THE traditional family is a mother and a father, and children. But current figures show that lesbian, gay, transgender or bisexual people make up 7% of the Irish population, and a survey shows that one in five lesbian couples, and one in 14 gay couples, are parents.
While civil partnership promotes equal rights and alleviates prejudice, same-sex parents still experience negativity. Paula Fagan, 42, and her partner, Denise Charlton, 47, have two boys aged six and two. Living in Dublin, they have good jobs — Paula is an accountant and Denise is CEO of a company. They have occasionally met with insensitivity. “We had a negative experience when we were looking for a play-school for our eldest son,” says Paula. “After a tour of the building, I started to explain to the manager that Denise and I were a couple and my son had two mums. She seemed shocked and ushered me quickly out of the classroom and away from the children.
“She suggested that this should not be discussed in the school, and the other children didn’t need to know about our family structure if our son went to school there. I explained that we parented together, so one or other of us would be dropping or collecting our son, and so the children would get to know us.
“But, also, most importantly, that our son had a right to talk about, and be proud of, his family and that this would be undermined completely if he was asked to keep us a secret. But the woman argued that families were not discussed or represented in the school.”
Denise and Paula looked for a more inclusive school. “The Montessori that we eventually settled on was brilliant and so were the women who ran it. While they hadn’t had a same-sex–headed-family before, they were naturally positive and inclusive, so it was a very happy experience,” says Paula.
“Our eldest son started primary school this year and this has also been positive. We are lucky that he got a place in the local Educate Together School, which teaches both an ethical and standard curriculum.
“Likewise, the other parents in the school, and within our community, have been as positive as our family, friends and neighbours.”
They are preparing their sons by discussing their family make-up openly. “We have always talked to our children about their family structure and how they came into the world, in an age-appropriate way,” says Paula. “So our kids understand about their parentage and also that there are many different types of families, but that some people may not know about two-mummy-families and may ask them questions.
“My youngest son is too young to understand, but my eldest does get asked about why he has two mums, particularly when kids get to know him first and he is very confident about explaining about his family. I would advise anyone to go for it who is planning to have a baby in a same-sex relationship. Despite their fears, Irish people are very positive when it comes to children and most people are very supportive.”
Conor Prendergast never thought it strange growing up with two mothers — Anne and Bernadette — as they made sure he, and his brother, felt secure and happy.
“In my mind, my family was always perfectly normal,” says the 26-year-old. “I was about 10 or 11 when I first started thinking about the fact that my brother and I have two mums, but I came to realise that there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ family and, although people were curious most of the time, they didn’t really care.
“I’ve never minded being ‘different’ and never had any hassle about having lesbian mums. But I was prepared for it, in the same way any child is prepared for bullies, and by my parents being clear, honest and open about their sexuality with me. They’ve also taken that approach in life, which makes it a lot more difficult for people to be negative.”
The Dublin man says Irish society is more accepting of the different formats of family. “I definitely feel that Ireland has moved on from its very conservative past,” he says. “We can debate marriage equality openly in the Dáil, on TV, radio and in the press, as well as with families and between friends. We’re gradually moving towards people being able to come out openly in work and to their families, without the crises that we’ve seen before. And I would advise any other sons or daughters of lesbian or gay parents to get in contact with Believe in Equality, for a chat.”
Child psychologist Dr David Carey says children do not need to be told about their parentage until they ask, because their family will be the norm until they are told otherwise. “I would advise parents, who happen to be of the same sex, that rearing their children is essentially no different from traditional child-rearing couples,” he says. “I do not think it is advisable to run the risk of instilling anxiety in children by alerting them to troubles that are not happening at present.”
“Children need loving parents who protect them from harm, who nurture them, care for them and encourage them to face life with courage, strength and positive self-esteem. If they are reared in such a family, no matter if the parents are same-sex or not, they will thrive. There has been a lot of research on same-sex families and evidence makes it clear these children do not have differences in self-esteem, gender-identity, or emotional problems from children growing up in heterosexual-parent homes.”
* See: www.davidjcarey.com