Saturday, December 1, 2007

Review Asia - "All in the family : A Double Dose of Love" by Emma Westward

For gays and lesbians, having kids used to be an impossible dream. Emma Westwood meets two Australian couples who are building a brave new family world

Two mummas
Parents: Janet Asser and
Zoë McCallum
Children: Felix and Sebastian
(twins age 21 months)

For Zoë McCallum, kneeling in front of the coffee table with reheated pasta and one ear trained on the bedroom where her twin boys, Felix and Sebastian, sleep is a typical daily ritual. Like other families in Australia today, she tag-teams parenting with her partner who’ll be home from shift work at 11pm. In that way, McCallum is your average mum. Start her talking about the current crisis in childcare, and she is as impassioned as the next person. But if raising a child wasn’t difficult enough, McCallum and her partner, Janet Asser, have double the responsibility (twins) and they’re also in a same-sex relationship – one that has no legal recognition in the eyes of the Australian government and one that saw them jump through a number of hoops
and loopholes to realize the family they believe they deserved.

As the biological mother of the children, McCallum conceived through in vitro fertilization (IVF) and the altruistic “gift” from a traceable sperm donor. However,
just like a mother in a stable heterosexual relationship, she equally shares the parenting duties with Asser – which includes being called mumma. For the boys, Asser
and McCallum are both their parents, even though the law prevents Asser from appearing on their birth certificates. “We had twins who required both of us to be involved from the moment they were born,” says Asser of their individual responsibilities in the nurturing of their children. “There was not an abundance of breast milk so top-up bottle feeds were required. Each feeding session took about an hour and a half. Zoë would breast feed one then I would bottle feed that child and repeat the process with the second.

“I never saw the boys as anything but my children,” she continues. “I was there from their creation to birth and beyond. It is all and much more than I expected. The
only thing I didn’t factor in was how vulnerable it makes you. I fear for my kids in
a gut-wrenching way. It is a bizarre sensation to know that you have two beautiful
creatures who rely on you for everything and you must protect them.”

The road to domestic bliss – or should we say, “domestic hubbub” in the case of the energetic Asser-McCallum twins – was not smooth sailing. Issues surrounding assisted reproductive technology for same-sex couples in Australia are complex and vary across states. For lesbian couples, the only alternatives are the rather crude “turkey baster” method or to access IVF by masquerading in a heterosexual relationship and proving that the woman is medically infertile. In the state of Victoria, IVF is not available to single women, and lesbians are officially deemed “single” by an outdated system.

“I had never felt discriminated against before,” laments McCallum. “Never in my entire life, despite being an ‘out’ and professional female, so being discriminated
against with regards to having kids was a life-changing thing. To have your rights curtailed about reproduction is probably one of the most emotional things, I would argue.

“I made myself aware of what laws were available and what the options were,” adds McCallum, who speaks with anger over a situation she feels is yet to be rectified.
“I’d followed debates for some time and had written letters to the prime minister
over the years challenging his family values and the absolute myths of the nuclear
family and the fact that all that stuff was predicated on wrong data – or no data.”
Eventually, McCallum’s research and unwavering determination to create the family she had always desired led her to the Rainbow Families Organization, a support group established for samesex parents. Through RFO information sessions, Asser and McCallum met other women in similar circumstances to themselves and eventually were referred to a doctor who was sympathetic to their cause.

With McCallum trained as a pediatrician and Asser a pediatric nurse, both were aware of problems arising from genetics and, therefore, mindful their donor’s full profile was readily available to them. The next hurdle was choosing who would carry the child.
“That was a huge quandary for us because we had to consider Janet being the biological mother rather than me, which I had never prepared myself for,” explains McCallum. However, Asser’s attempts at conception proved fruitless and McCallum, suspected to have polycystic ovaries, was then able to step up as a “back-up womb”.

“I had to think of Janet as the biological mother of my child in a way I never had before,” says McCallum. “The only sadness of that was, when she didn’t fall pregnant, we had to grieve for that. She had to face up to the fact that she could not have one. It sounds a bit clichéd, but it definitely solidified our intent to have a family and made us more true co-parents. “I’m still sad that I can’t parent her biological child in the way any other partner would if they were straight or gay. I suppose that’s been reinforced by having my own biological kids and seeing the true gift of it. Janet said the other day, ‘I never once have felt that these children are not mine.’ ” While McCallum and Asser have been supported in their workplaces as two mothers raising two boys, inevitably there are the knockers who consider their situation “unnatural”. “I used to be angry and want to educate them, but now I pity them,” says McCallum.

