LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Gay parents - Martin & George
with children James & Eric
Clockwise: Martin, George, Eric and James
NAMES, PLACE NAMES AND SOME OTHER DETAILS HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT THE IDENTITY OF THE YOUNG SITTERS
Date of photography: 1st April 2017
Martin and George have adopted two delightful little boys and are raising them in a comfortable, loving home. Take time to read their story; it will make you smile and bring tears to your eyes, for this is something that would have been unimaginable only a few years back. Once it was recognised that the essential components of successful child-rearing were the provision of a loving and caring environment, it had to be accepted that this could just as well be provided by two men or two women as a conventional couple. On this basis, the adoption process for same-sex-couples is now well-established and finely-tuned and, in principle, it does not differ very much from the process laid down for heterosexual couples. Both Martin and George were very keen to describe their own experience, in order to help others who are contemplating adoption. George adds: “LGBT parents can meet children’s needs every bit as well as straight couples can, and we have no hesitation in encouraging others who want to be parents to do exactly what we did; it is a joyous and deeply rewarding thing to do.”
The full story:
I am a guest, sitting in a bright, tidy, modern house in a prosperous part of South East London; it is home to Martin and George, a gay couple, and to their two adopted sons, James and Eric, who are aged seven and five respectively. When I mentioned to my friends that I was planning to photograph and interview some gay parents, most reacted with polite interest but nothing more than that. Well, this is London, where anything goes, though it seems likely that the reaction elsewhere might well have been rather different - it is, after all, but a few years since the idea of the state permitting same-sex couples to adopt children would have been almost unimaginable. A few lesbians managed to raise their own children, sometimes inherited from previous, heterosexual relationships and sometimes fathered by obliging gay male friends, while sharing the family home with a female partner, but even these low-key ‘gay families’ faced disapproval and sometimes even attracted intervention from Social Services. Those were the days when, to most people, homosexuality was still seen either as sexually deviant behaviour or as a deliberate, perverse ‘lifestyle choice’; even raising children in close proximity to such people would, in the minds of the readers of tabloid newspapers, make them potentially homosexual too, and if not that, then most certainly socially and sexually disorientated. The fact that I am able to photograph this happy family unit for a public exhibition, a family that is fully integrated into the local community, is an indication of how far, as a society, we have progressed in recent years.
I decide to photograph Daddy M and Daddy G, as the boys refer to their two fathers, together with James and Eric on the boys’ own territory, their bedroom, surrounded by a great host of their toys, their favourite teddies, and a snake that seems to be making a slightly disturbing progress towards my lens. Despite having a stranger in the house, both boys are charmingly trusting and unfazed, highly articulate and impeccably well-behaved. Later on, I watch them sitting at the table with their parents, for a light lunch; their table manners are flawless and the close bond between all members of this little family group are almost tangible. These are clearly two very happy boys, who radiate warmth and good humour and who visibly enjoy the company of other people. I would be almost inclined to call them ‘lucky boys’ but I doubt whether this is ever a fair or appropriate epithet for children who have been adopted, whatever the reason, even when they have had the good fortune to have adoptive parents who can provide a comfortable, caring environment. Suffice it to say that this feels manifestly like a happy home.
Both Martin and George are in their thirties and both are lawyers: Martin works in the Financial Services sector, and George is a Civil Servant. They have been together as a couple for twelve years, confirmed their relationship by becoming Civil Partners, subsequently reconfirming their status through marriage, once same-sex marriage was permitted.
Martin says of his background: “I was born in Suffolk, close to the North Sea coast, and to this day I love to return home to take in the big skies and the beautiful sandy beaches. I come from what is, broadly speaking, a working class family but we are quite an unusual and complicated family, where I am one of five siblings. My mother died when I was very small and I formed a very close and loving bond with my stepmother. From this very intimate, personal experience, I learned that you can be raised very happily and successfully by someone with whom you don’t have ties of blood. While it was only when I was at university that I became aware of being gay, I learned later on that my brothers, all of whom were older than me had, much earlier on, put bets on the fact that I was. They clearly knew me better than I did myself,” Martin laughs.
