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Fearfully Fifteen – by RJ Miles

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This is a submission for Black Inc’s anthology, Growing up Queer in Australia. For more information or to submit your own coming out story, click here

Author’s note: Time is compressed in this narrative for the sake of flow and brevity.

Introduction

When I was about nine years old, I was in the normal, exploratory phase; you know, the one where you tip a half a bottle of moisturiser onto your open hands and lubricate yourself so you can feel your fleshy insides? Well, the first time I did that, I felt a fleshy, inverted bump with a hole at the end of it that I could not explain – until I flicked through a medical magazine and saw a full colour diagram of a flaccid penis. That inverted bump felt like the exact tip of a penis. Sometimes I wondered if I’d been changed at birth. You know, so my parents could have one of each. It would explain these feelings I’d been having. Weren’t you meant to like girls if you had a penis? It seemed I had one growing inside of me.

Part I

 

Six years later. Bundaberg, four six seven oh. A curious and difficult place, still heavy from the conservatism of a bygone era. The city itself was stitched together with ties that were thicker than water and went way back. For instance, the people I shared a classroom with all seemed to be linked to one another in some way – whether their great-great-grandaddies worked together on the cane fields back when the island folk were blackbirded into sugar-cane slavery, or whether they’d grown up together and adopted the title of ‘cousin’, despite having no relational ties. I always felt like I was caught up in this web of familiarity around me, one disclosure away from hanging myself in the tangle of my darkest secret. Me, I seemed to collect secrets in different shades of dark grey. One of my lesser ones was being expelled from school back in 2003 for creating illegal online content. My darkest and most closely-held secret was my sexual and romantic interests. It placed me outside the glass world of my peers, where I could stare inside but not be a part of it. It was a perfect vantage point to observe the dynamics, including the façade my newest love interest seemed to put on. I could never quite tell if she was gay or not, but the enigma kept me interested.

“Aye luv, just the usual?” The barista’s chipper voice cut through my thoughts for a moment and I remembered that was the one endearing aspect of living in a small place – they never got your order wrong.

“Yes, please. Just the iced coffee with three marshmallows and whipped cream.”

“All right.” She turned to the grinder to start preparing my fluffy sugar hit. I took a moment to inhale and enjoy the rich, chocolate coffee smell in the air.

“You still at the Christian College, luv?” she inquired.

“Uh, yeah,” I replied, trying to shut down the conversation. I hadn’t been enjoying it, though I should have been. After all, my parents uprooted our whole family life and separated from my brother just to bring me here, to curtail a burgeoning teenage rebellion back in the big city. She sensed my detachment and shot back bluntly.

“Well, here’s your coffee. $4.” She pushed a plastic coffee cup towards me and turned her back on my rewards card. I felt momentarily guilty for my short reply, but it was more socially acceptable than saying, ‘I’m so glad to be on holidays from that fascist snake pit. The only thing standing between myself and my own epithet is the promise that things may be better in a decade, but that feeling is fading fast.’ Hmmm, yeah. Probably best to keep that to myself. Suicidal ideation was not exactly polite banter in the coffee shop.

I knew then as I sat at that table, stabbing my marshmallows with a plastic straw, that I should tell somebody and find out if all this was normal. The whole gay thing was sitting just below my skin like a tell tale heart, ready to break through and give me away. Nonetheless, I felt oddly ready to break open my soul, no matter the consequences. I was tired of living lies. It was an exhausting existence, only added to by the boredom and trauma of small-place life. In a school with a hundred students, there were few places to hide unless you were wagging school.

As I traipsed into school the following Monday, it wasn’t just the bag on my shoulders that weighed me down to the floor. It was the King James Bible and the weight of this heavy secret, thumping under my skin, around my bones, and through my veins. I made a point of looking around, still feeling like I was far adrift outside of this world I didn’t belong to.

“Hey, why so serious?” The girl I’d had my eye on for the past year and a half shot into my view through my periphery, her earth eyes scanning me, trying to read my mind.

“Uh… nothing. Just thinking about the science exam we’re doing this afternoon. Flaccid, turgid? I can’t even remember which one is which…”

She chortled, as we both straightened our backpacks and walked to our first class, which was double agricultural science. We were slightly late, but nobody seemed to notice because they were all so transfixed on what was going on in front of them. The teacher didn’t break his focus for a second.

“What we’re going to do,” he said, rubbing the silver, phallic implement with a sense of sickly anticipation – “Is we’re going to move the bull into this squeeze chute so he can’t move.”

“C’mon, stud,” he persisted, as the bull had stopped momentarily, stamping its foot on the concrete, dusty ground beneath him. He eventually complied and moved forward.

As the gate shut behind him, his hoof scraped the concrete below, exhaling with a stubborn grunt. He started to shift his weight around, his hips and thighs brushing the metal gates on either side. With careful precision, Mr H slid the implement inside, penetrating at a slight angle. The bull heaved and shuffled, but he was constrained, unable to move much.

