Interview: For Nancy, happiness is a two-Mum family: Two lesbians bringing up their little girl in Camden Town: oh very right-on, you might think. How can this be a nice normal home?
Nancy is eight. A happy, straightforward, bright little girl, as far as I could see, sitting chatting to her on the stairs. She's in the Brownies, goes to music lessons, attends the local primary school. She has two 'Mums' because both her parents are women.
Angela is her biological mother, who gave birth to her with the help of artificial insemination. Angela's partner, these last 20 years, is Elizabeth. They thought out most things, being good, caring, well-educated, highly qualified, nay distinguished, professionals; but of course you can't plan everything.
Such as what names to use when you appear to have two mothers. Strange or what, their domestic arrangements? Are they brave, are they pioneers? Or selfish and self-indulgent?
Until recently unmarried mothers were shunned, socially unacceptable. Now, as single parents, they are accepted in every street, every stratum. Will lesbians having children soon be commonplace, unremarked upon by their local communities? If so, huzzah for Angela and Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Wilson is a professor of social sciences at the University of North London, the author of 10 academic books and two novels. She is the older partner, late forties, so we'll start with her.
She's wearing a neat saffron-coloured jacket and tight jeans. Her red hair is cut short. She speaks with a cockney accent. Quite a surprise, considering she went to St Paul's and Oxford. Her father was in the colonial service, then her parents divorced and she was brought up in London by her mother. 'The background of my parents was people committing adultery all over the place - divorce was very difficult. I had a gloomy childhood. I was horrible to my mother in my teens, refused to speak to her for months.'
She enjoyed school, and excelled academically, but found Oxford less rigorous and her fellow female students at St Anne's disappointing. 'Here we had the so-called cleverest women in the country, and all they were thinking about was marriage and having babies. 'We'll go to the movies tonight,' they'd say to each other, 'unless, of course, a man invites us out.' So demeaning, when women undervalue themselves and overvalue men.'
She considered herself socially a Bohemian and sexually a lesbian, but this didn't stop her sleeping with a bloke. 'All around me women were 'saving themselves', as they did in those days, so I thought I'd try it. I thought he was glamorous. My mother spied on us, then she told his father. I've had heterosexual affairs since, but not as a continuum.'
After Oxford, she went to the LSE and trained as a social worker, working for a year in a children's home. 'That's when I changed my accent. They teased me and couldn't understand what I was saying.
'I wasn't very good at social work. I think I understand people, but I don't think I'm nice enough. I couldn't handle the practical things, like getting people money and allowances. I also thought social workers were homophobic and anti-women, wanting them to stay at home.'
She supervised LSE students, becoming part of a radical academic crowd, and joined a women's group, part of the newly formed Gay Liberation Movement. 'It was a wonderful time, the late Sixties. I remember going into the women's lavatories at LSE and seeing all this graffiti for the first time. 'My mother made me a homosexual.' 'If I gave her the wool, would she make me one, too?' 'They put a man on the moon - why can't they put them all there?' Life was so exciting.'
She was living with another woman, but the relationship was weakening. 'There was a new order, the end of centuries of sexual repression. Five years earlier, people did not sleep together. Suddenly, everything changed. I hate to think it was the Pill that changed attitudes, but it probably was. It was a time of sexual availability. You looked out for people you fancied.' This was when Angela came along.
Angela Mason sits at the table solemnly, speaks measuredly, as befits someone who for 10 years worked as a principal solicitor in local government. She has recently taken over as full-time director of Stonewall, an organisation that lobbies for gay and lesbian equality. Sir Ian McKellen is a founder. At present they are involved in a campaign for an equal age of consent.
Her clothes are more conservative, but she has a lovely smile. (One does worry, when meeting serious activists, but in fact they made all the jokes, poking fun at themselves.) Angela's accent is pukka, one of her many sea changes along the way. Her background is working-class Kent, from a line of servants - maids, cooks, chauffeurs. 'We both come from a lost world,' says Elizabeth, the colonial child, interrupting. 'Sorry, Angie.'
Angela has twin sisters, younger than herself, and led a happy, normal childhood. She went to grammar school, Bedford College, London, did research at LSE, then taught in a training college.
As a student she got involved in radical politics, took part in several demonstrations and got herself arrested. It was when her mother came to see her in custody that she revealed her sexual identity. 'I said something like, 'Oh, by the way mum, I'm a lesbian,' but she was too worried about everything else to take it in.'
Her sisters did not believe her at first, thinking it was a stage she would pass through, but now they are supportive.
She met Elizabeth at a gay liberation meeting. All they did that first time was argue - mainly about whether women should have their own separate organisation.
Angela had not lived with a woman before Elizabeth. They moved around for a while, often in communal houses, before settling in their own house, jointly owned, in Camden Town. Eventually, Angela left teaching to train as a solicitor. 'My experience of being arrested had given me a taste for the law.' Loud laughs.
It was in the early Eighties that the subject of having a baby came up. 'I thought Angela was off her rocker at first,' says Elizabeth. 'I had accepted that being lesbians meant not having babies. I suppose I'd never thought about it before. And I can't say I was desperately keen.'
'But I accepted it stoically.'
'It was you who said I should have a baby, if I wanted to.'
