In 2018, my husband and I became one of the first married same-sex couples to adopt in Germany. We had moved from London back to Berlin three years earlier, hoping to achieve a work-life balance that would give me more time to write and allow us to start the family we had talked about for 12 years.
While Berlin’s affordability and the generous welfare system of my husband’s home country make having a family easier, adoption is much more difficult. There are fewer children, more prospective parents and tighter rules, including being married – which had been impossible for gay couples until 2017.
This made the call, when it came one Wednesday afternoon, even more magical. “We have a little boy who needs a family,” the social worker said. “You can meet him tomorrow. If the match feels right, you’ll need to be ready to take him home on Friday morning.”
Our son was still a newborn when he arrived, and we were finally able to join in the exhausted camaraderie of new parenthood. In cafes, in phone calls home, at the doctors, we complained like other new parents about lack of sleep, energy and money; our existential terrors and waning sanity. But as we began to get over the initial shock, we noticed our experiences diverging from those of other parents we knew, parents who were predominantly straight.
One of the worries before you become a same-sex parent is about how people will react in public. When we ventured gingerly on to the streets of Berlin, what seemed to strike people was not that we were both men, but that we were both there. Why? Because all the other dads had gone back to work.
Here in Germany, a new parent receives 12 months of parental leave (or 14 months, divided any way, if the time is shared between both parents) paid by the government at 70% of their salary. We covered our son’s first year by each taking seven months off, the first two together. Yet despite the government’s best efforts, 70% of fathers in Germany don’t take paid parental leave.
He’ll soon compare himself to other children and we’ll have to work out how to be sensitive to things like Mother’s Day
When there’s no social expectation about which parent stays at home and looks after the baby, the idea that either of you would do it single-handedly seems crazy. If my husband had suggested going back to work after two weeks, I’d have thrown the television out of the window. The fact that women tend to take on the bulk of childcare is not news. But having to negotiate how we share it, without external pressure about who should do what, has made us acutely aware of the chasm between how people talk about shared parenting and how it pans out.
Mothers we knew often told us that they were splitting things 50:50 with the father. When they described their weeks, it turned out that they meant 50:50 in the evenings and at weekends; and usually mothers did all the feeding. As the mother was the constant, she inevitably became the only one who could comfort the child, so she was still doing most parenting even when the father was around.
Bringing up children isn’t a science, and however hard my husband and I try, we can’t split the childcare exactly 50:50. He is a psychotherapist and is at his practice three days a week; I work part-time at a university for two. For now, I write during nap times, evenings and the odd early morning.
There are some things that one of us finds easier than the other. I’ve always enjoyed cooking and end up feeding our son a bit more often. My husband does more bedtimes. I clean the bathroom. He takes out the bins. He used to do the laundry, but now there’s far too much of it and we both end up feeding the washing machine daily, like a pair of steam-engine stokers. But we both do everything at least once or twice a week, and spend a big chunk of time alone with our son. At the same time, I gain much security from knowing that I’m not so indispensable that I can’t be absent for a second.
Soon, I started to notice other differences. Exhausted mothers would often ask us: “What do you do about all the comments?” About being gay dads? “No, about how to feed and hold him, and where he should be sleeping and…”
All we could do was shrug our shoulders. Except for the nice midwife who mostly just told us not to worry too much, we get almost no advice that we don’t seek out ourselves. Becoming a parent in my late 30s, I have enough friends with children to know that parenting is meant to come with a barrage of unsolicited criticism from friends, healthcare professionals and strangers. What I hadn’t realised was that it isn’t parents who are on the receiving end of this opprobrium, but mothers.
When my husband and I feed our baby in public, we are treated like heroes. Granted, neither of us is offending anyone’s delicate sensibilities by baring a breast, but however loud we are, however much room we take up or tepid water we order in cafes, we receive only supportive smiles. Mothers can do everything right, but be told they are doing everything wrong, whereas we are congratulated for doing the bare minimum.
Even in liberal Berlin, this goodwill isn’t rooted in a desire to celebrate gay parenthood – it’s because people think we’re straight and doing one of our absent wives a favour. How do we know? People tell us all the time. Sometimes it’s a simple misunderstanding. In the bakery, when my son says, “Yumyumyum,” someone always cries, “He misses his mum!” Even when all three of us are together, people in the street regularly smile and call out, “Mum’s day off, is it?”
The comments rarely offend me – after all, most dads pushing a pram are likely to be straight – but they highlight the fact that, even when faced with a father who is looking after his child, the assumption is still that he’s in a supporting role. When an estate agent showed us that the apartment block we were viewing had a special room to park prams , she said, “And this is the room for the mums.” I nodded to our son (in his pram) and said, “Can dads use it, too?”
I get that, in countries such as the UK and Germany, gay adoptive parents are still relatively new, but these aren’t niche issues; they also affect around 40% of families in both countries who aren’t headed by a straight married couple. When we began to apply for nursery places recently, many wouldn’t let us submit the application form unless we filled in a mother’s name. Each time I had to add my name or my husband’s to the “mother” field, then write in brackets “two dads”, I thought, what about the 1.5 million single parents here in Germany (1.8 million in the UK) bringing up their kids alone, including the 180,000 of whom are dads? What about the 73,500 widowed parents (43,500 in the UK)? The truth is that there are countless reasons why people can’t tick one “mum” and one “dad” box.
This summer our son will turn two and (coronavirus willing) start nursery, which is pretty late by Berlin standards. While we are both looking forward to it, we are also aware that he’s had two years in a bubble, in which everything about his already remarkable little life is the norm. We will be faced with new questions, from him and other parents. He will begin to compare himself with other children; we will have to work out how to be sensitive but not oversensitive to things like Mother’s Day.
We’re also looking forward to more women getting involved with his care. Just after we brought him home, the conservative German education minister, Anja Karliczek, caused a storm by questioning whether same-sex parents should be allowed to adopt, despite the recent changes to the law. One of her main arguments was that men and women influence children differently. The irony, I thought, as I was lying with my new baby asleep on my chest, is that the education system in Germany, as in the UK, is dominated by female teachers, right up until university. In fact, it was probably her children who missed out on a balance of men and women during their formative years.
Some comments, though, hint at change. There is the well-meaning but misplaced, “I always think a baby needs a mother’s breast, but look how happy he is.” And from an old Polish builder came the surprisingly tender, “Baby has two papas?” We were battling with the rain cover for the pram, as we sheltered from a storm in a doorway. We nodded. He squinted and sucked at his cigarette. “Lucky baby,” he said.
• An Honest Man, Ben Fergusson’s latest novel, is out now in paperback, published by Little, Brown.