“Whoo! Whoo!” he pushed harder and the bull continued writhing against his false, manly comfort.

As the device sent its invisible rays of artificial pleasure pulsing through the animal, he moaned with a rising intonation, the mechanical orgasm tightening his underside. The specimen dropped through the funnel held between his legs by the farmhand, his crow’s feet grimacing as he aimed the funnel and cup in just the right place. For all the effort, a few drops of potential life fell into the clear cup, quickly sealed to prevent leakage. Solitary globs of rich, thick fluid; it didn’t seem like much at all, but that very cup contained millions of opportunities for the beginning of life. It also contained the potential for profit, depending on how much meat was made from each resulting calf.

“And this is how you extract sperm,” he said, with a cavalier, unusually satisfied half smile.

How unromantic. I could not believe that this teacher, who had just entered an animal with an electrical, metal dildo so he could artificially inseminate another cow, realised his own cognitive dissonance. I’m sure it was interpreted in the conservative scripture somewhere to not artificially create life inside of an animal, probably weaved through all the same verses in Leviticus that forbade gay relationships. I wondered if anyone else was thinking what I was thinking. Probably not. When I’d looked around, I was surrounded by completely uniform blank stares, the same as when we were praying, only with eyes wide open, except for the girl with the earthly eyes. She was looking across through the gate at me, though she looked away quickly when our eyes connected.

“Now… who wants to look under the microscope?” Mr H had the sealed cup of little swimmers inside his shirt pocket.

I raised my hand, slowly, unsure if it was a loaded question or not (you just never knew in religious places – anything could be a loaded question). I didn’t want to be the only one, but curiosity got the better of me in the end.

“Could I have a look?”

Squinting through the microscope, I saw the minuscule particles of life, swimming back and forth under the glass. I wasn’t the least bit disgusted, but suddenly, a thought hit me. My biggest fear in loving women wasn’t the fact itself; it was the idea that I may never have children of my own. Of course, I had entertained options like fostering children or having brief encounters with men, but none of these seemed fair for all parties. Plus, I wanted to birth my own child. Not right then, but in the future.

As soon as I’d started wrestling with these feelings proper, I booked in to see the school ‘therapist.’ You see, when you’re stuck in a small town, they don’t hire qualified therapists in schools. They choose the most seemingly empathetic parent in the community who may have some church-based qualification to listen to the concerns of the worried well. I recall sitting outside her office, scratching my nails into my wrist to make little crescent moons, both anxious and frustrated about this appointment I had made without my parent’s prior knowledge. I had to know for sure, and every teenage psychological journey needs a Sherpa.

“Hi, Rebecca. What brings you to me today?”

I swallowed and looked out the window, wondering what this pent-up, Pentecostal community would think of me as I am. I didn’t have to wonder too hard, though. It had already been covered in our Christian Living classes.

“Um… well… I’ve been having these feelings and I don’t know if they’re OK or not.”

In that moment, all I wanted was for her to guess what I was about to disclose and affirm me; tell me that it would be okay and that coming out would not cause the sky to fall in. Instead, she had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.

“Right.” She tapped her pen on her clipboard, scribbled a couple of notes and returned her gaze to me.

“Do you want to tell me some more about these feelings?”

I continued to look away as I collected my thoughts. She seemed cold and unusually detached from the counselling process. Although I didn’t have much experience with such things, she didn’t seem to understand what I was getting at.

“You know that feeling you get when you touch up against someone and you feel seasick?”

Awkwardness welled up in the pause between us.

“Yeah…? That is normal at your age, Rebecca. It means you may like someone. It doesn’t mean you have to act on it.”

“Right.”

“Um… look. Here’s a pamphlet that might help you deal with some of those urges.”

She handed me an A4 glossy infographic that detailed 101 THINGS YOU CAN DO INSTEAD OF SEX.

“Thanks…” I slunk away awkwardly and crumpled the paper into my pocket, only to pull it out again at recess.

“Make gingerbread men? Go to the movies? Fly a kite?” The girl I had a major crush on thought it was as ridiculous as I did.

We all giggled between bites of our sandwich.

“I know, right? And what do you do if kite-flying leads to sex?”

I crumpled the paper into a ball and pegged it into the bin, along with my sandwich crusts. It was a perfect shot.

“They must think we’re all ingenues. Or idiots.”

Even though I liked someone in our friendship group and considered myself accepted by my friends, I had never floated the idea that I liked women. I felt so inexperienced and unsure. What if I lost all my friends and became the object of ridicule for the rest of my schooling life? I couldn’t imagine. My parents had already moved our family away from the city because I was beginning to go off the rails back there. I had been expelled from school six months into year 8 because of choices I had made, so the next logical step was obviously to go 360km north to a place where we knew nobody to “start over.” So there I was, stuck in that backwards place with mostly backwards people and I just knew the whole gay thing wouldn’t fly; yet, I couldn’t go on deceiving myself. If the school therapist wouldn’t listen, then I would find someone who could.

