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Modern Families: Lesbian Couples' Path to Parenthood

An increasing number of lesbian couples are using reproductive technology to become parents. Not having suffered the heartaches of infertility treatment, they generally come to the process hopeful and thankful that there is a way for them to achieve the dream of parenthood. The social landscape for lesbian couples, particularly those in large urban areas, has changed significantly in recent years. Over half of Americans believe that gay/lesbians should be able to marry. At the same time there are still many legal barriers which are particularly frustrating when people have a family in mind. For example, without a marriage license in the state of residence, the parent who did not give birth has to adopt her child to have the legal status of parent.

For some couples it is clear who will carry the child. Other couples need to negotiate this based on age and medical history. A subset of women choose to have one partner carry the other partner’s egg. This has the obvious advantage of involving both partners and the disadvantage of making it more complicated and expensive.

The “other mother” has a challenging role that has no road map. Certainly her inclusion in all parts of the decision making is key for her feeling integral to the process. Couples report that they benefit from having well articulated and flexible expectations about roles. The first year, though wonderful, can also be trying for the mother who did not give birth because the attention is so focused on the baby and the birth mother, particularly if she is nursing. The mother who did not give birth to her child may understandably feel jealous and sidelined both inside her relationship and by others who may not know how to construe her role. With good communication and the passage of time, couples work out their unique way of relating within the new family triad.

For better or for worse, all parents and parents to be have to rework their relationship with their parents. Couples will want to think carefully about how to best handle the news of a pregnancy. Families who have not accepted their daughter’s sexual orientation and/ or female partner will have to revisit the topic when their child or child’s partner becomes pregnant. Some families become more open when a child enters the family system. Other families continue to struggle and it can create heartache and confusion in the midst of an otherwise joyous time.

Because of the variety of hurdles, couples will want to not only work on their family relationships, but also build a chosen family of support. This could include close friends, colleagues, mental health professionals and groups as well as online support through blogs and chat rooms. Eventually it will be important to build a support system of families built in the same way both for the benefit of the parents who can learn from each others experiences and for the children who will benefit from knowing that there are other families like theirs.

Many couples begin the path to parenthood with the idea of using a known sperm donor. If the relationship with the donor is solid and predictable, this can have benefits for all. However people often worry that one or more of the parties - ultimately including the child - will alter their expectations. Because of this, anonymous sperm banks often seem simpler.

Some couples report that accessing a sperm bank for the first time is a surreal experience, leaving them with the initial illusion that they can order a child to specifications. Other couples feel overwhelmed by the number of choices. Couples may find it useful if they begin by identifying what is most important to them- physical attributes, health, interests, and values.

Prospective parents will also want to consider whether they want to choose a donor who has consented to be contacted if the child is interested after age 18. Trying to think back to how it feels to be a teenager will help in making that decision. In the end, the most important variable in choosing the donor may be whether the prospective parents like the person. A genuinely positive opinion about the donor gets communicated to children in subtle ways. Many children are interested in how the person who is half of their genetic make up was chosen so writing down how that choice was made is worthwhile. It is one way of many ways of beginning to prepare for the myriad questions that a child may have about his or her conception and genetic heritage.

The research about how children in two mother families fare has been positive. The children of lesbian moms are as well adjusted and perform as well as their peers in heterosexual families. At the same time, the children will have some extra challenges to deal with. For some children these may be daunting at certain stages of development; for others they will be very minor themes. Temperament, life experiences and parental support all play a role in how a child responds to these challenges. Children may experience confusion or a sense of loss about the way their family was built. They may have an interest in their many half siblings or they may experience prejudice about the way their family was built. Parents can best help their children by simply listening and supporting them in their quest to better understand themselves and their origins. They can also help them by seeking out other lesbian or gay families.

One of the family’s main tasks will be to rejoice in the strengths that come from having a child so intentionally while acknowledging that their children will likely have some extra issues to deal with. Finally parents will want to help their children place their kind of family squarely in the broad and expanding spectrum of modern American families.

Contributed by:
Michelle Hester, MSW
Thanks to Alison Gerig MSW, Women’s Therapy Center, Philadelphia, PA

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