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Talking about gay parenting is difficult because gay parents and their children have an uncommon experience, but there’s nothing fundamentally different about gay parenting. At the end of the day, both data and experience demonstrate that parenting is parenting is parenting — obstacles, milestones, and outcomes are the same regardless of sexual orientation. Still, becoming a parent is often a far more involved process for gay couples, who have to clear a number of logistical and financial hurdles together in order to prepare to adopt, plan for surrogacy, or arrange a foster parenting situation. Before gay couples even have the opportunity to be good parents, they have to learn to be exceptional life planners.
“The effort and courage to become a father and be a primary caregiver in a gay relationship is something very specific and nothing short of revolutionary,” says University of Cambridge researcher Marcin Smietana. Why does becoming a gay father require so much courage? Smietana explains that the financial, emotional, and social elements of the process are uniquely inseparable.
The First Bump in the Road: Surrogacy and Adoption
Adoption is the most common way gay men become parents and a primary example of the challenges gay dads face. The average American adoption costs between $8,000 and $40,000 depending on the use and price of agency services, but tends to cluster toward the high end. International adoptions predictably cost around $30,000 and involve multiple agencies and legal work. That means checks need to get cut while future parents tussle with the specific gut check that adoption engenders.
As for those couples with enough money to spring for surrogacy — the process usually costs more than $100,000 all in — they face a slog of paperwork, social worker visits, psychological evaluations, and personal disclosures. And that’s just the stuff everyone knows.
The Paternity Puzzle for Gay Dads
Where the government mandates that working women be given access to maternity leave, paternity leave programs remain relatively rare in America. This creates a situation where gay couples are required to handle expenses associated with adoption or surrogacy and taking care of a newborn while also trying to negotiate a sustainable arrangement with bosses that may or may not support them. Add the context that adoptive children are often emerging from difficult experiences and the situation gets even more trying. Rewarding? Absolutely. But also difficult for men who don’t fit into the traditionally female “primary caregiver” role specified in many benefits packages that include leave and other parental perks.
The lack of access to leave and benefits exacerbates financial and emotional stress. Gay couples still in the planning phase, reacting to positive news about adoption, or waiting for a surrogate to give birth all need to have a lot of expectation-setting conversations. They need to be forward about their priorities, expectations, and limitations, especially when it comes to the time and money it takes to raise a child. They need to be good at assessing their own capabilities honestly and asking for help.
Gay Parents and Community Groups
One of the rarely discussed costs of gay parenthood — a happy cost it should be said — is that same-sex parents spend more time on average working with community groups. Part of this is due to involvement with groups explicitly designed to support the gay community, but this trend is also a result of an apparent desire for social capital. This may make socialization easier for their children as they grow up, but it also takes time, which is hard to come by for any parent.
Community involvement is part of a planning process that straight parents can sympathize with but don’t experience in the same way. Same-sex couples need to research schools and pediatricians not just for reputation and quality but also to determine those institutions’ history of openness to homosexual couples. As they prepare to raise their children, gay fathers need to be aware of the potential for prejudice. They do this both by managing external interactions and by speaking openly to their children early on.
The Kids Are All Right
There are more gay dads than ever. Back in 1976, an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 children in the U.S. were being raised by gay and lesbian biological parents. Though different groups surface different numbers, there’s reason to believe that roughly six million children are being raised by same-sex couples today. Researchers have shown that there’s no discernible difference in outcomes for children of heterosexual and homosexual couples.
One reason gay fathers are so successful, says Dr. Joshua Sparrow, director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center in the Division of Developmental Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, is that they are actually biological fathers in a traditional sense — a fact that is poorly understood outside of medical circles. As soon as they hold their kid and think “this is my kid!” gay dads’ bodies, just like biological fathers’ bodies, start transforming. “Every interaction between parent and child activates neurochemistry,” explains Dr. Sparrow. “Their biology and your biology are both parts of the experience.” Fatherhood changes both lives and brains, even when social and business conventions don’t recognize that fact.
Gay parenting may be the same as straight parenting, but same-sex couples have to move heaven and Earth to level that playing field. They do. And they do it by working together, making plans, and executing them. Because they have to, gay fathers model all the behaviors that can help any family create a happy home and give their kid the best chance to be good at life.
“I see more and more of these young men with their kids at pride marches, conferences, and every day,” Smietana says. “The cultural change is telling. Seeing more and more gay fathers in the street will inspire more and more people to have kids of their own.”
This article was produced in partnership with our friends at New York Life, who are committed to helping families be happy, successful, and good at life. Learn more at nylife.com.