The next day’s morning bell went and everyone shuffled off to their first class – Relationships and Self – which was where the roll was marked and notices were handed out. I still had the cow conception on my mind and I had been weighing up my own future in the mean time. While we were waiting for the second bell to send us off to our first real class of the day, I walked over to the door to deliver a blunt and provocative message.

“Miss, I think I’m gay.

She raised one badly plucked eyebrow, completely unsure of what to say next.

“What?”

“I like women. Like, more than a friend.”

Her eyebrow dropped and her face turned into a scowl. She struggled to find words, but given she was a local, she had strongly formed opinions already.

“Well, I sure hope you’ve thought of the consequences of that before making such a significant life decision…”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you may be fifteen now, but who knows, maybe one day you’ll want a family of your own. I know I didn’t want kids at your age but you just never know. Maybe you’ll want kids.”

“Dyke!” A blonde, wiry boy up the back yelled in my direction, but I ignored him as the rest of the class erupted with laughter.

“Sure, miss. I’ve done my research. You know how we were out on the farm the other day? Well, I was pretty sure humans would be smart enough to do the exact same, so I went on the internet to see what I could find. Turns out two women can do the same thing, you just don’t need an electric dildo or a metal squeeze chute.”

Her face descended into red fury, and I knew I had taken it one step too far.

“LEMON!” The boy up the back continued, and the whole class was in fits of laughter. That was when the teacher made her biggest mistake of the conversation.

“Yeah, and how exactly do you plan to do that?”

The uproarious laughter died down, and I cleared my throat.

“Welllllll, miss…. Based on my research, you get the sperm and the doctor uses equipment to fertilise the egg. They can do it inside you, or in a dish… then they put it back. Hey presto, baby!”

“That is… INAPPROPRIATE!”

“Miss, that’s homophobic.”

At that exact moment, the bell went. I straightened my shoulders and walked out, without scuffing my Converse for a moment. I had no idea what was coming, but I got the feeling that things were going to be all right.

Part II/Prologue

I am aware that it is such a tired cliché to say that ‘it gets better’, but it really does. Once that weight had lifted off my shoulders, people knew they had nothing on me anymore. They could call me names and push me around but because I had owned my identity, their words were basically powerless.

Right after I came out, the school therapist, principal, and deputy called both of my parents into the school without me. They laid out their concern, which was that my “lifestyle choice” was no longer compatible with the Christian ethos of the school. My Dad rightfully pointed out that the son of the school’s P&C president had been caught having sex on school camp, yet hadn’t been punished.

“That’s none of your business and not worth discussing.”

Their response, their silence towards my faith life was all of the vindication I needed to move forwards with my life.

I spent the last two years of high school in the public system, which was in no way perfect, but it was better for me and my “lifestyle choice.” Year 12 was the year our music teacher resigned. She was quickly replaced by an openly gay teacher who played the bass guitar and a whole lot of other stringed instruments. During that time, I wrote a coming out song, which she performed on school assembly with me. It was the bravest, most uncertain moment of my life, but I’m glad I did it.

As I moved into my adult life, I was fortunate enough to meet my wife, who had experienced as much of a difficult time as I had in coming out. Together, we have built a positive home and community around us. In daylight hours, I teach children. In the evening, I study and write. I recently published a book that educates children on how two Mums can make a baby with IVF and IUI, the exact topic that made my life inappropriate in 2005. In December, we are expecting our first baby through the same means.

I still have a faith life, but that is a story for another day. Things really did turn out okay – and it does get better.

 

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IVF’s 40th birthday

This coming week, IVF turns 40. It’s hard to believe that such a delicate, yet widely used technology could have had its beginnings in the 1970s – but alas, the first IVF baby was born on July 25th, 1978. Can you believe it?

Not only has the technology come a long way, the attitudes of the general public towards conception via assistive reproductive technology have progressed. Although some people are still uncomfortable with the idea of human eggs being fertilised outside of the body, sometimes with donor sperm, this reproductive technology has made it possible for millions of people to become parents who may not have been able to otherwise, and many people support this. Even with some of the medical complexities at play, IVF can still be a successful and accepted treatment.

To celebrate, I am offering a 10% discount for purchases of my book, One in Many Millions, until the end of this week. Use the code ‘ivfjourney’ at the checkout. 

 

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You can’t access that – you’re a homosexual.

I really enjoy the engagement on social media, and as a teacher, I am active on Twitter and Facebook. This week, somebody posed a thought-provoking question:

What is something that seems obvious within your profession but the general public seems to misunderstand?

The responses varied, from people who work in medicinal marijuana fields talking about the misconceptions of addiction, to teachers waxing poetic about workload, some valid and interesting comments that I enjoyed reading. My comment was that it was hard to be a gay teacher in many places. It was an enlightening read and I’m sure we all learned a bit about one another through it. An additional question was posed to teachers, which was about school camps – are there perks? Do you do them? Are you paid time in lieu?

