An abridged version of this longform feature was published in Junkee (in partnership with Mercedes-Benz) August 2017 alongside portraits by Michelle Grace Hunder and Parker Blain.
Kate and Tina Findlay have always had a vision of the future at the back of their heads. Although the Sydney-based couple lived on different continents when they met online a decade ago, they planted the dream of starting a family during the earliest days of their courtship. Tina relocated to Australia from Richmond, Virginia and in 2012, the pair married in New York. A few months later, they started seriously discussing surrogacy. Their baby son Ben, who Tina gave birth to, is now ten months.
“We were very aware of that cliché about two lesbians and a U-haul but we kind of went the traditional route — we found a place of our own, we got married and decided to try having kids,” grins Tina, a lively 32-year-old who’s about to return to her job working with sick passengers at Carnival Cruise Lines after taking maternity leave to look after Ben.
“We started looking at what our options were as soon as got married but it’s not like we could accidentally get knocked up — we had to meet with lawyers and it took four years until he was actually born,” says Kate, 35, who manages customer service for a medical device company and speaks with the under-the-radar confidence of someone who knows exactly what she wants. “We were looking at buying a house and then we were like, well, it’s either going to be a house or a baby and then we decided on a baby. Day care starts next month and our savings for a house will pay for that.”
She pauses before bursting into laughter. “It’s definitely not going towards avocado toast! Although, I do enjoy it.”
It’s easy for the culture to peddle the myth that millennials are entitled narcissists, more interested in launching start-ups, swiping Tinder and squandering their cash on small plates than they are in forging meaningful relationships and starting families. It’s harder for it to accept that the experiences of couples like Kate and Tina are more common than we think.
Growing up used to mean finding a partner, planning a huge wedding and having 2.5 children — all by the age of 30. But these days, grim economic realities and a growing rejection of heteronormative values means that the markers of adulthood are shifting. We’re still growing up, we’re still convinced of the value of family but we’re cynical about the version we’ve been sold since the 1950s and it’s attendant consumerist fantasies (house! boat! designer stroller!).
January 2017 statistics from the Pew Research Centre found that millennial women are waiting longer to have children than their parents did. Although 1.3 million millennials in the US gave birth for the first time in 2015, only 42 percent aged between 18 and 33 were mothers, compared with 49 percent of Gen X who’d had babies during the same age range.
Interestingly, the survey also found that millennials are likelier to see parenting as rewarding than both their Baby Boomer parents and Gen X. It’s not that millennials are discarding marriage and children altogether. We’re just engaging with it in own own time and remaking it within our own terms. Growing up is no longer a cookie-cutter process defined by readymade milestones. It’s fluid, ever-changing and informed by the different paths our lives take.
Mike and Krishia Catabay, Filipino-born Australians who have been together since they met at a family gathering, always wanted to be young parents. But the pair, who’ve respectively built careers as a media producer and business analyst and co-run CBay Creations, a freelance creative agency, believe that parenthood is less hallmark of adulthood than it is part of a mosaic that incorporates family, work and creative passions — one in which children are a central part of a larger whole.
“We both grew up in similar families with similar cultural backgrounds and I always knew I wanted to be a dad and have kids younger,” says Mike, 32, who used to write a parenting blog called YDad and juggles a day job in media production at Macquarie University with photography and stints as a DJ.
“I had a cousin who married young and saw how their family grew together and how close they were and I thought, if I can emulate that, we could have that same kind of closeness.”
Krishia, 29, says that there are benefits to starting a family while chasing her professional ambitions — despite the message that juggling work with a desire to have children is the kind of either/or game millennial women are set up to lose.
“It’s meant that I can raise my children at the same time as pursuing my career,” smiles Krishia, who stops to mull over my questions before offering a thoughtful response. “Some of my colleagues want children but there’s too much work pressure because they’re at the top of the ladder. It also means that I have more energy. But Mike and I are fortunate to have full-time jobs that are very flexible. We’re able to move our schedules around as required.”
Sure, Mike and Krishia — creatively aligned, family-oriented and willing to approach the struggles of parenthood as a unit — are the model of a young couple who’ve achieved the kind of equal partnership that previous generations couldn’t imagine. But for the Catabays, who are parents to two sons, a four-year-old as well as a six-year-old who has been diagnosed with high-functioning autism, the life they’ve chosen is the result of regular compromises and the discipline to scale back commitments. The Catabays also acknowledge that growing up means redefining the idea that a family is a nuclear structure defined entirely by two parents and children. It’s a flexible entity that involves relatives as well.
“There are times that we both come home from work exhausted and one of us takes over, then the other one takes over,” explains Krishia, who says that they’ve made it a ritual to each spend one-on-one time with their sons. “Our oldest son has autism and has just started primary school so it’s a challenge to make sure he has a positive experience.” For Krishia and Mike, starting a family doesn’t mean sacrificing their creative interests but juggling them with care-taking and abandoning the idea that the balance has to be perfect. “We’re lucky that my mother and grandmother look after our younger one, who doesn’t go to school yet,” Kristia continues. “This lets us work full-time and take on freelance projects every couple of weeks. We can manage our family life and still produce creative work that we’re proud of. Sometimes I don’t know how we do it.”
When the Catabays fell pregnant, they gave up their apartment, moved in with their parents and now live a short drive away from them in the north-western suburbs of Sydney. “We were so lucky that our parents had us back home but our biggest mistake is that we didn’t buy the apartment that we left!” Mike laughs.
