it is not voiced. I feel I got over it much quicker. I'm definitely heterosexual, I just like women too much." For Lara the issue is more complicated. "We know that whatever we do with our lives our mum will accept us. I have had pressure from the rest of my family - forever asking 'have you got a boyfriend yet?' Scared that I will turn out like my mum. I don't want to put myself into a category. If I meet someone and fall in love with them it doesn't matter if they are male or female. I don't have that conflict, my mother did when she was younger but I don't. Currently I have a boyfriend. I haven't met a woman yet and I might never."

These children of lesbian mothers have grown into well-adjusted adults, who are flexible, self-aware and have thrown off the gender stereotypes that sometimes hold the rest of us back. Surprisingly, there has been little research into the impact of being brought up by a lesbian mother, but the findings so far are very positive. Dr Fiona Tasker, a psychologist at Birkbeck College in London and author of I'm Growing Up In A Lesbian Family - Effects On Child Development (Guildford Press), studied two groups of children whose parents had divorced: one raised by lesbian mothers, the other by single heterosexual mothers. After 14 years she revisited the children to discover how they were doing as young adults. "Long-term mental health, family relationships, memories of school days and sexual identity were all tracked. We found there were no major differences between the two groups, although the young people raised by lesbians seemed to have better relationships with their mother's new girlfriend than the heterosexual group did with their stepfathers."

Perhaps our real anxieties about lesbian parenting are more deep-rooted and more personal. As busy mothers and fathers try to balance their own needs with those of their families, making lesbians into scapegoats perhaps allows everybody else to feel better without having to change. And lesbian mothers raise the fear that men are not needed - if they have merely donated the means of procreation, what's their point or purpose? These are issues that men have not even begun to address.

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