As an experienced upper school teacher, I have been on 4 school camps, including one that was interstate. Only on one occasion was I paid time in lieu (one day) and after each camp, I came home sick, overwrought, and unable to give any of myself to my family or side projects. I was subjected to eating food that had been touched by a chain smoking chef who wore no gloves between smoking and serving and the water supply was brown. When I expressed my concerns, I was essentially told to buck up or teach Year 1.

It all came to a head in 2015 when I requested leave to start our family at an IVF clinic. I was told that my needs were not medical (despite documented surgeries for fertility related conditions), and instead, my lack of fertility was social. I was given an ultimatum – find another job or put off parenthood. I started looking for a job almost immediately and was unable to find another until 18 months later. When I eventually ended up in the non-religious schooling sector, I found that I was able to be more open and access the leave I was legally entitled to. I fell pregnant the first time with a 2-year-old frozen embryo. Amazing what a lack of stress can for your fertility – social indeed.

This discussion opened up a whole train of thought that I hadn’t previously considered. If you have flexibility and leave entitlements open to you as a heterosexual employee that aren’t afforded to your gay peers, you are uniquely privileged and any comment you make about extra responsibilities are spoken from a place of privilege.

Ultimately, I am glad I moved on. There is no way I could have raised a family in a mentally healthy way and been the wife my partner deserves under the burdens of stress I was experiencing. Being frustrated and medicated is a scourge that nobody deserves, gay or straight.

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And how do YOU plan to make a baby?

450_mockingbirdI was sixteen years old when I came out for the first time. I was living in Bundaberg and it was very early in 2007 – right at the start of Year 12. Two years prior, I had been expelled from a conservative, pentecostal Christian school with 300 students because of my choice to come out. I had been harassed after I left by parents on MySpace, making all sorts of allegations about my personal integrity. It was difficult – so much so that I didn’t even tell my parents about what I was going through. I was hamstrung between a rock and a hard place; the ‘rock’ being the fact that I was not ready to come out, and the ‘hard place’ being the fact that my previous school had convinced me that my parents would outright reject me. I wish I’d sued them – but I did better. I became a teacher and an author, hoping to educate others to be the best and most accepting version of themselves. No regrets. Still, suing God may have delivered a satisfactory outcome.

Bundaberg is the sort of place where everyone knows everybody else. Family lines go back to the days when Kanakas were blackbirded from the islands for cheap labour on the cane farms, and everyone goes camping with their “cousins”, who are actually just lifelong friends. When you join such a community at the age of 14 – particularly a tightly-woven religious community – you are not going to fit in. Especially if you happen to be gay. When I first got the keys to a car, I used to drive out on country roads to my friend’s houses. If it had been raining, the light would throw reflective rainbow shadows between the cracked bitumen as the trees went from orderly rows of fruit-bearing goodness to withered hands of desolation, pointing to the nothingness. If you drove out to those places at night, you would see the stars. The shimmering blanket of night sky was nothing like the city, where all the stars were suffocated by distant haze and streetlights; it was the only saving grace I found living so far from my real home. If you turned off your headlights in that place, you could disappear. Sometimes I wanted to. Copy of Copy of 100_0529

After I ended up in a public school, I came out to my peers and teachers. I fielded all sorts of odd questions, including and not limited to:

How do you know? Have you ever tried it with a guy? How can you be sure if you’ve never done it? Have you ever kissed a girl? Do you have a girlfriend? Do you want a threesome?

Then, there was one I had thought about, but only briefly.

But don’t you want children someday?

Actually, I had always wanted children. I was not the sort of person who desired to be a parent from the moment I left school, nor did I ever want a big family – but I did want one baby to share with my future spouse. I had never thought about the practicalities of making this happen, but I knew that if I wanted it, I could find a way.

This particular question was asked numerous times by my Year 12 home class teacher, who was oddly curious for someone who saw me for 15 minutes out of the day. Sex education only goes so far and it certainly didn’t cover gay issues in 2007. Her questioning bothered me so significantly that I started to research what my options were. I came to the conclusion that if I wanted a child, I would need to pursue assisted reproduction with donor sperm. The next time she asked me how I would make a child without a man, I fired straight back at her.

“Well, miss, you can use donor sperm and in vitro fertilisation – or insemination. I have options.”

She looked at me with a cocked eyebrow.

“And how do you suppose that works?”

“Well…”

I looked back, wondering if she was serious.

“A donor provides his photograph, then he ejaculates into a vial, to be frozen and stored for insemination or IVF. Does that explain it?”

She was honestly speechless and had no idea how to respond, other than to record it onto the school system for behaviour, which my parents got a copy of upon graduation. We leafed through it the day after I left school and laughed and laughed.

Eleven years on, I wrote a book about it. Life is beautiful.

