Lily-May Woods is barely three weeks old and already the circumstances of her birth have provoked curiosity. ‘How did you two make a baby?’ asked the bemused five-year-old boy who lives next door to the lesbian couple who are Lily-May’s parents.
‘I said that we went to a special clinic which helped us,’ explains Natalie Woods, who is genetic mum to Lily-May.
Similar questions will doubtless occur to her daughter as she grows up minus a father, but with two mothers.
Natalie, 38, and her partner Betty Knowles, 47, who live in a neat terrace house in Brighton, will be known as Mummy and Mama B.
The couple made legal history this week, as they are thought to be the first same-sex parents in Britain to jointly sign their child’s birth certificate. Under the provisions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, which came into effect at the beginning of April last year, partners in same-sex relationships are now given equal status as parents.
This means that in the box on the birth certificate traditionally reserved for a father’s name, Betty’s appeared.
She was designated ‘parent’, while Natalie, who became pregnant through an anonymous sperm donor, is listed as ‘mother’.
‘I feel it’s very important, both for my sake and our daughter’s, that I’m recognised as a legal parent to Lily-May,’ says Betty.
And the Act allows her to assume her parental responsibilities officially, with minimal fuss.
Before, she would have had to go to court or would have faced the convoluted process of adopting Lily-May to have the legal status of a mother.
‘We would have made sure Betty had parental rights and responsibilities either by seeking them through the courts or by adoption,’ says Natalie. ‘But as the law stands now it’s very straightforward.
‘We just had to sign a couple of consent forms that said we were entering into parenthood together. After that, it was simply a matter of us both signing the birth certificate.’
So, at the stroke of a pen, Betty assumed the title ‘parent’ and all reference to a father was erased. Which begs the question: how do Natalie and Betty justify their decision to bring up their adored baby daughter without a dad?
They say they have addressed the issue between themselves exhaustively, and as Natalie points out: ‘Even before the law changed, we wouldn’t have been putting a father’s name on the birth certificate, because we made the decision to use an anonymous sperm donor.
‘A lot of lesbian couples choose to use a donor who is known to them. He would then be, technically under the law, the father. If he is also playing a role in the child’s upbringing, I believe his name should be on the birth certificate.
‘We talked about that, but decided not to use a known donor, mostly because there was no one in our lives who we considered suitable.
‘Besides, you have to be really careful about the agreement you make with the man you use, so that everyone understands their role in the child’s life, and we decided an anonymous donor would make it far less legally complex for Betty to assume her parental status.’
But what of Lily-May? How will she fare without a father? It is the issue that exercises Christian groups and campaigners for traditional family values, and one every single-sex couple or lone mother must address.
‘We decided to have a child without a dad, we can’t deny that, but I don’t think it’s wrong,’ says Natalie bluntly. ‘There are plenty of kids brought up in both gay and straight families without dads.
‘There are single mums; families where fathers have left; families where the dad has died – there are now so many different types of family out there and people should respect this diversity. We just have a different kind of “normality”.’
It’s different, not to say groundbreaking, given the historic nature of their daughter’s birth certificate.
‘I know people may criticise us for choosing to have a child without a dad, but for us, gender and sexuality are not what is most important. The most vital thing is to raise a child in a loving, stable home with the right moral values, whether it be with two mums, two dads, just one mum or one dad.’
Natalie’s justification is fraught with personal significance for a very particular reason: her Roman Catholic parents are estranged from her because of her sexuality.
‘They are very disapproving of the fact that I’m gay,’ she says. ‘So there has been no contact with them since before Lily-May’s birth. It’s a great shame because they are losing out on a relationship with their new granddaughter.’
Natalie grew up, the middle of three daughters, in Manchester, but declines to talk further about her family, or the rift that has fractured it. She is a former nurse who has also worked with children in local authority residential care – an experience which has made her sharply aware of the damaging effect of abuse and neglect on children.
‘There are lots of dads who don’t do a great job raising their kids,’ she says. ‘In my profession I’ve seen quite a few of life’s horror stories, and I know that Lily- May is going to get much more care and love than so many children in “normal” homes.’
Natalie, who manages a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender helpline while also working as a private counsellor specialising in fertility issues, is certainly eloquently well-informed on the subject of family diversity.
But have they reflected on the impact of their partnership on their daughter as she grows up?
They say they have considered every kind of question Lily-May might ask as she grows from childhood to adolescence – and nothing will be hidden from her.
‘We will tell her how special she is and how much we wanted her,’ explains Natalie. ‘And we’ll talk to her in a way that is appropriate to her age.
‘Ultimately, it’s about being honest and raising her in a way that allows communication.’