Angela's reason was simple. 'I thought it would be nice to have a baby. All very narcissistic, I know. I think it was partly that I had a happy childhood and Elizabeth didn't'
At the same time, she realised their action might be seen as 'socially outrageous and dangerous', and thought that what they were doing might be unique, till they heard of other lesbian couples doing the same. 'That often happens in life,' says Elizabeth, 'thinking you're alone, but you're part of a trend.'
They thought of finding a willing male to help out, then decided to go to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which was offering donor insemination, no questions asked, mainly to help women with infertile husbands. They liked the clinical conditions, and the fact that donors were checked for Aids.
It took several months, dashing round London in taxis, keeping a record of dates and temperatures. 'A one-night stand would certainly have been easier and quicker.'
She was asked what characteristics she would like in her child-to-be. 'So I said I'd like a socialist, please.'
'Not possible,' she was told, that has to be done by nurture, not nature. So she played the game and asked for someone tall, with dark hair and blue eyes.
The birth was difficult. A month beforehand, her placenta took a wrong turning and she had to lie flat on her back in hospital. 'We didn't waste the time,' says Elizabeth. 'We wrote an article for British Women's Movement.'
As the birth approached, Elizabeth wasn't sure of her role, whether she would have to play the father figure. She went to parents' classes and put on a doctor's robe, ready for the birth, but wasn't present, as Angela had a Caesarean. 'I wouldn't have watched anyway. I'm too squeamish.'
Nancy was born on Elizabeth's birthday, weighing 7lb 12oz, blue eyes, but fair hair. They brought her home in a heatwave. A nurse had said the baby must be kept warm, so they put the central heating on. 'It explained why she was going red in the face and practically passing out, till the district nurse arrived and opened all the windows.'
More guffaws when they remembered the early days of making up a bottle for the baby. 'The kitchen was full of ex-lovers and professors, rushing around not knowing what to do.'
They made no secret of the birth in the neighbourhood, and have felt no social antagonism, but then it is Camden Town, not rural Cumbria. 'I agree that living in NW5 has made acceptance easier, but babies are their own ambassadors. When people see a healthy, happy baby and a happy mother, everyone responds positively.'
When Nancy was a few months old they moved to California for six months, where Elizabeth was a visiting professor at Stanford. 'She went out to work while I stayed at home,' says Angela. 'That's the only time I've ever felt like a housewife.'
Back in London, with both at work, they got a baby minder through the council - a lesbian baby minder, so it turned out. Good ol' Camden Council. Now that Nancy is older, they make do with a cleaner plus friendly neighbours, but one of them is usually there when school finishes.
From the beginning they explained to Nancy where she had come from, even as early as two when she started nursery school, using the simplest terms: 'We wanted very much to have a baby, so we got you in a special way, from a special place.' They even took her to see the clinic, but she has no memory of that.
Since she started primary school, they have told her the whole story. If the subject appears forgotten, they bring it up, to remind her. 'We try to make sure that she does have an opportunity to express any negative feelings about not having a father.'
They have kept in close touch with her teachers and other parents, and so far there appears to have been no teasing. 'Her peers are now at an age when they pick up words like 'poof' and 'queer' as terms of abuse, but I think she can deal with that. In the future, I'm sure there will be worse things,' Angela says. (Incidentally, the word 'queer' is now back as an acceptable term in homosexual circles. I picked up a proof of Elizabeth's next crime novel, The Lost Time Cafe, out from Virago in June, and asked what it was about. 'Queer politics,' she said.)
The early teens will probably be the worst for Nancy, when she starts at the local comprehensive. By the sixth form, things should be better. Being middle-class parents will be a help, they think, knowing the ropes, knowing the laws. It's working- class lesbians who suffer most. They don't enjoy talking about their daughter in public, but they realise that in a way she is public property. 'She is a public child, made possible by the changes in attitudes in the last 10 years, and by the legal and social changes,' says Angela. 'We hope we are helping to break down the taboos society has about gays and lesbians, the fears associated with the idea of gays having children: one, the children will be brought up gay; two, there will be child abuse.
'Our experience suggests that parenting has nothing to do with sexual orientation. There are good parents and bad parents, that's all. As for child abuse, it is much more likely to happen in heterosexual families.
'We expect she will turn out heterosexual, but we don't care either way. We're more worried about whether she'll be good at school work. As children grow up, you realise you have less influence than you think you will.'
'I do worry that she might over-romanticise men,' says Elizabeth, 'overvaluing them because we have few around.'
'Oh, we do have men around,' says Angela. 'There's a full range among our relations. I think she'll turn out more sympathetic, because she has seen our lesbian and gay community. She knows our difficulties, that we are not equal yet, that there are lot of battles still to be won.'
As parents, Elizabeth is more the disciplinarian, Angela the softie, but Angela thinks Nancy is closer in character to Elizabeth. 'They can discuss things like fashion, which I'm not interested in.'
They did try for a second child, but Angela was unable to conceive. It might have been a boy this time, as lesbians tend to have boys. 'That is our experience,' says Elizabeth, 'and medically I understand there is more chance of a boy when you conceive in that way, but more research will have to be done.'
Angela has always been called Mum, but Elizabeth varies between Elizabeth, Mum and, for a while, 'Carent', which they rather liked. Nancy made this up, having heard them use the word 'carer', as good social workers do, and combined it with 'parent'. 'My Carent is coming to school today,' she told a teacher.
Calling them both Mum on the card is unusual, but it was Christmas. 'And she is a very sweet, delightful child,' says Elizabeth.
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