What about the ‘other mother’?

Dawn Thorley with a letter from the February edition.

I was delighted to see that the January 2016 issue of The Psychologist was a fertility special, as my partner and I are hoping to start our own family through fertility treatment. I am interested in the psychology of this and was excited to read the contemporary views of colleagues. I was particularly pleased to see a helpful ‘bitesize’ guide included (‘The Psychologist guide to… you and your baby’), so valuable in this day and age when time is at a premium.

I found the article ‘Reproductive health matters’ thought-provoking, particularly the phrase ‘a new kind of biopower is…in the hands of sufficiently wealthy…lesbian…women…who can afford it’. I agree there is a financial element to many lesbian couples accessing fertility treatment; however, I think it’s important for readers to know that there exists an unfair ‘postcode lottery’ on fertility treatment for lesbian couples (in addition to ‘non-white couples’ as stated on in the article), with some lesbian couples able to access fertility treatment on the NHS. The notion of ‘power’ is also likely far from the minds of lesbian couples going through the experience; fertility treatment can be a stressful journey, rendering couples ‘powerless’ rather than having ‘biopower in their hands’ as so eloquently but simplistically reported in the article.

Distressingly, there remains a lack of awareness of issues facing lesbian couples amongst the very centres claiming to provide equal treatment, even in a metropolitan city. For example, in an uncomfortable mandatory pre-treatment session with our ‘fertility counsellor’ we became aware, through her use of heteronormal language and inappropriate jokes, that the ‘other mother’ is not considered equal in status to a father, or even to the donor! This, of course, is the type of experience that prompts action to support change, inspired by friends who recently took responsibility for sensitively educating the leaders of their antenatal class regarding marginalising comments. I understand the world is still catching up to the reality that lesbian couples exist and are starting families of their own. However, I felt deeply unsettled by point 4 in the ‘guide’; ‘Dads matter too’. I don’t dispute this; in families with dads, it is important for them to be as involved as possible. But what about families without dads? Particularly lesbian families; does the ‘other mother’ not matter too? Women can also ‘encourage their children to run, climb and jump’! A penis is not a prerequisite for this, unless there is some research I have missed.

In ‘The other mother: An exploration of non-biological lesbian mothers’ unique parenting experience’, Paldron (2014) describes the ‘other mother’ as: ‘the connection of being one of two mothers, but as the non-biological parent of the child…in a position where she potentially faces another type of invisibility within an already marginalized population’. This is sadly evident in the world of fertility treatment, but I expected better representation for the LGBTQ community in The Psychologist and hope to see more inclusive language in future articles.

Psychology is about celebrating individual differences and is a field in which sexuality is neither a taboo nor dated subject. Equality is about equal access to opportunities, which involves recognising and respecting differences rather than assuming everyone is the same, or some people less important than others. The ‘other mother’ matters too. I look forward to hopefully attending one of the seminars you advertised in ‘Beyond the nuclear family’ and sharing what I learn with others. Education is key to overcoming prejudice and inequality. Let’s all model this.

Dawn Thorley
Trainee Educational Psychologist, University of Exeter,
Dorset County Council

Paldron, M.F. (2014). The other mother: An exploration of non-biological lesbian mothers’ unique parenting experience. University of Minnesota doctoral dissertation. Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy. Available at http://hdl.handle.net/11299/167423

Editor’s note: I take your point, although we did try to include tips general to the parent-infant interaction, rather than to any specific family make-up.  
Incidentally, we have had considerable interest in the guide since publication – please help us share the online version far and wide.

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