Mia Mala McDonald and Steph Hughes On Being A Rainbow Family In A Heterosexual World

Photographer Mia Mala Macdonald and illustrator Steph Hughes are feeling thankful for their rambling Preston rental, which they moved into just weeks before social isolation came into effect. It’s near the creek and has a big backyard that’s already sparked a love affair with gardening with their three-year-old child Sidney. 

At their previous unit in Pascoe Vale, their next-door-neighbour used to wish them good morning every day without fail. She’d speak in Italian to Sidney, and offer fruit from her garden. She was elderly and had dementia and every morning, without fail, she’d look from Mia to Steph and ask: “Sisters?”

Australia had a plebiscite for marriage equality less than three years ago. It’s mind-blowing how recent that is, and how hurtful it must have been, and must still be. It was part of the reason Mia started Once in a Lullaby, her upcoming book of portraits of rainbow families living their lives, existing without justification, in the hope that it will help people feel like they belong. Especially kids of rainbow families, like Sidney. 

If you’re in a position to help support her Pozible campaign to print the thing, run, don’t walk.

Hey Mia + Steph – How are you balancing work/parenting/isolating at the moment?

Mia Mala McDonald: We’ve always spent equal time working and being with Sidney. That was a priority from the get-go. We each have a part-time salary, which combines to make one workable income as a team. We keep our overheads low, because we want to share the parenting responsibilities. 

Steph Hughes: Since isolation kicked in, I’ve had some illustrating jobs for people’s passion projects that they’ve finally gotten around to. It’s an interesting bunch of things. I set an alarm for 4.45am and work then.

I wake up then too! But just from anxiety. No alarm necessary.

SH: (Laughing) anxiety is definitely a huge motivator for me. It’s stressful out there! But we’re trying to keep a lid on it for the kid, and ourselves.

MM: Parenting and work doesn’t leave much time for me to ponder what the current crisis all means. By the time I’ve made the snack and found the missing pink boot Sid wants to wear, and the matching dress at the bottom of the washing basket, that’s half the day done. I’m distracted by the demands of parenting, in a good way.

You both seem relatively sane. What’s your secret?

SH: I’m giving myself a hall pass on screen time for Sid. That helps. Things are crazy, so no rules on that. If I’m going on hour six of playing hide and seek one-on-one, then yeah, let’s do a massive screen time session! I’m trying to get in my body more, worry less. We go down to the creek every day. I may have unsuccessfully tried to do a late night jazzercise class on YouTube. Just stuff that gets me out of my head.

Did you say late night jazzercise? Tell me more.

SH: Maybe it was kind of kick boxing that involved dancing? It was very loud. Look, it’s a confusing time. We are all off our heads. May as well get fit!

What were some of the feelings that came up for you when shooting your upcoming book about rainbow families, ‘Once in a Lullaby’?

SH: It made me really grateful for our situation, and aware of how smoothly things went for us when we decided we wanted to have a kid.

MM: We didn’t realise how uncomplicated our parenting journey was. We asked a friend of ours to be the donor during a casual conversation over the phone. And he’s very much involved in our life and Sid’s life. Logistically, it’s been far from complicated, and the most wonderful thing is that we have this incredible new extended family who we love and who all love Sidney.

What were some of the more complicated circumstances you came across?

MM: The journey for two dads is often extremely complicated, around 10 years duration and usually very costly, because political and financial support is so limited. Male couples want to be parents like everyone else, but the hoops they have to jump through are extreme.  

The families allowed me into their homes and shared really personal, and at times, deeply emotional and intimate stories with me. You meet these people and you feel such an affinity with them. There’s so much camaraderie. We’re a rainbow family in a heterosexual world, but it’s a comfort to know we’re not the only ones. We’re trying to figure out how we fit, and we’re doing it together. It’s a special feeling.

Every kids’ show I’ve seen has two hetero parents. Have you found any alternatives?

MM: There are some books about rainbow families, but they’re almost like text books. They explain our existence and that we’re “normal” too, but that’s about the extent of it. I’d throw this suggestion to the team at Peppa Pig, we’d love to see a single parent, or a couple of lesbians at the BBQ. Incidental lesbians! Not a story about their family unit and how they had a kid, too.

SH: Sometimes it’s tricky to be different. And I know that from growing up. I wish I had more references to help me understand why things were a bit different for me.

MM: Rainbow families don’t expect to be represented in every possible spot there is, because it doesn’t reflect society. Living in the inner city of Melbourne, there’s usually a rainbow family on every street. We’re part of the texture. We’re so lucky to live in this city and we know how privileged we are to live in a country where our personal life is not illegal. We’re still a minority, but no representation doesn’t reflect our community, and that can be frustrating, particularly when you’re a parent. Sidney started having those conversations with us at two years old. It’s a difference she’s very aware of. 

Have you had to do a lot of explaining since becoming parents?

MM: People think it’s okay to ask us how we had Sidney, and who “the real mum” is. That’s honestly one of the mildest questions we get. We had to do a lot of explaining throughout the pregnancy, every time we were at the hospital, for instance. It’s only in the last 10 years that same sex couples have been legally allowed to be on the birth certificate, and to get married and adopt. We’re at a moment of huge legal change, brought about by people who’ve rallied for it forever. For the most part, rainbow families are happy to educate people, but we’re weary too. 

We’re just like any other parents, trying not to forget the sunscreen and the signed excursion forms. We’re doing the best we can and learning as we go. 

Straight people don’t just need to educate themselves, we need to educate others too. Like if your family member is saying ignorant or hurtful things at the dinner table, even if they are “not meaning to offend”, we need to say something.

SH: The arsehole at the dinner table is a real archetype. But it takes big people to do that. It’s amazing when it happens. We always appreciate it. 

Sidney (looks up from Peppa Pig): Why do you have hairy legs, mama?

SH: Why do you have hairy legs?

Family Favourites

Housebound activity?

Planting seeds, playing Magnetix and hide-and-seek. Hugely popular activities right now!

Breakfast ritual?

Sid wakes up at 5.30am, so our morning ritual is trying to get Sid to watch a show so we can go back to bed. Fails every time. Coffee and toast, always.

Go-to album?

Lucinda Williams ‘World Without Tears’ without doubt.

Date night in?

I think we have a laugh and a beverage most nights. It’s bit hard to delineate between a date night and regular night at the moment. Sometimes we try to cook something non-gross together, and that’s always lovely.

Weekend getaway (remember those)?

We love regular trips and have been missing them – we often go to Mia’s hometown of Yandoit and her family’s house. We also go to stay with our friends Shauny and Bex in Rye which has been a lovely tradition springing up. Recently there’s been some gigs in Rye, Castlemaine, Geelong and Ballarat and we always make good weekends out of those.

Check out Mia’s Pozible campaign for Once in a Lullaby, which aims to raise enough funding to cover printing costs, and follow Steph and Mia on Instagram @_steph_hughes_ and @miamalamcdonald.

Follow our fabulous family contributor Ashe Davenport on Instagram, and read more TDF Family stories here!


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