Sue, Sandy & Stella

Melbourne, Victoria

Personal items of the family (left to right in rows): cookbooks, football shoes, football, toddler push-toy, barbeque, skateboard and helmet, baby bath toys, baby water bottle, bibs, standing cooler/heater, children’s water buckets, coffee maker, air fryer, kettle, toddler shoes, wines, South African passport, stick vacuum cleaner, bicycle, pet bowl, cheese board, toddler push walker, baby carrier, baby rattle (toy), baby/toddler books, nappy bag, aroma incense and candle in a glass Medium: Watercolor on Paper

Winter 2020

Just before Melbourne entered its second COVID-19 lockdown, one that would become amongst the longest in the world, I took the Upfield train to travel north of the city to meet with Sue, Sandy and Stella. Amidst a pandemic, only several people were scattered through each of the carriages with very few wearing face coverings. As I looked out the windows, I appreciated the changing scenery of parklands, cafes and shops, industrial premises and residential establishments that marked the transforming suburbs of Brunswick and Coburg. In parallel with the train tracks, cyclists rode the hugging bike path that was a common commute for Sue and Sandy from home to work in the city. Their local suburban train station was only a bit more than a stone’s throw from their doorstep. Before our meeting, I explored the neighbourhood to discover the idyllic green spaces with playgrounds, plentiful paved paths and the serenity which surely influenced many to live and grow their families here.

Collage of Sue, Sandy & Stella’s Surrounds (clockwise: Melbourne Metro train station, playground 1, playground 2, community vegetation along bike path by the train tracks) Medium: Acrylics on Canvas

Sue & Sandy

Stella (9 months)

Pet Dog: Patty Cakes (2 ½ years)

Sue and Sandy first met when their careers took them to the Middle East. Although they are both South Africans, they quickly learnt that they had far more in common. They attended the same university and studied the same course at a similar time but never had the occasion to cross paths whilst there. “We often wondered if we walked past each other back at uni. After all, it was not a huge faculty,” the couple reminisced. It was certainly food for thought over many conversations that followed. Their romance blossomed despite the highly restrictive laws against the rainbow community in the Middle East. In some of these countries, same-sex activity remained illegal and punishable by fines, imprisonment and even death.

Sue and Sandy planned their escape to a more rainbow-friendly environment so that they could start their family. Looking back, it is now more than five years since they moved Down Under. Whilst Australia was still debating to legalise same-sex marriage, Sue and Sandy took the opportunity to wed in New Zealand, a country yet to be explored by them on their travel adventures. “As we had not been there, it was something new and exciting for us. Besides, we also wanted to pick a place that our wedding guests had not been to either,” Sue explained. “On our wedding day, we had helicopters fly us along with our small contingent of seven guests up to Coromandel Peak, where we exchanged our vows. Although it was a bit cold, the location overlooking Lake Wanaka and its surroundings was magical. Every head turn was met with stunning views,” Sue continued. Amongst many favourite holiday destinations including Mauritius, Maldives and Finland, New Zealand obviously holds a very special place in their hearts.

Between moving countries and celebrating their marriage, Sue and Sandy also planned for their very own family. After their marriage, they began making enquiries with fertility clinics and in late 2017, their first in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) transfer took place in South Africa during an extended work visit. Their first cycle amounted to two-embryos that were concurrently transferred. However, it was unsuccessful. “It was quite a physical and emotional ordeal because you get pumped so full of hormones with daily injections that when we found out that it had not worked, we were super upset and super sad. The very next day we went and got Patty Cakes, a mixed long-haired/short-haired chihuahua,” Sue recalled. Little did they know that Patty would have the sweetest temperament with great affinity for hugs and kisses. Even though she is quite energetic, she is also most loving and would become the personal guard dog to their child.

Patty Cakes, the family’s pet dog (Sue, Sandy & Stella) Medium: Colour Pencils on Paper

With renewed energy, they decided to resume their journey to parenthood in Melbourne. They found their obstetrician after reading an article that their doctor wrote on caring for rainbow families. “He sounded like a lovely person and you could tell that he was obviously very fond of helping any type of family,” Sue remembered. They placed their trust in his hands to guide them through their second IVF cycle, and on New Year’s Day 2019, they woke up to a positive pregnancy test. They had this same doctor care for them from pregnancy through to Stella’s delivery later that year. “That was really something special,” Sue said. “We felt very well cared for during labour, especially the two amazing midwives who made all the difference. We were able to room-in together after Stella’s birth and the set-up made it very comfortable for us to focus on being a family,” Sue continued while Sandy nodded in agreement as she rocked Stella to sleep.

When they compared their experiences of living in both South Africa and Australia, they highlighted that the “rainbow nation” was one of the first countries to legalise same-sex marriage in 2006, more than ten years ahead of Australia. Yet there seemed to be a disparity between law and culture there because they did not feel that same-sex couples were as accepted in the community. In contrast, Sue and Sandy had the utmost praise for their IVF treatment clinic in Melbourne, stating that: “We absolutely loved it here. We were treated very well and everyone was very professional.”

In anticipation of Stella’s arrival, one of Stella’s “Ouma”s (grandmother in Afrikaans) flew across the Indian Ocean to join Sue and Sandy. Their obstetrician had recommended induction of labour to deliver Stella at forty weeks gestation due to the increased risk of stillbirth associated with IVF. Shortly after, Stella was welcomed into this world by her proud parents together with Ouma. Her grandfather, “Oupa” joined them a couple of weeks later. “We do not have any other family members in Australia, so it was very nice to have them as they were helping us out a lot during this precious time,” Sue said.

