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What makes a family?

Fiona Ockwell at Reading Pride with her wife and children

To mark alternative family week, we talk to Fiona Ockwell, Scheduled Care Service Manager, Community Health Services West.

How many children do you have and what are their ages?

My wife and I have a son aged seven and twin boys aged four.  Our family also includes two older children from my wife’s previous relationship, aged 22 and 23.

Do you find that people make assumptions? How does that make you feel?

Yes, all the time and it causes no end of awkwardness! People constantly make assumptions that because I have children I must be with a male partner. If I had a pound for every time I am asked about my husband I could probably be retired by now.

It makes for a very uncomfortable situation for both me and others involved in particular conversations. When conversing with people at work, I often have to make a judgement call on whether it is best to correct them or just let it go, depending on the situation or circumstances.

We also often find that people assume we are not a family but friends out with their respective children.  On a number of occasions the boys have been asked about their ‘Daddy’ but luckily this doesn’t seem to bother them at the moment.  They just laugh and explain they have two mums.

Have you found healthcare professionals to be supportive and considerate?

Within Berkshire Healthcare my healthcare professional colleagues have been brilliant and have always treated my family the same as those of any other colleagues. Our experiences as service users have been mixed.

Attending medical appointments can feel uncomfortable as we constantly have to explain our situation.  Throughout pregnancy I had to do this at almost every appointment and my wife would be mistaken as my sister or mother!!  However, when the twins were born very prematurely all of the staff were brilliant, both in the acute treatment and community, for which we can’t thank them enough. It’s when people make assumptions (either as a colleague or patient) that things can feel difficult.

Have your children been treated differently by parents or other children?

We haven’t experienced any parents that have overtly-expressed a negative opinion but there are definitely some parents that distance themselves from us once they find out about our circumstances.  Our twins just started school last week, so we are currently going through the “coming out” process with the other parents.

It is a worry that their response might not be positive but there are lots of parents who treat us no differently to any other family.  We did once have a child throw a brick at our window with a homophobic note attached but that was some years ago now when the older two children were teenagers.  At the moment the children’s’ friends are sometimes curious because its different but being so young they are totally accepting that the boys have two mums.

However, I fear as they get older this will change.  We know there is still a huge amount of homophobic bullying that happens in our schools and ‘gay’ is still used as an insult. We know the likelihood is that it is just a matter of time before we have to start dealing with some upsetting and difficult situations. 

Why is alternative family week important?

We have many non-traditional families in society now, such as same-sex parents, single parents, heterosexual couples who used donor sperm/eggs, adoptive parents, foster parents and the list goes on. It’s important to raise awareness of their existence, celebrate their presence and recognise alternative families are just families.

They should not be treated any differently but unfortunately in reality this isn’t always the case.  I followed with sadness and frustration the recent news items around protests outside some schools in the UK following the new RSE (relationships and sex education) guidance, which requires schools to include teaching children about LGBT+ families and respecting them.  This demonstrates the work that is still required for acceptance and understanding in this area.

For me, personally, this week is significant, as I hope one day we can get to a place where our children can be openly proud of our different family and will not be fearful to disclose it or face discrimination/bullying because of it.  By educating  people using events such as alternative families week we can promote further awareness and positive discussions around non-traditional families, as in the end we are all just people……………different families, same love.