George was born into a professional family in Sussex but, coincidentally, his family also had connections with the sea and with sailing. “I had a lovely childhood,” says George, “but because my two brothers were much older than me, I was bit of a lonely child and spent a lot more time with my parents than with my siblings. I went to a local prep school, then on to Rugby School in Warwickshire, and then to university after that.” George continues: “I came out to my parents when I was 25. I had known that I was gay from my early teens but I didn’t really have much to show for it until I met Martin while we were both working in Belgium. It was literally love at first sight. My parents were incredibly supportive and kind but, just the same as Martin’s parents, they were also worried for me; from experience of their own generation, they knew only too well how homosexual men were often ostracised and how frequently they suffered discrimination. And they saw my life, a life without children, as potentially lonely and unfulfilled. They were also sad for me, thinking that I wouldn’t have the opportunity of experiencing parenthood.”
By great good fortune, soon after Martin and George got together, the law in the UK was changed and, in 2005, same-sex couples acquired the right to adopt.
Martin continues: “George and I have always talked about the idea of having a family but it took some considerable time for our thoughts and feelings to coalesce. It certainly wasn’t an overnight decision.” George takes over: “Even when we started to contemplate the idea seriously, we had no proper role models. Well yes, there were some very prominent examples of gay couples building their families through surrogacy - cases which were rather unfortunately sensationalised - but surrogacy was unbelievably expensive then, not to mention being legally complex and involving foreign jurisdictions.”
Martin goes on: “When we were planning to move house, we kept finding ourselves looking at properties which would make a good family home.” Asked if they had considered surrogacy instead of adoption, Martin responds: “No, we never seriously considered that route but we do recognise that some couples see a biological link as essential. In any case, the way we saw it was that the biological link could only be to one of us anyway, and that might be strange, perhaps difficult, for both of us; we also knew that there were so many kids who desperately needed fostering or adopting. From the very outset, we knew that we wanted to adopt two children as we wanted to be able to preserve a sibling bond, and thought that being adopted together with a sibling would make it a slightly less strange experience for both children. We were also realistic that adopting young children rather than babies was a less daunting prospect.”
The adoption process for same sex-couples is now well-established and finely-tuned; in principle, it does not differ very much from the process that heterosexual couples go through and it proceeds in three stages. During the first stage, the adoption agency makes a number of thorough background checks and begins the preparation training for the intending adopters. In the second stage, there is further, more intensive work with a social worker, seen as essential for the preparation of adoptive parents, where a detailed report is compiled about the suitability of the prospective adopters. Following this, the Adoption Panel will meet with the aspiring adopters, scrutinise reports from the adoption agency and, in the light of these findings, the Panel will recommend whether or not to approve the couple as suitable. I am told that the first stage normally takes about two months, and the second, about six months, but either stage can take longer. The final stage is in many ways the most delicate, matching the adoptee child to the most suitable future parents. It is not unusual for potential adopters, once approved, to wait between six and twelve months, sometimes even longer, to be matched with a child.
Knowing that Martin and George had gone through this process not long after the law was changed, I was interested to hear about their experience. George observes: “We had two options: adopt through a Local Authority or go to one of the large national charities in this field. But they do tend to serve slightly different needs: Local Authorities often place babies and very young children for adoption, whereas charities like Barnardo's (the charity we actually chose) often specialise in harder to place children, children with special needs, older children and sibling groups.”
“In our case, the process started in January 2011, with an information evening. After that, a social worker from Barnardo’s paid us an initial home visit to see if we were suitable; only then were we allowed to progress. The very first meeting was at Barnardo’s and yes, as it turned out, we were the only gay couple.” Inevitably, I feel the need to ask them how they were received and what was the response of the other potential adopters. “There was no special response from the agency, we were treated like anyone else,” Martin says. “We felt really welcomed, and we never sensed any disapproval from the other couples. Barnardo’s requires all of its prospective adopters to sign up to the same philosophy of treating others equally and with respect. In a strange way, the heterosexual couples were all having to face additional difficulties of various kinds, with many having to deal with the emotional impact of infertility. They were coming to adoption having been through a great deal and the agency needed to make sure that they had come to terms with issues around their fertility before supporting them to move forward.”