Ever since Ouma and Oupa returned home abroad, Stella has grown up knowing them through daily video calls, and her face always lights up when she sees them. On the other hand, it has been more difficult with Sandy’s parents due to limited internet reception at their location. However, they equally share much love for Stella and maintain regular contact through voice calls.

The new parents were grateful to their supportive workplace that allowed three months of parental leave together. Sandy returned first to work, followed by Sue 3 months later. Consequently, they advertised on the internet for a nanny to help mind Stella. Despite being upfront as a rainbow family, they had the most overwhelmingly positive response. “We posted the job and we were flooded with over 90 applications! That was way more than we thought we would get. It is amazing because it is a difficult thing to leave your child in someone else’s care. Some people wrote long e-mails introducing themselves which made it all the easier for us to find someone we really liked,” Sue happily described their experience. Even though both of them started working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, their nanny continued to assist with Stella’s care. Sue continued, “It helped a lot. She is a pretty easy baby but she is equally busy too. Back then, she was constantly crawling, exploring and seeing how far she can go or where she can climb. One of her favourite activities, which we called “time in the library” involved taking all the books off the shelf, and repeatedly as soon as she realises the books are back on! She also exhibited signs that she would be taking her first steps very soon (which she did, shortly after her first birthday). We really need someone to look after her constantly to keep her safe, engaged and support her development while we are working.”

At almost 10 months old, Stella would soon address her parents as Mama Sue and Mama Sandy. Her first words were “baba” and “mumma”. Luckily for her, she also has Patty Cakes who has been absolutely head-over-heels in love with her since the day she came home. It is therefore not surprising that her next word was “Patty”. Patty is constantly around Stella. At night, she sometimes even sleeps by Stella’s legs. If Stella makes a sound at night, Patty will make sure that she is okay. If we were changing nappies at 3 am, Patty would be up and standing next to the change table. She is also super patient with Stella, which is a bonus!” Sue iterated.

Most of their family and friends continue to live in the Middle East. Although they would love to see them, now that they have Stella, the couple feel that they would not visit there at all given the anti-LGBTQ+ laws. While they travelled a lot before they had their family, their prime consideration now is to minimise any risks when visiting other countries ensuring that they are as safe and as rainbow-friendly as possible. They are also particularly adept at ensuring that they surround Stella with positive influences in view of their non-traditional family structure.

Some family members of both Sue and Sandy may never meet Stella. Ever since the couple came out to them, they have shown disapproval, primarily on religious grounds. “For that, they were not interested in meeting little Stella after she was born,” Sue commented with a slightly sad tone before Sandy sensibly interjected, “On the other hand, we are uninterested in subjecting Stella to any environment where she could possibly feel unwelcome. For the most part, all our friends and family were very excited to meet and know Stella, showering her with lots of gifts before she even came along.” These gifts included a lot of books which have formed a big part of her life and one thing that she truly enjoyed thus far.

Stella’s Soft Toy Collection Medium: Watercolor on Paper

The South African couple also know that their family may not be generally accepted in the wider community. They take conscious efforts to try and frequent places that are more open to embracing their family unit. “Wherever we go, even something as simple as a medical centre, we enquire if rainbow families are welcomed there. If not, it’s fine and we will just find a different one. We just want to protect little Stella from negative environments as much as possible. We really love going places where rainbow flags are up as it just naturally makes us feel welcomed,” Sandy explained their approach to living within their local community.

While there may be a lack of acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community and rainbow families, there are also instances of simple ignorance that they encounter. “Generally, people do not treat us very differently for the fact that we are a rainbow family,” Sue said. However, they recall having to correct their maternal and child health nurse several times when reference was made to Stella’s father when in fact, the nurse meant the donor. On other occasions, they find themselves being asked questions that would not be asked to non-same-sex parents like, “Who is the mother?” Sue said while Sandy joined in, “We both are.” Sue continued “But who is the “real” mother?” and they both declared, “We both are!” They also commonly get asked who Stella’s “father” is. “So many people in general use assisted reproduction including donor eggs/sperms, donor embryos and surrogacy. I doubt that anyone would walk up to a “straight” couple and say, who is the mother or father?” Sandy declared. In honesty, the couple actually do not mind the questions but find it fascinating that people do not consider listening to themselves before posing such insensitive questions. “In Melbourne, people are not necessarily judgemental but they actually only realise how bad they sound when pointed out by their peers,” Sandy clarified.

On the subject of their (sperm) donor, the family had an anonymous donor that they selected from their IVF clinic’s pool of donors. “We chose our donor based on his health background and philanthropic nature. There was a letter he wrote that we found very sincere. He indicated that he was also an organ and a blood donor, and this was another way that he can help,” Sue said the importance of his reasons to donate mattered to them. Whilst their donor is anonymous, current Australian law does allow for his details to become available to the child(ren), if they are interested to meet him when they turn 18.

From their donor, the family has five remaining frozen embryos. Sue and Sandy are thinking that a new addition or two may not be too far away in the future. While they are excited about the prospects of more little ones joining the family, they decided they would keep the baby’s gender a secret next time. “When everyone learnt about Stella (during pregnancy), everyone bought pink. Everything! While we do not have a problem with pink, a bit of variety would have certainly added more colour to the wardrobe,” Sandy revealed and left us all to chuckle. The timing must be right as they have been feeling like they were outgrowing their townhouse. In several months' time, the family will be opening a new chapter when they move to a larger property in a neighbouring suburb to house their growing family, and that may well coincide with siblings for Stella; and steps closer to making their home even merrier.