Do gay couples have happier kids?

Studies show that the traditional nuclear family is not better. It's a dying model -- and that's a good thing

Topics: Parenting, Gay Marriage, Books, Jessica Valenti,

Do gay couples have happier kids? (Credit: iStockphoto/elkor)

When Rebekah Spicuglia got pregnant at seventeen, she says abortion wasn’t an option. “I was raised by a fanatically religious family. I probably considered adoption briefly.” Her boyfriend was a new one, and it was the first sexual relationship she had been involved in. So Spicuglia moved in with her boyfriend, and ten days after giving birth to her son, Oscar, they got married.

Spicuglia’s marriage didn’t last long; she says they were very different people. After he came back from a trip to Mexico, she says, there was a rift between them. So she moved from their home in Santa Maria, California, to go to college at the University of California at Berkeley. Up until then, their parenting responsibilities had been quite equal, she says. Oscar lived with her, but her ex was always involved and had even traveled for several months in Mexico with Oscar. So when she moved to Berkeley, it didn’t faze her to make a verbal agreement that Oscar would stay in Santa Maria with his father and his father’s family until Spicuglia secured family housing.

But it took a long time for her name to come up in the family-housing lottery. “I was in school full time, working thirty hours a week, and was four hours away from home,” Spicuglia told me. Because she had to work on the weekends at a restaurant, she was able to see Oscar only about once a month. She says it was odd: “I felt like a parent, but I didn’t look like a parent to anyone around me.” By the time Spicuglia finally got family housing, it was over a year later.

When she told her ex that she was ready for Oscar to come live with her, he said no. “He told me that he loved him and felt he could take better care of him since I would be in school and he had extended family there.” He also told Spicuglia that he wouldn’t let her see Oscar until she agreed to this custody arrangement. “I realized that I had no power in this situation—our agreement was verbal and he had been living with his dad for a year,” she says. “I had no family or financial support, legal resources—I didn’t know where to begin.” Spicuglia realized that if she wanted to fight for Oscar, she would have to drop out of school. She also had no money for a lawyer. She was devastated.

“But the logical part of me was wondering, Is his dad right?” With his father, Oscar had a big family in town and he was happy and stable. Spicuglia says she felt conflicted about uprooting him. “I wasn’t going to put his dad through family court and spend thousands of dollars—and put Oscar through that—just because I want my son,” she says. “It felt really selfish.”



After ceding custody of her son to her ex-husband, and once Spicuglia graduated, she moved to New York City for work. Today Spicuglia, now thirty-three years old, says that her noncustodial arrangement with her ex is working out. “My son is better traveled than everyone in his class; he’s been to New York, San Francisco, Paris, Mexico,” she says.

“It’s hard, but my father raised me with the belief that you’re a better role model for your children if you follow your dreams and goals—and Oscar is happy and safe.” Spicuglia is on good terms with her ex, and has joint legal custody of her son, meaning she’s equally involved in decision making for Oscar’s care.

Recently Spicuglia began talking publicly about her life as a noncustodial mom. She wrote articles, and appeared in a spread in Marie Claire under the somewhat unfortunate headline, “What Kind of Mother Leaves her Kids?” Before, she had been worried about what people would say. “As a society, we have this idea that if you don’t live with your kids it’s assumed that you’re not a good mother, that you don’t love them, you don’t want them, or you can’t care for them,” she says. “Fathers face their own issues, of course—but they’re expected not to have custody.” Spicuglia now runs a NYC-based group for noncustodial parents as well as a blog and online community where people from around the country, mothers especially, share their stories.

Malinda Temple wrote in, for example, the day she became a noncustodial mother to her two children, five and three years old. She writes that she has been a stay-at-home mom since their birth and since making her decision has heard numerous angry remarks from family, friends and acquaintances.  “When we separated, my two children and I moved in with my parents with no car and no income. Having not worked outside the home in eight years, finding a job was increasingly difficult—I had become an emotional wreck, completely unable to support my children, financially or emotionally. My ex-husband was able to financially and emotionally support our children, providing them with the stability I could not. So, after much thought, prayer, and counsel, I made the decision that what was best for my children was not a choice that society stands by and certainly not my own maternal longing.”

Spicuglia—who is working on a book—says, “My hope is that we can take gender out of the expectations around parenting. Half of marriages end in divorce, marriages produce kids and noncustodial parents are a natural byproduct of this process—the fact that this stigma persists is archaic. It’s not good for kids, parents, and doesn’t reflect the society we’re living in.”

