By Kristin Kali, LM, CPM
Today on Science & Sensibility, as part of the occasional series, Welcoming All Families, midwife and educator Kristin Kali, LM, CPM shares information on holding a childbirth class that is designed specifically for LGBTQ families. Kristin discusses the benefits of holding an LGBTQ class, provides some resources and offers additional information on content designed to meet the specific needs of LGBTQ families. - Sharon Muza, Community Manager, Science & Sensibility
Take off your childbirth educator hat for a moment, and consider your own personal experience. If you are a member of a culturally marginalized group, (and if you do not identify as a member of a marginalized group – imagine) you know the difference between being in a space where you are welcomed and respected, versus being in a space with others who share a similar cultural experience, who speak a common language, and who have aspects of everyday life in common. In a space that is welcoming yet mixed, you may only discuss things you hold in common with those around you, unless you are willing to teach others around you in order for them to understand you and your experience. But if you are in a position of vulnerability, such as being pregnant, or in a class to prepare you for giving birth, you are not likely to discuss things that the people around you simply do not understand or do not have a context for.
Imagine being a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer person who is going through pregnancy, with many of the same physiological concerns as any pregnant person, and with many of the same needs and desires, including the desire for a healthy baby, a positive birth experience, and a childbirth class to help assist in attaining that goal. Yet, although you have much in common, if you are in a class of primarily heterosexual couples, or even a class with many different types of families, some of the primary aspects of your experience of bringing this baby into the world and becoming a parent will not be shared.
Now put your childbirth educator hat back on again. As a childbirth educator, you might be thinking, “Well, there are many unique circumstances that people have when they come to a childbirth class – people may be coming from having dealt with infertility, military wives whose husbands are away at war, women who are giving birth as single moms. We are together to learn about giving birth, so that’s mostly what we talk about when the group comes together.” I invite childbirth educators to imagine any one of those unique scenarios, and envision if the class was full of people who had that scenario in common. How powerful would that be? What might be discussed in the safety of others who truly understand this experience? How might that affect the empowerment, strength and resolve of someone who is preparing for the prospect of giving birth and becoming a parent?
I can tell you, after 9 years of teaching specialized childbirth classes for LGBTQ families, that it is very powerful. When people live in a culture where their relationship may not be honored with the right to marry, when a child is born and a parent is not legally recognized as a parent and they have to prove themselves worthy to a social worker just to gain legal parentage (or perhaps legal parentage is not allowed in their state at all), when they didn’t simply have sex with their partner, rather they used all of their savings and maxed their credit cards just to get the funds for sperm so that they could conceive, it is such a relief to be in a group that has the same common denominator. More than that, it allows for camaraderie, and issues that are unique to families like theirs to be discussed.
In my childbirth classes, the families introduce themselves to each other with the “usual” information, such as name, due date and place of birth. However, before we get started with introductions, I briefly talk about the transformation of self that happens when a person becomes a parent, and as a person’s gender is so central to who they are, of course gender is central to that experience. I invite the introductions to include stating the pronoun that they prefer people to use in reference to them, and also what they plan for their baby to call them – maybe Mom or Dad, but perhaps a different word that more closely matches their gender such as Baba or Dadmom or anything else.
The second thing we do is share conception stories – I’ll bet this is not something discussed in heterosexual or mixed groups! But for the LGBTQ families in my class, the pregnancy experience started way before that little one was growing inside, and sharing these stories candidly establishes normalcy when the situation is not viewed as “the usual way” by society. Furthermore, families may be still be carrying emotional aspects of their conception process in a way that can impact the birth itself, or the partnership during the transition to new parenthood. Sharing conception stories brings me, as the instructor, up to date. It lets me know what happened for each family in the process of getting to this class, and anything important that I need to watch out for or hold space for with each parent-to-be.
Throughout the class, after setting the stage for open discussion and creating such a sense of safety, participants are likely to ask the important questions that they may not otherwise have asked. People feel free to be exactly who they are, not a guarded sense of “how much can I share about myself and not have the other parents look at me weird or be a spectacle”. We cover all the aspects of labor and birth that would be covered in any childbirth class. In fact, my class is based on a popular curriculum. I just bring together LGBTQ families and specifically discuss topics that are unique to this group within the context of the curriculum.
What makes an LGBTQ childbirth ed class so special? I will let the parents speak for themselves by sharing some of the feedback and comments I have received after class:
“There is something wonderfully supportive about being surrounded by other queer families. It created a truly safe and inclusive space where our LGBT experience was at the center, and not just touched on as an aside or an exception to the norm.”
“I am so grateful for this class. Going in as a queer family, not having to translate from everyone else’s ‘normal,’ not needing to explain our family was great.”
“As a gender variant pregnant woman, this class provided support and community that is often lacking in society at large.”
“I needed to voice fears and have time to ask questions in a non-judgmental space.”
“It’s not just about using neutral pronouns and terms (like “birth parent” instead of “mom”). It’s great to be in a room full of queer folks who understand my experience, so I feel like my queer specific questions are adding to the group’s experience rather than distracting or pulling the class off on a tangent.”
As an educator, it is important to be able to inform people about what to expect, and to be able to hold people as they explore their thoughts and feelings in relation to the class material. While LGBTQ families may have a lot in common, each family is unique. There is a broad range of family structures, conception histories, gender issues, co-parenting strategies, and interpersonal dynamics to explore, all in relation to giving birth and caring for a newborn.
For those who are interested in teaching childbirth classes for LGBTQ families, there are a number of considerations. Are there enough families in your community to support an exclusive class? Even if you are an LGBTQ person, do you have experience working with a variety of LGBTQ people in the process of becoming parents? Are you able to name common birth and postpartum dynamics that come up in lesbian partnerships, for transgender parents, and extended co-parent families?
You can educate yourself by reading books about LGBTQ family- building:
Attend an LGBTQ cultural sensitivity training that is specific to birth and family-building:
Check out websites and blogs about LGBTQ parenting:
I do not recommend that non-LGBTQ allies teach this specialized class. Instead, enthusiastically refer LGBTQ families to a specialized class if there is one in your area, explaining the value that so many families have found in attending a childbirth class with other queer families. (Read about ways to make your mixed class supportive for LGBTQ families here and a lesbian couple’s CBE class experience here.) The sense of safety that is created when a marginalized group gathers exclusively allows something to happen that would not happen in a mixed group. Being in “safe space” provides a sense of common understanding that goes way beyond welcome and acceptance. It allows for dialogue regarding a common lived experience and a shared cultural identity. There is a sense of knowing – not needing to explain the things that to an outsider could be explained, but would not truly be understood without direct, lived experience. Kind of like becoming a parent.
If you are interested in teaching childbirth classes for LGBTQ families in your community, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Are there educators in your community who teach LGBTQ childbirth classes? Maybe you are one of those educators? Do you see the need for such classes in your community? Share your experiences and observations with our readers on specialized classes such as this. – SM
About Kristin Kali
Kristin Kali, LM CPM is the owner of MAIA Midwifery and Fertility Services, a fertility-focused midwifery practice that provides holistic, individualized care. MAIA serves all families, with specific expertise in serving LGBTQ families, single parents by choice, transgender parents and those conceiving over 40. Fertility consultations, classes and support groups are available in Seattle, Oakland, and online.
Kristin is a Certified Professional Midwife through the North American Registry of Midwives. She is a Licensed Midwife in California and Washington. Kristin is a graduate of Seattle Midwifery School and a member of the Midwives Association of North America, National Association of Certified Professional Midwives, American Society for Reproductive Medicine, Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, California Association of Midwives, and Midwives Association of Washington State.