'That's the best thing about being in a same sex couple and having kids... there aren't those restrictions – you can redefine how you are as parents'
Blooming Parents was lucky enough to chat to comedian Jen Brister about her experience of being a parent of twin boys. Check it out below. You can watch, listen or read!
BP: 'Jen Brister is a comedian, who I saw at the first L FEST, she's absolutely brilliant. Welcome Jen - can you tell us a bit more about what you do?'
JB: 'Yes – I'm a stand up comedian, and that is my job. I do that, I mean, it's hard to say full-time because you're never onstage full-time, that would be madness. But yes, that's how I earn a living, and I travel around the country, and around the world performing - and I take shows to places like the Edinburgh Festival, Melbourne Festival. That's basically how I would describe myself – as a jobbing comic.'
BP: 'At the moment you are writing a series of blog posts for Standard Issue called Tales of the Other Mother, which is about the realities of being the 'other mother', or the non-birth mother, but obviously there's an element of humour there. Parenting is hard! Do you find that your humour helps?'
JB: 'Yeah... I mean, you've got to have a sense of humour, definitely. I mean, there will be times when there will be stuff that happens which is not funny. But you just know, give it a couple of months, this is a brilliant story. I mean it's not funny when you're hosing your kid down because they've got poo from their neck to their feet, that's not funny, but the anecdote comes later... But yes, you have to have a sense of humour. What are you going to do, they're babies. I've got two little boys, both nineteen months. You know, they're tiny little munchkins. I'm not going to be cross with them. I'm absolutely amazed at how patient and calm I can be with them in a way that I am not with anyone else. I have very little patience with other humans, but with my children … I'm quite surprised at how calm I am with them.'
BP: 'Did you and your partner equally want children or did one of you want children more than the other?'
JB: 'I'd be lying if I said I never wanted children, because I did. I always wanted to have children. But I think I hit an age where I sort of went, 'well, it's probably not going to happen', and I had made my peace with that. (My girlfriend and I) we did eventually have children together but we weren't in any rush for it, we were sort of dragging our heels about it. It was that age old thing: 'are we going to stay together – what if we have kids and we end up breaking up?'. You know – we were still figuring out, I mean, we were like the opposite of most lesbians, it took us nearly ten years before we actually really made a commitment. So by the time we made the decision, 'OK we're going to have a family', I was just too old. I probably could have tried but my heart wasn't in it and I was like 'I don't want to be pregnant now, I'm nearly thirty nine, it just doesn't appeal to me', and my girlfriend was like, 'I don't think I'd be happy if you were pregnant and I wasn't'. I was like, 'Oh! Done deal - right, we've nailed it! This is brilliant because I don't want to be pregnant – you want to be pregnant – everyone's a winner!'.
BP: 'Yes, for us it was similar – there was never really a question as to who was going to be the birth mother unless my partner was having problems (getting pregnant) – and then I would have stepped in.'
JB: 'The same. We did IVF in the end, for various reasons. The doctor did say to me, 'how old are you?' At the time I was nearly thirty eight, and he went 'OK – how old are you'? And I was like 'Oh, OK'.
BP: 'Isn't that funny, that's actually the opposite of our experience, because we went to our GP. We tried a private clinic first, and then we had a big wobble, and then eighteen months later we went to our GP, and she said the median age of people in this area is 41 I think it was, for their first child, so don't worry too much about your ages. So it's funny the different advice you get.'
JB: 'Yeah, ours wasn't doom and gloom. But they were like, 'You're old. Your eggs are old. You've got old lady eggs.' And I was like, '- fine. I'm happy with my old lady eggs, you don't have to fiddle with them.''
BP: 'In terms of the sperm donor, did you go for a known or unknown donor, and how easy or difficult was that decision?'
JB: 'I was like – no to the known donor. For me. A lot of people think this is quite selfish. Maybe it is. But I'm like – who is this guy, and then who am I? This is hard enough - being the other mother - without trying to figure out who you are. If there are two parents and then you're just this person hanging around going 'HI!'... even though I don't get easily jealous or anything like that, and I haven't been since the boys were born ... between my girlfriend and I, there's been nothing. I would have had a problem with the dad, that would have been a problem for me. Because I want to be the other parent. I'm not the dad but I want to be the other parent and that was really important to me.'
