ParentsAugust 30, 2017

‘Who’s the dad?’ and other things not to say to lesbian mums


Lisa Melville is a lesbian mother and PhD student at Waikato University where she’s looking at the decisions and experiences of lesbian mothers in Aotearoa New Zealand. Here she talks about what those experiences can look like.   

A lesbian has just told you that she or her partner is pregnant. What is the best response? Is it:

A) Congratulations!

B) Did you have sex?

C) Who is the father?

You can probably guess which is the best response: it’s A. But can you guess the most common response?

Sadly, it’s not A.

For lesbians, and some bisexual and queer women, this can be how sharing your pregnancy with the world goes.

Not “When are you due?” or “Are you throwing up every morning?” or all those other annoying questions. But “Did you have sex?” and “Who is the dad?”

Parenting is not easy, we all know that. Most parents have prejudices or stereotypes they are battling against on a daily basis. People don’t say things directly, but there are deep seated preconceptions of what a family is.

The mihi our children are given at school is: “Ko… tōku matua.  Ko… tōku whaea.” “My father is… My mother is…”

We are all told that children are created through sex.

We are all told that “Blood is thicker than water.”

We are all told that a child has two parents.

We are all told that families are genetically related.

Lesbian families, gay families, one parent families, whāngai families, foster families, adopted families, step families, blended families, grandparent families, surrogate families, straight families using donor eggs or donor sperm… none of these families fit into this narrative.

There is definitely more awareness of family beyond the nuclear family now than there was a decade ago. But, in general, society still hasn’t come to terms with lesbian families.

What they look like, how they work and how they are made – it still seems to confuse people. Preconceptions and assumptions still simmer under the ground we walk on daily, and like an earthquake (hey I live in Wellington!) these jerk us out of our own personal beliefs and into other people’s beliefs.

For lesbians, and some bisexual and queer mums, sometimes it’s a 4.5 rumble – like the assumption that because I have a child, I am straight. Sometimes a 6.1 shock – like the assumption that because I am not genetically related to my child, people think I am not ‘the real mother’ of my child.

These preconceptions and assumptions also mean that queer families don’t necessarily have the same protection as straight families. One women expressed her fear about the straight donor who already had children changing his mind. She told me: “Is he going to get insanely annoyed with our parenting and try and take our child off us? That thought was terrifying at the time.”

She finished her story with some good old parental humour: “But then we had children and realised that nobody who had children would want another one.”

Preconceived ideas about family shape the questions that are asked of lesbians when they announce their pregnancy. These questions have nothing to do with lesbian mothers and everything to do with trying to fit people into quaint ideas of family.

“Did you have sex?”

Yes. A lot. Oh you mean with a man?

“Who is the father?”

Don’t ask this. There are donors. Sometimes there might be fathers involved. But Just. Don’t. Ask.

“Who gave birth?”

Oh geez! Um… well… you know I can’t remember!

“Do your children have the same father?”

Who knows who my partner sleeps with.

“Really? Cause I knew a lesbian once and she didn’t want to have children.”

Oh so I’m not a lesbian. Well next time I’m holding hands with my partner and someone yells ‘Faggot!’ at me I’ll be sure to let them know you said I’m not.

“Gosh I didn’t realise you were a lesbian! How come you wear lipstick?”

Actually the Handbook For Lesbians says lipstick is okay. The shade ‘F*ck Trump’ is quite popular at the moment.

So what should you do if you want to be more aware of the issues facing lesbian and some queer and bisexual mothers? How do you learn about how lesbians get pregnant?

Let’s start with:

What To Do When A Lesbian Announces She Is Pregnant: A Beginner’s Guide

Rule #1: Say “congratulations!”

Rule #2: Do not ask about the donor.

And if you want a more in-depth guide: you’re lucky! I have one for you. Remember those ‘choose your own adventure’ books where on each page you got to make a choice, and each choice lead you on a different journey? Here is a choose your own adventure where YOU get to be a lesbian who wants to get pregnant. Will you choose your friend from high school as the donor, or someone on the internet who wants a photo of you naked? Will there be a marmite jar in your journey? The choice is yours…

This is a light-hearted approach to discussing the issues and experiences of lesbians and women in relationships with other women who are trying to get pregnant. These stories were told through interviews and online surveys. The story is one way to educate and increase awareness for people who want to have more of an understanding of the lives of lesbian mothers without asking personal questions. So, go forth and choose your own (lesbian) adventure.

If you are a lesbian mother or a woman who had children with another woman and you want to share your story through an online survey, please get in touch. You can contact me at

Endnote: My research is directed at lesbians, but people with other identities have also chosen to participate. Queer, Takatāpui, bisexual and transgender parents have other challenges which I have not addressed here.

And if you want to know how to mihi when you have two mothers, Ko [name] tōku whaea can be rewritten: Ko [name] rāua ko [name] ōku whāea. Meaning: my mothers. Or Ko [name] rāua ko [name] ōku mātua which means “my parents” which is useful for many other types of families as well.

Lisa Melville has a University of Waikato doctoral scholarship which means she can spend time with her children (and study of course). She is incredibly thankful to all the lesbian, gay, queer, mostly lesbian, and bisexual women who have talked to her or filled out her online survey. They have confirmed a sneaking suspicion which she has always held – lesbians are frickin’ hilarious.

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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