But what will Lily-May’s two mums say when their little girl asks why she hasn’t got a dad?
‘It’s hard to say exactly what words we’ll use,’ concedes Natalie, ‘But I think we’ll tell her that all families are different; that we love each other very much and that we really wanted her, so we got some help from a clinic to have her.
‘And we’ll explain that’s why she hasn’t got a dad but has two mums instead.’
Friends and neighbours have been universally supportive – an entire wall of their sitting room is decked with congratulations cards – and the clinic and health workers were wonderful’, says Natalie.
That Betty and Natalie love each other and palpably adore their gorgeous daughter is evident.
In the tastefully decorated sitting room of their home, which stands in the shadow of the South Downs with distant views of the sea, Natalie sits on on the sofa breastfeeding.
Then Betty takes her turn to soothe and cuddle the baby. In the two hours of my visit, Lily-May looks around the room with an alert and interested gaze, then dozes comfortably. She doesn’t cry once.
The couple, who have been together for 15 years, plan to enter into a civil partnership when their daughter is old enough to be a bridesmaid.
Only lack of money – they have spent about £12,000 on a series of treatments that eventually produced their child – has constrained them from organising a wedding sooner.
It was Betty, a former chef who now works as a delivery driver, who first expressed a wish to be a parent. Natalie, who was in her early 20s when their relationship began – they met through mutual friends who worked with Betty – was initially less than committed to the idea.
Six or seven years on, her maternal instinct kicked in. Natalie says she felt a compulsion to have a child that was genetically her own; Betty was less concerned about carrying a child.
For this reason – as well as the fact that she is younger than Betty – it was Natalie who became pregnant.
They chose their sperm donor – who, under UK law must remain anonymous unless Lily-May decides to contact him when she is 18 – from a choice of four men.
Both independently selected the same man from criteria that included a record of his health, personality, looks and motives for donating.
Natalie opted for the candidate whose character traits most closely resembled Betty’s – she is easy-going and gentle with a quiet sense of humour; Natalie is loquacious, organised and outspoken – and they both liked the fact that his motives were altruistic.
‘He said he’d donated his sperm in order to make a childless couple happy,’ says Natalie. Whether this is quite what he imagined is another story.
But nevertheless, the couple forged ahead. Four attempts at Intra-Uterine Insemination – a cheaper option than IVF – failed. Then Natalie became pregnant the first time she underwent IVF at the private Agora Clinic in Hove.
Her eggs were harvested and fertilised with the donor’s sperm before two were re-implanted. After spending their savings on the initial treatments – the couple are not eligible for NHS funding because they are gay – they remortgaged their house to finance the last successful attempt.
‘It proves just how much we wanted a baby,’ says Natalie.
Their daughter was born at their home on March 31, and Betty says that although she has no biological link to the child, she instantly felt a bond of love.
‘It isn’t an issue that we’re not genetically linked,’ she says. ‘After meeting Natalie, Lily-May is the best thing that has happened in my life.’
Betty’s own family history is an unhappy one. Her mother was killed in a road accident when she was four years old and her father, who died 14 years ago, was schizophrenic.
He was unable to raise her and her eight siblings, so she was brought up in care in her native Scotland.
‘If I’d had a mother in my life it would have made such a difference; being loved and cuddled and cared for,’ she says.
Neither was she able to form an attachment to her father, who was in the Navy and absent from her early life.
‘A lot of people who grow up without love can find it hard to give love to anyone else,’ says Natalie. ‘But with Betty the reverse is true. She is so tender, gentle and protective of Lily-May.’
Both women concede their daughter would benefit from male role-models.
‘Lily-May will have quite a few surrogate uncles in her life,’ says Natalie. ‘They are friends who will spend time with us as a family. Some are straight, some gay. I think it’s an advantage to be brought up to form positive relationships with people of the opposite sex. It will pave the way for her to form good relationships in future.’
Neither will Betty or Natalie have any objection if their daughter chooses to make contact with the sperm donor when she reaches adulthood.
And what of the grandparents – two estranged; two long-since dead – who are absent from little Lily-May’s life?
Natalie proffers a hand-made card featuring a loving message, from ‘Granny’ Trish and ‘Grandpa’ Grantham, an elderly married couple – long-term friends of theirs – who have ‘adopted’ Lily-May as their grandchild. It is a fittingly unusual arrangement.
Lily-May Betty Woods, whose first name is an amalgam of her parents’ favourite flower and Betty’s mum’s Christian name, is a much-loved child.
Without doubt her parents will always be devoted to her. But will the lack of a father cause her regret, embarrassment or sorrow? Only time and Lily-May herself will be able to answer that one.