BP: 'Everyone has their own unique circumstances and I think a lot of people do feel that way.'
JB: 'And I completely understand if somebody had somebody they love, you know, a couple, and they love this guy and they have a great relationship but I think for me, I'm just envisaging problems in the future – complications, arguments, disagreements... Keep it simple.'
BP: 'How did you find the birth?'
JB: '... my brother took me to one side and said, 'you know Jen, when they're born, don't worry if you don't feel anything'... And I'm like, 'what do you mean 'if I don't feel anything?!' - of course I'm going to feel something, how can I not feel something?' - he's like, 'but you will bond later, but just don't be scared about that, it will be fine'. And I remember thinking, 'for you maybe, but it's going to be different for me'. The boys were born by C-section and at the time it was really quite emotional, and once they arrived, I did think, 'who are you, who are you little blobs?'. I felt an instant need to protect them but the whole falling in love with them came a little bit afterwards. Not that long after, but it certainly wasn't like, 'I love you weird looking hairy, but also hairless, rodenty things', whereas Chloe was like, oh my god, all of her oxytocin and... I could see it, there was so much love there, and in that instant I was like 'oh – what is that like, that looks good, I want some of that'. And all of that came much later.
BP: 'So if your partner had a caesarean it was all quite straightforward then, there weren't any tense moments – or were there?'
JB: 'No, God no, we were given no choice... it was a twin birth... they're very wary of complications: you've got double the chance of something happening, and there being internal bleeding or lack of oxygen for one of the little ones. So they said 'they're both breach, we're going to have to do caesarean' - and I didn't think I would respond like this, maybe because it wasn't happening to me, but I was like, 'Oh yes! Come on, let's whip 'em out, let's do this!'
BP: 'Well I guess there's an element of certainty if you do it that way, isn't there?'
JB: 'Yeah, and I said to Chloe – this is great, this has been taken out of our hands, and on the 25th of September at this time they're going to be here. I mean, it's so mental, you go to sleep the night before and then you know that at 7 o'clock in the morning the next day you're going to have two... I mean, it's just too crazy. So that aspect of it was weird - we booked in our children's birth. But the fact that there were no complications: I would have been rubbish if there had been complications, I would have been a semi-hysterical woman, just not helping Chloe. I think I would have been useless. Because I'm quite an emotional person ... I think I would have panicked. I was anxious when they cut her open… but she was loving it, she was like 'these drugs are great' … was it the same for you?
BP: 'When our daughter was born it was quite complicated. She turned at the last minute after a long labour. Initially we thought it was going to be a quick labour. One of the doctors came in (eventually) with these forceps that were just enormous and obviously I had to hide the panic on my face. It was just having that poker face constantly... it wasn't something I expected, it was hard. But everyone gets through it somehow don't they.'
JB: 'Well, I think childbirth is insane, I mean, what!? How can anyone put themselves through that? I mean, not just the pregnancy, some women have terrible pregnancies – Chloe had fainting and carpal tunnel, and feet that were like pieces of mince meat. And birth is the closest a women gets to dying – I mean, what the hell's that? It's just so intense. And then you're made to feel like a failure if you have a caesarean and all that crap, which I think it just a load of rubbish. I think the main priority is that you have a healthy baby and a healthy mother. I don't know if you did that NCT thing, but there's a lot of, you know, 'it's so natural, and then you just breathe out and it pops out, and it's all fine' and you're like 'WHAT??' And everyone in the NCT (group), every woman had an intervention – nobody got away with that - it didn't just 'slip out' for anyone, everyone was having a terrible time. And maybe that's also because we're having kids older, we're not twenty something now, we're thirty something, forty something and so I think births are getting a little bit harder maybe.'
BP: 'You talk about being in a constant state of neurosis being the other mother, can you explain how you deal with that?'
