Modern Family

The brave new world of gay and lesbian parenting

What, No Mother???

When pro-mother bias undermines gay male parenting.

It was nearly 20 years ago that I sat on a park bench one day watching my 6-year-old son crawl over the monkey bars. He was agile and coordinated and maneuvered perfectly well — until one careless move and he dropped to the sand below. I saw he wasn't injured — the drop wasn't that far — and trying hard not to replicate my own parents' overprotective stance, I merely observed and did nothing more. Here's what happened next: from virtually out of nowhere, a woman dashed to my son's side, looked down at him, then scanned the play area and declared, "Little boy! Where's your mother?" I bristled when I heard her words and walked over to assure her that someone was present to look after the boy — not the sort of someone she had in mind, alas, but at least someone: me.

Although much has changed in 20 years, the assumption that the welfare of children is best tended to by women (mothers) rather than men continues to prevail. It's one of the culture's gender stereotypes. When we envision a parent at the bedside of a sick child, it's a woman most of us conjure. And it's a woman we envision helping with homework, or tending a scrape, or taping the finger painting to the refrigerator door. This gender stereotype can be an insidious stumbling block in the lives of gay fathers. Here's how:

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Because we ourselves grow up exposed to and absorbing many of the culture's stereotypes, we may have internalized the notion that effective parenting is best delivered by women. To the extent that this assumption hides out in the recesses of the gay dad's mind, it undermines his confidence as a parent. He can more easily doubt himself, and blame himself when something goes wrong. The stereotype can hold him back from trying something new, something traditionally seen as "mother's role."

When carried by others, the stereotype can transmit to gay fathers disapproving and critical messages that, at best, trigger annoyance, but at worst, trigger guilt or shame. Suppose, for instance, you're a gay father at a family occasion and your infant daughter fusses and cries. Aunt Martha dashes over a bit too quickly and extends her arms, inviting you to hand her the baby. You may infer from her actions, "It takes a woman to soothe a child," and you may infer correctly. Or the school nurse wears a peculiar expression when you arrive to take your sick son home, her raised eyebrow transmitting skepticism over whether you truly know how to tend a feverish youngster.

I suspect that the majority of fathers — gay and straight — experience this prejudice from time to time. It's most toxic, however, when the stereotyped thinking in others connects with the same stereotyped thinking in us. That's the combination that can undermine our confidence and cause us to doubt our ability to be an effective father.

What we need to do — we gay dads — is to look for telltale signs of this prejudice both in the people around us and in ourselves. We need to examine our own attitudes about what makes a good parent — and about what children need from the primary adults in their lives. We need to ask ourselves: Can a man provide what children need? If we're not sure that fathers, alone, can deliver what it takes, we should discuss the question with trusted others, perhaps with professionals in the child development field.

We also need to stay alert to the words and actions of others — friends and family in particular — watching for signs that gender stereotypes may be a part of their thinking. Their messages can be subtle and yet influential in shaping how we feel about ourselves as parents.

If we're going to transcend the straightjacket of this gender role stereotype, it starts with awareness.

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Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with The Family Institute at Northwestern University.

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