By Emma Whalley-Hands, Partner, PwC Canada
When I first realised I was gay, the biggest disappointment to me was that I thought that it would mean that I could never have my own family. I had no role models showing me that type of family dynamic at play. I couldn’t imagine how I’d even go about building a family with another woman and in addition to that, same-sex marriage was not yet legalised in the UK.
All through my early dating years as a young gay woman I always had in the back of my mind the various prohibitions relating to my future dreams. I was on watch constantly for signs that the world was changing and that my lifestyle could begin to be ‘normalised’. I still have a Times newspaper front page article dated May 2008, that my mother sent to me while I was at university, headlining ‘Women win the right to children without fathers’. It was reporting on a recent landmark ruling relating to single women and lesbian couples’ parental rights, removing the requirement that fertility clinics consider a child’s need for a father and replacing that requirement with “a need for supportive parenting”. I remember sitting in my room taking in the news that finally women couldn’t be denied IVF treatment because the child wouldn’t have a father.
My wife and I met in 2012 and were married in 2014. We had originally arranged for a civil partnership ceremony but the legislation to allow same-sex marriage in England and Wales was passed by the UK Parliament in July 2013 and took effect in March 2014, a month before our scheduled date. Whilst this didn’t have a bearing on the commitment we were making to each other, nor the party we had already organised (!), it was important to us that we took advantage of The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 as it had certain implications for the recognition of us as a couple and our future plans for a family.
And then began our family planning journey. Do we use a known donor or unknown donor? Which sperm bank do we use (different countries have different rules for donor identity)? Does one or both of us want to carry and if both, which of us goes first? Which fertility clinic should we go with? How much money is this all going to cost? What do we do when we actually have a baby?
The last question was a big one for me particularly as we’d agreed Kate was going to carry first. My access to parental leave at the time would be restricted to the standard paternal leave provided by PwC UK and given the money we’d spent on assisted reproduction we couldn’t afford for me to take any additional unpaid time off. I was also about to start the Director promotion process and I was concerned that taking time off for parental leave would detriment my promotion prospects.
Since joining PwC UK as a graduate in London in 2006, I have had a phenomenal amount of support from our firms globally as I have navigated the personal challenges of building our family. An example of this was PwC UK’s response to a new law supporting shared parental leave that came into effect in April 2015 (while Kate was pregnant). I worked with PwC UK to review policy changes that would support me and other ‘non-birth parents’ in sharing up to 50 weeks of parental leave between parents following the birth or adoption of their child. PwC UK’s response to the new law was to provide 22 weeks full pay and up to a year of shared parental leave entitlement - which allowed me to spend time with our daughter for 5 months after she was born and ultimately also support Kate’s return to work. While I was on parental leave, PwC UK also adjusted my Director promotion process schedule so that I would be able to attend my promotion panel at a time that worked for me and submit my business case remotely with virtual input from my sponsors. I was promoted to Director that year while still on parental leave.
The absence of those role models that I was desperately seeking when I first came out has actually allowed us to define a life that works for us, dissipating my need to ‘normalise’ our situation. Kate and I have confidently and unapologetically designed our life for our unique family - our equitable roles in our household, our 50:50 approach to parenting, our ambition in each of our professional lives - neither preordained by gender norms.
4 years later and the shoe is now on the other foot… we are trying for our second child which I will carry. Unfortunately my IVF process has not been quite as straightforward, which has added other challenges to the mix. In addition to the countless appointments at all hours of the day that I’ve had to be flexible for, I have also lost two pregnancies in the last 8 months both of which have required surgery and time off work. I was admitted to the PwC Canada partnership in 2020, during my first pregnancy, and even though I took this big step up in my career the support I have continued to receive from my partners and PwC Canada has been incredible.
It has been interesting to watch the response of others as I have navigated these challenges and successes. I acknowledge that women don’t have the monopoly on sharing these experiences with me and actually a lot of my experiences have drawn me closer to those particularly shared by men. However, this is not a gender issue any more, it is a family issue whatever that family dynamic looks like for you - regardless of whether one of you is giving birth, you’re using a surrogate or adopting a child.
During this Pride month, I urge you to reflect and look around at the different types of families that exist and open your eyes to the different challenges and successes that come with each of them.