| What did 131 lesbian moms, part of the first generation of LGBTQ families begun through donor insemination, say are the best and most challenging parts of 25 years of parenthood? A new study is the first to look at the overall experiences of any LGBTQ parents from their children’s conception through young adulthood, and sheds light on the ups and downs.
Since 1986, the groundbreaking National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS) has focused on the same group of subjects, parents who were part of the first generation of LGBTQ families begun through donor insemination. The study began when the parents were inseminating or pregnant; this latest report captures a look at the families when the children were 25 years old. The 131 parents related that, looking back over those 25 years, the best experiences as parents in non-traditional families were:
- Being role models, leading to a greater acceptance of LGBTQ people: Parents said they had enjoyed educating other lesbian prospective parents about starting families, informing non-LGBTQ parents in their communities about lesbian and gay parents, and mentoring LGBTQ youth.
- Treasuring the LGBTQ parent and family community: Many parents said they made important connections during Pride celebrations, family camps, and community events, and some noted their religious communities as sources of support.
- Teaching their children to appreciate diversity of all types: One mother related, “I believe that our children have learned to be accepting of all types of families and people in general. From a very young age, they learned to stand up for themselves and who they are.”
- Witnessing their child’s pride in their non-traditional family: Many noted their children spoke out at various school and community events to educate others about their family type. (I’ll add a reminder, however, that we parents should never pressure our children to come out or speak out about their families; that’s up to them.)
On the flip side, the most challenging parenting experiences associated with raising children in non-traditional families were:
- Distress about their children’s experiences of exclusion, heterosexism, or homophobic stigmatization: One mother said her son’s best friend’s father “would not let his son stay overnight at our house and our son was never invited to his friend’s birthday parties.” And during the nationwide debates over marriage equality, “the hardest part was that our daughter was subjected to hearing mean-spirited things about her own family, also at school, in our community, and in the media.”
- Family of origin non-acceptance of their lesbian-parent family: Nineteen participants said they had been rejected by their families of origin for choosing to raise a child in a lesbian-parent household. One spoke of a brother and his wife who were religious conservatives, and noted, “My brother said some very hurtful things to us. For a couple of years after my son’s birth, we would never allow my brother and sister-in-law to be alone with him. We didn’t know if they would kidnap him or make derogatory comments about us to him.”
- The never-ending process of “educating the world about queer parents”: While some of the parents enjoyed educating others in their communities, some found it annoying to do so repeatedly. One was tired of “the relentlessness of having to explain we are both parents…[and] having people ask, ‘What do you know about the donor?’ UGH.”
- Homophobia or hostility toward their family: One of the mothers almost lost her job when a colleague outed her; others dealt with homophobia from doctors. At the same time, some of the parents tried building bridges; one related, “There was one mother who was very rude, very uncomfortable around my wife and I. I chose to volunteer in the library every week, the same day as this mother. Within 6 months … she started to talk about being more accepting of a non-traditional family. She did not know any other lesbian or gay people. I think she just had a preconceived idea (with a little influence from her Catholic upbringing) that we were bad people.”
- Lack of legal protections: Some of the parents were litigants for co-parent adoption. One said that she and her co-parent were the first in their county to legally adopt their non-biological children and have both their names on the children’s birth certificates, but “The process was expensive, time-consuming, and sometimes frustrating.” Some were concerned about not having their families recognized when they traveled to other states, and worried about having children taken from them. Some non-biological parents also worried about not being recognized after a parental break-up.
The most amusing anecdote from the study, however, is from one parent who recalled her best experience thus:
In third grade, I overheard [my child] telling his friends, ‘there are three unusual things about me: I don’t like chocolate, I don’t eat meat, and I have two moms.’ His friends, horrified, said, ‘YOU DON’T LIKE CHOCOLATE?!’
Lead author Nanette Gartrell, M.D., visiting distinguished scholar at the Williams Institute, noted that with these intentional lesbian parent pioneers, “Embarking on this bold social experiment subjected these mothers to criticism from many aspects of society. So it’s understandable that their top concern would be the effect exclusion and discrimination would have on their children.”
Co-author Esther D. Rothblum, also a visiting distinguished scholar at Williams, added, “The findings provide essential information for future generations of sexual minority parents and health professionals, educators, and social service agents.”
The paper is “’We Were Among the First Non-traditional Families’: Thematic Perceptions of Lesbian Parenting After 25 Years,” in Frontiers in Psychology, October 25, 2019, by Nanette Gartrell, Esther D. Rothblum, Audrey S. Koh, Gabriël van Beusekom, and Henny Bos.