In my long career providing therapy for gay couples (28 years in 2020), I have fairly often worked with gay male couples who want to discuss the option of having kids together. When the Supreme Court legalized marriage equality on the national level, it prompted many gay male couples to get married, and for some, they wanted to expand their “two-person family unit” (as I call couples) into “more”, with the addition of one (or many more) children, through a variety of options to become fathers legally, domestically, and socially.
Preparing for Parenthood
When any couple, but here we focus on gay men, starts to discuss the option of having children, we must first consider the status of the relationship. Ideally, the relationship between the two partners (and perhaps more in a polyamorous family arrangement) needs to be sound. Many people would recommend that the partners be together for at least a year or more, and they enjoy a reasonably stable day to day life of health, finances, safety, and security in where they live. They should be committed to each other and to their potential children for the very long haul (such as when a baby reaches young adulthood, or even beyond). They should have a reasonably stable physical health, mental health, relationship health, and “domestic” health of housing, food, access to medical care, and an income commensurate with their needs (and preferably with a comfortable cushion beyond that).
The home should be free of domestic abuse or violence of any kind. The home should be free of any untreated drug or alcohol abuse or dependency, and free of any stressors that might interfere with properly caring for children of any age, and free of any conditions where child abuse or neglect could occur, involving the local department of children and family services. And the home should be free of these problems or stressors for a while. There should be reasonable access to school resources, public or private, or perhaps daycare resources.
The status of the relationship should be clear, with the partners either legally protected through private contracts, being registered domestic partners, or legally married. (Some single gay men have children, too, but for purposes here, we’re going to use a two-person gay male couple, since this is the situation I’ve worked with most in clinical practice).
Unlike most straight couples, who can “have babies” simply by foregoing birth control and having sex (barring medical fertility issues), gay men who want children need to have an opportunity to have cisgender, fertile women involved, one or more. For example, one woman might donate her egg(s), while another woman carries the baby to term after the egg is fertilized with sperm from one or the other of the male partners (some gay male couples “mix” the sperm and let Nature do the rest of which one’s sperm gets to the egg first). Or, in the case of infant adoption or foster-care-to-adoption, the child(ren) would have been borne by the mother already.
It’s important for each partner in the couple to do some soul-searching early in the process, even independent of your partner, on why you want to consider becoming a parent.
Reflective Questions to Ask Yourself
Asking yourself questions that you ponder, silently, or even journal about, or process verbally in your own individual therapy, is important. Here are some of those self-reflection questions:
1. Do you want to have give kids because you want to “give” to the next generation of people in the country/planet?
2. Does any part of you want kids because, for gay men, they are a “status symbol” that you could afford about the $100,000 it takes to have kids through an egg donor, surrogate mother, etc., like driving a luxury car or having an expensive house?
3. Are you invested in the idea of propagating your family name for another generation?
4. Are you reacting to pressure from your own parent(s) who “want grandkids?”
5. Are you responding to heteronormative pressure, where if you can’t be a straight guy and married with kids, you’ll be a gay guy and married with kids instead, so that you are “approximating” the heterosexual “traditional family?” Is that because you want to, or you feel you have to?
6. Do you want kids because you want the chance for a “do-over” after your own childhood was unhappy, and having kids lets you have a better childhood by living vicariously through them?
7. Do you want someone to be there to care for you in your elderly years, because you fear being elderly, infirm, or alone?
8. Do you have the emotional capacity of affect regulation (controlling your emotions), frustration tolerance, being able to sacrifice without resentment, delayed gratification, compromise, setting limits, and other emotional maturity that parenting would demand?
9. Are you confident that you love and trust your partner enough to have kids with them? Do you have any secret doubts about your relationship that would make making such a long-term commitment with them uncomfortable? Are you hiding anything major from them? Do you suspect that he’s hiding anything major from you?
