Dressing up for Christmas

Until I had children, there was one dilemma of being in an all-woman relationship that simply hadn’t occurred to me: who gets to be Santa Claus?

Let’s skip the issue of his existence and go straight to the part where a parent dresses up in a red suit and fake beard and bellows a jolly laugh at their kids. Or at the very least eats the mince pie and drinks the glass of port or whiskey that their kids leave out on Christmas Eve. Traditionally Santa is, well, male. But in the absence of a male (of the adult variety) my partner and I had to choose who got to be Santa. To be clear, we primarily meant who got to dress up as Santa, our excavation of the Christmas decoration box having unearthed an old and slightly torn Santa outfit.

At first we considered drawing up a list of criteria and asking a friend to judge who met the most of them. Who had the ‘Santa Factor’ (if you will forgive the awful pop culture reference)? Best ‘ho ho ho’ (verdict – both pretty good), most rotund (definitely me), best mince pie eater (me), most prolific port (me) or whiskey (her) drinker.

But then we realised that there was a better approach. You see, at a trip to Santa’s Grotto a few weeks before Christmas we discovered A and R scream like banshees at the sight of Santa Claus. Their poor little faces were so screwed up with the effort of crying that only a swift exit and the provision of an early Christmas present could calm them down. (A minute later they were happily tying me up in their baby reins by toddling off in opposite directions, so the trauma was very short-lived.)

This taught us a valuable lesson. We weren’t dressing up as Santa for the boys; we were really doing it for ourselves, for the excitement of Christmas and the sheer delight of being silly. So it didn’t matter who wore the Santa outfit so long as we both enjoyed the simple fact that it was nearly Christmas. With that in mind my partner donned the suit and I opened the wine: a division of labour that we both considered to be a fine solution to the all-female Santa dilemma.


The Dutiful Gay Parents

The couple at the next table had been glancing in our direction for a while, but from my seat it was hard to see the expression on their faces. Were they smiling at our adorable twins, or scowling at the noise R, fed up with having a cold, was making?

Alongside quality food and drinks, and value for money, I now have two new criteria for a good restaurant. The first is whether the staff mind sweeping up pieces of food hurled to the floor by an 18 month old practicing for his granddad’s cricket team. Fortunately the restaurant we had Sunday lunch in a few weekends ago passed this test. The second is whether the clientele mind the presence of sometimes squawking twins amongst them. Here the results were less clear cut.

Neither R nor A were particularly noisy, but they could occasionally be heard well above the background chatter. And my partner and I could not help but wonder what the clientele around us were thinking. Look at that couple who can’t control their children; shoddy parenting; those poor children! So went the downward spiral of criticisms that we assumed the strangers around us were thinking as they watched us try to comfort the poorly R and shovel food into A’s mouth fast enough to sate him. 

Drawing on anecdotes from friends, I am fairly sure that all parents of young children sometimes look back on a family meal out and wonder what the people around them must have thought. In our case, though, we have an added paranoia: are these strangers judging us not just for being “bad” parents, but for being gay parents?

No matter what legislation Parliament actually passes, there are still significant swathes of our society who recoil at the thought of a gay couple raising children, who do not believe that my partner and I should have had the boys.  I can tell myself that their attitude is nothing to do with me. But still I wonder if, as a gay parent, I have a responsibility to prove them wrong. Do I have a duty to prove that gay parents can raise well-behaved, well-adjusted children? And if so, then every time the boys are less than perfect in public, am I letting the side down? Am I giving the nay-sayers ammunition?

The answer, on a superficial level at least, is that every child – from every background and every family structure – is sometimes difficult in public. so long as I and my partner love the boys and raise them as best we can, then we are proving ourselves to be parents, irrespective of our sexuality. Still, the sense of assumed duty is hard to shake.

The story the other weekend had a happy ending. The couple at the next table turned out to be lovely, asking about the boys and cooing over R’s teddy. The man, it transpired, had a virtually identical teddy when he was young, even down to the bow tie. And they didn’t bat an eyelid at the presence of two mummies.

The Teachings of Twins

So apparently looking after 18 month old twins while holding down a full time job doesn’t leave much time or brain space for writing a blog. Who knew?

I appreciate that you are probably shaking your head at my stupidity in not realising this blindingly obvious fact, so to prove I am capable of occasional intelligence, here are a few of the things that I have learnt in the last few months.

