Sam and Rob may not be a traditional couple, but their commitment to each other is just as strong, says Emma Cook

SAM AND ROB are typical expectant parents-to-be. Sipping red wine in a Soho pub, they both talk excitedly of the months ahead; of how they're looking forward to the next scan; the reality of sleepless nights with a crying baby and changing nappies, the resigned acceptance that life will never be quite the same again come July. Sam's eyes light up with pride when he talks about his first response to the pregnancy. "When I found out it was just extraordinary. It was complete elation."

Except that they're not typical. Rob, an architect, and Sam, a book editor, are a gay couple who met mother-to-be Kate through an advertisement in the gay press earlier last year. Kate, also gay, has a four-year-old son, Ben, with another gay donor who sees the child regularly and plans to help out when Kate's second child is born. They all live near each other in north London.

On paper, the scenario seems extremely complicated, or as Sam admits, "a potential negotiating nightmare". Yet, as they map out their various plans and childcare arrangements, you realise it's a great deal more straightforward, emotionally at least, than so many messy domestic set-ups. But unlike the aftermath of divorce, their situation is borne out of a desire to have a child, not based around a failed relationship. So there are no hostile feelings or power games to be resolved, just a firm commitment to making things work for the sake of the child.

Sam says: "You have to be so careful about everything you say and do - you have to keep on good terms and resolve problems really quickly." And as Rob adds: "It's essential to create some sort of stability and routine."

Sam and Rob, who've been living together for about three years, began to explore the possibility of starting a family two years ago. Rob, 35, says: "We were in a situation where things were much more stable for us. We were an established couple and wanting children was really the next step." Initially Sam wanted to get married, although he laughs at the idea now, and they have both considered some sort of commitment ceremony, although Rob squirms slightly, knowing how cheesy that sounds. "I've seen it done so badly before - it's a taste issue really."

Sam, now 36, has wanted to be a father since his early thirties. "Before that it was a case of, `yes, I'm gay so I suppose I won't ever be able to be a parent'. Then I began to realise that it could be possible because of what was happening in the States - surrogacy and adoption. So it opened up a lot of emotional desires to have a kid."

They rapidly discovered, though, that as a gay male couple, most avenues for parenting were firmly closed to them. In this sense, lesbian couples have a lot more choice if they wish to start a family. According to Stonewall spokeswoman Anya Palmer, only very few gay male couples have opted for co-parenting - partly because it's so difficult to organise. "It's something that lesbian couples find it far easier to do. They can use an individual donor or opt for co-parenting."

According to Stonewall's research, one in six gay women has children, compared with one in 10 gay men, but the figures include children from previous heterosexual relationships. For male gay couples who wish to start a family from scratch, the numbers are negligible, partly because gay couples can't adopt - it's still illegal under the 1976 Adoption Act - although single people can. "It's a travesty," says Palmer. "And from the child's point of view it isn't ideal."

So Rob and Sam realised that if they wanted to be parents at all, they would have to compromise. Rob says: "Originally we'd have preferred to have done this as a couple. But there's absolutely no other way of doing it." After a series of long discussions with Kate they agreed on a 60/40 split of financial and parental responsibility; looking after the child for six days spread over a fortnight. Sam is going to start freelance working so he can enjoy more flexibility. All the co-parents plan to spend birthdays and Christmases together, as well as the odd Sunday lunch and picnic.

In those first few meetings, they hashed through every aspect of the venture; gauging each other's thoughts on schooling, health and politics. It comes across as a curiously business-like experience, until you realise that it can't really be approached in any other way. "It's quite odd", says Sam. "It's not like any other relationship that would begin and then develop. You're immediately starting out with the idea, `okay, we might make a baby of this'. You're trying to leap ahead across so many hurdles."

One of the bigger hurdles was choosing who should be the biological father. Originally it was going to be Sam but after some tests it transpired that Rob had the higher sperm count. "It was DIY" explains Rob. "Kate used one of those plastic syringes at home. It worked like a dream," he beams.

Sam, meanwhile, found that whole period gruelling. "At first I did feel differently that it was his sperm. I had real problems with it. I went through a really depressing time partly because my need to biologically reproduce was far stronger than I realised. My dad is dead and a lot of that was tied into it." Now, though, he seems quite happy that Rob is the biological father. "It's quite nice because I love Rob so much. Knowing that it's part of him makes me love the child even now - in a way that I wouldn't feel initially if I was an adoptive parent." When the time comes, says Sam, they will tell the child who the biological father is. But we'll also say that the reason he's here is down to all of us."

Still, Sam is aware that his role will be pretty unique, if not a little confusing at first. "I'm starting to appreciate how adoptive parents feel and estranged parents too."

Not that this should make any difference to the child's upbringing at all, according to psychologist Charlie Lewis, who has researched fatherhood over the last 18 years. "There's no evidence that there'll be any ambiguity about roles if the parents are gay. The point is that all parents reinvent patterns. That's what's creative about parenting, especially now that we're so detached from our extended families."

This could be even truer for gay couples, who can't rely on their own parents' support - moral or otherwise. As Sam says, "The parent has to get their head around having a gay child but then when it becomes gay- child-having-baby, it's more difficult to handle." Sam's mother, who lives in the United States, has been extremely supportive, while Rob is bracing himself to break the news to both his parents.

" It is scary because I sense disapproval", he laughs warily. "You always want to be approved of by your parents and once you show them something altemative you want them to react positively to it."

In terms of their own peer group, Sam says his straight friends are, surprisingly more tolerant about the whole venture than his gay friends. "So far we've had more resistance from our gay friends - some gay men wonder why we're buying into the established culture, the norm," Rob adds. "Most of our straight friends have kids and think it's a brilliant idea, especially in our situation, because we'll have time off every few days. They're quite envious - they think we've got the best of both worlds."