When same-sex couple Caroline Feehily and Ciara Stoat decided they wanted to have children, they braced themselves for a long-term battle, but within two years they happily had a family of their own, writes Orla Neligan.
Even though the family landscape is changing, with the very concept of the traditional modern family being turned on its head by a variety of alternative options, there are still LGBT people who assume becoming pregnant isn’t an option. This is exactly what Caroline Feehily, 39, and Ciara Stoat, 37, thought when they sat down to discuss the idea of having a family. “We were very naive initially,” says Caroline. “We thought it probably wouldn’t happen or that we’d have to leave the country to realise our dream of having children, but it was so much easier than that.” The couple, originally from Cork, are speaking with me from their home in Killorglin, Co Kerry, while their daughter Phoebe, three, and son Noah, one, play in the background. Both women hoped their children would have some biological link, and so used the same sperm donor, with Caroline giving birth to Phoebe in January 2013 by IUI treatment, and Ciara giving birth to Noah in June 2015 via IVF. Apart from the normal medical issues that come with treatment, the two women experienced a very straightforward process. “We initially visited our local GP, who referred us to Dr John Waterstone at the Cork Fertility Centre. We thought we would have to wait months before being seen, but were surprised to get a consultation within a number of weeks and started treatment soon after. They took us on like any heterosexual couple.”
The couple knew they had little hope of having a family via adoption or surrogacy: Currently, approximately 20 Irish babies are adopted each year, and the criteria of eligibility for overseas adoption excludes single and gay people. Surrogacy is equally fraught with complications since there are no actual laws governing surrogacy in Ireland, and so Caroline and Ciara opted for fertility treatment using a sperm donor.
“In medical terms, sperm is referred to as ‘straws’, so we call it our last straw story,” laughs Ciara. They had five straws, two of which were used in Caroline’s IUI treatment (intrauterine insemination, also known as artificial insemination) – a less invasive and costly procedure that, unlike IVF, requires a lower dosage of drugs and doesn’t involve egg retrieval, fertilisation of eggs in a laboratory, or transfer of embryos like IVF. Caroline became pregnant with Phoebe on her second IUI treatment, leaving three straws left. When the couple decided soon after that they would try for another child, Ciara opted for IUI. When that failed, and with only one “straw” left, they decided they might have more success with IVF. “Our ultimate goal was to have children, and we didn’t know if one or both of us could get pregnant. We faced the same fertility issues as any heterosexual woman. Luckily, there wasn’t anything serious hindering us, and we both got pregnant.” But what if Ciara hadn’t become pregnant – would she have felt somewhat cheated? “I was prepared for that; we didn’t know if either of us could get pregnant, and having Phoebe was a huge achievement. She was born as ‘our’ daughter equally, I never felt ‘What if it doesn’t work out for me?’.” But any gay couple who has entered this territory knows that there are a few glaringly unsubtle problems they have to face, the first being the legal recognition of both gay parents on a child’s birth certificate. Currently, only the birth mother is recognised on the birth cert, which means both women have half the rights of their heterosexual neighbours. It seems the rate of technology to create life is outpacing the law’s ability to provide for it. “We are upset and angry about it,” says Caroline, “but we are equal in our eyes, and that’s all that matters. We did consult a family solicitor and have managed to get legal guardianship, which covers us somewhat, but it just means we have to have that certificate close to hand should anything happen. It’s not the same rights as heterosexuals, but it’s all we have for now, and hopefully that will change.”
Even with certificates and legal documentation, the women confess to “having to explain” themselves quite a bit. Not so much in their every day; people in their hometown have been very accepting of their situation. “Local people are just very curious. They want to know how they are biologically linked. They say ‘wow’ a lot when they hear our story. I think at first glance, people don’t really guess we’re a gay couple with a family; I reckon they think one of us is the nanny,” laughs Caroline. “When I was pregnant with Noah,” says Ciara, “prenatal checks tended to take a bit longer by the time I explained that yes, I did have another child, but I didn’t carry her. I never wanted to say Noah was my first – it felt wrong.”
But, unfortunately, they have had a few brushes with unsympathetic bureaucracy. When they applied for Phoebe’s first passport, they visited their local garda station and were asked for the father’s name for the application. When they explained that there was no father, just a donor and two mommies, there was a stony silence while the garda took several steps backwards. “We found it comical,” laughs Ciara. They got the passport, but Ciara very nearly didn’t get to vote in the same-sex marriage referendum. “I was heavily pregnant with Noah at the time of the referendum and went to the polling station with Phoebe. There was a very aggressive man there being very vocal about his opinion of gay marriage. It was scary, and a stark reminder that there are people out there that view us and our children differently; I felt quite vulnerable.” Thankfully, the referendum was passed, as both women agree they would have moved abroad should it not have gone through, neither wanting to raise their children in a place where they weren’t accepted because of their parents’ sexuality. What would they say to someone who believes same-sex parenting is damaging to the notion of the traditional family? “A load of rubbish,” they reply in unison. “All children need is love, and Phoebe and Noah have that in bucketloads. There are plenty of dysfunctional heterosexual partnerships that create an environment that is not healthy for the children. Our two are very happy kids. We live a very normal life, and having two mommies is discussed openly.” But, Ciara admits, Peppa Pig has a lot to answer for when it comes to Phoebe’s interpretation of “family”. The notion of “mummy pig” and “daddy pig” is very apparent, and they have to consciously introduce stories and examples of families with the presence of two mommies and two daddies. Perhaps the couple in Disney’s Finding Dory will pave the way for other film and TV creators to follow suit.
On the subject of the children’s “father”, and whether that’s a conversation they’ll be having with their two children, both women are emphatic. “We don’t use the term ‘dad’ or ‘father’. Noah is too young yet to understand, but Phoebe understands the term donor. There won’t be any family meetings or reunions, but they can retrieve certain information if they wish when they’re 18.” The donor is not named on the birth cert or anywhere else. The women used what’s known as a “known anonymous donor” from a Danish sperm bank since Ireland is deemed too small a gene pool. They knew his physical characteristics, health and family history and most importantly for Caroline and Ciara, his motivations for donating. “It seems he just wanted to help other couples that didn’t have children. That’s what I’ll be telling Phoebe and Noah when they’re older, that he was a kind man who wanted to help us. He believed in equality for all.”
There has undoubtedly been a sea change in the way gay couples are perceived in this country. Last year’s same-sex marriage referendum was not only well received, but turned the very notion of Ireland’s old conservative stereotype on its head and so, it seems, the eventual outcome of gay partnerships and marriages having families. There is still some progress to be made, but the country is embracing the fact that a happy, healthy family doesn’t have to exist within a straight partnership, that all you need is love.