JB: 'Well, I don't know, like any parent really. I have terrible fantasies, like, awful fantasies, I mean – not like I want these to happen, but I guess I've never had anything that I've really been worried about losing before. So I get quite neurotic at the thought of anything happening to them. I try to quash that, so if they're on a climbing frame or doing something, I'm not like 'get off that'. I let them play, and fall over, and make mistakes and that kind of stuff. I said something insane the other day – Chloe's father is a real biker, he's got motorbikes, he was like, 'when they get their motorbike license' - I was like, 'THEY WILL NOT!'. They're nineteen months old and I'm already vetoing them ever riding a motorbike. But I do, I have these anxieties, and I have to squash them.'
BP: 'Is that neurosis part of being the non-birth mother or non-genetic mother. Is that part of it?'
JB: ' I have a little bit of that maybe, when I leave Brighton, possibly. I get like oh, do we have to have these conversations around, 'who are you?'. People go, 'it's so nice that your friend is helping..' and I'm like - 'Yeah, it's really great being a helpful friend. I'm here all the time, actually! Not getting paid!'. Yeah, the explaining bit I hate. That I find just boring.'
BP: 'Sometimes it's not appropriate to put all that out there! You're all of a sudden in a position where you have to lie or you have to spill everything out...'
JB: 'Exactly, it's like 'oh, so, you're the mum' and then they talk to my partner like she's the only parent... Somebody said to me – why don't you just say you're the other mum, and it's like, because then I have to go into – 'I'm the other mum', and they're like, 'the other mum?', and you're like 'yes, we're a couple', and, 'did you adopt them?' and I'm like 'no – we didn't adopt them', and then I'm telling them how we had our children and it's way too much information! Can I just have a cappuccino please?! This is too much!''
BP: 'My favourite is when I'm out with Edie and people say: 'She looks so much like you!'
JB: 'That's just hilarious. I get that all the time – 'oh my God they look so like you'. And they don't! That's the weird thing. They absolutely look nothing like me. I mean the thing is with your kids as they get older, is that they do have maybe your facial expressions, that you have. But no, when they say that, part of me goes, 'Really? Do you think so? OK..' and another part of me goes, 'oh, hang on, you're just saying that – I mean, you'd say that to anybody'. That's like people's go-to response.'
BP: 'How about your parents – how have they adopted grandparenthood? Do you think it's any different to if you'd had your own biological children?'
JB: 'Well, my mum certainly hasn't made me feel like it's any different. She's made me feel like it's a hundred percent the same, I think, so I don't know. I don't see that much of my dad, but even he's like totally, 'great, cool'. Neither of them have ever had a problem or an issue with me being gay. I think my mum's biggest problem about me when I came out, the only time she ever said she was a little bit disappointed was 'I'm just not going to have grandchildren'. And now that she's got grandchildren she's high fiving herself around the place. I'm very very fortunate in that respect in that I haven't had that. And even my partner's family who, let's say weren't a hundred percent behind our relationship when we got together, have been the same. They've been amazing, and just really happy to see their grandkids.'
BP: 'You live in Brighton and you mentioned it being different when you leave Brighton. Do you think it's much easier, as same sex parents, to bring up kids in places like Brighton?
JB: 'Yes! I mean, we didn't move here by accident. If you want them, there's Brighton and Hove Rainbow Parents, there's loads of groups, there's loads of support. People who move to Brighton tend to be super liberal. We are the only city in the country that voted for a Green MP. So, I certainly have never had any problem or issue with anyone in Brighton about being a gay parent. I don't see that many gay parents, but then I don't go to a lot of the groups because I just don't have any time. I work weekends and Chloe works really hard during the week, and then I have the kids during the week and I work nights as well, so they're they're like: 'come to an evening thing' and I'm like: 'I'm working', so that's been difficult. But we're going to try and do stuff when the kids are a bit older because I think it's important for them to be not the only kids that have two mums.'
BP: 'I was going to say, once they start getting older and understanding that their family might be different - is that something that you worry about or will worry about?'
JB: 'I do worry. I worry about it less going to school here in Brighton because I think other parents are going to teach their kids that.. you know if their kids go home and say 'so-and-so has two mums', the parents aren't going to go 'oh my god, that's so weird. They're going to be like 'some people have two mummies, some people have two daddies, as well as a mummy and a daddy' and then they'll be like, 'ah, ok, cool'. I feel less worried about it here and I think with my kids, I hope, that they'll be confident enough in themselves that if they are ever challenged, which they will be, that they just, they can hold their own. They'll be like 'your dad smells of poo'...'
