“My Barbies need a man,” says my four-year-old daughter Hannah the very first time she lays eyes upon Groom Ken. There he stands, all boxed up and ready to wed, on the shelf at Target. “We have to get him.”
Truthfully, her Barbies kind of do need a man. She has seven, nearly all inherited from the older girl next door. One is Bride Barbie, complete with a wedding gown and veil, tiered cake, and ready-to-toss bouquet. Because Hannah is enchanted with all things marital, her Barbies have been marrying each other for some time now. When they’re not having weddings or changing their outfits, they are busy being doctors—Hannah’s other great obsession—and conducting emergency surgery on each other.
I don’t buy Groom Ken, though I’m sure he’ll be in my cart soon enough. The truth is, I have some mixed feelings about bringing him home. It’s not that I think that a Barbie without a Ken is like a fish without a bicycle. It’s more that Groom Ken is a reminder that we are fast approaching the point when Hannah will need to navigate a world in which Barbie almost always marries Ken instead of another Barbie, a world in which her two moms don’t quite fit.
For now, as far as Hannah knows, my partner Jane and I are just as married as the moms and dads of her friends. The fact is, I have a hard time imagining anyone being more married than we are after nearly 25 years together. So yes, I tell Hannah, Mommy and I are married. It’s the truth, legal or not. And it’s what I want Hannah to absorb: Her family is all right. Her family is normal. Her family, in fact, is really pretty dull.
I realize, of course, that we are exceptionally lucky. We live in Golden Valley, a Minneapolis suburb that is home to an unusually high number of gay and lesbian couples. The other parents in our neighborhood seem unfazed by our presence. We live in a county where I was allowed to adopt Hannah as her second, legally recognized mother. We send Hannah to a preschool that has an explicit nonbias policy and a rainbow flag hanging in the corner of the room, where she can dig in the sand with other kids who have two moms, should she choose to do so. But I also realize that we have carefully made choices—about where we live, where we work, and who we socialize with—that protect our relationship and our family.
We want to give Hannah a world in which she will not be shamed or shunned because of her family. Can we do that? Realistically, probably not. And this is the worry that keeps us up at night: that our children will be teased, harassed, or discriminated against because of their families.
According to the National Study of Gay and Lesbian Parents, 85 percent of gay dads and 82 percent of lesbian moms worry about their kids facing prejudice because they have gay parents. It’s a real concern. A longitudinal study of lesbian-headed families found that nearly 20 percent of the children experienced some homophobia from their peers or teachers by age five. That number increases to 43 percent by age ten.
I don’t think that Hannah has experienced any outright homophobia yet, but she is definitely being asked more questions. As she has grown from toddler to preschooler, her friends have moved from noting that she has two moms to asking why she doesn’t have a dad. They’re not yet old enough to insist that she has to have one, and they’re mostly satisfied with being told that families are different, but the questions keep coming back.
I have no idea how Hannah will respond to these questions as she ages. Will she be sad that she does not have a known and present father? Will she care? The National Lesbian Family Study suggests that children who have the option to meet their sperm donor after they turn 18 sometimes regret that they have to wait, but a full 70 percent of the children of permanently unknown donors say they have no regrets.
But Hannah, of course, is not a data point. I don’t know the extent to which her family’s difference will bring her grief and how much it will strengthen her. How does anyone react to the things in life that set them apart? Sometimes they are invincible hurdles, sometimes barely noticed bumps in the road. And sometimes they are stepping stones.
Yet those who oppose gay and lesbian parenthood believe that Hannah will face much bigger challenges than homophobia. Their bogeymen include: the lack of appropriate gender roles, the risk that children will be more inclined (or will feel pressure) to become gay themselves, poor psychological development, and the risk that children will be sexually abused.
While these concerns get expressed over and over, they are resoundingly unsupported by research. Thirty years of study into the well-being (really, the normalcy) of the children of gay and lesbian parents reveals that the kids are turning out just fine, thank you. Studies show no appreciable differences from the children of heterosexual parents in their behavior, the quality of their peer relationships, their emotional development, their self-esteem, their levels of anxiety or depression, or even in the toys they choose to play with. Fewer studies have looked at adolescents, but those that do indicate that our offspring are no more or less likely to identify as gay or lesbian themselves. When University of Virginia psychologist Charlotte J. Patterson and her colleagues compared 44 teenagers being raised by same-sex couples with 44 teens being raised by opposite sex couples, they found that it is the quality of the relationships at home, not the sexual orientation of the parents, that really makes the difference in how the kids turn out. Bottom line: When parents, regardless of gender, are in a stable and loving relationship, and when they have a warm and affectionate relationship with their children, those kids do better.
