Being a parent is difficult. There’s no manual to follow (like the guidebooks in foreign languages that accompany every set of directions to, say, assemble a bike), so most parents have to make it up as they go. Sure, they consult the sage advice of parents and grandparents. Some might even purchase books from Amazon or other online or traditional retailers in order to determine if how they are parenting is scarring their children.
But for gay parents the task of child rearing can sometimes be more difficult. When two parents of the same sex raise children together, guidance is something almost non-existent except in bigger urban areas with larger gay populations and therefore a greater chance of running across other gay parents at the park, or daddy and me classes, or even in the diaper aisle at the local grocery store.
As a gay man with a partner of 8 years, we have raised our three biological children together. And though there have been ups and downs, I wanted to compile this list for other gay parents out there in hope that my experience will help.
I have no academic credentials in regards to child development, and I do not claim to be an expert. These tips are solely from the experiences and observations of a gay parent.
1. Love the child for the miracle he or she is, but don’t overcompensate for your trials in becoming a parent.
Many gay couples often spend several agonizing months, if not years, searching for the perfect solution to have children. Whether you decide on surrogacy, in vitro fertilization, adoption, or actual sexual intercourse with a member of the opposite sex (for those of us who actually married members of the opposite sex first), the time and energy spent in finding a suitable donor/birth mother/partner can cause many gay parents to spoil the child rotten once the child actually enters the home. Children don’t need Gucci purses (no matter how fabulous she looks holding it) or Armani shirts (even though he may look strapping in it). They will out grow these items in a few months, and then want bigger and more expensive items like a Louis Vutton clutch or a pair of jeans that cost more than your car payment.
Buying everything your child wants is a trap many gay parents fall into since they spent so much time and frenetic energy trying to create or obtain their child.
Children are indeed a miracle and should receive abundant amounts of love and affection, but that doesn’t translate to getting everything they want whenever they want. Believe it or not, children respond well to boundaries. They may not like it, but saying “no” is sometimes in the best interest of their personal development into an adult and it often teaches them a lesson about life. For example, money doesn’t grow on trees, and if they want something, they just might have to earn it themselves.
2. Just because you’re out of the closet doesn’t mean your children are ready to fling open the door.
Coming out of the closet was a difficult process for most of us, and we have no desire to run back into hiding, where many of the conservative politicians hang out these days. However, our children are a different story. They are faced with their own set of problems and social structures at school, and being different in school can be cause for ridicule. While I’m not advocating parents rushing back into the closet, I am suggesting we don’t force our kids to be as open about their parents’ sexuality as we are. Did you want to talk about your parents’ sex lives when you were growing up? Gross!
If your child is not comfortable with telling the world that they have two mommies or daddies, don’t take it personally. Your child has to adjust to life and figure out for his/herself how to incorporate the differences of their home life with their classmates. They will figure it out, and they will be fine with it. Just let them do it at a pace that is comfortable for them.
3. Create a social network with other gay families.
This ties into the previous tip. Providing your children with playmates/friends who also have gay parents will allow them to see other families just like yours. What child wouldn’t want to meet another pair of mommies who built their own house or another pair of daddies who perfectly accessorize each outfit?
Feeling like part of a crowd is important for children just as it was important to you. When they don’t feel as if they stick out, it bolsters their self-confidence and allows them to simply be. When they are free to be themselves, they can grow into the strong, independent, self-assured adults we want them to be.
4. Cultivate a circle of friends who are not only gay but straight.
While it’s important for you to show other families like your own to your children, it’s also important for them to see you interact with other heterosexual adults, who are completely accepting of your gay family. This will demonstrate to your children that there are people out there who are not like your family but who still love you and them because let’s face it, the majority of the world isn’t as fabulous as a gay family.
This provides your children with an even broader framework for moving forward in their developing years, when they are able to integrate not only the fact that there are others in the world like them (children of gay parents) but other people in the world who see nothing strange or unusual about your family.
5. Let your children fight their own battles.
This is a tough one for any parent, gay or straight.
