The following account has been written with the full blessings from those involved. I do not make a habit of gossiping about my colleague’s personal lives with patients, but in this case, Bette and I had chatted about the situation in the office at length. She agreed that it would be fine for us to answer questions about her and Tina.
Many of the patients on the DN caseload were born in the 1920s. Some were born in the First World War. The world that surrounds them now bears very little resemblance to the one that they were born into.
There have not only been massive changes in technology, travel and communications, but also in society; in how we live our lives and in the relationships that we choose, and are allowed, to make.
If you were born, for example, in 1925, when many of my patients were born, you would live for forty-two years before homosexuality was legalised. That is forty-two years of absorbing perceived opinion from your family, your friends, your neighbours and the media. The words and phrases that you might associate with the subject were ‘criminal’, ‘degenerate’ or ‘abnormal’. That is of course if you heard anything at all, because it was a taboo subject and many people would have grown up in complete ignorance of such a thing.
It must take an enormous mental effort for many people born years ago to understand same sex relationships.
On our team we have a nurse, Bette, who is in a civil partnership with Tina. Using a sperm donor, Tina got pregnant and her and Bette now have Jamie, an extremely bonnie, robust one-year-old boy.
Now, just try and imagine how Bette and the rest of our team went about explaining this to people born in the 1920s, sometimes earlier and often later. As it was not Bette who was carrying the baby, we somehow managed to avoid tricky questions until she went on ‘Paternity’ leave… (that IS what it was referred to by the NHS).
I have talked about laughter in previous blog posts, but coming back to the office to regale some of our experiences in explaining the situation to patients caused endless giggling. We all, including Bette, had the utmost empathy for these patients. We never thought them ‘narrow-minded’ or ‘bigoted’, we just saw them struggling to grasp a totally alien concept. Of course, the media has provided them with a tremendous amount of information, and TV dramas like Last Tango In Halifax provide a backdrop that goes a long way to normalising this for them. It is, however, still rare for them to come across ‘the real thing’ close to hand.
There were many reactions from both men and women on our caseload, but two stand out in my mind, both of them from women. Firstly Agnes.
Agnes, sitting beside her husband John, asked : ”How’s Bette? We haven’t seen her for weeks. To tell you the truth we were a bit puzzled because she told us that she was expecting a baby, but it didn’t show? Have I got that wrong?”
‘‘Well”, I said, not feeling entirely at ease, ”That is because it is her partner Tina who is carrying the baby.”
There was a silence as Agnes and John looked at each other. I could almost hear the cogs slowly turning in their brains.
”So”, said Agnes, ”does that mean that Bette is a…” (long pause) ”… you know, a um, um…” (another pause) ”One of them, you know. What are they called?”
I took a deep breath. ”Yes, Agnes, that’s right. Bette is Gay. She is a lesbian.”
”Ooh. Hmm” said Agnes. She then said sadly ”… And we thought that she was such a lovely girl.”
”Well,” I said, ‘‘the thing is, Agnes, that you can actually be both. You can be Gay and a lovely person.”
”Hattie,” she said, ”I am not one to judge and each to their own, but it just in’t natural. And that is all I have to say on the subject.”
…However, she continued to say: ”If she comes back in here, I will be polite, because I am not a rude person, but it just won’t be the same. I just won’t feel relaxed.”
I said, ”Well Agnes, you are right, things won’t be exactly the same, because she now has a baby and that will mean that you will have so much to chat about. You’ve got babies in your family, so you can natter on about baby stuff.”
She pursed her lips up even tighter: ”It’s no good how much you try to dress it up Hattie, it just feels very odd to me, and John feels the same.”
John didn’t say a word.
”Don’t you John.” This was not a question.
That was the end of the conversation, because she closed her mouth tightly shut. It is true that she was always polite when Bette visited, but it was a struggle for her to come to terms with the situation. I am not judging Agnes. She has to be seen as a product of her times, and the concept of a same sex couple having and bringing up a baby was simply something that she could not understand – and therefore accept – but she would not have dreamt of being rude or offensive.
Another patient, Joyce, asked the same question. Joyce lives alone, having been widowed five years ago after nearly sixty years of marriage.
I gave the same reply: ”Bette’s partner Tina is having the baby.”
Joyce looked puzzled and asked, ”Is Tina a woman?”
”Yes Joyce, she is,”
”Well, Hattie, how on earth did that happen?”
I have faced some of the most difficult questions that can be asked, ”Am I dying?” being right up there with the most challenging, but this question came pretty close.
I heard myself stumbling over the words. ”Well, you know, there was a man and he sort of helped out and now she’s pregnant”.
”Hattie, are you telling me that Bette’s partner had sex with a man to get pregnant?”
”No, no I’m not saying that Joyce. No, not at all.”
”Well then, what are you saying? How did she get pregnant?”
It occurred to me to use the words that Bette had used when I had asked the same question myself. I have known Joyce for many years and felt that I knew her pretty well, and I thought that she could take it, so I said, ”Well, Joyce, it was a ‘turkey baster’ job.”
I couldn’t have stuttered and stumbled over my words more if I had tried and in the most clumsy fashion I said,
”Well, some sort of big syringe, rather like a turkey baster, is used to insert the um, the … you know … the stuff, the sperm into Tina, and now she is expecting a baby.”
Joyce was clearly stunned. Her jaw literally dropped.
Then she said, ”NO! Nooo! Really? Really?” Joyce was chuckling in disbelief. ”Oh my word, yes I see. I suppose that would be how it was done. Well, well. Gosh, I never expected that. Well Hattie, you have certainly given me something to think about this morning. I must tell Pam,” (her oldest friend), “… she will be completely fascinated and amazed!”
We had clearly opened the floodgates on this one, because there followed a torrent of questions:
”So, Bette is a lesbian? Is she a, what do you call it? a Gay? Have they had one of those ceremonies? Will the father be involved with the baby? So the baby will have two mothers?”
I’m not really sure that I answered all the questions accurately, because some of this is strange for me too. If I’m honest, I have had to get my head around it as well and I’m a good 30 years younger than Joyce. But it’s easier for me, because I was brought up in a world where society was already changing and I have no memory of homosexuality being illegal, whilst for my children, born in the 1990s, this is all completely natural. They don’t give their friends’ sexualities a second thought.
That morning we had a brilliant conversation which was as enlightening for me as it was for her. She talked about how totally shocked her parents would be at this information and about the perceptions that she was brought up with in the 1930s, forties and fifties. She freely admitted that she found it difficult to accept male homosexuality, but she saw this as ‘her’ problem. I decided that Joyce was really broadminded and trying very hard to learn about something that would have been alien to her for much of her life.
I admired the fact that she was inquisitive, enquiring and interested. However, what I liked (and still do like) about Joyce was that she cared about Bette, Tina and Jamie. She has taken a great interest in them. She loves to see photos of them all and still chuckles with me about the turkey baster.
Joyce has a really brilliant sense of humour. I went to see her last week and she asked, as always, about Bette and her family. I told her that they were all happy and in good health and that Jamie was nearly walking. She said,
”Well that’s lovely news Hattie, thanks for updating me. Pam is popping in later this week and I can fill her in, she always asks about Bette. In fact,” she said with a twinkle, “Pam and I are thinking of ‘coming out’. ”