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Sorry for my absence – big news…

For those of you who have been following me for awhile, you will have noticed that I have been in hiding for a few months. On the 28th of March, we went in for our first IVF transfer with one of the embryos that was created in 2016 using donor sperm. At the time of writing, I am 14 weeks and 5 days pregnant! Now that I am beginning to get some energy back, I would love to share my story with you – hopefully it can help someone in the same situation, or at least provide some insight.

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May/June 2016 

Our IVF journey started almost two years ago. We both dearly wanted to be parents then, but employment circumstances made it difficult and financially disadvantaging for me to access the sick leave required for IVF appointments – due to my ‘lifestyle choice’ (yeah, I wish I was kidding – I’m not). The egg pickup was not overly successful, but we did get two embryos – one BC and one CC grade. These grades refer to the viability, rather than the health of the baby or its genes. I still attribute the small harvest to the high stress level I was experiencing at the time, but that’s a story for another day. Those embryos were put on ice for later use, and I started looking for another job. I changed jobs twice before starting the next step. I knew I had to be 100% confident with how I would be supported at work, in case the whole thing dragged out. Even though I was not ‘medically infertile’, I still had an irregular cycle and endometriosis to contend with, which can create challenges in trying to conceive. To put all of that aside, mental anguish on top of IVF isn’t helpful in the slightest.

March 28th – 2018 

The 28th of March was THE DAY. On the morning of my transfer, I had the biggest craving for baked beans on toast, which I gave in to. Prior to the transfer, I had mad cravings for sushi and Easter Eggs. It was the last week of school, so the Easter Eggs were not in short supply. I blame the steroids. I also spent a lot of time meditating to music and having massages with a fertility specialist. On the day of the transfer, my embryo’s placenta had ‘upgraded’ to BB, which was a sign of things to come. The whole process took about 2 minutes, in which I became so emotionally moved that I burst into tears – a good moment when you’re spread legged on the operating table.

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March 29th – 2018 

This was the last day of the school term. More Easter Eggs were consumed and we left Brisbane for Cairns on a night flight.

March 30th – Early April 

When we arrived in Cairns, we spent time truly vegging out, eating kipfler potatoes, spending time at waterfalls with our friends and trying not to think about the fact that we may be pregnant. The 1st of April was Easter and also my birthday, which was the day that I felt the embryo implant into my uterine wall. A few days later, I did what I said I wouldn’t do and took a home pregnancy test. Two lines appeared. I had doubts that it had worked and chalked up the positive result to Pregnyl injections. Later in the month, I went for my first HCG blood test, which confirmed that I was in fact pregnant. Our first ultrasound at 7 weeks confirmed that the pregnancy was going well. IMG_0749

For now? 

I am absolutely shattered – completely exhausted. Somehow, I am keeping my busy life together on a golden thread. I am still teaching every day and I have recently been appointed to a position of added responsibility in the Education Department (how exciting!) On top of that, I have been completing extra study, but spending roughly 12-14 hours in bed every day, which feels most unhealthy. I finished prednisone steroids, which I’m glad about. Those steroids involved some low moments of sitting in the Hungry Jack’s car park with thick cut fries of an afternoon. Never again!

In other news, we are so happy and proud to be welcoming Baby Miles in December 2018. My little secret is that I was barefoot and pregnant at the wedding…. don’t tell anyone! A tight dress gives nothing away….

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Let them eat cake – Mother’s Day, in families with two Mums

“Happy Mother’s Day!”Around this time of year, the shops are brightened with pink cards, soaps, and boxes of chocolate. It is the day set aside to acknowledge and celebrate the motherhood journey and the unique sacrifices that parents make in the pursuit of greater things – the wellbeing of their children.

Bouquet of purple and orange tulips on a table with a note reading "love" in cursive

I have always wanted children. Like many little girls, this was a desire that started in early childhood, when I first practised caring for dolls in my preschool’s doll hospital. When I first started telling people that I wanted to start a family, one of the first questions people would ask was, “How are you going to do Mother’s Day, if your child has two Mums?” Of all the questions that could create understanding and empathy towards others, this was one that a lot of people seemed to think about first. These conversations sometimes became a lot less tactful when, “And what about Father’s Day?” was dropped on to the end of the conversation, usually through smug crossed arms and raised eyebrows.

During the plebiscite, many no-voters fixated on the idea that some stores were starting to stock cakes to celebrate special people in the lives of children, not just mothers and fathers. Far from being a slight against the traditional family, I feel that no-one should begrudge a child of the opportunity to be proud of the people they call parents or role models. It takes a special type to be incensed about beautifully decorated confectionary and positive relationships. So, how exactly will we let our child eat cake? We have already creatively considered it.