When our children face obstacles, bullies, or conflicts, we want to charge right into the fray, pick them up, fend off their attackers, and make everything okay. While doing so is perfectly acceptable if your child is attacked or in danger of serious harm, not every conflict needs your intervention. Children must learn how to settle differences for themselves. In many of our childhoods, before we even understood what being gay was, we were used to being on the wrong end of a conflict or being picked on for no reason. We certainly don’t want that for our children. We want better. But resolving their conflicts is practice for doing so as an adult. After all, you are the intensely fabulous person you are because of those conflicts. Don’t take that important skill away from them by always riding up on your horse to save the day.
6. Be affectionate with your partner in front of your child.
Some gay parents wonder if displays of affection might somehow influence their children to be gay and let’s face it, we get enough criticism from conservative radicals about “recruiting” as it is. But watching our parents hug or kiss didn’t turn us straight, so watching us be affectionate with each other won’t make them necessarily gay.
It’s important for children to see you and your partner in a loving and affectionate relationship. How you and your partner treat each other will imprint itself on their future relationships. They will search for the kind of love that the two of you have displayed at home, so not only show love but be the kind of partner to each other that you would like your child to one day find.
7. Embrace diverse populations as you expect to be embraced.
Open your children to the wondrous cornucopia of cultures that exist in the world and put a stop to the catty judgments we may have spouted in our youth. We don’t want the world to hate us, so it’s important we don’t pass on any prejudices we might have to our children. Instead, show them that there are others in the world who don’t live like they do or even like other Americans do. Open dialogues about families in Africa, Europe, Asia, South America, etc. Let your child see how truly unique every individual is. This will foster a deeper respect for differences between people, cultures, and lifestyles within your children and keep them open minded.
8. Be a “normal” family.
So often gay families feel pressured to be better than straight families around us. After all, we feel we have a lot to prove to those who want to prevent gay couples from marrying and/or adopting children. The weight of that pressure can be the cause for an empty wine bottle or two, but it doesn’t have to be. The best way to show up the dissenters who exist in the world is simply being normal, and all families have their quirks and their spats.
What do you mean you want to watch football? A Bette Davis marathon is on!
There will be times when you won’t like your partner and he/she won’t like you. There will be days when you want to strangle your children or when your children will want nothing to do with you.
That happens in every family.
However, those spats make your family stronger. When your daughter gets upset at you for dressing as Lady Gaga for the school Halloween carnival, you will learn to tone down the costume for next year and maybe do 80’s Madonna instead. Still, you work through the differences, you adjust your relationships, and you grow. Families don’t remain static; they are dynamic and change over time. So don’t aim for perfection; shoot for the middle ground. That’s where everyone else is who is happy.
9. Being fit was important when you were single; being fit is important for your children.
Most of us remember the insane diets we went on in order to remain “club thin.” We had to attract the guys or gals at whatever scene was hot in our particular neck of the woods. But now that we are partnered, happy, and not going out as much, remaining healthy is still important. Good eating habits and proper exercise instill the importance of healthy living that your children will carry through to adulthood. Sometimes fitness and good nutrition take a backseat to convenient fast food because parents’ lives are hectic, but eating out excessively and not modeling a proper outlook on physical education are a disservice to your children.
10. Those spa days you used to love or the evenings when you only hung out with friends are even more vital.
Taking care of yourself is important to being a good parent. Don’t sacrifice all of your needs for your children. You need to replenish your reserves, and sometimes that means a night or even a weekend off. Go pamper yourself at a spa. Head over to your friend’s house for drinks. Have a good time and let your hair down or put that old wig back on!
Not only does this give you a break from your children, it gives them a break from you. They need that too! When you are reunited, not only do you appreciate each other more but you’ll be ready to tackle the next set of crises that always seem to pop up. Just as you can’t pour anything out of an empty container, you also need to be refilled. You have to be replenished to be able to dole out the love, discipline, support, and guidance your family needs. We aren’t an endless bottle of wine, even though after some tough nights of parenting, we might need it!