BP: 'They have each other as well obviously which is going to be a help as well.'
JB: 'They've got each other, we've got some very good friends of ours who are close who have just had a daughter. She's a year younger and hopefully they can hang out as well. I do think it's important, and I do think that is something we will definitely invest more time in as they get older. I'll make time time for that because I think it's important to make my kids feel like they are one of lots of kids, not like the freaks.'
BP: 'In terms of resources for same sex parents to be and same sex parents - are there any particular books or websites that have helped you?'
JB: 'I'm probably the wrong person to ask about stuff like this because I don't do those sorts of things. Chloe does... I haven't, apart from the Brighton and Hove Rainbow group. I know that there's a meet up at the Southbank monthly for same sex parents, and I know that there are.. that we're very fortunate now that there are books for children about different families – not just for kids with two mums but for any kid, so that they can have their experience reflected back. But no, I can't help you, but Google it – there's loads.'
BP: 'Is there any advice that you can give to same sex parents or parents to be – are there any insights that you haven't come across before that you think might help other people?'
JB: 'I don't think same sex parents as parents have different experiences to heterosexual parents. I think that being part of a same sex parenting couple, what I think we have, I don't know if you would agree with me, is a much stronger working relationship as parents, where we really share out the work. There is no expectation of one person doing all 'this thing', and the other person just does that. And so our kids definitely get a lot from that, they see a lot of both of us. That's the best thing about being in a same sex couple and having kids, is that those roles aren't defined by anybody...'
BP: 'It's the weight of expectation that you just don't have as a same sex couple...'
JB: 'You don't – it's like with weddings – I never understand those people who go 'we got a white dress and a suit' and you're like 'oh my god – you could do anything – there's no expectation for you to do that – you can do anything'... and as parents, there aren't those restrictions – you can redefine how you are as parents, how you behave as a couple, and this is a massive stereotype but I have found that in some heterosexual couples those roles are very defined. And so Mum is just working her fingers to the bone. You know, bringing up a kid on your own... you shouldn't have to bring up a kid on your own. No one should have to bring up a kid on their own, particularly if you're in a relationship. It's really hard work, so you've both got to get behind it. And I think women, we just have a little bit more empathy, and are a little bit more like: 'I can see you're struggling, let me'... even if I've been working and I get back at two in the morning and I know that Chloe's had a bad night I'll get up in the morning, I'll get up at six, I'll just do it, you know, there's no, 'I'm sorry this is just not happening' … (that's my impression of a man by the way)
BP: 'And he's American.'
JB: 'They're always American – or Scottish. But yeah, that's what I would say. And also, if you're the other mother, don't be like 'I'm not as important because I didn't do the thing with the uterus.' You're really, super important, and your partner can't do anything without you, literally - especially if you've had a caesarean. And it's not a competition, that's the other thing I'd say. I think a lot of people are like 'they're my children' and so there's some weird jealousy thing. You've got to knock that on the head, forget about that. There is no jealousy thing with two people that, hopefully, love each other and have a little blob that just needs you. You've got to put all that ego to the side and just give your kid a hundred percent. And if you have twins, good luck with that...'
BP: 'Or triplets even!'
JB: 'Oh my god, for anyone with triplets – I don't know how you do it.'
BP: 'Amazing, well some people do amazingly (with triplets)'
JB: 'They are amazing'
BP: 'And of course with fertility treatment in some cases there is the raised odds of having more than one, so be prepared.'
JB: 'Yes – if you don't want two, don't put two in.'
BP: 'Great advice! Lastly, is there a story or anything in particular you'd like to leave us with?'
JB: 'I think sometimes I have this thing where I'm like... I have expectations of what somebody's going to think or say, or react to, when they find out that we're a gay couple, and this isn't really a story... But I have expectations and I'm already on the defensive and I'm like 'look it's just normal now, so just …', but actually I've been really surprised at how many people have just been cool with it. Not so much in Kent, but certainly just travelling around. I talk about it on stage and sometimes it does make people feel a bit uncomfortable, but generally people are totally fine with it. So, I'm always surprised at how human humans are, that's quite heartwarming.'
Find out more about Jen at http://www.jenbrister.co.uk/