  • According to both A and R, who are now walking but like they are permanently milk-drunk, flapping your hands aids your balance. I tried it when actually drunk. Didn’t help.
  • You can learn a lot about people from how they react to a small boy offering them a well-chewed teddy. Those that recoil are not worth my time. Those that take the teddy, give it a gentle shake and then return it to the now beaming boy are my friends. Amazingly, this has led to me liking an estate agent.
  • Soft play counts as exercise.
  • There is limitless fun to be had from repeating the following activity: taking wooden blocks out of a box, putting wooden blocks in a box, pouring wooden blocks over your head when putting the box on as a hat, putting wooden blocks in a box.
  • Both my sons can dance better than me.

You see, I am learning all the time. Now I just need to learn to find time to write this blog.

How not to get what you want, baby-style

Over the last week the boys have hit an unfortunate developmental marker: they have both (in a regrettable example of twin-sympathy) simultaneously decided that temper tantrums are the best way to get what they want. A quivering lip, a widening of the eyes, and a deep intake of breath – these are all signals of the impending screams, and lead my partner and I to sigh and brace ourselves.

The reasons for these tantrums are many and varied: being refused unlimited toast, being unable to play with wires, scissors, full coffee cups or anything else put out of their reach, being forced (maliciously, of course) to go to bed. Clearly in their tiny and developing minds these are injustices that require extreme measures to rectify, namely extreme screaming.

My partner and I have resolved not to cave in: the boys will not learn that tantrums get them what they want. Instead, we intend to teach them that reasoned argument is the best way forward. The problem is that they are too young for reasoned argument at the moment (either by them or from us) so tantrums are apparently the communication method of choice. And I use ‘choice’ quite deliberately: I can see from the look in their eyes that they known exactly how annoying their screaming is. I am also pretty sure that I have been resoundingly sworn at in baby language.

But despite the noise I am determined to persevere. I consider it very important to teach the boys that while there are many ways to get what you want, throwing a tantrum is rarely one of them. You see, I would love the boys to be actively engaged in their society when they are older, to care about local and national issues. I also want them to be able to make a difference on these issues, rather than just a noise. I realise that others take a different view but I believe the way to make a difference in society is to defeat the opposing argument, not refuse to believe there is one. People who glue themselves to office blocks are just background noise.

So as they go through the temper tantrum stage for what I am sure is only the first time, I am resolved not to give in. My eardrums, and neighbours, might never forgive me. I can live with that, just so long as at some point in the future, when reasoned argument is possible, the boys understand why I did it. So that they can focus on shaping and changing the tiny and developing minds of their opponents, rather than just screaming at them.

No, name

A and R are at the age now where at any moment they might utter their first proper word. In order to encourage them I am repeating certain words frequently, and the most frequent of them all is “no”.

Sometimes I add sentences in order to teach them grammar. Things like, “no, A, don’t hit your brother,” or “no, R, don’t climb on the TV.” They generally will stop what they were doing, so I am fairly confident that right now they understand more than they can say. In particular, I am sure that they know their own names. You can see it in the way that A will ignore me when I tell R to stop hitting himself in the face with a plastic bottle, and vice versa.

Having twins forces you to think fast about names. Not for us the leisurely option of choosing one, getting used to it for a few years and then turning our minds to the next one. Instead, we needed two at once and both for boys. We had one boy’s name that we both loved, chosen many years ago when we first gently speculated about the prospect of having children. We also had plenty of girls’ names that we liked, but they were all rendered useless the moment we heard “it’s a boy” for the second time. So we needed a second boy’s name, and fast.

For several months names preoccupied us. We came in from work fizzing with new ideas, shouted them out on crowded tubes (often causing a stranger to pop his head up from his book as we accidentally hit on his name) and mumbled them as we read through baby name internet sites. There are, we discovered, an awful lot of names, and most with an awful lot of connotations. Consequently, most names were instantly rejected on the basis that (a) we knew, and didn’t like, someone who already had it, (b) it didn’t go with the name we had already chosen or (c) we didn’t know how to spell it. As my due date rapidly approached, it seemed one of our twins was destined to have no name.

But of course, we found the right one eventually. A small group of names became lodged in our minds. We revisited them, testing whether they sounded right and, in what I fully accept is an enormously middle class way, researching them to see if they had any horrendous historical or cultural associations. And one name in particular passed all the tests, and just in time given the unexpected appearance of the boys nearly two months early.

