STEPPARENTING IN GAY AND LESBIAN FAMILIES: Integrity, Safety, And The Real World Out There
By Mary F. Whiteside, Ph.D. and Patricia Campbell, M.D.*
STEPFAMILIES, Summer 1993
Important among the wide variety of stepfamilies are the families formed by the same sex partners with children from a previous marriage or a previous relationship. Gay and lesbian stepfamilies bring to their system both the usual stepfamily issues and the additional challenges faced by homosexual individuals, partners, and parents in a heterosexual, homophobic society. These sources of stress often interact resulting in problems with communication leading to difficulties with roles, identities, and co-parenting alliances.
For example, Adrienne, a high school teacher, is concerned about the reports coming home from the elementary school about her partner's daughter, Stacey. Stacey's mother, Elaine, defends Stacey and thinks Adrienne has too high expectations. As they discuss their concerns, both know it would be helpful if they talked jointly with Stacey's teacher, so that they could both ask questions and hear what he has to say. However, Adrienne has not come out to her employer or colleagues about her sexual orientation. She is concerned about a case in a neighboring school district in which a colleague lost his job when a parent reported that he was gay. She also feels vulnerable because she is new to this system and has not yet gained tenure. If they present themselves to Stacey's teacher as a couple, Adrienne's job may be at risk. Elaine is also concerned because Stacey's teacher seems to be very conservative and traditional in the material he presents to the children. She worries about his prejudices making it difficult for him to treat Stacey fairly.
For Adrienne and Elaine to move forward in consolidating their parenting alliance means increasing their exposure to risks outside the family. To maintain discretion and privacy limits the help they can be to one another and to Stacey. In addition, the school system's assumption that children come from two parent, heterosexual families disconfirms Stacey's everyday experience and clouds the picture as they all try to sort out what her behavior means.
The general issue of coming out - to oneself, to one's partner, to the partner's former spouse, to the children, to the extended family, to the school, job, religious institutions, neighbors --is complex, but essential to the understanding of gay and lesbian families. Openness about issues so key to one's identity allows a sense of self-integrity and honesty within significant relationships. In a review of the research literature about gay and lesbian families, Patterson (Child Development, 1992) reports that lesbian mothers' sense of psychological well-being was correlated with the extent to which they were open about their lesbian identity with employers, ex-husbands, and children. Moreover, children whose fathers were neutral or positive about maternal lesbianism reported higher self-esteem than those whose fathers were rejecting. Some of the advantages cited for children with homosexual parents were: facilitating acceptance of their own sexuality, higher tolerance and empathy for others, and increased exposure to new viewpoints.
On the other hand, particularly in stepfamilies, one cannot be selective about where one comes out. There can be at times severe penalties for doing so. Coming out in one area may have impact across the board. For example, honesty and exchange of information is extremely important in developing effective co-parenting across households. However, an ex-spouse may use this information in an angry, retaliatory way, jeopardizing custody agreements, jobs, and relationships with extended family. Even without angry intent, the information may be revealed to others without thinking, placing the couple at risk.
The lives and the integrity of relationships of the children themselves may be at risk. To whom can they honestly share the realities and relationships of their day to day lives? Will a slip of the tongue lead to a custody dispute, harassment by other children and adults, or further isolation of the family unit? These children not only need to manage information within the family system but also with the outside world. Further, what are the children taught in church and school about families and how do they integrate this into their own lives? Development of cross household co-parenting relationships can be delicate and fragile in its own right. When one adds in the emotional preconceptions and reactiveness associated with homosexuality it can be difficult to figure out what issues are interfering with progress.
In our previous example, if Elaine doesn't tell Stacey's father about Stacey's school problems, is it because she fears he will initiate a custody battle against her because he feels her lesbian relationship is immoral? Does the issue of homosexuality mask her continuing need to control her exposure to him because of her old feelings about the marriage, still unresolved? Is her fear realistic? How can Adrienne be helpful to her in sorting out these issues when she has had little opportunity to become acquainted with Stacey's father at family events?
There is significant risk in not coming out also. The couple that dares not will not know the supports that may well exist in their social, familial, and occupational relationships. These relationships cannot deepen if the other does not know who you are. There is much potential for growth in the family, the extended family and friends. Hiding consumes vast energy which otherwise can be freed for creativity and growth.
Members of gay and lesbian stepfamilies need to intentionally weigh these complex issues on an ongoing basis and need to determine what balance will work for their particular situation. They cannot pretend that a homophobic system is going to be accepting. They also must evaluate the limitations on relationships which come from having to hide critical information about oneself. As with stepfamily issues generally, social supports are crucial in this process. P-Flag (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is a national organization which is very helpful. Many religious bodies and professional organizations have gay-lesbian affirmative groups. Can SAA do the same?
* Mary F. Whiteside, Ph.D., is a family therapist and mediator; Patricia Campbell, M.D., is a child psychiatrist. Both are affiliated with the Ann Arbor Center for the Family, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
A brief bibliography for children and parents:
- Elwin, R. And Paulse, M. Asha's Mums. Toronto, Ontario: Women's Press, 1990.
- Griffin, C.S., et al. Beyond Acceptance: Parents of Lesbians and Gays Talk About Their Experiences. New York: St. Martins Press, 1986.
- Rafkin, L. Different Mothers. Pittsburgh: Cleis Press. 1990.