Charlie Condou, Coronation Street star, has always wanted to become a dad and has now become a well known 'gay celebrity dad'. But, he says, what's important is the parenting, not the fact that his daughter has three parents.
I left the Granada studios in Manchester after work one day and jumped into a cab, heading for the station and then a London train and home. The cab driver looked at me in the mirror, gave a little smile and said: "So, when's the baby due?" Not "Hello" or "I know you", or even "I read in the Sun today …" but I'm getting used to the surrealness that sometimes accompanies being part of Coronation Street. It is, after all, the world's longest-running soap opera. And I'm a friendly, polite sort of bloke.
Me: "January, still a while to go."
Cabbie: "Right, so that's, what, a two-year gap between this one and your daughter?" OK, so the driver is clearly a Corrie fan but, even so, that's some detail he has retained.
Me: "Yes, that's right, she'll be two-and-a-bit when the new one comes along."
Cabbie: "So, how does it work then?"
I get this a lot – people are curious about the logistics of my child-rearing arrangements, I understand that. While not the rarity it once was, gay parenting is still something that few people have direct experience of, and it is only natural that they ask questions.
Me: "Well, our daughter spends half her time at her mother's house and half her time with me and my partner. We co-parent; it works pretty well."
Cabbie: "And did you and the mum have sex?"
Me: "Er …"
Thankfully, I am released from having to respond as the station hoves into view, but it is not the first time, nor I imagine will it be the last, that a total stranger has asked me about my sex life. Such is the life of a "gay celebrity dad".
Gay celebrity dad. It's funny because those first two words seem to dictate everything about the way the world reacts to me these days, and yet they are in many ways meaningless to me. I don't feel like a gay dad, any more than I feel like a celebrity dad. When I'm with my family, caring for my daughter, watching the little bean jump around on the ultrasound screen, I just feel like a "dad". My day-to-day experience of the ups and downs of parenting are the same as everyone else's. I feel the same frustration as any other parent when my daughter fills her nappy just as we're heading out of the door, and the same ridiculous pride when she lisps her way through Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.
Even our shared residence arrangements with her mother are not really any different from those of millions of divorced and separated parents. Perhaps because my own upbringing is a far-from-unusual 21st-century jumble of step-parents and half-siblings, the quirkiness of my current situation feels unremarkable.
And yet, at least to the wider world, it is remarkable. And, because of that, I feel that maybe I do have some responsibility to open up, to talk about my life, and to let strangers ask personal questions.
When I was a teenager, coming out and coming to terms with being gay, one of the hardest parts of that process was dealing with the fear that I would never have kids. I'd wanted to be a dad for as long as I could remember – aged four, coming home from nursery in tears because they always picked girls to bath the dollies at the end of the day. Gay parenting didn't exist then, at least not in any public way. There were men, often estranged from their kids, who had tried marriage in their 20s before coming out and leaving their families. It was easier for lesbians, of course, though still never spoken about, but gay men and kids? Unheard of. I know what it would have meant to me then to have had role models to look up to. To see gay men in loving relationships, raising children together and building families would have removed so much fear from my teenage years and made my path to self-acceptance smoother.
So here I am, talking about my life. It seems ridiculous to talk about normalising something that any fool can see is normal in the first place. Having kids is the most normal thing in the world. Yes, we had to plan more than most people – I was never going to become a dad by accident – but it's hard to see how that could be considered a bad thing. I want to answer those questions, even the personal ones, so that perhaps another gay teen might understand that his sexuality does not have to close any of life's doors.
I always wanted to be a dad. Always. My thrice-married mother loved my sister and me ferociously and taught us that, whatever else life threw at you, whatever changes you went through, the love of a parent for a child was life's one constant. Having kids was not so much a goal, as an assumption.
After I came out, that changed. I could no longer assume that it was something that would eventually just happen when the right person (or even the wrong person and a faulty condom) came along. There was no path to a family that I could follow: surrogacy was in its infancy, even for infertile straight couples; some lesbian couples were using gay male friends and turkey basters, but I never wanted to be a sperm donor; gay men were still considered too deviant to adopt.
I talked to my sister, who told me: "When something is this important to you, you'll find a way." She had absolute faith that I would one day be a father and, I realised, so did I. She was right, this was too important to me not to happen. I was 18, far too young to start a family, but I tucked that certainty into a corner of my mind and got on with my life.
I met Catherine in 1998 when she was dating a friend of mine. We clicked straight away, so much so that when their relationship ended, it was Catherine I stayed in touch with. One night over dinner, I had a conversation with her that I'd had with a number of female friends over the years. She said that, if she were still single when she got to 40, we should have a kid together.
Now this is something a lot of gay men have heard. We're used to drunken requests to be the "insurance policy" should the unthinkable happen, and no eligible stud present himself before the biological clock's alarm goes off. But it was different with Catherine, more serious. We talked about kids and parenting and found we shared ideas about how children should be raised and what was really important. We were both close to our own families too, and well supported emotionally. As the years went by, we continued to talk about it, with increasing seriousness as Catherine approached 40.
