Supporting invisible parents

Dr Charlotte Whiteley writes.

12 August 2019

I would like to add a voice to the discussion around paternal mental health, which we read about in Viren Swami’s article (May issue) and further in Jasmin Kaur Gill’s letter (July issue). Whilst we must acknowledge the unique experiences of new fathers and the role toxic masculinity may play in informing how they do or do not access support, we must not ignore the unique experiences of other gendered new parents, too.

I am a mother of two. My partner carried our first child and I carried our second. We have navigated issues unique to our own situation such as health care professionals at the hospital where our children were born assuming my partner or myself were an aunty or friend rather than parent. Every visit to the GP is an ‘outing’ of ourselves (‘this is my partner and also my child’s mum’). We have asked every childcare setting whether or not they have books about same gendered families, to which the response has been 100 per cent ‘no’. These are just the conspicuous, crass examples whereas it is the more nuanced, subtle microaggressions that tend to feel more profound. For example, baby development websites refer to the father, not partner, and people refer to the sperm donor as ‘their dad’.

Complex new questions are raised when one child is attached to one parent, and one child attached to the other. My story is from the position of being a two-mum family, but there are also two-dad families, three or four parent families, single parent families, and so on. Research in this area of attachment is scant.

Whilst fathers of heteronormative families may be less inclined to seek help due to masculine stereotypes, new parents of same-gendered families may also be less likely to seek help given that they already feel they are ‘less normal’ than most families and thus feel an extra pressure to ‘succeed’ as a family.

During these first few years as a parent I have set up and run a thriving social support group for LGBT+ families in North London. Many of us face similar challenges and the support of these groups is sacred. The trouble is that our health care system (despite the sported NHS rainbow lanyards) and third sector service providers continue to assume that babies are born to a mother and a father in roles laden with gender stereotypes. We really need to check our assumptions and remain curious about families we serve.

There are many family structures. It can be a painful experience when families are assumed to be heteronormative – this, in a way, makes part of our existence invisible.

Dr Charlotte Whiteley
Chartered Counselling Psychologist