Our family will always be unique on Mother’s and Father’s Day in that we have two of one and none of the other. We both have different roles in our relationship, but equally desire to be fully involved parents. I have chosen to be the bearer of our child and to stay home for awhile to get the most out of the precious first years, but I do not believe that this negates or lessens my wife’s role as a parent. We will both be there to cut up lunches, provide cuddles, read bedtime stories, placate during tantrums, encourage, plug in seatbelts, apply band aids, make sure they wear sunscreen, and of course, pay the bills. My wife and I are a team, and she has been there through every high and low of IVF treatment and will continue to be there for every bump and every milestone in our child’s life. Everyone chooses to approach this differently, but in our lives, we feel that we have both put in the hard yards as parents and we both want our very own day to celebrate with breakfast in bed.

So, how will we approach the inevitable Father’s Day crafts at school? When you consider the length of childhood, a few activities in the classroom are unlikely to upset the applecart of a child who has grown up with loving parents. I am not worried that my child will be ostracised or feel left out because other children are celebrating their fathers, nor would I begrudge other children of their pride. As a teacher myself, I know that it is not all that difficult to track down some craft ideas that I can send to school with my child so they can use Father’s Day as a second Mother’s Day. I have worked with many children who do not have a father in their lives for a range of reasons; if we do decide to do Father’s Day crafts, I come up with an alternative or make contact with the parents to see how they would like it approached. Some children whose fathers have passed still celebrate Father’s Day as part of their grieving. A little bit of sensitivity and pragmatic planning can go a long way – as well as a good Pinterest board.

I have asked other families with two mothers how they approach this occasion. Some have a Mother’s Day extravaganza for both Mums, with Father’s Day being used to celebrate other special people in the child’s life (aunts, uncles, grandparents, family friends). Some people have relationships with their donor, which they celebrate with their children. After all, it doesn’t really matter how people spend their days, but it is important to show gratitude to the people who love and edify our children. After all, it takes a village to raise a child.

As well as having two mums and two Mothers’s Day, our child also has the benefit of grandparents. Through our relationships with our own parents, our child will one day see the role that our own mothers and fathers have played and be able celebrate their love for their grandparents on Grandparent’s Day. On days such as these, I have seen children share their grandparents with others at school whose special relations have passed or live far away. The compassion that children naturally have in being able to see families at face value is strikingly different to the questioning adult’s desire to have everything fit neatly into the heteronormative status quo box.

I believe that is the key difference between the traditional, nuclear family of times past and the modern family; we have more diverse families that are not just defined by gender or biology. A family can be made up of many different people who contribute to the love that children need to grow up strong. Celebrating Mother’s Day and Father’s Day to extend thanks to these people does not set out to destroy the family unit, it instead serves to strengthen real families that exist. Just like people who are not religious still celebrate Easter with chocolate eggs, I reserve the right to celebrate our Mother’s Days over two days in the year. I am looking forward to the day when I can open hand-made cards over a spread of smashed avocado made with love. As for the children? Let them eat cake!

A chocolate covered bundt birthday cake with coloured candy and candles on top

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A case for disclosure

In light of my book’s success, including recent media appearances in newspapers and magazines, the haters have started to come out of the woodworks – though in my case, they have been fairly harmless keyboard warriors. The most regular comment is:

“Ew – this is too much information for children.”

This has prompted me to respond – not because I feel a need to justify my personal decisions, but because this is new territory in society and perhaps we need to talk about it a little more openly so that people have the opportunity to understand and empathise.

Making the decision to conceive a child using a sperm (or egg) donor is a big decision. To a lesser extent, using assisted reproductive technology to undertake the process has its own considerations. Some people choose to use known donors who have a role in their child’s life, other people (myself included) choose unknown donors where we get a lot of information but no contact. Neither decision is wrong, but both provide different considerations for how disclosure happens. Fortunately, where science has intervened to create families, social research has not been too far behind in offering some insights into these situations.

There is a growing body of research that demonstrates the positive adjustment of children born into a range of different donor situations, but there is one caveat – that is, full disclosure. For gay or single women, there is really no choice but to disclose. However, in roughly 85% of heterosexual families where donor sperm or eggs are used to treat infertility, parents choose not to tell their children about their origins. This can profoundly disrupt family relationships and cause long-term psychological concerns for the children involved. Many parents in these situations cite ‘not knowing how to start the conversation’ or ‘shame around not wanting their child to feel different’ as reasons for choosing not to disclose. These are perfectly valid challenges, but I dare say it’s better if people consider their options carefully and have resources available for starting conversations when the time is right.

The other, equally messy side of choosing not to disclose birth origins and paternity comes about when the child grows up. What if they meet and fall in love with a donor half-sibling? What if they discover later on that they have a health issue and no access to their records to investigate their genetic background? What if they’re just curiousas to where they go their long eyelashes and brown eyes when their parents don’t have these traits? Or – what if the child is angry that they’ve been lied to for their whole life and it sets a whole existential crisis about identity into motion that probably didn’t need to happen, if only for truth of the adults in the situation?