Indeed it doesn’t—parenting and family today look very different from what they looked like thirty years ago. The traditional nuclear family—straight, married, and with biological children gotten the old-fashioned way—is becoming a thing of the past. And it’s time for American culture and politics to catch up.

* * *

If you want what’s best for your kids, one surefire way to provide them with a healthy, happy home is to make sure they have lesbian parents. In the longest-running study of lesbian families to date, zero percent of children reported physical or sexual abuse—not a one. In the general population, 26 percent of children report physical abuse and 8.3 percent report sexual abuse.

When this news broke, the responses were mixed: It spread like wildfire among LGBT groups and news outlets, the mainstream media reported it as the latest in recent news about LGBT parents being as up to par as straight parents, and—unsurprisingly—conservative groups picked the study apart, trying to find reasons why it was incorrect.

No matter the reactions, however, the study undoubtedly put yet another nail in the coffin of the traditional notion that children need both a mother and a father. This research was just one study in a long line of work showing that children of same-sex parents are just as well adjusted and happy as those raised by heterosexual parents.

A five-year review of eighty-one parenting studies published in the 2010 Journal of Marriage and Family, for example, reported that children raised by same-sex parents are “statistically indistinguishable” from those raised by straight parents in terms of self-esteem, academics, and social adjustment. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Child Welfare League of America, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Medical Association, and the American Psychological Association all agree that same-sex couples are just as fit to parent as their heterosexual counterparts.

Today’s “perfect” family is not what it used to be.

In the United States, 29.5 percent of children live in single-parent households (up 10 percent from 1980) and 40.6 percent of children are born to unmarried mothers (up 22 percent since 1980). Most of those unmarried moms are actually in relationships, and a study from Princeton and Columbia, which followed more than five thousand children from birth, found that more than 50 percent of the unmarried parents they studied were living together at the time their baby was born, while 30 percent were in a relationship but not living together.

The use of reproductive technology by straight, gay, married, or unmarried couples is on the rise, and the way Americans choose to create their families is increasingly more fluid. The nuclear family is on the way out.

At the heart of the traditional family there has always been the belief that children need a mother and a father, and that those roles within the family unit are distinct and largely formed around gender difference. The mother is the caretaker, the father the breadwinner and disciplinarian. But today the American public no longer thinks, for the most part, that traditional gender roles and marriages are best.

When the Families and Work Institute ran a survey in 2009, most Americans disagreed with the idea that wives should be the primary caretakers and husbands the primary breadwinners. Other studies, like the one done by sociology professor Lynn Prince Cooke, have shown that straight married couples and parents who forgo traditional gender roles are happier on average then their conventional cohorts. Cooke has noted that “American couples that share employment and housework are less likely to divorce than couples where the husband does all the earning while the wife does all the cleaning.”

Another study found that marriages where husbands do more housework are less likely to end in divorce—so are marriages in which both spouses work. Also in that study, same-sex couples reported sharing domestic responsibilities more equitably than straight couples and having more parental satisfaction.

Interestingly enough, however, even though Americans are more likely to be happy in egalitarian marriage, and don’t believe that traditional gender roles within marriage are best, they still believe that when it comes to parenting, marriage is the way to go. In a Pew/Time magazine poll on marriage and family, more than 75 percent of respondents said they thought parenting was done best when it’s done within a marriage.

But the trend is clear: Straight, nuclear families are no longer the default or the expectation when it comes to having children. That doesn’t mean, however, that some people aren’t hanging on to traditional roles within families.

The widely held belief that the heterosexual nuclear family is best for children has long been used as a smoke screen for homophobia and as a talking point to quash marriage-equality efforts. In 2006, the New York Court of Appeals ruled against same-sex marriage because “the Legislature could rationally believe that it is better … for children to grow up with both a mother and a father.” But, as studies show, it isn’t better. Yet that hasn’t stopped people from using kids’ best interest to make political points.

Studies that purport that straight parents are superior are largely flawed. Instead of comparing straight coupled parents with same-sex coupled parents, these studies contrast straight married couples with straight single mothers and ignore other family-structure variables that have nothing to do with gender.

So why insist on hanging on to an antiquated view based on bad science? Because it’s never really been about “the good of the children.” In Florida an adoption ban kept kids lingering in foster care while loving gay parents waited in vain; it was overturned only in 2010. And when Washington, D.C., was poised to legalize gay marriage in 2009, the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington ended its foster care program and threatened to stop its social services. (Apparently abandoning children is better than supporting families that don’t look like your own.)

