The Children of Gay Parents, Like All Kids, Need More Than Their Parents Can Provide

Gay parents are great, but they can’t do it alone.


Hey, Daddy! is a monthly column exploring the joys and struggles of parenting from a gay father’s perspective. Got a topic idea or question for Daddy? Send your letter along to johnculhane19104@gmail.com.

At conferences, coffee meetings, and confabs where gay and lesbian parents gather, we’re still likely to react defensively to the suggestion—or accusation—that our kids are missing some vital ingredient, some ineffable thing, because they lack either a mom or a dad. I know I do.

Of course, that’s crazy. After all, we have science on our side. The data are at this point so clear it’s almost boring: Children thrive in same-sex headed households. One study even suggested that kids raised by lesbians do better than children raised by a mother and a father—though there’s no reason to gloat about it. Sometimes, however, all that yummy research doesn’t convince us any more than it convinces staunch traditionalists. The truth is, our kids are missing something—but if not a parent of the other, “absent” gender, then what?

Basic biology can give rise to certain feelings of deficiency. Years ago, a gay dad—and one of the most involved parents I know—flashed anger at a woman who was going on about breast-feeding her infant: “Breast-feeding Nazi … ” he muttered. His inability to do likewise had gotten under his skin, challenging his narrative of one-sex sufficiency.

Society’s gender expectations can be similarly undermining. When our girls received their second chest full of princess-wear from a well-intentioned aunt, I had trouble seeing the gift as anything more than an attempted corrective—a filling-in of some traditionally girly blank space we supposedly couldn’t complete. (As if anyone’s life would be the poorer without a room full of pastel taffeta.) And you really don’t want to hear what I said to the woman who wondered how I managed with two daughters at the mall: “What if one of them had to use the bathroom?”

Thankfully, this kind of crazy essentialism is being stuffed, one inch at a time, into history’s oubliette; but it a good part of it protrudes, leaving legal and social traces. The nutty—but dangerous—trans-panic over bathroom access underscores the continuing commitment to a lazy gender binary. The trans community may be the scapegoat du jour, but every advance by the larger LGBTQ movement is met with pushback in some precincts—because all of it represents a challenge to gender roles and identities. Gay and lesbian parents are no different.

That discomfort with complexity explains the impulse to declare one gender “missing” in same-sex couples. All of our lives are “of a mingled yarn,” though, and the very presences of gay and lesbian couples can show the virtue of such mingling—for all couples. But we shouldn’t crow about our parental fitness. That’s just another form of essentialism; one that we might provocatively call the nuclear family fallacy.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a colleague who was home-schooling his five (!) children. It quickly became apparent that he was raising his kids in a protective cocoon—not only were they not getting the social benefits of public school, but they had limited contact with other families and children, even within their home schooling and religious communities. At some point, I suggested that, as the kids got older, they’d naturally want to seek out other adult influences. He pushed back a little, saying that he and his wife were trying to raise their kids to come to them for what they needed—and he hoped and kind of expected that they’d continue doing so. That struck me as just strange, because kids need and want broader influences.

So the real issue of parental limitations isn’t whether the kids have a mom and a dad, or two dads, or two moms, but whether any two people can fully parent a child. They can’t.

An extreme illustration of this insight is found in families that have chosen a communal living style. Students in my family law class were fascinated but maybe a bit threatened by an article in the Atlantic describing four couples and their many children living together in Oregon, and operating as one big family. The economic and child-raising efficiencies are plentiful, and adults other than the bio-parents “can assist with homework or talk … about things” kids “might not want to discuss” with their parents. The adults all thought that shared parenting benefited the children by giving them ready access to resources their own mother and father lacked. Bella DePaulo, a sociologist who’s studied modern living arrangements extensively, criticized “nuclear family triumphalism,” and told the author that children raised in non-nuclear households were well-adjusted and successful.

Well, that sort of communal living is entirely too much togetherness for me—one shower for all those people? No thanks. But one doesn’t need to go all-in on the chaos and joy of communal arrangements to believe that it takes a village to raise children. Our close-knit Philly neighborhood provides plenty of examples. A retired couple across the street serves as a kind of extra set of grandparents for our twins; for their most recent birthday, they walked with the girls to the bookstore to help them choose a book as a gift. When our kids started middle school, they acclimated to taking the city bus by traveling with our next-door neighbor (who worked near the school) and her daughter. More poignantly, she, and others, have been helpful in preparing our almost–12-year old daughters for the physical changes they’re soon to experience.

Are our daughters at a disadvantage because their two dads haven’t had that experience? I like to think that all of these perspectives, and lived experiences, are enriching rather than evidence of a phantom, missing gender. And since no set of parents—no matter how perfect—can give their kids everything they need, leaning on the wisdom of others benefits everyone.