For us, the decision to tell our child from day one (and to write a book about it) comes from a place of integrity and concern for long-term outcomes. I want our child to trust us because we tell them the truth. I want them to understand and embrace the beginning of their life for what it is – an amazing, beautiful, and wonderful blessing – not a family secret that nobody cares to talk about. The earlier you disclose this information, the better the long-term outcome for the child as it is a truth they’ve always known.

For all of these reasons, we have a scrapbook with pictures of our donor, a letter from him, a page with facts about his life, and of course, our copy of One in Many Millions sitting on the bookshelf. Too much information? Sure – but I’d rather that than a life of heartache and distrust with my child because I was too scared to talk about it. That ‘aching void’ that the morally-panicked far right talks about happens when there is a lack of truth in the situation; it doesn’t tend to happen when a child is raised in a home full of love and the power of truth. Research has proven this time and again.

To read more about this topic, click here and here for something a little more academic. Some reading about the wellbeing of donor-conceived children can be found here and a more in-depth look at wellbeing in same-sex parented families is here.

Happy academic reading.

 

 

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Girls and magazines – why Teen Breathe is a breath of fresh air

Our children are exposed to advertising from early childhood, and it comes full force from multiple outlets, including television, social media, and magazines. Some of the messages contained within contribute to negative self-concept. The ultimate goal of advertisers is to turn our children into lifelong spenders who will buy all the products that will mitigate the insecurity created by this bombardment of false images and ideals. In a nutshell:

  • Many young children believe that if they don’t have certain brand name clothes, they will be ‘losers’ who can’t join the ranks of successful adults in the future
  • Children are exposed to products that are age-inappropriate – items that are linked to body image and adult ideas
  • Some television shows and magazines market ‘sexiness’ to sell their products to children, which puts pressure on them to dress or act in ways that may be inappropriate

I found great discussion of research on this topic in Consuming Innocence by Dr. Karen Brooks. You can buy it here or borrow it from the State Library of Queensland here.

Exposure to toxic ideas about body image have a cumulative effect on young girls, particularly in the way that they view their worthiness in relation to what they own and how they look. A lot of people will say, “Oh well, that is just the world. advertising is ubiquitous, there is nothing we can do.” It is not about shielding our kids; far from it. It is about educating ourselves to understand what we are saying yes (or no) to, helping our children to become savvier consumers, and selecting more resources that provide positive images. It is about taking responsibility for being smarter consumers of media. 

Image may contain: 5 people, people smilingAfter reading this book, I went to my local news agent to observe the situation that was being described. I was shocked to see these images, marketed to tweens (7-12 year olds!!) The magazine covers were thick with heavily made-up celebrities and products related to body image.

With that in mind, I did a little bit of research and came across a gem called Teen Breathe. This publication provides an excellent array of content for girls, aimed towards the late tween and teen age group. Many of the articles are about emotional awareness, self-confidence, dealing with social issues positively, stories from around the world, and craft ideas.

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The whole publication contains modern designs that are appealing to look at, with a glaring absence of heavily made-up, photoshopped models. The magazine encourages girls to be happy, be brave, be kind, and be themselves. You can buy the magazine here and at selected news agents.

I know that the constant barrage of advertising is overwhelming and it’s impossible to drown out completely, but the children we work with and love deserve messages that go against the toxic grain of mass media. The buck stops with us – we can encourage positivity and self-care through what we put on our bookshelves or give as gifts. 

A child holds a picture of puckered lips in front of her face in Sliedrecht

I think the confidence and strength of our girls is worth standing up for – and voting for with our wallets – don’t you think? If we know better, we can do better.

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IVF and assisted reproduction – 4 of the biggest challenges (and one positive!) that no-one talks about

If you’ve struggled to fall pregnant, you already understand the grief that can occur when it doesn’t happen according to plan. Infertility affects more people than ever. In fact, more than 200,000 IVF babies have been born in Australia and New Zealand since 1980. The process hasn’t been as uncomfortable as I thought it might be – in fact, there has been a great deal of joy along the way. With that being said, there are certain things I wish I’d been more prepared for that I’d like to share with you.

An expectant mother in a sweater affectionately touching her stomach

You may be judged – from a range of angles

With IVF being so common in the modern world, many people are compassionate to these struggles. Some people consider it their duty to say that you are playing with nature, to judge your faith, to tell you that they wouldn’t consider using assistive reproductive technologies because those fertilised eggs you’re freezing are real babies, or to offer endless reams of advice that may be well-meaning but difficult to listen to. There is an added layer of judgment if you are using donor sperm as a gay or single parent. Depending on how equipped you feel to manage this judgment, sometimes it can be better to choose your confidants carefully.