So now we have one name that we love because it was part of our first ever discussion about children, and one that we love because it was part of our anticipating twins. They came to us in very different ways but fit perfectly into our family, making me wonder whether, somehow, we would always have hit upon them.

It was purely a fluke, however, that they both roll off the tongue so easily after the word “no”.

The Great Twin Charm Offensive

First there were two, then four, then six… Everywhere I looked twins grinned and burbled and rolled on the ground. Such is the norm in the world of LGBT parents.

This weekend we took the boys to an LGBT family picnic at the Lambeth County Fair. Gathered around a proud rainbow flag, we adults bonded over the joys of our children. Our children entered into the communal spirit by stealing each others’ toys and, in A’s case, trying to flirt with other babies by spitting half-chewed pitta bread at them. There were plenty of non-twins at the party, including one gorgeous baby girl who was the recipient of A’s charming attempt at flirting. But there were also many more twins than you would think a gathering of young families would bring.

When we were having fertility treatment, the clinic offered us the option of having only one, rather than the usual two, eggs implanted. We went for two as it increased the chances of my getting pregnant, but of course it also increased the likelihood of our having twins. And as the average LGBT couple cannot conceive without some form of medical intervention, it isn’t surprising that so many have twins.

Now I admit I am biased, but I find twins inherently charming. The ease of their interactions, developed literally since before birth, and their little identical habits – even amongst non-identical twins – are delightful. I can’t help but smile, for example, as A and R simultaneously stretch and launch themselves at my glasses so that they can pull them apart. So at the picnic I was thrilled that twins were everywhere, cooing and crawling around (in R’s case, moving pretty fast as he hurried to get away from the delicious ice lolly that we cruelly made him try). I was less thrilled, however, when the gay dads of older twins older than mine told me that the fighting between their boys never ceased.

As A and R develop their ability to stand and move independently, I fear for their safety and mine. But at least I know that there are plenty in the LGBT community who can advise me on how to keep them apart.

Clap, don’t slap

Last week, as I cowered on the floor, A tried to rip my nose off while R repeatedly slapped my chest with a saliva-sodden hand. They meant no harm, of course, but I was in serious danger of being reduced to the same state as the now destroyed teddies that they insist on carrying around in their mouths.

So having removed A’s fingers from my nostrils and positioned him on the floor with a book, I decided to teach R that it is not nice to slap people. I said “no”. He grinned and slapped me. I said “no” in a firmer voice. He looked puzzled, let out a squeak, grinned and slapped me. I said, in an exasperated tone, “Look, if you want to hit something then hit your own hand,” and I clapped. He looked puzzled, grinned and clapped. Success, I thought. And then he slapped me.

It’s a work in progress, I have decided, but a worthwhile one. Quite aside from protecting the painful red area on my chest, I consider it a ‘good thing’ to teach the boys to celebrate rather than attack. After all, that was the attitude I tried to adopt yesterday as I walked through Westminster and saw that the anti-gay marriage protesters had adopted a new tactic: staring disconsolately at the Houses of Parliament as if the very stones themselves might suddenly feel sorry for them and halt the soon-to-be-enacted equal marriage bill.

When I read the attacks reported in the media from people who believe that I and my partner are incapable or unfit to be a family, a small part of me wants to slap them. But what I want to do even more than that is clap. I want to applaud the fact that the equal marriage bill is set to become law, and plan the wedding that my partner and I have been discussing for months. Really, I see no value in slapping the losers. Although, maybe, if any of those protesters came close enough, I would let R slap them. Just so they can experience first-hand how appallingly behaved the children of gay parents can be.

As I say, it’s a work in progress.

He has your… well, nothing

The other day as I pushed the boys around a shop, a stranger stopped me. How cute, she exclaimed (about the twins, not me), and doesn’t that one look like you! She pointed at A. And I resisted the urge to say that no, actually he doesn’t.

A doesn’t have my mouth or nose or ears. His eyes, while the same colour as mine, are a completely different shape. In short, he has none of my physical features (although I’m picking up a strong shared tendency to stubbornness). And there is no reason why he should. Genetically, the boys are my partner’s. A and R both look like her.

When we first discussed the options for having kids, it was clear that for many reasons it made sense to use my partner’s eggs. After a little thought I was happy to say that the fact that I would have no genetic link to my children was not an issue for me. There are many family structures where children and their parents are not genetically related, and it doesn’t change the fact that they are a family. So I was right – it isn’t an issue for me. But I sometimes wonder whether it will be an issue for others.