10. If you are an abuse survivor, do you feel safe that you would not repeat with your child the abusive behavior that was modeled for you? What would you do if you found yourself reacting that way? Would you know how to reach out for help, for yourself, or for your child?
11. Are you prepared that your child might be very different from you in personality or values, share few interests, or even reject you? How would you handle this?
12. Do you have any “expectations” of your child up-front that you would resent him/her for if they didn’t meet those expectations?
13. Are you prepared for raising a child that turns out to have special needs? Are you prepared for a child who might be gay, straight, or trans? What if this manifested in a way that you were not expecting? What if your child was extraordinarily gifted or a prodigy?
14. Could you defer your own preferences for the sake of your child’s best interests?
All of these answers might fall on a “range” from yes to no, and it’s OK if you have some doubts or misgivings. Couples therapy, or individual therapy, can help you identify and “work through” some of these questions that might need the cognitive and emotional facilitation of a therapist.
Status of Your Relationship
When you and your partner(s) reflect on your relationship, how “ready” do you feel for children? Are you co-habitating yet? You might want to live together for a while before considering having children. Have you discussed the status of your relationship? Do you both “see” your relationship in the same way? Have you discussed (at least for now) whether you want monogamy (and its many variations), or Consensual Non-Monogamy (and its many variations, something that I, as a therapist, am especially credentialed in, as formally trained sex therapist).
Beyond the emotional life of your relationship, what is your home environment like? Do you have the space for a child where you currently live? How are your finances, month to month? How are your prospects for your long-term financial stability?
If you were raising children, could you move if you had to, or wanted to, for a new job (for example)?
How would you care for your child(ren) if you were to break up, or if one of you were widowed? What would happen to the child(ren) in a case like that?
Making It Happen
Have you and your partner discussed what your (adopted) child must, or must not, be? What about adopting an older child? Or one with special needs? Or one of a different race or ethnicity from either of you?
Do each of you know, if you’re considering surrogacy, if you have adequate sperm count or quality for this? Are you OK with surrogacy if only one of you can provide sperm for the fertilization? Do you know how you would get information on medical fertility issues or consultation?
Are each of you aware of your family’s medical history, or any kind of genetic counseling issues?
Do you have knowledge of resources for child care, or local schools?
Have you and your partner discussed potential differences between raising children now, in this generation, versus when you were both young? Have you discussed how parenting might differ for gay versus straight parents?
Have you discussed how you might answer questions from your children, or others, when they ask about “where is mother”?
Do you have a social support system for when you need information or advice on raising children?
Have you discussed any major blocks or conflicts to becoming parents, such as not having time due to going back to school, having obligations as a caregiver to your own aging parent(s), or meeting the demands of your career(s)?
Have you discussed how raising a child is a long-term commitment, certainly until the child is legal age (18), but often beyond this, through college years, and probably for a lifetime?
Have you discussed how you might cope if your child became to not share your values, interests, morals, or ethics?
How would the two of you identify what you don’t know? How would you go about getting your questions answered? Do you know other gay dads who have “been there before” who could be sources of gay-specific behavioral modeling or help?
How would you handle problems that come up from things you never thought to ask about?
Risks and Rewards
In working with gay male couples with children, there are several challenges that I’ve seen repeatedly that come up for which the couple wants support:
1. Balancing the “mostly breadwinner” versus “mostly home-maker/parent” roles – I’ve seen gay male couples that have children (surrogacy or adoption) where one partner earns more and is considered the “primary breadwinner” who pays for most major expenses (housing, etc.), while the other partner earns less and has a more domestic role, not unlike an old-fashioned heterosexist arrangement that I call “Lucy and Ricky Syndrome” after the classic TV series, “I Love Lucy.” However, by middle age, someone who has been primarily a stay-at-home dad might want to expand his horizons and have more for himself, such as time, social relationships, and professional exploration of opportunities, and the couple has had to work through this.
2. Some gay couples open their relationship sexually after some years of monogamy, and they need support for what this “looks like” in practical terms when they have obligations (especially around the use of their free time) to their primary partner and children.