There is so much bias around families that aren’t created in traditional ways that even access to reproductive technology is under fire. In 2006, for example, a Virginia lawmaker introduced a bill that would forbid unmarried women (single women and lesbians) from using reproductive technology like in vitro fertilization. The bill would have denied unmarried women access to “certain intervening medical technology” that “completely or partially replaces sexual intercourse as the means of conception.” And while many states offer insurance coverage for IVF treatments, the person seeking treatment must prove infertility, thereby excluding prospective parents who are LGBT. Some states, like Rhode Island for example, specifically stipulate that insurance will cover the procedures only if a woman’s husband provides the sperm. And laws in some states regarding gay and lesbian surrogacy and foster home placement are still ambiguous enough to discriminate.

* * *

The supposed supremacy of the traditional nuclear family isn’t just a failing tactic in marriage and family debates; it’s a dying convention across the board.

The retrograde belief that children do better in straight families has more to do with gender roles than sexuality. The conservative group Focus on the Family’s statement against same-sex marriage, for example, says, “much of the value mothers and fathers bring to their children is due to the fact that female and male are different … fathers tend to encourage children to take chances and push limits, and mothers tend to be protective and more cautious.” In this way, the push against same-sex marriage is also a push back toward conventional marriage—in every sense of the term.

Families that aren’t traditional are viewed, at worst, as damaging or, at best, as “alternative,” as if there were a proper default for the makeup of a family.

The pressure is so strong in conservative circles to “protect” traditional family structures that any issue at all can be turned into concern over the nuclear family. When GOP presidential candidates debated one another in Arizona in early 2012, for example, a simple question about support for birth control turned into a debate over babies born out of wedlock. During that debate, CNN moderator John King asked Rick Santorum (who had given an interview about the “dangers” of birth control) about his stance on contraception, and Santorum responded by talking about the American family. “What I was talking about is we have a society … which is the increasing number of children being born out of wedlock in America,” he said. “The bottom line is we have a problem in this country, and the family is fracturing. Over 40 percent of children born in America are born out of wedlock. How can a country survive if children are being raised in homes where it’s so much harder to succeed economically? … No, everything’s not going to be fine.”

His opponent, Mitt Romney, responded similarly:

This isn’t an argument about contraceptives, this is a discussion about, are we going to have a nation which preserves the foundation of the nation, which is the family, or are we not? When you have 40 percent of kids being born out of wedlock, and among certain ethnic groups the vast majority being born out of wedlock, you ask yourself, How are we going to have a society in the future? We have to have a president who’s willing to say that the best opportunity an individual can give to their unborn child is an opportunity to be born in a home with a mother and a father.

But we know already that having a mother and father is not the best opportunity we can give a child—having loving parents is. And there’s an argument to be made that if intentional and thoughtful parenthood is an indicator of parental and family happiness, then having gay parents—parents who weren’t able to “accidentally” have a child—may be, in fact, among the better circumstances there are for a child.

*  *  *

We know that the majority of Americans no longer feel that traditional gender roles are necessary, or even desirable. So if we don’t support outdated gender norms in our families, why should they have any place in our laws? When Judge Vaughn R. Walker struck down California’s Proposition 8, for example, he noted that the same-sex marriage ban “exists as an artifact of a time when the genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and in marriage … that time has passed.”

Traditional roles and families aren’t old news for everyone and change isn’t going to come easily. But stories like Spicuglia’s, which are far from new but only now getting more public attention as “normal” family stories, aren’t going away.

This isn’t to say that the traditional nuclear family is bad or that it’s completely dead—just that it’s not necessarily what’s best for children. Lesbian-parenting stats aside, no one is really suggesting that all kids would be better off with gay parents than straight ones. But if traditional-family advocates hang on at all costs to their supremacist view of what parenting looks like, it’s not just children who will suffer but families and national progress.

There’s no one right way to parent and there’s no magic combination of genders that produces the most well-adjusted child. We all do the best we can at loving our kids and building our families. So if the goal is happy children, let’s focus on that, and not on forcing Americans into an antiquated family model we’ve moved beyond.

Excerpted from “Why Have Kids: A New Mom Explores The Truth About Parenting and Happiness” by Jessica Valenti. ©2012 by Jessica Valenti. To be published by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest September 2012. All Rights Reserved.

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