The prototypical U.S. family has historically been defined as a heterosexual arrangement that divided responsibilities by gender (Farrell, VandeVusse, and Ocobock 284). Men were responsible for earning enough money to keep the family economically viable, while women were responsible primarily for childrearing and household chores.
In the decades since WWII, the prevalence of the traditional U.S. family has decreased as nontraditional arrangements have increased (Farrell, VandeVusse, and Ocobock 284). Women now make up almost 50% of the workforce, in part because a single wage earner is often insufficient to meet the economic needs of many families. The pervasive use of contraception has increased the age at which marriage and pregnancy occurs, and cohabitation, single parents, and same-sex parents are becoming more common.
Based on the 2010 U.S. Census data, heterosexual married parents represent 67.4% of all U.S. families, while single female and male parents represent 23.9% and 8.0%, respectively (Lofquist et al. 5). Families with same-sex parents represent another 0.64%. While the prevalence of heterosexual married parents has declined by 5% between 2000 and 2010, female and male single parent families have increased by 10.6% and 27.3%, respectively. The U.S. Census Bureau did not examine the rate of increase in same-sex parented families, but these households increased by 80.4% within the same period. The estimated number of families in 2010 with same-sex parents and children under the age of 18 is 110,000 (Lofquist et al. 8).
In his article in the New York Times Magazine, John Bowe attempts to peek into the lives of same sex couples to understand how they are creating families. In particular, Bowe focuses on the role of gay fathers. This essay examines how same-sex families negotiate the roles and responsibilities of parenting in modern America.
Same-sex couples can choose to adopt or engage a surrogate mother, although in practice these avenues can be fraught with bureaucratic hurdles, and in the latter case, very expensive (Bowe). In vitro fertilization, otherwise called assisted reproductive technologies (ART), allow lesbian couples to carry a child to term, but this approach is not available to gay male couples (Farrell, VandeVusse, and Ocobock 289). The 'problem' of reproduction is therefore a major concern for gay couples and Bowe focuses on the trials and tribulations several same-sex couples have faced in their effort to bring children of their own into the world.
Based on Bowe's article, lesbian couples sometimes recruit gay males in their effort to become pregnant; however, the role these fathers eventually play in the lives the children is not well defined by society or the law. Informal contracts are sometimes created that define the expectations of both parties, but courts often pay little attention to their contents. This becomes especially problematic when these families are confronted by breakups, severe illness, or the death of a parent. For example, if the biological mother is no longer in the picture, will the court grant custody to the non-biological mother or the biological father? Currently, the biological fathers tend to have little recourse if custody was not granted in advance of a family crisis and they have not contributed financially to the costs of raising the child. Lesbian couples often require donor dads to relinquish any parental rights in advance.
The quandary concerning the role and responsibilities of a gay donor or gay dad is the focus of Bowe's article, although at least one of the examples discussed could be characterized as more quagmire than quandary. When compared to the traditional heterosexual family, the concept of a lesbian couple becoming parents seems straightforward. In contrast, the role and responsibilities of the gay father seems to lie somewhere between an anonymous sperm donor and a divorced dad. In contrast to traditional couples, the roles and responsibilities are therefore defined by the parties involved rather than society.
Another aspect of the relationship a gay father has with the lesbian parents is its fluid or flexible nature. As Bowe discuses, a father that was content to remain in the background suddenly became fully engaged when his child became severely ill. In another example provided by Bowe, the gay father found himself being welcomed into the life of his child after the lesbian couple split up. Prior to the breakup, he had been kept at a distance and was therefore forced to take what he could get in terms of visitations.
This is in line with the statement by Farrell and colleagues: "The 'natural' facts of reproduction have been rendered opaque with the advent of assisted reproduction, with kinship relations and identities open to negotiation and reinterpretation rather than fixed." (292). Whether or not same-sex couples have chosen to use assisted reproductive technologies to have a biological child, the result is the same; negotiation and renegotiation of the roles and responsibilities seems to define these families.
The Advantages of Same-Sex Parented Families
The fluid nature of these families seems to provide an expanded emotional and financial safety net for the children. In addition to the traditional safety nets provided by grandparents, aunts, and uncles, lesbian families who choose to include gay fathers have expanded the options the child has should catastrophe strike. Bowe describes an ordeal a family went through when their child became seriously ill. Everyone chipped in to help, including the gay father and his partner. Frankly, there does not seem to be a downside to this arrangement, especially if all parties are actively engaged in the child's life in a caring role.
Probably the biggest hurdle faced by these families is social acceptance. Of primary concern is the psychological welfare of children growing up in gay families, because they may face hostility or ridicule when they try to explain their families to classmates and neighborhood kids. This concern was barely mentioned in Bowe's article, which suggests it may not be a major issue for these families. With the divorce rate so high and the prevalence of non-traditional families representing 32.5% of all family households, maybe having 'two plus' gay parents is, as one gay dad suggested in Bowe's article, 'lucky'.
The intentional decision by same-sex couples to have a biological child is also exceptional when compared to how many traditional families begin. Rather than a child being born due to an 'accident', a felt obligation, or tradition, these children are planned, sometimes extensively. Bowe quotes a New York University sociology professor which suggests that same-sex couples decide to have a biological child out of "… deep, and frankly conventional, desire to have children." The children born to these families are therefore, in many cases, brought into the world for the right reasons, not because a contraceptive failed or felt pressure from would-be grandparents.
The Disadvantages of Same-Sex Parented Families
Probably the most obvious disadvantage to same-sex parenting arrangements with a biological child is the anguish the gay donor dads may feel when faced with a less than ideal arrangement. As Bowe asks, "Why would any man, gay or straight, choose a kind of fatherhood that would seem to curtail both its joys and responsibilities?" For biological fathers who have renounced their parental rights, their options are few to none. Legislation that would address such issues, according to Bowe, has not kept up with a changing society. The donor dads are therefore forced to trust the lesbian couple enough that any agreements made will be honored, but as Bowe relates, this does not always go as planned.
Donor dads may also feel redundant. As one donor dad admitted to Bowe, with so many parents around he wonders if his child sees him as someone special in her life. The sense of alienation from the child's life could tend to wear on anyone's ability to stay engaged, which could have long-term unintended consequences. The child could miss one of the more special and important relationships in their life and the donor dad may become bitter and distant.
From a broader perspective, same-sex couples tend not to be sanctioned by state law. As of the writing of Bowe's article, seven states had enacted amendments banning gay marriage. The lack of official recognition of these partnerships has a number of consequences, including guardianship issues, health insurance coverage, and custody if something should happen to the biological mother. These amendments also communicate to these families that society is indifferent, or at worst intolerant, towards these arrangements. These children grow up under these circumstances and what impact this has on their sense of place in society is unknown.
Same-sex parenting families seem to be no different in many ways from more traditional families with heterosexual married parents. If state laws permitted same-sex marriage and thus recognized these unions in an equivalent manner under the law, then the only difference would be how they are treated by other members of the communities in which they reside. Although several of the gay parents in Bowe's story indicated that they were concerned about their children's ability to negotiate…
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