To be fair, the research by Patterson and her colleagues has pointed out some differences. The children of gay and lesbian parents tend to consider whether their parents’ sexuality has implications for their own, while the children of straight parents typically take their heterosexuality for granted. Adolescent children of same-sex parents report feeling more connected to school than the children of heterosexual parents. The children of same-sex parents have been shown to have more sophisticated understandings of diversity and tolerance by the age of 10 than do kids raised by straight parents. Gay and lesbian parents are far less likely than straight parents to spank their children.
And then there’s the research finding that seems to drive other moms nuts: Same-sex parents—at least the lesbians—tend to share the housework and childcare responsibilities more equally than heterosexual parents. Jane and I dropped Hannah off at preschool recently and one of her little friends, Annika, asked me, “How come Hannah has two moms?”
“Well, I guess she’s just lucky,” I said.
Annika’s mother looked at us and then at her daughter. “I wish you had two moms,” she said with a sigh. “That would be great.”
I am always surprised by this reaction when I hear it. Other women consistently make the assumption—backed up by research, apparently—that having two women as parents means fewer socks lying on the floor, more help with the dishes, and less complaining about sitting up with the kid at night. It’s true that Jane and I have always shared child care, though I have to confess that our house does have socks on the floor and dishes on the counter. But I am surprised because—for mothers of young children, at least—having some help around the house seems to trump having a husband. When you’ve got a kid or two under age five, I gather, sexual orientation becomes less important than having someone who will vacuum voluntarily. And sure enough, research has shown that children do better in general when their parents are satisfied with the division of labor at home.
There’s a certain level of offensiveness in having your family (broadly speaking) assessed and assessed again to see if you are capable of raising a functional kid. And there’s a certain level of smugness that I feel in reading research suggesting that not only can gay and lesbian parents raise children, but for the most part, we’re doing a damn fine job of it. At the same time, I do know that our families are political, and that I would have essentially no legal connection to Hannah if teams of researchers had not taken it upon themselves to investigate the well-being of these kids—and I still wouldn’t if I lived in about half of all states nationwide.
Meanwhile, Jane and I are just trying to raise our daughter. Most of our time is filled with work and making dinner and reading stories and going to swim class and playing with the neighbor kids and visiting the Children’s Museum.
We are not very involved with other gay families, either because their kids are the wrong ages or because they’re also too busy with work and making dinner and reading stories.
But it is important to Jane and to me, and maybe to Hannah, that the broader community is there. This past summer, we drove to a church camp in Central Minnesota for a weekend sponsored by our local gay families organization. We were surrounded by other families with two moms or two dads and a swarm of young children. We went because we wanted Hannah to see other families like hers. What struck her, instead, were the differences.
“See, Kia has two moms, just like you,” I said to Hannah one evening at dinner. She looked at Jane and me, then at her new friend Kia and Kia’s mothers. “Yeah, but you and Mommy are louder,” Hannah said.
Finally, I go back to Target and buy Groom Ken. Hannah is beside herself. Not only can she marry her Barbies to a man, but Groom Ken also came with a miniaturized version of himself, a ringbearer whom Hannah has named Leland. Ken proposes one day. Barbie proposes the next. They kiss, they dance, they get married again. We’re living in the Chapel of Love, right here in Golden Valley.
I suppose that all of this exuberant heterosexuality should be encouraging to me. Maybe it means that our child will grow up to be as “normal” as she’s supposed to be. Indeed, she wants to get married when she grows up and have 16 kids. But she also wants to be Cinderella. And a doctor. And being a superhero wouldn’t be so bad, either. With 16 kids, I tell her, she’ll have to be.
In the end, what I hope for Hannah is what I like to think any parent wants: that she will be her own great self. I hope that she will make up her own mind and follow her own heart.
“What’s that?” Hannah asks, pointing to a rainbow sticker on a car in the parking lot of our local coffee shop. “That’s for families like ours,” I say. “Families that have two moms or two dads.”
“I want one,” she says. “Green for you and pink for me. What color does Mommy like?”
“Any color you choose, baby,” I say.