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the psychology of parenting as a lesbian or a gay man
by Beverly R. King

 

 

The Gay Baby Boom: The Psychology of Gay Parenthood. By Suzanne M. Johnson and Elizabeth O'Connor. New York: New York University Press, 2002, 193 pages. Paper, $18.50; cloth, $55.00.

 

Many lesbians and gay men have had children in the context of heterosexual relationships (often marriage) prior to coming out; others have become parents through adoption, fostering, and the use of alternative reproductive strategies. Since the 1980s there has been a sharp rise in the number of gay men and lesbians who have become parents, leading to a labeling of the phenomenon as a "gayby" boom, or gay and lesbian baby boom.

 

In The Gay Baby Boom: The Psychology of Gay Parenthood, developmental psychologists Suzanne Johnson and Elizabeth O'Connor report the results of the National Study of Gay and Lesbian Parents, conducted in 1999 and 2000. In their survey research, which included both quantitative and qualitative components, Johnson and O'Connor asked 415 gay and lesbian parents about their concerns, perceived areas of strength, openness in their communities, parenting philosophies and child-rearing practices, and their adult relationships.

 

Although there have been several national surveys of gay and lesbian individuals and couples (e.g., Partner's Task Force National Survey of Lesbian and Gay Couples), this is the first one of its kind focusing on gay and lesbian parents. The 415 parents surveyed represent 256 families from 34 states and the District of Columbia. As is common in research on gay and lesbian parenting, more lesbian mothers (336) than gay fathers (79) volunteered to participate. This may be due to the fact that the sample included only custodial parents and, for previously married individuals, fathers are still less likely to receive custody than are mothers. Another possible explanation is that there may be fewer gay fathers than lesbian mothers in the nation, or the sample may not be representative of the true proportion of gay and lesbian parents in this country.

 

This short, very easy-to-read book is organized into two parts. The first begins with a review of the research and theory in developmental psychology on variables associated with good parenting. The next few chapters contain a comprehensive review of psychological studies from the 1970s to the present that have focused on gay- and lesbian-headed families. The authors point out the similarities and the differences that have been found between heterosexual and homosexual parents. In general, gay or lesbian and straight parents are more similar than they are dissimilar. When differences are found, lesbian and gay parents seem to have advantages in several areas related to positive child outcomes. For example, gay and lesbian parents, when compared with heterosexual parents, tend to be more responsive to their children, more child oriented, and more egalitarian in their sharing of the household workload between partners. The authors also discuss obstacles in studying a group with potentially limited visibility as well as the limitations of past research on gay and lesbian parents and their children.

 

In the final section of Part 1, Johnson and O'Connor describe the research design and methodology used in their own study, and the major findings from the survey asking about respondents' transition to and adjustment to parenting. The majority of the sample consisted of families that had been formed within gay or lesbian relationships, but also included families that began in the context of a heterosexual relationship and families that were blended (children from both heterosexual and lesbian or gay relationships). One of the findings concerning parents' transition to parenthood was that lesbian couples tended to overwhelmingly prefer anonymous donor insemination as a route to parenthood contrasted with other techniques such as adoption. There seemed to be little difficulty in lesbian couples who used artificial insemination in deciding which of the two partners would actually bear the child; one of the two typically had a greater desire to do so. Families of gay men were much more likely to be formed through adoption. Interestingly, "both gay men and lesbians anticipated more disapproval from their families [about becoming parents] than they ultimately faced" (p. 110).

 

In Part 2, the authors report results that address gay and lesbian parents' beliefs about parenting (concerns and advantages for their families, aspirations, and perceived treatment by professionals) and life within gay- and lesbian-headed families. Most gay and lesbian parents in this study voiced concerns about raising a child in a gay- or lesbian-headed family, most often that their children would be teased. However, they also thought their children would benefit in some way by being a part of their non-heterosexual households. The most commonly cited potential benefit was that the children would be more accepting of differences in others because of being raised in a family perceived as different.