People feel like they are entitled to know your business

Before my egg pick up, someone saw me dropping a Berocca into a glass of water and felt that it was completely okay to ask me if I was trying to fall pregnant. The fizz hadn’t even settled in the bottom of the glass yet! I got a lot of intimate questions – even if I used an ‘out’ like saying that I wasn’t thinking about it (oh, really? Why aren’t you thinking about it?) Maybe because I’m too busy wondering why my pee is as fluorescent yellow as a disco glow stick from 2002. Cheers, vitamin B!If you are gay, you may be asked relentless questions like, which one of you is carrying? Who is the donor? Why aren’t you choosing a friend as a donor? Surely your child has a right to know who made them… and on it goes. If you feel unable to deal with this onslaught without raising your blood pressure, only share what you’re comfortable with. You aren’t everybody else’s science project.

Your employer may not be as supportive as you think they should be

Depending on which EBA you are under, your IVF days may not be counted as sick leave or you may be completely prevented from using any sort of leave for IVF. If you work for a religious organisation, they may be covered by ‘lifestyle clauses’ which can give them power to say no to requests that they deem as unChristian in nature. Some EBAs do not consider IVF appointments as making a person ‘unfit for work.’ Depending on your circumstances, you may have a chat with your employer or pursue alternatives that don’t involve disclosure.

Pregnancy vitamins are harmless but they can make you feel dodgy

Your doctor will prescribe vitamins that can help to prepare your body. While many people don’t have a negative reaction to vitamins, they can cause bloating, nausea, and vomiting. Although I was prepared for the impact of the hormones, I was in no way prepared for the nausea I got from taking a cocktail of vitamin supplements before my egg pick up. I wish someone had told me.

There are so many networks out there, you can find a supportive group of people who can relate to what you’re going through

In the Facebook world, there is a group for anyone under the sun – whether you do or don’t want contact with donor-siblings, you are a single parent by choice, a lesbian parent trying to conceive, or anything in between. These groups offer support, book resources, and comfort for what can be a difficult process. My advice is to sign up for one or two, as too much fertility discussion online can be an information overload – something that can be quite unwelcome when you are just starting out with it all.

 

 

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Social media and body image – it isn’t just magazines doing the damage these days

The reality of our Web 2.0 age is that social media is ubiquitous and not exposing our children to this technology robs us of the opportunity to teach them how to use it responsibly. Conversing about the content on these platforms also gives us a window into the world of the children we work with or parent, which we shouldn’t readily dismiss at a time when they might close off. Like with drugs and alcohol, we need to start this conversation and keep it going as our children grow up.

I love social media. I also love health and fitness. I have completed two marathons, lifted weights for six years, and played sports for my whole life. I tend to follow Instagrammers who share content related to this. I have an obsession with watching food preparation videos and my feed is full of people who create meals and snacks. A few years ago, I followed a girl who had her own business making protein balls and I loved trying to make them myself.

A few months after I started following her, she began posting about how to get a fitness model body. She posted pictures of her transformation from “fat” (she was never fat) to fit and started selling an eBook full of recipes and tips. She had tens of thousands of followers, mostly young girls, many of whom bought this book. It didn’t seem to matter that she had no qualifications in nutrition or personal training – her eBook was popular and made her a tidy profit.

Three years later, she fessed up about the eating disorder that had plagued her life throughout her fitness model career and how disheartening it was to eat chicken breasts and broccoli religiously. She talked about how limiting her food and exercising so much had altered her hormones. After recovering, she started eating with no limits and her Instagram demonstrated a very poor relationship with food overall.

Throughout this unhealthy process, she profited massively from the insecurities of young girls, all of whom still supported her after she came out as having an eating disorder. This is worrying. I understand that people have different journeys with food and fitness, but the danger of documenting them online is that impressionable young people can be influenced and some aspects of these journeys are not always positive and healthy. These trends affect both boys and girls, with so much content targeted at “fitness” on all social media platforms. Some of it is so relentless and influential that it is hard to ignore, especially for young people.

Image result for instagram fitness

When a teenager is bombarded by billboards and glossy magazines, it is easy to tell them that those images are not real – they are photoshopped, airbrushed, and enhanced by make-up. When the images are drip-fed to our teenagers via Instagram and they are posted by regular people who are similar to us (only behind a filter), it is more difficult to establish expectations around body image and self-love.

This is not a sit-down, quick-fix conversation to have all at once, but as part of an ongoing thread about staying safe online and body positivity. There are a few themes that should come up in these conversations:

  • We are all different – including our bodies
  • Even though Instagram is full of “real people”, they are still behind a filter and presenting images from their best angle
  • A person who promotes fitness food tips without any qualifications could just as easily be presenting habits that are disordered and unhealthy – be critical!
  • Subscribing to these users and filling your feed with their content will give you a skewed (but relentless) idea of how your body should look
  • As a teenager, the best way you can take care of yourself is to eat a range of fresh foods and participate in physical activity that is enjoyable for you – your body will become what it is meant to be

As we continue to live through the Web 2.0 age, it is really important to think critically about the content available to our children. That way, we can be empowered to support them in making healthy decisions that fuel positivity.

The beauty of our diversity and positivity towards our bodies is something that we should never allow popular culture nor social media to take away from us.