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LGBTQ+ parenting: What it’s really like to be an LGBTQ+ parent

Lotte Jeffs is an author and editor living in London. She and her wife had their first child in 2018, and here she shares the realities of LGBTQ+ family planning, fertility treatment, and parenthood.

LGBTQ+ parenting

Written by Lotte Jeffs

So much of LGBTQ+ parenting is just “parenting.” Dealing with meltdowns in the frozen food aisle at the supermarket, for example, is a great democratizer, and in those high-stress moments, one’s identity becomes meaningless — whatever your pronouns, sexuality, or politics, you just need to peel your small person off the floor and make it out in one piece.

My wife and I became parents in 2018. I’d always loved kids and just knew I’d be a parent someday. I was clear about this from our very first date, and over the first five years of our relationship, we spoke about our feelings about starting a family. These feelings evolved as our relationship did, and one day, it just felt like the right time to stop talking and start doing.

Families are diverse and different, and no two are the same. This applies to LGBTQ+ families too. In 2018, research by UCLA’s School of Law estimated that 3 million LGBTQ+ Americans have had a child, and this number is growing. The Office of National Statistics in the UK highlighted that in 2019 there were 212,000 same-sex families in the UK. This is an increase of 40% since 2015. However, this number doesn’t differentiate between LGBTQ+ people in same-sex relationships choosing to raise children and couples living together without children. 

In fact, there is a gap in the data about how many LGBTQ+ families there are out there and what their unique experiences are. There are times as a queer mum — and especially during the journey to get there — that I was made hyper-aware of my otherness in the pregnancy, birth, and parenting worlds, which remain so focused on the cisgender heterosexual experience.

Becoming an LGBTQ+ parent: LGBTQ+ family planning

For a start — in many cases, a little more goes into LGBTQ+ family planning. If you’re not in a cisgender heterosexual couple, the chances of getting pregnant after a lasagna and a bottle of wine on a Friday night are very unlikely. 

Like so many other LGBTQ+ people, my wife and I put a lot of time into deciding what the right route to starting a family was for us — from adoption to surrogacy and insemination to in-vitro fertilization (IVF), which can cost upwards of £10,000 a cycle. We faced quite complex conversations and self-examination. 

We agreed that my wife would try to get pregnant first — mainly because at the time, I had a well-paying job editing a magazine, and she had just gone freelance, so she had more flexibility with her work. We were told by our regular doctor that this was “not their area of expertise.” I was also shocked at the lack of anything even close to a step-by-step guide.  

However, we attended a humorously named seminar —  “Inseminar” — at The London Women’s Clinic, where we learned about intrauterine insemination (IUI, where sperm is directly inserted into the womb). It gave us a sense of what “trying to conceive” would look like for us, and how much it would cost (ouch!).

After a number of scans and an anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH) blood test to check ovarian reserve (the number of eggs that you may have), we were given the OK to go ahead and select a sperm donor. Honestly, we didn’t overthink this decision, or it would have become impossible — we trusted our instinct. 

We added three vials of sperm to our online shopping basket and clicked “buy.” Using a sperm donation facility is really that easy. We were advised to track my wife’s menstrual cycle and to test when she was ovulating. Just before ovulation, we went in for insemination — a procedure that we found was so easy and no more painful or intrusive than a Pap smear. 

Becoming an LGBTQ+ parent: LGBTQ+ fertility treatment

Miraculously, it worked the first time, and nine months later our daughter was born. Beyond being referred to as “dad” by a health worker and having to explain to the person registering the birth that I was the second parent, and yes, there was a drop-down option on her computer system to account for that, we haven’t faced anything that’s made us feel that we were different. Until that is, it was my “turn” to try.

IUI didn’t work for me. It’s frustrating because no doctor can say with any certainty why. So, after three attempts, I moved on to IVF (where the egg is removed from the ovaries and fertilized with sperm in a laboratory), which is a much more expensive and medical experience, involving daily hormone injections and multiple scans. 

Accessing IVF treatment in the UK can be quite a long and expensive process. If you are not in a cisgender, heterosexual couple, it is very difficult to get fertility treatment on the NHS and if you are in a relationship with a person who’s a different sex, there are still no guarantees that you’ll be able to access free health care. The IVF system in the UK has been likened to a postcode lottery, and that really is the best way to describe it right now.

Similarly, in the US, IVF can cost $12,000 to $15,000 per cycle. Medications can cost up to $6,000 on top of that, and then any attempts that include frozen embryo transfers (FET) can average $4,000 to $7,000 per cycle. This doesn’t include how much it can cost to access a fertility specialist. 