Martin goes on: “We were actually the youngest people there seeking to adopt. In our case, the process took a long time, though it is all much faster now. So, in the end, almost a year and a half was taken up with training and all the essential, preliminary stages before we went in front of the Approval Panel; that was in 2013.” Assuming that, by this stage in the process, their respective families were well aware of their intention to adopt, I ask Martin how they’d responded: “My family is quite large,” Martin answers, “and by this time there were quite a few children around. My parents were accustomed to all sorts of child-related requests, so when we asked if they would be willing to help us, they agreed immediately; somehow, we both felt that they had suddenly become part of the process. It was my impression that once we’d actually got married, and they had seen us express our commitment to each other in front of a large group of friends and family, my parents’ attitude towards us visibly changed and we both felt that from that point on, they were confident that we could raise children and make a go of it.” George adds: “My parents were certainly positive but still nervous, for me and for us, not being entirely sure that we fully appreciated what we were taking on. My mother had only just got used to the fact that her own son was out and about in the big wide world as a gay man, yet now, he was telling her, what seemed so very soon, that he was intending to become a dad. Would he be able to manage his professional life as well as collecting children from the school gates? She was also a bit worried about exactly whose children we were about to adopt, for she was well aware that adopted children often come with all sorts of issues and problems, sometimes very serious ones, that we would have to address and cope with. Basically, she was expressing all the fears and anxieties that would be in the mind of every caring mother. But to be honest, we couldn’t have put them down as our referees if we hadn’t known for sure that we could count on their steadfast support, and we had this.”
I was interested to know how the selection process had worked for them. Martin responded at length: “The social worker makes sure that the eligible children understand that a search is under way for the right family to adopt them, although they remain unaware of who it will be until the very final stage, once the match has already been confirmed. We received a selection of children’s profiles and, once we’d narrowed down our choices, we met the social workers of the children we’d identified. It really is crucial, at this stage, that you maintain a degree of emotional detachment, focussing on and scrutinising only the facts, because you know only too well that every child on the list needs a home; otherwise, you might end up wanting to adopt them all! In our case, two brothers (James and Eric) came up repeatedly in our selections and it seemed as if they might be the right children for us - the two little boys were with their foster parents at that time.”
“Well, once we had attended the Matching Panel, and the match had been approved, the planning began for our introduction to the children. As part of this, we produced an illustrated album for the boys, with information and photographs, telling them something about us, our home, and the area where we lived, and the boys’ foster parents gradually introduced them to these components of their possible life with us. With the expert help of the social workers, the boys were gradually led to understand that a new home was being prepared for them - at that point, the boys were aged two and four respectively.”
“What followed next was a 10-day introduction process: initially, we met them just for an hour, with the time increasing, little by little, on every subsequent occasion we met. This was very hard indeed; it was an emotionally difficult and demanding time, not only for them, but for us. On the one hand, we could say that we knew almost everything about them, we knew their background inside out, but on the other hand, we didn’t know them as individuals at all. During that part of the process, we met them at their foster parents’ home - it was their home at the time, after all - and that was where they felt safe and secure. In due course, as we became acquainted and we gradually became familiar to them, they came to visit us. Then, after all this time, towards the end of what seemed a long-drawn-out process, it felt that, suddenly, they were with us, in our home; the door closed behind them and we were together, as a family, in their new home. This was a day that neither of us will ever forget.”
“James, being older, accepted us more readily, whereas Eric, who was still only two, had formed an emotional attachment to his foster parents and he clearly missed them very much - to him, they were the only parents he had known. So with Eric, he took longer to come around to us, and would often shut down.” On adoption, the bonding process is rarely instant and it cannot, must not, be forced; it all takes time and trust has to be built up, boundaries drawn, mutual needs and requirements understood. Martin adds: “It was possibly only during the second Christmas we spent together that I felt that we had become a proper, coherent family.”
I asked how other people, other families, had responded to them as a new family and Martin told me: “Our neighbours were amazing. When Eric turned three, two weeks after he and his brother arrived, all the neighbouring parents came with their children to celebrate his birthday and to make him feel welcome on his special day. Our parents (now the boys’ new grandparents) had to be introduced to them gradually.” One must not forget that, to them, these good folk were total strangers.
Three years on and the brothers are attending the local primary school, just ten minutes away from where they live, and both are doing well. Because they are quite close in age, they are taught just one classroom apart. George observes: “Staying close together has been very important for the boys and the welcome they’ve had from their school has been very helpful, very normalising for them. They’re not the only adopted children there and, perhaps remarkably, neither are they the only adopted children in the school with same-sex parents.” I ask Martin and George if they have picked up any signs of disapproval from other parents and, thankfully, the answer was a categorical “No”. Martin tells me: “I have been able to involve myself in the school quite a bit - indeed, I am now a Governor there - and during my adoption leave, I was even able to do some music teaching, so I’ve become a bit of a familiar face there.”