Six years ago, I met Cameron and so, then, there were three of us. Clearly, if Catherine and I were going to go ahead, Cam would have to be involved too and, while he had never had the same burning urge to reproduce as I had, he was more than happy with the idea of us starting a family.
Finally, around four years ago, we had talked enough. We had discussed every aspect of our three-way relationship, looked at every worst-case scenario we could think of, and shared our plans with our families – to universal approval. It was time to take the plunge.
It took a year, and three cycles of IVF, before we got that first positive pregnancy test. It was really happening.
Catherine's house is not far from ours but, nonetheless, we decided it would be best if she moved in with us for the last bit of the pregnancy and stayed for the first three months after the baby arrived. She moved in one sunny August morning. We spent the afternoon settling her in and relaxing in the garden. With immaculate timing, labour started that night and our gorgeous, miraculous, much longed for daughter arrived by caesarean section at 11.55pm the following day.
Catherine's family very generously offered to pay for us to have a maternity nurse for the first month, but we declined. Three adults, one small baby, how hard could it be? It turns out we were right. That third pair of hands really does make a difference; everyone gets enough sleep, someone always has enough energy to cook dinner, you can even take it in turns to do the pacing up and down with a colicky baby on your shoulder. Our arrangement might look unusual from the outside but, for the three of us, it has always been simple.
Catherine moved back into her own house after three months and Georgia has split her time between the two homes ever since. At first, while Catherine was still exclusively breastfeeding (which she did, as recommended, for the first six months), Cam and I just had Georgia for a night or two, loaded up with expressed milk, but once we hit weening we were able to split the childcare duties much more evenly. It helps that we are all good friends. We regularly spend weekends together at Catherine's parents' country home, and we all go on holiday together too.
Logistics are just logistics. You work with what you've got and it's as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. As I say, it helps that we are all friends and really motivated to make it work. Unlike separated couples, there is no bitter history here, no point-scoring secret agendas. Just three parents who all want to raise a happy, healthy child. And Georgia does have three parents, Cam is as much a dad as I am. He's been there since day one, wiping up sick and poo, fretting over changes in temperature and sleep patterns, watching 5am Peppa Pig re-runs. He has earned the title of parent as much as I have.
Right now, we have the added complication that I am filming in Manchester for much of the time, so Cam and Georgia shuttle up and down from London on the train. We lucked out again in that all three of us have careers with a lot of flexibility. Catherine and I are both actors and Cameron is a writer, but on the rare occasions that we are all working (and it does happen occasionally), there are enough willing grandparents, uncles and aunties to plug any gaps. If there is one thing Georgia is not short of, it is adoring relatives – three sets of grandparents and countless cousins. There can be few children in the world who were so wanted by so many people.
All of this is not to say that there won't ever be difficult issues to deal with. While we are all fortunate to have immensely proud and supportive families and to live in a part of London that is tolerant and diverse, I know that homophobia is real and ugly and, naturally, I have some concerns that Georgia will be subjected to it as she gets older. Kids can be cruel, seizing on anything that makes someone different to tease and torment. But, experience tells me that things really have changed in recent years – at least here in the metropolitan heart of the capital – and I don't think Georgia's quirky background will be as big a deal as it once was.
Funnily enough, it is things such as the gay parenting storyline in Coronation Street that I have been involved in recently that make the biggest difference. Catherine's father found our arrangement immediately easy to understand because he had heard the same situation played out on The Archers. In all the furore over the "gaying" of Corrie, people forget that these shows really do have an impact, and play an important role in demystifying, and promoting tolerance.
It was a recognition that Georgia's upbringing might be different from that of her peers that was the real driver in the decision to have another kid. While we had Georgia "for us" – to satisfy our desire to be parents – we are largely doing it again for her, giving her a sibling with whom she can share her roots and history; an ally in the world. That is not to say we are not all ridiculously excited about welcoming the new baby in January. Like most parents of one child, I'm finding it hard to imagine how I will ever manage to love another baby with the intensity I feel for Georgia, but everyone tells me it will be as natural and easy as falling for her was.
I used to have a fantasy about being a father. It involved me gently lifting my sleeping child from the car and carrying her upstairs to her bed. I would imagine the small weight in my arms and the soft breath on my neck, even the feel of her hair on my face. That's my truth now; I can't count the times I've re-enacted this scenario for real. And it feels exactly as I imagined it would. I put her down into her cot and watch her chest rise and fall, and I feel so completely happy and calm. I don't feel as if she has given my life meaning, my life was already meaningful, but the sense of responsibility I have now makes me feel more of a man somehow; maybe more adult is a better way of describing it. I understand what it is to put someone else first, to know that you love them more than they will ever love you, and that's as it should be. I'm a dad, and it just feels right.
Article: October 2011 www.guardian.co.uk
Read more about gay and lesbian parenting options at www.prideangel.com