Realizing that cisgender, heterosexual people who were struggling to conceive were more likely to have the option of free IVF than lesbians or single people was my first experience of true discrimination. 

As a queer person, it had taken a lot of mental gymnastics for me to feel ready to carry a child. I had decided I’d do it despite being daunted by the ways it would “feminize” my body. I, therefore, felt entitled to it working. But the universe had other ideas. The whole experience of trying was a great lesson in relinquishing control.

Same-sex couples and single women in the UK must pay for 12 IUI or IVF treatments to “prove” medical infertility before they are eligible for NHS treatment. While cycle lengths can differ from clinic to clinic, one IVF cycle may take six to nine weeks from initial consultation to taking a pregnancy test. 

It’s recommended that you take one full menstrual cycle off between each fresh IVF cycle. Considering this break between treatments, if you were to undergo 12 cycles it could take three years. Due to the financial and emotional strain of fertility treatment, this simply isn’t an option for many people. 

By contrast, the majority of cisgender, heterosexual couples are only required to attempt to conceive naturally for two years.

Paying upwards of £10,000 for every attempt really compounded the sense of failure I experienced, and recently I’ve decided that neither my body nor my bank balance could cope with continuing fertility treatment.

I’m sad that I’ll not experience what it’s like to carry a child — after a lot of soul searching, I’d decided it would have been an amazing privilege to experience pregnancy as both the pregnant person and the partner of one.

LGBTQ+ parenting

Becoming an LGBTQ+ parent: Parenthood

But really, I know my role as a parent to my daughter is just as valid as it would be had I conceived her. And actually, this is the greatest thing about being part of the LGBTQ+ community. 

Being a parent is the best thing in my life. I love the fact that I get to tap back into the playful, childish part of me, and I’m always performing, reading, dancing, or instigating madcap imaginary games with my daughter. She shares my love of storytelling and has a brilliant sense of humor. 

I’ve not taken her to many parent and baby groups, mainly because the last few years have been defined by lockdowns due to the pandemic. But we do an art class together on Fridays, and I’ve made some great parent friends there. 

I never feel different or “left out” because I’m not in a heterosexual partnership. It would be brilliant to join some LGBTQ+ parenting groups. As my daughter gets older, I’ll seek them out more, but we are lucky that within our friendship and family circle there are other queer parents and parents-to-be, so we are not lacking any role models! 

It’s something we celebrate on the podcast Some Families. I host the show with an adoptive dad of three, Stu Oakley. It’s the first UK podcast that focuses on LGBTQ+ parenthood and families. We were thrilled to be asked to launch the Some Families podcast with Story Hunter since it was a chance to be the change we wanted to see. The show is so often funny and emotional, and it’s allowed us to speak to a diverse range of families who have taken all routes into LGBTQ+ parenthood — from adoption and fostering to IUI and IVF donor insemination, surrogacy, and co-parenting.

There were so few media outlets that represented the queer parenting experience and so little information about all the different ways that LGBTQ+ people start families. This was our chance to build a community of parents and parents-to-be and share stories and information and support each other. 

Presenting the podcast has taught me so much about issues that I personally haven’t experienced, but which are so important that I understand and empathize with as a fellow queer parent. From legal rights for parents via surrogate to the fight to be able to register as a child’s official father as a trans dad who carried his child, to the nuances of inter-racial adoption and the dynamics of co-parenting arrangements — there is so much to learn! 

Hosting the show has also brought my family together with many amazing LGBTQ+ parenting support groups such as The LGBT Mummies Tribe. It’s comforting and inspiring to share our experiences.  

LGBTQ+ people become parents by love and by luck and by design. We are creating a new way of being, as a family that places our bonds over biology and nurture over “nature.” It’s exciting to be at the vanguard of a growing movement as more and more queer people recognize that parenthood can be in their future. I don’t need to carry a child to be a parent, and that is a wonderful, freeing, and joyful thought.   

LGBTQ+ parenthood: A doctor’s take

Dr. Rixt Luikenaar, founder and CEO of Rebirth OB-GYN says, “All people have the right to create a family and should receive equal financial aid and access to care. New parents should be able to turn to their birth physician, therapist, pediatrician, or family members. It takes a village. In an ideal world, there should be insurance coverage and easy access to mental health support, especially postpartum depression, postpartum psychosis, burnout, and addiction/substance use. Attention to self-care, mindfulness, diet, and exercise can also be so important.” 

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