 

The majority of individuals in this study were open with their children's doctors and teachers, although this may well be an artifact of the study, as gay and lesbian individuals who were willing to volunteer to participate may be the most "out." Parents who lived in gay- or lesbian-headed step-families (those in which children were born or adopted before the current relationship began) were more selective in disclosing their sexual orientation to others than were individuals in primary gay- or lesbian-headed households (where children were added to the household during the current relationship). Gay and lesbian couples with children seemed to make a concentrated effort to share household tasks, although in lesbian-headed families the biological mother reported doing more of the childcare.

 

Mothers in lesbian-headed stepfamilies showed lower levels of communication and positive feeling about their partners than did parents in lesbian-headed primary families, or gay-headed primary or stepfamilies. Low levels of negative disciplinary practices (e.g., spanking, yelling) were reported. The authors note that most gay and lesbian parents in this study would be classified as authoritative in parenting style (warm, responsive, but firm with their children).

 

The authors end the book with a short concluding chapter in which they present a summative answer to the question "How well are gay and lesbian parents functioning?" The authors answer "very well" according to their results. Acknowledging that their pattern of results could be in part due to the fact that this sample was well-educated and well-paid overall, the authors still note that these parents showed amazing strengths in the areas of child-rearing, couple relationships, and egalitarianism within their households. Potential advantages to the children mentioned by Johnson and O'Connor include greater social and/or emotional maturity in the children, greater openness in parent-child communication, and more positive parenting skills used by the children when they become parents.

 

The majority of the final chapter outlines directions for future research. These include conducting more research on gay fathers, studying the effect of community support (or lack thereof) on gay- and lesbian-headed families, identifying various subgroups of gay- and lesbian-headed families (perhaps based upon their different routes to parenthood), using stepfamilies with heterosexual parents as the control group if the gay and lesbian parents investigated are living with a partner, using methodologies other than self-report, and looking for particular advantages of growing up in a gay- or lesbian-headed household. Most of all the authors recommend research that focuses on the "strengths and positive outcomes of these remarkable families" (p. 177).

 

What about specific strengths and weakness of this book? One of the difficulties of studying the population of gay and lesbian parents comes from not knowing what might constitute a reasonably representative sample, as there is no good way of knowing how many gay and lesbian parents there really are. It would be fair to say, however, that this sample, although large compared to past studies and conducted nationally, is probably unrepresentative of the entire population of gay and lesbian parents in a number of important ways.

 

For example, the sample consisted entirely of volunteers recruited through advertisements in national magazines, through contact with gay and lesbian parents' support groups around the country, and through postings on Internet sites of interest to gay and lesbian parents. Volunteer samples are notorious for being unrepresentative, and this is probably amplified in a sample of individuals whose sexual orientation could lead to difficulties in their lives and the lives of their children. Participants were required to identify themselves as lesbian or gay and have at least one child under 18 living with them. Thus, not only does the study potentially omit many closeted lesbian and gay parents, but also very obviously omits noncustodial gay and lesbian parents. Generalizations should be made with caution for this and other reasons, including the fact that the parents surveyed were predominantly white, urban or suburban, and well-educated. Thus, I think the authors are a little overly exuberant in their generalizations, although their excitement about conducting the first national study of this kind is well founded.

 

Besides the results of their study, the book does not contain a great deal of new information. Many other reviews of the literature on lesbian and gay parents and their children have been written (e.g., Stacy & Biblarz, 2001) and numerous critiques of the literature and research methodology have been offered (e.g., Patterson, 1995). While this information and other observations made by the authors may be new to some readers, scholars in this area have seen it before. For example, Johnson and O'Connor remark that the greatest detriment to gay and lesbian parents and their children is societal homophobia and discrimination. In addition to the common sense in this statement, it has been dealt with in many commercial and scholarly works (e.g., Stacey & Biblarz, 2001) and I doubt it will come as a surprise to anyone.

 

One final criticism of this book is a small point and may be more of a personal preference. Johnson and O'Connor several times use the phrase "gay and lesbian families." This implies to me that the entire family is gay or lesbian rather than just the parents. While this may sometimes be the case, I think it is more often misleading and inaccurate. I prefer "lesbian- or gay-headed families," or "gay and lesbian parents and their children," or "families with gay or lesbian parents." Although these phrases are more cumbersome, they just seem more on the mark to me. As Mark Twain once said, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightening and the lightening bug!