3. Needing support for how to reconcile differences in how to parent, from a range of very permissive to very strict.
4. Needing support for the feelings of fear, anger, grief, frustration, envy, helplessness, hopes, and disappointments of coping with a child who is ill or in some kind of trouble.
6. Needing support to defend against “critics” who devalue or undermine same-sex parenting, and the myth that children are somehow harmed by this.
The gay male couples I’ve worked with in my practice, or who were friends, describe (candidly) that raising kids as a gay couple is a series of both risks and rewards, with the rewards outweighing the challenges. Having children can be rewarding in watching how children grow, and how we have all kinds of skills that get evoked in us that we never knew we had. While many report short-term frustrations, I’ve never had a gay couple with kids who seriously regrets their decision to have them. The rewards are too numerous and too great on the “plus” side.
However, one thing I have noticed that is associated with gay male couples both having kids and being overall successful with it, for all concerned, is money. I’ve never really seen a middle class or a working class gay male couple with kids, and while I’m sure they exist, they might not be accessing therapy in a private practice by a long-term specialist. However, even when I worked in low-cost non-profits or in public clinics providing therapy for gay men, I didn’t see this. It’s perhaps an unspoken but important idea that having kids takes money – and a lot of it – for larger housing, clothes, schooling (especially private, from day care to college!), recreation/vacations, respite care (such as nannies or baby-sitters), tutors, sports or arts hobbies, health care, holidays, you name it. This concerns me, because this doesn’t emphasize a gay/straight issue, it becomes a socio-economic class issue. And I think it’s troubling if we surmise that only well-off gay male couples have kids. For those who are middle class or lower, special counseling needs about what kinds of supports (such as health insurance programs for kids, like Medi-Cal in California) are important.
The “New” Definition of Family – That Always Was
The truth is, the “non-traditional” family that is something other than one man, one woman, and multiple kids that conform tightly to gender role stereotypes and heteronormativity, has always had its exceptions in society, including in American society, in all locations, and in all ages. And yet openly same-sex headed families, while becoming more and more common (as I’m often told by gay dads), is not something that would have been common when I was child, for example.
In my practice and in my book, Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want!, I promote the idea that everyone has the prerogative as an empowered adult to create their own circumstances that they want to live under. This includes the right to be a parent if you want to be, but also to validate that it is OK not to be. Not every person, and not every couple, is “cut out” to be a parent, or doesn’t want to be. When gay men reject the heteronormativity of being heterosexual (which they don’t have a choice in), they are under no social obligation to be “heterosexually adjacent” by having a “heteronormative-looking” life with one partner and with children. You are not “less of a man” for being gay, and you’re not “less of a man” for choosing not to have children. Many or most gay men have some kind of paternal instinct to contend with, even if they decide not to have children (my article on that is here).
What I think is important in your life as an individual, and your collective life as a couple (or polycule), is that you are considering your options very consciously, and mindfully, and becoming aware of what pressures or influences you are operating under, making the “unconscious motives” more conscious, so if you decide to have children, or decide not to, you are making an empowered choice that’s right for you. Not only “can” you make this decision for yourself, you need to; it’s no one else’s job except for you and your partner(s), and the decision to have children needs to be unanimous to work; if there is even one “nay” vote, the motion doesn’t carry, because the expectations are too great to be forced on any of us. And this decision – having kids, or not – can be an important component of basic relationship compatibility with your partner that needs to be resolved. Unfortunately, a serious disagreement of wanting children versus not can lead to relationship breakup, leaving the partners to find more compatible partners on this issue alone (this was a story line featuring lesbian characters on “Supergirl” on TV.)
If you or your partner need support on these issues, please consider individual therapy, couples therapy, or individual/relationship coaching. We at GayTherapyLA are here to help. Text/call 310-339-5778, or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, for more information or to book your appointment.