What if I had told that woman in the shop that she was quite wrong to suggest A looked like me? That her perception resulted from an incorrect assumption about the relationship between us? Possibly I would insult her, and probably embarrass her. After all, she was just making a nice comment. But on the other hand, my silence allowed the incorrect assumption to stand. As the boys get older I want them to know that genetics is only one way a family can be connected. They are my children and I am their mother, irrespective of the lack of shared genes. And, frankly, I don’t care who knows it.

So I’m fine with the fact  that A and R don’t look like me, although on occasions I do wish I looked more like them. The other night a new friend asked if I had any photos of the boys on me (silly question, just a few hundred on my phone…). When I showed her some she announced, quite rightly, that they are gorgeous. And they are, but sadly I can’t take any credit for it.

I admit, I am nothing special

I have made an important decision. I intend to teach my children that I am nothing special. Of course, I shall encourage them to think that I am superwoman, and the impossible standard to which all their future relationships will fail to measure up. But I shall also tell them that the fact that I am gay is absolutely nothing special.

On occasions, usually at work-related functions, I twist my words into atrocious convoluted sentences so that I can say ‘partner’ rather than ‘wife’, and avoid the pronoun. I justify my actions by reasoning that I don’t need to announce my sexuality. But I know that by actively changing my language I am making an issue of being gay myself, thereby conveniently removing the need for anyone else to do so. I do it because I don’t want to stand out as unusual (at least, not in those circumstances).

I hope that the boys never feel the need to choose their language with such care, but instead can talk openly about their upbringing. The law of averages says that at some point, possibly in only a few years, they will start to experience various differing attitudes towards having two mummies. And the number of countries where homosexuality is still illegal suggests that at times those attitudes will be hostile.

 But over the last week or so, as I have watched the pictures emerge on Facebook of Californian gay couples clasping their marriage certificates, my optimism has grown. As gay marriage creeps closer in this country (in your face, bizarre lone protester outside Parliament), it grows further. With each gay couple given the opportunity to live their life equally to others (get married, or don’t; have kids, or don’t) I, as part of a gay couple with kids, become a little less unusual. Which make me think or hope that maybe by the time my children are affected by such matters, the fact that I am gay will be so ordinary that they can say whatever they want. Two mummies? Yeah, nothing special.

Hold still, son, I need my Prosecco

Last Saturday was Pride and I was proud, but not at Pride. It wasn’t a political decision not to attend. I don’t hold with the criticism sometimes levelled that Pride is now just a big party rather than a movement aiming at social and political change. Politics, protests and parties have strong historical links. It also wasn’t a practical decision not to go. The boys are generally well-behaved in public and i have no concerns about taking them up to central London. I know other gay parents took their children of all ages and one year, maybe the next, I do plan to take the boys.

I didn’t go to Pride because I went to my local museum gardens instead. My partner and I enjoyed the sun, let the boys crawl as far and as fast as they wanted on the grass, and got lots of exercise chasing the little mites down. We laughed and giggled and fought over a newly acquired glove puppet (I’d like to say only the boys fought…). My partner and I held hands as we pushed the pram to see the goats in the little pen at the bottom of the gardens, and every now and then we kissed.

So was I ignoring Pride to treat myself to family time? Actually no. Pride, to me, is about saying that gay people are an integral part of our society and that we expect equality. I passionately believe in that message. I have been known to chant it in public, and to mutter it angrily under my breath as I pass the now almost daily protestor standing outside parliament with some ill-conceived banner about the definition of marriage. I’m sure that in the future I will again loudly demand equality rather than simply expect it. But my Saturday was my Pride done my way. I expected to be treated just like any heterosexual couple would be, playing with my children and indulging in occasional displays of affection for my partner, in public.  Being able to behave so normally is, to my mind, a little piece of equality.

I offer support and congratulations to those who marched on Saturday, and I hope the hangovers weren’t too bad for those who partied. For my part, I retired to the sofa with my partner and a bottle of Prosecco on Saturday night. Of course, R started crying and had to be cuddled for a while, prompting my partner to practice her growing skills in soothing a wriggling baby while holding a glass of wine. But that’s just part of being a parent, gay or otherwise. Babies don’t care about the sexual orientation of the person they cry at. They’re very equal like that.