Ruby Porter on why family is about more than genes.
I started out life in a Bovril jar. In case you don’t know, Bovril is a thick and salty meat extract, kind of like a beefy version of Marmite. It’s a weird place for anyone, especially a vegetarian. I’m not sure whose jar it was. Someone must’ve cleaned it out, just for the occasion, until it was shiny and translucent and ready for my dad’s sperm.
The doctor told my mum Linley it wasn’t going to happen. She was with my other mum, Mary, at the time, and they were moving to England for Mary’s job in a couple of months. Linley was 37, but determined. She’d already bought a baby blanket.
It didn’t work the first time. It turns out sperm can’t survive a domestic flight from Wellington to Auckland. But it did work the second time, when my dad Tommy was up in Auckland, and I was born in London just under nine months later.
I do know Tommy. When people hear the term sperm donor, they often think of someone anonymous, chosen from a huge bank of serial numbers and occupations and heights in feet and inches. My friend at intermediate asked me if my mum picked him out from a magazine. In New Zealand, all the sperm donors I know of were originally friends of friends, mostly gay men themselves. Tommy was in a minority – a straight guy who thought he didn’t want to get married. He is now, and has kids with his wife, and it’s clear to both of us that he’s a parent to them in the way he wasn’t to me.
I grew up using my parents’ first names and I have memories of gawking at the grammatical incorrectness of other kids who would talk about “mum” to me.
It’s not something I’ve ever felt bitter about because I have more parents than most.
Back in Auckland, aged three, my mums Mary and Linley broke up and Mary moved in with Sara. Mary gave birth to Felix, and Sara to Rupert, and those boys became my brothers. I lived with Linley, and, while they were still in Auckland, I spent every second weekend with my other mums.
In many respects, I identify most as a child of a single parent household. Linley is and always will be my primary parent. She cooked me every dinner and took me to every swimming lesson (I can say now, they were a waste of money). She tested me on my weekly spelling words and sang with me on road trips and broke her toe chasing me around my grandma’s house in a game that she made up. She brought home petri dishes when I said I wanted to try to whiten pulled teeth for my science fair project. She dragged me to the doctor when I was trying to hide arthritis. She supported me financially, academically, and emotionally - and she did it all alone.
I grew up using my parents’ first names and I have memories of gawking at the grammatical incorrectness of other kids who would talk about “mum” to me. Your mum, I would think. But if someone was to say that word, “mum”, Linley would be the first person I would think of.
On Mother’s Day, it is her I give a present to – but I always make sure to craft out a loving message to Mary and Sara. Because they have been there for me as well, in different ways. They let me erect table tops worth of Lego towns in their house in Titirangi, and I would always be disconsolate when Felix and Rupert inevitably pulled them to pieces.
After they moved to Wellington, they flew me down for regular trips. I remember Sunday mornings spent watching the Top 40 Singles Chart with Sara, as she staunchly called out all the auto-tuned singers and moments of sexism in the music videos. I remember Mary’s cries about my “impractical shoes” every time she forced me up Mount Victoria for a walk with the dog.
I love my mums more than I can put into words, which probably isn’t a great thing for a writer, and I don’t know where’d I be without any one of them.
In winter months, Mary would make the best porridge and Sara would cover her bowl in brown sugar then tell us kids not to copy. In summer months, we’d have toast, and Mary would exclaim that children in Africa would walk miles for my crusts. “They can have them!” I used to say. “Why don’t we send them my crusts?”
All three of my mums have promised to teach me to drive, and so far, none have delivered. I reckon I surpassed them all at maths by age 12 so there wasn’t much help to be had there (though Linley did pay for tutoring). And not to buy into gender norms, but I am still useless with a hammer, and I know who I can blame for that. But I love my mums more than I can put into words, which probably isn’t a great thing for a writer, and I don’t know where’d I be without any one of them.
Sometimes I struggle to imagine what was so different about having queer parents, but I think it has shaped me in ways I just can’t see. While other kids grow up believing everyone is straight, I grew up assuming everyone was a lesbian. It was only as an adult that Linley had to correct me – no, most of my teachers at primary were not gay, they were actually married.
My own sexuality was never a question or a secret. From as young as I can remember I identified as bisexual (only now I say polysexual). A lot of people came out to me at high school. I don’t know if that’s because they were sure I wouldn’t judge them, or simply because so many of my friends were queer.
I know I’ve met people who’ve looked at me in disbelief and said, “But you can’t have three mums. It’s not possible.” I know I’ve met them, I just can’t remember when. I have vague memories of these moments which I can’t seem to get a hold of. It’s like grasping at something in water: it moves further away from you every time you try to touch it.
I don’t think it ever hurt me. My opinion of homophobes has always been pretty low. If anything, having three mums was a great screening process for my friends.
And it’s taught me a lot about family. Family will never be about blood and genes to me. Family, for me, will always be defined by my bonds to people, by the way I know them and they know me, by how much they have been there for me.
They were all there for me at my 21st: Linley, Mary, Sara and Tommy. Each gave a speech too (well, Sara sung – a rejigged version of Ruby Tuesday). Linley talked about the matching tattoos which we’re (still) going to get, Tommy talked about my writing, and Mary talked about that Bovril jar, where it all began.
*Ruby Porter is a writer and visual artist. She recently graduated from the University of Auckland’s Master of Creative Writing. Next year she’ll be right back there to do yet another degree.