I have been reflecting recently on what it looks like to support queer parents and how it is different than supporting heterosexual families. Certainly many aspects of new parenthood are the same: the sleep deprivation, the feeling that your whole world has been turned upside down, the unconditional love you feel for your newest family member, and the need for support. However, queer families often face additional challenges. They also may have different strengths. I thought I would spell some of them out here to share with others in their work with families postpartum.
1. Be mindful of parent titles and pronouns.
When working with queer parents I make sure that I am explicit about asking what parent names they have chosen as well as what gender pronouns they use. For example, when I first meet with a family I will ask each parent, “What pronouns do you use? Have you thought of what parent term you would like to use?” I never want to assume anyone’s gender in any circumstance, but certainly not in one where I am supposed to be supporting them and helping them feel safe. Mirroring their language can be a key way of making them feel safe and supported. This also has a way of validating the non-gestational parent’s role and making sure you don’t assume that someone is the “real mom.” Also, in a situation where families have adopted or used a surrogate, finding out how they have chosen to identify different family members can be incredibly validating.
2. Don’t assume extended family support. But also don’t assume that extended family is not involved.
This one works both ways. Many queer families struggle with not having their family of origin there to support them. There are a variety of reasons that any family might not have their family of origin to support them, but for many queer families that reason is often homophobia. This separation is often very present when babies are born and can be especially painful. There is also the practical matter that life is harder when you don’t have lots of extra hands and extra support. However, just because you are working with a queer family, don’t assume that their family of origin does not support them. Many families are fully behind their queer children and are there to help. Some people also experience something in between, where maybe their family of origin is excited about the baby, but doesn’t fully recognize their partner as a parent. Obviously, there is a huge range of experiences around this issue.
3. Queer means many things.
People identify in all sorts of ways! For some folks, saying they are queer means they are attracted to same-gendered people. For some, queer means they are polyamorous. For others, it means they are gender fluid. Be open to people sharing their identities and experiences and don’t make assumptions. Especially when doing postpartum support, it is important that we make sure people are able to bring their whole selves and that includes their sexual and gender identities. One thing you can say to all of your clients is that you are there to support them as new parents, which means you are committed to them being able to express who they are in your time together. So, if the clients have language they would prefer you use with them, such as parent names, pronouns, relationship terms (i.e. partner vs. spouse vs. co-parent) encourage them to let you know. Some people identify as queer, gender queer, lesbian, gay, etc. Don’t label them—reflect language and validate.
4. Recognize and celebrate community and chosen family.
Many queer families have a great support network. This is a strength built out of a history of oppression. Ask, validate, and encourage the support that many queer families will get from their community. Help folks think of what kinds of support people can provide, whether its food or emotional. Recognize that for many queer parents this community is a central part of who they are and how they plan on raising their children.
5. Respect and be open to people’s conception and birth stories.
Never, ever, ever ask a lesbian couple, “Who’s the dad?” or a gay couple “Who’s the mom?” or anyone else anything in between. For many queer families, a lot of thought went into how to bring their child into the world or into their family, so it’s important to make space for that when folks are ready. Be prepared and open to hear as many different conception stories as there are different kinds of families. Don’t assume anonymous donor at the doctor’s office. Don’t assume adoption. There are so many different ways that queer parents make their families. Ask questions in an open and non-assuming way, such as “How did you guys decide to have a baby?” or even “What is your conception story?” One of the best ways to be an ally to queer families is to recognize and see all of who they are and how they became parents. You don’t want to ignore the fact that their experience and birth experiences might be different than the norm. Be open to a range of experiences and find respectful ways to ask about their experiences. For many queer families, their conception and birth stories are actually very empowering. For some, it is the opposite and they have had to deal with homophobia and ignorance throughout the process from having a medicalized conception to trying to convince hospital staff that their partner is a parent who belongs in the delivery room.
6. A word about language
In reflecting back on this post it occurs to me that most of my thoughts are about language and how language has the power to categorize, assume, and oppress people. This is why being thoughtful about your language and reflecting the language a client uses is so important. Think, too, about all the ways in which our language is gendered and heteronormative. Don’t have working with your first lesbian couple be the first time you use “partner” instead of “husband/dad.” It will sound forced and awkward, and your job is to make your clients feel safe and comfortable. Think about saying “nursing” instead of “breastfeeding” knowing that some of your clients might not connect with their breasts or bodies in that way. It is key that we don’t make our clients feel exotic or other, so the more comfortable you are using inclusive language the better everyone will feel. Start practicing now!