As part of any community, the boys have constant male role models and their parents are even contemplating employing a “manny”, but regardless, Asser is unashamedly a tomboy and, unlike McCallum, knows how to play “boy-style”, throwing balls around and the like.

“Janet and I are so different and have one of those relationships where we are much
bigger than the sum of our parts because of our differences,” says McCallum. “Hopefully, we’ll set a good example for the boys because our relationship shows how two completely different people can live fantastically together – fulfilling very happy lives – and make society a better place, despite having completely different ways of doing it.”

Daddy and Tatay
Parents: Jason and Adrian
Children: Ruben (age 20 months)

When meeting Jason and Adrian Tuazon-McCheyne at a café, it is hardly difficult
spotting them walking down the street. “We’ll be the two guys – one white, one Filipino – pushing a pram,” laughs Jason. For some, being in an interracial relationship is challenging enough, let alone living openly as homosexual men and overcoming the many roadblocks to fathering a child together. In order to complete their family unit, though, Adrian and Jason were willing to go to the ends of the Earth.

Their journey took them to Los Angeles, to be exact – via Toronto in Canada, where the two officially married in 2004 because homosexual marriages are still not legal in Australia. Well before that, in 2000, they discussed the possibility of starting a family and resolved that it was a path they were both very eager to tread.

Firstly, the two men investigated adoption, but very quickly found the door slammed firmly in their faces. “We were told not to bother even coming to the information session,” says Jason. The next option was surrogacy through an American agency – a costly, time-consuming and controversial process, but one Adrian and Jason were willing to endure in order to pursue their dream.

“All of the surrogates are screened medically and psychologically,” explains Jason. “They have to have had children already. They have to be financially independent, although they receive a modest stipend. They have to be an appropriate person to be a surrogate first before they even go into the pool.

“In our case, she [the surrogate] provided the egg, but most surrogates don’t – they just carry the fertilized embryo,” says Jason. “We used what they call ‘traditional
surrogacy’ where it was done through insemination. But it could only be from one of us, and whether it was one or two babies was a natural occurrence.”

As with all pregnancies, the experience was what Adrian calls a “roller-coaster ride”. In fact, before Ruben, their surrogate suffered a miscarriage. “It was really, really sad because you just don’t know what’s going to happen next,” says Adrian. “You’re not sure whether it’s going to work.”

Yet, the men were keen to push forward in their attempts for a successful pregnancy and, as far as they were concerned, they would continue pushing until they had a child.
“We went to America four times,” reveals Jason. “Once to start the process, two to meet her, three to see how the pregnancy was going and four for the birth. It was good that we were far away because we couldn’t worry about the day-to-day.”

Adrian adds: “The main thing we didn’t want her to do was drink or smoke, which she didn’t.” “It was never her baby,” says Jason. “She never felt that it was her baby. Her partner and children never bonded with the pregnancy.

Legally, once Ruben was conceived, he was our child. And that was important. Over there, it’s all legally and ethically done above reproach. They’re more concerned
that you won’t come and take your child. After all of this, if you don’t take your child, they go up for adoption.” Just like any fathers, Adrian and Jason were present at the birth of their child – videotaping and taking photographs for posterity. Their surrogate only saw the baby the next day after the birth, although the two families got together for lunch before Adrian and Jason flew with little Ruben back home to Australia.

They retain friendship ties to this day. “We had to work really hard, seven days a week, for five years beforehand to be able to afford the process, prepare everything, fly to the United States, have the car seat in the car ready for when Ruben got home… and somehow that’s bad?” says Jason in response to any critics.

“There’s this widespread belief that men are not natural parents, which is definitely not true,” adds Adrian. “It’s always that the women are more important than men.” As far as Ruben is concerned, having two dads is as natural as a mother and father. “He differentiates between the two of us – daddy and Tatay, which is ‘daddy’ in Filipino,” Jason says.

“When it comes down to it, gender is not important anyway. He loves trucks and cars and trams – he’s not a doll boy. His orientation will be whatever it is, and it will
probably be straight, which is great. But if it’s not, we certainly know what his journey will be like and we’ll be able to help him.”

When it comes to telling Ruben about his unique introduction into this world, Adrian and Jason have no solid plans, but will instead just go with the flow. “When he’s old enough, we’ll just show him and tell him this great story about how all these people came together so he could be born,” says Jason. “It’s a fantastic story. There’s no abandonment. It’s just – wow! I think he should be pretty excited about it.”

[Link: Original Article]

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