I go on to ask how they are received as a family when they travel outside London. George answers: “We live in a part of London where most people have someone close to them who is gay, so no-one bats an eyelid round here, but a mere 15 miles south and you’re in Kent, or north and you’re in Essex, and in these places you might well get a different response. When we’re out of the metropolis, we behave accordingly; for example, we choose more carefully where we hold hands in public. Last year, we travelled abroad together for the first time as a family, to Portugal; we stayed in a family resort and everything really went well. It was a happy and very reassuring experience for us.”
Next I ask, now that they’ve made the decision to adopt, and become adoptive parents, if they have had any regrets. Martin replies: “None at all, but it wasn’t all plain sailing by any means. We had a lot to learn and there were a great many obstacles that needed to be overcome. I’ve also felt frustrated and angry with myself, on occasions, perhaps because I saw that I wasn’t being the perfect dad, not realising that ‘ideal father model’ I had created in my mind; but in talking to other parents, I clearly got the impression that I’m not the only parent to feel that way.” George adds: “Being adoptive parents, we sometimes feel that we have to be not just parents, but ‘super parents’ and we are aware that everyone's expectations of us are sky high.”
For Martin, George and their sons, what has notably changed from past adoption practice, is that the boys are being brought up with a greater degree of honesty and transparency. They know that their birth mother exists but also know that, due to her particular personal circumstances, she isn’t able to look after them. Once a year, they receive a letter from their natural mother and father, and Martin and George help the boys to write back, and to send pictures, something they will do entirely for themselves as they get older. Of course, these communications are all always conducted via an intermediary (a social worker) for there is no direct contact between the birth parents and their children - this sort of contact can cause emotional confusion and turmoil. The boys also have two half siblings who are somewhat older than they are and in this case, direct social meetings are arranged, and the children are aware that they are related. They go to one another’s birthday parties and meet three or four times a year. Once they reach 18, when they will be young men, James and Eric will be given full access to their personal files and can, if they so wish, request a meeting with their natural parents, although the parents are not required to consent to one. Martin says: “ We also have a copy of their files and, as the boys grow older, we will try to gauge sensitively how much we can helpfully disclose to them, without hurting them. You progressively share more and more information when it seems like the right moment, and when they are ready.” This is markedly different from past practice, when adopted children were usually denied all knowledge of who their parents were; indeed, in many cases, children were not even told that they had been adopted, a practice that can eventually produce a tremendous personal identity crisis, and often lasting resentment.
Inevitably, LGBT parents have to be much more open with their children anyway: James was old enough to know that he once had a mother and a father, now he has two fathers; soon, he will come to realise (if he hasn’t already) that two men cannot have babies and that he must therefore have been conceived elsewhere. Such issues do not arise to complicate matters for heterosexual adopters, so the need for greater transparency is all the more important on a variety of levels.
George observes: “Often, we are told by other people how lucky the boys are to have us as their parents and, while we understand the sentiment - it’s a compliment, of course - we tend to see things differently. If the boys were really lucky, they’d still be loved and cared for by their birth parents, like any normal, happy family, but sadly for them, things didn’t work out that way. Perhaps they were lucky insofar as there were people around them who recognised their predicament, saw their need for safety and security, and found people who could love them and keep them safe. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that WE are the lucky ones, that we have been fortunate and privileged in having the chance to offer these two little boys our home to share. And, of course, it’s not just the home, it’s our love too and our life - we want to give them safety, comfort, and the opportunity to achieve their full potential.”
In conclusion, George tells me: “LGBT parents can meet children’s needs every bit as well as straight couples can, and we have no hesitation in encouraging others who want to be parents to do exactly what we did; it is a joyous and deeply rewarding thing to do.”
By creating a happy home for them, there is every chance that children growing up in it will be happy children too. That is what Daddy M and Daddy G have created for themselves and for their sons, James and Eric; theirs is patently a happy home, and I thank them wholeheartedly for inviting me into it.
Text edited: 16th April 2017
Page modified: 6th April 2019