Peggy Drexler Ph.D.

Our Gender, Ourselves

Parenting Gay Or Straight (How) Does It Matter?

Raising Boys Without Men

Posted Jan 17, 2012

Zach Walls is a 19-year-old engineering student at the University of Iowa - handsome, intelligent, articulate, passionate and raised by two mothers.

His eloquent testimony before the Iowa state legislature during debate on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage was not just a defense of gay marriage. It was a logical and personal affirmation that families of same sex parents are families like any other.

The testimony video went viral and, with 20 million views, became the most-watched political video of 2011.

Zach reminds me very much of the young men I met in my longitudinal study of two-parent planned lesbian families raising sons which I went on to publish in a book entitled Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men. They were happy, accomplished, well adjusted and - like the passionate Mr. Walls - particularly attuned to the feelings of others.

Whatever rights and status gays may or may not have achieved in the eyes of society, the ways gays and lesbians live as a family unit has continued to generate curiosity, controversy and frank debate. Some people are intrigued and others simply wanted to understand gay family lives and relationships.

The contacts, I made presenting my work all over the country came together in a list of six common questions straight people asked me about two parent lesbian families.

Does one woman assume the role of the father, and the other, the mother?

No. The different roles happened based on talent, interests and available time. Other than that, the boys I've come to know see their parents as two mothers.

In fact, it's interesting how closely the dynamics match families where parents are male and female - competition for attention; using one parent as leverage to get what they want from the other; rebelling against the authority of one more vocally than the other.

Many of the mothers I interviewed said that if there was a problem, it was likely to be a blurring of the lines of responsibility. As one mother said: "The good part is that the kids always have one of us. The bad part is that it's not always clear whose responsibility it is. There is a lot of negotiating."

But isn't one mother the "real" mom?

In every case but one of the 16 lesbian two-parent families I interviewed, the non-biological parent had adopted the son.  So in fact the boys' relationship to both biological and non-biological mothers were "legal."

What do children call their mothers?

It's an issue that gets resolved - often with the child making the decision. One couple told me that at 18 months, their son started calling one mommy, and the other mamma. That lasted until age 3, when he started using their names.

How are the children conceived?

None of the women in my study conceived through heterosexual intercourse, although that is certainly an option for some. All conceived through alternative insemination, except one couple, which adopted. Some used sperm donated by the brother of her partner. Others used donated sperm from friends. Most, but not all, said they preferred knowing the donor. Some wanted the donor to be involved in their son's life. Others felt it would be confusing.

How do lesbian mothers explain alternative insemination to their sons?

Most said they simply explained the facts as they are at the appropriate time - some early, others waiting until it came up. One said: "He's very aware of the 'where did I come from' thing. It's very important to him."

How important is it to lesbian mothers to have a male role model in their son's life?

For the women in my study, finding male role models was important - but difficult. Most went out of their way to find friends, relatives, coaches, neighbors - but few felt any real success in creating emotional bonds. Many in the study said there were few emotional bonds with men in their own lives, and they were not about to entrust that to "just anybody." Said one mother: "For a while we tried to cultivate friendships with men, and it started feeling sort of artificial - like: I'm not sure we would be friends with this person if we weren't feeling we should have him in our lives for the benefit of our son."

One mother of a six-year old and contemplating another child summed up life in a two-mother family nicely. "Sometimes having two mothers is a real advantage - like sharing the housework. 'Women's work' doesn't mean much around here. Other times, we go through the same issues, have the same arguments, that any family does. Most times it's great. Sometimes it's not. But it works because we care about each other. I'm not sure gender has a lot to do with that."

Dr. Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Medical College, Cornell University, and author Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family (Rodale, May 2011). Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com

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