Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Photo: Allyson, Denise & Raya Weber by Tanya Kang Photography
Welcoming a new baby into a family where two women share the parenting is an adventure that brings its own pleasures and challenges.
As a couple you may already be accustomed to facing challenges. You may only recently have found acceptance within your own families of origin or within society, and this pregnancy may have put you as future parents back in the spotlight, under new scrutiny.
Depending on where you live, you may find that the health care providers you approach, for the numerous routine visits common in pregnancy, do not expect to meet a same sex couple and you may be feeling worn down by coming out over and over again. You may instead be living in an area where gay families are common and you may be spared the need to explain your family composition and conception story. More and more health care providers are becoming aware of the need for inclusivity in fertility, birth and breastfeeding care, and a number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGTB) friendly provider databases are emerging online, along with support networks for LGTB parents (1).
Parenthood changes the way we see our partners and ourselves. When two women share parenting, society provides much support (but never enough, it seems) to the gestational, breastfeeding mother, often leaving the other parent to figure things out for herself. Much of the information in LLLI publications for fathers may be applicable to a partner who identifies as a “supporting” parent, or it may not, especially if you both identify as mothers. Support and information on how to navigate your parenting roles and care for your baby may be hard to come by. Advice for partners who are fathers may do little to help with the emotions involved in co-mothering or co-parenting as you define it.
Lesbian non-gestational parents lack role models and a name or a ritual to mark becoming a parent. They may experience conflicting emotions toward their partner and co-parent and her relationship with the baby (2). Unless you live in an area where there is a thriving LGTB parent community, you may not have many or any other parents in the same situation to turn to. Finding a support network of other lesbian or same-sex couples, or parents who parent in less traditional ways, including single parents, may be helpful as you both find your way in your new parenting roles.
Communication is important in your life as a couple.
For the childbearing parent pregnancy provides a tangible passage to motherhood. For her partner the route to parenthood can seem a little less real until the baby actually arrives. There are many ways to bond with your child and in so doing find the reserve of parenting responses that each of us possesses. Many non-gestational parents discover the desire to respond to their child through breastfeeding. Breastfeeding meets so many of a child’s needs, for touch, acceptance, warmth, as well as food.
Encouraging a full supply of milk is not always possible, but when there are two parents nursing, two full supplies are not necessary. Adoptive parents, and parents who have breastfed or “chestfed” after breast reduction surgery or “top surgery,” often recount that the benefits gained through bonding are more important than the amount of milk produced. How you juggle the calibration of your milk supplies and how you share breastfeeding will depend on your individual circumstances, which might involve supply or latching issues, whether one or both parents will be going back to work in the short term, and what your wishes and goals are.
Not all lesbian partners want to co-nurse. You may have mixed feelings about it: you may prefer your family to have one breastfeeding mother and one supporting parent; your sentiments may oscillate as the pregnancy progresses or once the baby has arrived, or they may change with subsequent pregnancies. The decision whether both of you breastfeed your baby does not need to be set in stone and there are various ways of approaching it. Co-nursing may require the partner who is not giving birth to induce lactation, a process she may start prior to the birth, or after the baby is born. If this is a second or subsequent child, one of you may already be nursing, and it may be a natural progression to continue breastfeeding the baby carried by your partner, in “tandem” with the first child and in tandem as parents.
When a parent breastfeeds without having gone through pregnancy, the process is called “induced lactation” (3). Inducing lactation may involve medications (herbal or pharmacological) and/or nipple stimulation. Specialized support from an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and/or an LLL Leader will help you prepare for issues you might encounter. She can work with you to find an approach to induce lactation that best fits your family if it is what you want. Resources for adoptive parents wishing to breastfeed may be useful (4), (5), (6) (7)).
The mother who has borne the baby may express her milk for some feeds for the other parent to use in a supplemental nursing system. A supplemental nursing system/nursing supplementer is a bottle with thin tubes that attach to the nipple. When the baby sucks at both the breast and the tube, she gets milk from the bottle while the suckling stimulates the breast. The stimulation that occurs during nursing with an SNS (together with added stimulation from hand expression and/or pumping) may provide sufficient stimulation to initiate milk production, especially if the parent has previously breastfed (in which case this is called “relactation”). There is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
As well as bonding with the baby when sharing the breastfeeding, lesbian parents report enjoying the effects of the relaxation hormones released when lactating (resulting in lower stress levels in the parent and baby), the flexibility of having two nursing parents when one needs to absent herself occasionally or when returning to work, and the health benefits of breastfeeding such as lower rates of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and Type II diabetes (8), (9).
Attending an LLL group meeting may be helpful for both of you in order to prepare for the arrival of your baby and to hear others’ experiences.
Whether you decide to co-nurse or not, the non-gestational parent is a fundamental part of breastfeeding, providing support, encouragement, and also relief. There are many ways to bond with the baby, not only through breastfeeding.
LLL Series Meetings an the “for partners” section in The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and the related tear-off sheet are a good place to start.
How and if you share breastfeeding is a very personal choice, which depends on the feelings and wishes of both partners, and negotiating this may require sensitive communication as you explore your feelings about the future bond with your expected child. Best wishes for your journey!
2. Aizley, H. Confessions of the other mother: nonbiological lesbian moms tell all! Beacon Press, 2006.
Alice Farrow is a single mother, lesbian, retired LLL Leader and expatriate Australian living in Rome with her two bilingual children and adopted dog. She writes regularly on embracing diversity in birth and breastfeeding at www.languageofinclusion.com.