 

The Gay Baby Boom: The Psychology of Gay Parenthood has numerous strengths. For one, it is filled with suggestions for future research and theory. In the introduction, the authors point out that it is time that psychologists and others refocus their research on families with gay or lesbian parents. Past research has been designed primarily to address the question: Are the children of gay men and lesbians "normal" (compared to children with heterosexual parents)? As other psychologists have noted (e.g., Strickland, 1995), future research on gay- and lesbian-headed families needs to focus more on process in these families and less on structure. Furthermore, research on families with gay or lesbian parents is important not only in contributing to our knowledge about these families but also in expanding the field of developmental psychology as a whole. For example, specific empirical information is needed on stepfamilies in which the parents are lesbian or gay, and on how the degree of openness or "outness" of lesbians and gay men impacts their family functioning and their children's psychosocial outcomes. More generally, exploring the processes involved in gender-typing within families with same-sex parents, the division of labor between same-sex parents, or functioning within lesbian- or gay-headed stepfamilies will provide information potentially pertinent to all families and stepfamilies.

 

Another strength of the book is that in it the authors provide us with some new terminology to help us distinguish among types of gay- and lesbian-headed households (although I think the terms could be modified in keeping with my comment earlier that terms should not refer to an entire family as lesbian or gay.) The authors use the term primary lesbian families to refer to "families that were begun within the context of a lesbian relationship" (p. 59). They contrast these primary families with lesbian (or gay) stepfamilies defined as "families that began within the context of a heterosexual relationship" (p. 86). This distinction is reminiscent of the distinction made by some scholars between primary lesbians who adopted a lesbian identity early in life and seem to have been born that way, and elective lesbians who choose same-sex attractions later in life (e.g., Ponse, in Peplau & Garnets, 2000).

 

Finally, a primary strength of the book is that it is relatively short and can be read and understood by a wide audience. Because of the wealth of research discussed in this book, it would be appropriate for educators and students (both undergraduate and graduate). Because it is research based, one might expect that the reading would be slow-going and difficult to understand for a person without advanced training in research interpretation; however, I do not think this will be the case. Throughout the book, the authors explain scientific terminology, so it seems they intended the book to be read by nonacademics. For example, they explain the difference between within- and between-group comparisons in research, and define terms such as "representative sample" and "cohort effect." The number of suggestions for future research makes it a valuable resource for social scientists.

 

The quote used in the title of this review comes from a statement made by a participant in Johnson and O'Connor's study (see p. 122). The participant was a lesbian stepmom who said, "My son outed me to his preschool. His friends were asking me if my son had any brothers or sisters and when I answered no, he said he had `a mommy, a daddy, and a Barbara.' It was all perfectly natural to him." Perhaps one of the greatest possible repercussions of the publication of this book and others like it (with a wide potential audience and positive information about gay and lesbian parents and their children) is that members of society opposed to gay and lesbian parenthood will begin to view it as "perfectly natural."

 

REFERENCES

 

Patterson, C. (1995). Lesbian and gay parenting: Summary of research findings. In APA Public Interest Directorate: Research summary on lesbian and gay parenting. Retrieved July 17, 2002, from the American Psychological Association Web site: http://www.apa.org/pi/parent.html

 

Peplau, L. A., & Garnets, L. D. (2000). A new paradigm for understanding women's sexuality and sexual orientation. Journal of Social Issues, 56, 329-350.

 

Stacey, J., & Biblarz, T. J. (2001). (How) does the sexual orientation of parents matter? American Sociological Review, 66, 159-183.

 

Strickland, B. R. (1995). Research on sexual orientation and human development: A commentary. Developmental Psychology, 31, 137-140.

 

Reviewed by Beverly R. King, Ph.D., South Dakota State University, Department of Psychology, Box 504, Scobey Hall, Brookings, SD 57007; e-mail: Beverly [email protected]
 
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