But, then, is there a generational divide wider than housing?
“If you’re looking at us raising Ben compared with our parents, my mum raised me as a single parent in Sydney and she was still able to buy a house for us one income,” Kate recalls. “We’re getting towards the end of Tina’s maternity leave and it changes your perspective on what you can do financially.”
She’s right. An April 2017 survey by HSBC found that Australia has the second-lowest percentage of home ownership among millennials in the world with just 28 percent of people born between 1981 and 1988 owning the house they live in. And according to March 2017 statistics from social researcher Mark McCrindle, the average price of a house in Sydney has increased more than fivefold from $233,250 in 1997 to $1,190, 390 today — more than 13 times average earnings with a similar picture for Melbourne. For our generation, buying a house can no longer serve as the ultimate symbol of grown-up responsibility, even if we want it to. We’re also well-versed in the sacrifice it takes to trade in the merry-go-round of Saturday rent inspections for something more permanent. The HSBC study discovered that young Australians were less likely to borrow money from their parents to fund their deposits than their international counterparts although they were more inclined to move home to save. Those of us without the privilege of parents who can accommodate us are abandoning the notion that a mortgage is evidence that we’ve grown up at all.
For Owen Craven, 32, a curator who lives in Melbourne’s South Yarra with his long-term partner Sean Gallagher, 49, assets aren’t shorthand for stability and acquiring possessions pale in comparison to sharing experiences with the people you love. Craven and Gallagher, who have a three-and-a-half-year-old girl called Indigo, conceived via surrogacy in India, have made it a point to introduce rituals that involve both the family they’ve created and a network of friends who have a stake in raising their daughter. In doing so, they’ve re-imagined what a loving family can be.
“Sean and I truly believe that life is about experience and this could mean planning little adventures on a Saturday morning or going on holidays overseas,” says Owen, who is a senior curator at Urban Art Projects. “We have family friends in Sydney and Singapore who are also two-dad families and every year we take a three-family holiday so that the kids, who are all born via surrogacy, can build these wonderful connections. At the moment, we’re planning a motorbike tour in Vietnam. My family was nuclear but also quite isolated so I try to open up ours to many people around us.”
“Both my mum and Owen’s mother were stay-at-home mums but we work full-time so the biggest challenge for us is the exorbitant cost of day care,” adds Sean, who works in industry engagement at Swinburne University. “It’s not that it’s not worth it but it needs to be better subsidised. For both of us to work full-time and make sure that our working life fits around Indigo, to give her everything she needs is a challenge that our parents never dealt with.”
But the pair says that rejecting nuclear structures has allowed them to evolve as people and forge a deeper bond with their daughter. They prove that if each parent endeavours to be both mother and father, we can redefine child-rearing for the better and access richer emotional rewards.
“I think one of the most wonderful things about being a two-dad family is that we each play both the maternal and the paternal role — when Indigo was born, I took five months off as the primary carer and then Sean took three months off and I’d tell every father to do that and for the government to support it,” Owen says. “It’s so exciting for us being two blokes, to see the world through this little girl’s eyes. We just want to raise her in a safe, loving environment to allow her to become a wonderful, independent, strong-minded individual. It’s such a privilege to be her parents.”
As a young, same-sex couple, Kate and Tina say they feel a duty to be radically honest about some of the assumptions around motherhood and share the downsides as well as the joys of becoming a parent for the first time.
“I suffered post-natal depression and even though some people do, I think this idea that you’re going to love your baby the first time you set eyes on them is a big myth,” says Tina.
“Since having Ben, I’m trying to be more honest with people who are getting pregnant,” Kate explains. “I love everything about my son but I’ll never be a maternal person. That’s not to say that I play the dad role but it’s not like you pop out a kid and become Mother Earth.” For Tina and Kate, the challenge of growing up and starting a family isn’t about consumption or comparison, it’s about finding the courage to be honest and brave enough to build a family life that’s in line with your values. “[When you start a family], you’re still you, you still have the same interests, the same things you really love,” Kate says.
In so many ways, this fear of replicating the painful elements of our childhood has sparked a desire to start families that are expansive, inclusive and imaginative — ruled less by stifling heteronormativity than they are by expansiveness, individuality and love. The Accelerating Acceptance Survey, a 2017 study by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation found that millennials are more than twice as likely to identify as LGBTQI than the Boomer generation and in June 2017, a YouGov Fifty Acres poll revealed that young people are also Australia’s greatest supporters of same-sex marriage. A July 2015 global survey by Havas Worldwide discovered that the majority of millennials believe that interracial marriage and same-sex marriage were a benefit to society and six in ten are deliberately bringing up their children differently to how they were raised.
Kristia says that for our generation, part of growing up is recognising that raising children — whether it involves two mothers, two dads, a heterosexual couple or a groups of friends or relatives — isn’t about replicating the lives of our parents. It’s about being true to our personal desires, dreams and challenges and accepting that family can thrive in many forms.
“Nobody gets dealt the same cards and I think we’re starting to move towards much more acceptance and positivity,” she says.
“Indigo has a different skin colour to us and we’re completely open with her about everything,” Owen adds. “As LGBQTI people but also more broadly, politicians will have to respond to these things. Millennials are just living our lives and in doing so, we’re completely redefining what family is.”