Lesbian Parenting – In Research and In Real Life (Mine)

A personal story about being a Lesbian mom.


Cute kid with his moms

As a parent in the first wave of the “gayby” boom – lesbian and gay families who chose to have children after coming out, raising them in families headed by same-sex parents – I always knew the importance of the support we and our children got from our community. When my kids were small, I’d get together frequently with other lesbian and gay parents and we’d talk about the joys and trials, the fun and the fear, that adding children to our families brought to our lives. Some of what we talked about were the same things our straight friends discussed: adjusting to sleep deprivation, the adorable things kids say and do, the exasperating things kids say and do, managing career and parenting, the effects of children on one’s sex life, how to find quality child care. But one topic was more specific to lesbian and gay families: the pressure to be perfect.


We knew we were bringing children into a world hostile to us and our families. That hostility was – and still is – enacted into laws that discriminate against our families. It was there as well in social institutions and educational venues and houses of worship. From the forms that asked for a “mother’s name” and “father’s name” when you applied for day care to our children’s birth certificates that weren’t permitted to have both parent's names on them, we were constantly reminded that our families were not welcomed and often not even acknowledged by society at large. We worked hard to educate society and reduce the hostility and the institutionalized heterosexism, but we worked even harder to insulate our children from the negative effects of society’s hostility towards their parents. Not for us just signing a child up for day care of school – no, we needed to make sure our children were safe in a way our straight counterparts did not.


So we became the most involved school volunteers, the exemplary neighborhood helpers, the moms with the best play date activities and snacks. We knew that we had to be better – and conspicuously better – to be considered even okay, and we devoted ourselves to proving we were okay whatever it took. Because that’s what our kids needed from us, or so we thought. Sometimes it felt a little wearing.


In those early days in the 1980s, when sperm banks first started allowing lesbians to purchase semen for donor insemination, I knew that I was the first lesbian mother pretty much everyone I came in contact with had ever met. Sometimes they said so; sometimes it was just clear from the shocked reaction. I always said brightly, “I may be the first lesbian mother you’ve met, but I won’t be the last.” I had answers at the ready to all the objections people threw at us then, saying it wasn’t fair to our children to be raised in a family where they’d be subject to discrimination, where they wouldn’t have a father, and so on. I assured them that our kids would do fine, that families come in all shapes and sizes and kids can thrive with loving parents, regardless of gender. I pointed out that our kids were all very much wanted, very much hoped for and worked for. None in our community had children because of failed birth control or because it was expected of us or because our parents were pushing us to give them grandchildren. We faced huge obstacles in having children – legal, social, often medical, always financial – and, as a result, only those of us most committed to parenting managed to have children. I also pointed out that they wouldn’t tell black people they shouldn’t have children because of racism or Jews that we shouldn’t have kids because of anti-Semitism.


I don’t know how many people I convinced. I think my children – beautiful, talented, kind, articulate, socially adept – probably convinced more.

Okay, so maybe I’m a little bit prejudiced about my kids. But that’s why it’s so nice to get confirmation about the wellbeing of children in lesbian families from a longitudinal study of lesbian families formed in the early days of donor insemination. “The US National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study: Psychological Adjustment of 17-Year-Old Adolescents” by Nanette Gartrell, M.D. and Henny Bos, PhD, was published in the peer-reviewed journal Pediatrics on June 7.

A large body of research before this study has consistently shown that there are no significant differences between children of lesbian and gay parents and those of heterosexual ones. Still, the Gartrell/Bos paper reports the results of the first study that has followed children of planned lesbian families from before they were born through adolescence. So many of us in the community were eager to find out what this pair of researchers – a psychiatrist and a psychologist – found out.

What did they conclude? That the adolescents in the study “demonstrated higher levels of social, school/academic and total competence than gender-matched normative samples of American teenagers.” The 17-year-olds in the study scored significantly lower in “social problems, rule-breaking, aggressive and externalizing problem behavior.”


All kids have problems and ours are no exception. I’ve been a parent for 54 “kid-years” and have dealt with my share with my own kids. But the first large scale longitudinal study said that children in planned lesbian families are doing better than average on all these measures. What’s more, this was true across the board – for children with known and unknown donors, for boys and girls, for those whose mothers stayed together equally with those who divorced.

Why are the kids doing better than comparable children in heterosexual families? The authors have some ideas. They note that the prospective mothers were very committed to parenting, that they planned for and learned as much as they could about being good parents before they had kids. They formed support groups and, in the words of the authors, committed themselves to being “fully engaged in the process of parenting… They were actively involved in the education of their children and aspired to remain close to them, however unique their interests, orientation and preferences may be.” The study also noted that the mothers tended to be effective at verbal limit-setting, and less likely to use corporal punishment or power assertion to get children to comply with social norms.

Maybe these results will help convince at least some of society that “the kids are all right,” that in a hostile world we’re still able to give them the parenting they need, and maybe a little extra. I hope the younger lesbians having children now have the joy, the mutual support, the fellowship in their lives and that of their children that I’ve been able to draw on all these years. On the other hand, I hope they feel a little less pressure to be a perfect parent just to be considered okay.

Dale Rosenberg


For further reading:

The Gartrell and Bos study is free and available online at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/reprint/peds.2009-3153v1?maxtoshow=&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&fulltext=gartrell&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=0&sortspec=relevance&resourcetype=HWCIT.

A general summary of research findings on lesbian and gay parenting has been compiled by the American Psychological Association and is available at http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/parenting.aspx