You can buy virtually anything on the internet, so why not this? In most senses, the shopping website looks like any one of millions. Click here to “add to cart” Click there to “view account”. “Coupon code? Enter it here.” But this site is not selling books or DVDs. As the name suggests, londonspermbankdonors.com sells only one thing: the raw material you need if you’re a woman looking to start a family – but don’t have a boyfriend or husband who can provide you with it.
Will you go for the sample that was donated by the science-loving bilingual stuntman, the “artistic and creative” Jewish-Buddhist psycho- therapist or the British accountant who enjoys travel, “new things” and food? This extraordinary website crops up in a fascinating Radio 4 documentary presented by Mary Smeeth, a 51-year old north London mum who happens to be a lesbian. Her two children, Harry, 16, and Joe, 14, have two mums – Mary and her ex-partner Ashleigh – but no dad. All that anyone knows about the children’s biological father is that he’s 5ft 11, has blond hair and “regular features” (whatever that means) and works as a quantity surveyor. At least he did when he donated sperm anonymously in 1997.
Mary’s documentary is an engaging, occasionally moving insight into a world many listeners will know little about. The Office for National Statistics estimates there are 20,000 children living with same-sex parents and the number is growing now that same-sex marriage has been legalised and the laws surrounding gay parenting and adoption have been liberalised.
The concept of gay men or lesbians becoming parents is also rather more out in the open. When Mary and Ashleigh visited a clinic to organise their pregnancy, the consultant first wanted to assure himself they weren’t undercover journalists in search of a shock-horror scoop.
Mary is beaming when I meet her in a central London coffee shop near her office (she works as a civil servant). A few days ago, Harry, who attends his local state school, received his GCSE results: 11 A-stars. “He was absolutely destined to fail, wasn’t he?” she laughs cheerily. For not only was Harry a child of lesbian parents, he also grew up in what the newspapers call a “broken home”. (Mary and Ashleigh split up a few years ago and both now have new partners.)
“Except that it’s not broken because Ashleigh lives round the corner and we see each other all the time.” The boys split their weeks between both their mums’ homes.
She’s immensely proud of both her kids. She’s warm, laughs a lot, whizzes from subject to subject. We chat about mums, dads, schools and kids – and her central point is that gay mums and dads are 99 per cent of the time just moth- ers and fathers rather than “gay parents”. But there are complications – the most fundamental being conception. Gay mums can opt for donor insemination by a friend or a stranger (through a clinic); gay dads can go for surrogacy; or there is, of course, the option of adoption.
In the programme, Mary speaks to former Coronation Street actor Charlie Condou, who has a son, Hal, three, and five-year-old daughter Georgia and is bringing them up – “co-parenting” – with his boyfriend Cameron and the children’s mum, Catherine. The kids spend half their time living with Mum, the other half with their two dads. Condou says that – just like heterosexual mums and dads – when you’re laying out the breakfast bowls in the morning, whom you happen to sleep with is irrelevant.
“The fact is that parenting is parenting, regardless of your sexuality. When you’re a parent, you keep your sexuality away from your kids. There have always been gay parents, but people tend to be more open about it these days. All the children I know from same-sex families are doing really well. But I don’t imagine that’s got anything to do with their parents’ sexuality. It’s probably to do with all sorts of other things. Just like any family.”
Mary agrees: “When you haven’t slept for six nights because you’ve got a newborn child, you’re not tired in a gay way. You’re just tired.” She says in the programme: “The difference between me and other gay people who don’t have kids is much bigger than the difference between me and straight people with children.”
But there are, of course, differences when you’re a child of gay parents. On a trivial level, her kids each send four cards on Mother’s Day (they have two mums and two stepmums). On a more serious one, have they, I ask, been bullied at school? No, she says. Though she acknowledges that she lives in a liberal part of north London and things might be different elsewhere.
Do Harry and Joe treat their biological mum (Mary) differently from their other mum? “I’d say they absolutely see Ashleigh as their mum and me as their mum and don’t differentiate.”
Will Harry or Joe ever want to seek out their biological dad? That, says Mary, is pretty much impossible as the donor was promised anonymity. (The law has since changed, giving children conceived via more recent donors the right to trace their father when they turn 18.) Mary admits that before she got pregnant, “I did ask: have I got a right to bring children into this world who’ll never know who their father was?”
There’s a slim possibility that they might, one day, be able to track down those half siblings – if those siblings wish to be traced. Ah yes, that mystery quantity surveyor. Did it cross Mary’s mind that her son’s brilliant exam results may owe something to the genes of her anonymous donor? I ask twice but each time her answer is tongue-in-cheek.
“Harry is very interested in literature, history, politics and the world… and I’d be very surprised if that came from somebody who ended up being a quantity surveyor,” she says. “But that could be massively disrespectful to quantity surveyors. So who knows?”
Same-Sex Parents is on Monday at 10:00pm on Radio 4