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What’s Going on in Queer and Lesbian Stepparent Families?

What’s Going on in Queer and Lesbian Stepparent Families?

Data collection for the queer and lesbian stepparent study is drawing to a close. In total, I conducted 50 interviews with families that include: four moms, three moms and a dad, two moms and an uncle, one-mom-one-dad and one-parent, and everything else in between. All of these families were formed after a relationship dissolution. So, they include children’s origin parents and the newer parents who have entered their lives after a break up. I owe a great deal of gratitude to the families who allowed me into their lives for such an intimate look at how they do family. I hope that in writing the book, I do justice to their experiences.

About that book! I have finally been able to devote my summer to writing this work. It’s far from done, but analyzing this incredibly rich data has left me excited for Stepping Into Queer Parenting. What am I finding? Here is a sneak peak.

Plural Parenting

The study families give a whole new meaning to the term co-parenting. Almost all of the children in this study were being parented by at least three adults (some with as many as five). Some respondents identify with terms like mom or dad. Some embrace terms like stepmom and some prefer more gender free terms (i.e parent). The data shows three types of parenting arrangements. For now, I am calling them Strong Plural Parents, Surviving Plural Parents and Septic Plural Parents.

Fifty percent of the families who are raising children after a same-sex relationship dissolution describe having strong plural parenting arrangements. These folks spent holidays and vacations together. Some describe former partners as best friends or “like siblings”. Unfortunately, only seventeen percent of families raising children from previous heterosexual relationships describe such arrangements.

Forty percent of families raising kids who were conceived or adopted in previous same sex relationships describe surviving plural parenting arrangements. And forty-five percent of families raising kids from previous heterosexual relationships describe surviving plural parenting. The best word to use to describe these families is civil. The various parents weren’t friends but they kept things cordial for their kid’s sake. Interestingly, only one family raising a child from a previous same-sex relationship described septic plural parenting. This, compared to thirty-eight percent of those raising children from previous heterosexual relationships. Septic plural parenting arrangements refer to parents that do not work together at all. These include legal parents who are absent all together or those whose rights have been terminated. Most of the problems with septic plural parenting occurred in two-mom-one-dad families. In these instances, dad had a difficult time with his former spouse partnering with other women and reacted in kind.

Legal Relationships between Stepparents and Children

I’ve already published an article on this topic. You can find it in Family Relations. Put simply, I asked all respondents if they had ever thought about what would happen to the relationship between the stepparent and the children in their home if the origin parent passed away. Most described that they hoped an extended family member would help the stepparent continue to see the children. Some described clearly stipulating in their wills that, should the origin parent die, the children should remain with the stepparent. But, even with these documents in place, origin parents were skeptical that these relationships were legally enforceable. Some even relied on the children themselves – noting that the kids were old enough to choose to continue to live with a stepparent should an origin parent die. This was a hard question to ask because no one likes to think about unexpected tragedy but also because the responses made it clear that these families don’t trust courts even if they live in “progressive” or queer-friendly states. We don’t have laws in the US that offer protection for these families given the complex ways they are formed. But, judges do have a great deal of discretionary power in these instances. Respondents’ lack of trust in courts, speaks to their continued belief that family courts aren’t made for their families. Thus, families do what they can to go around courts and, instead, trust in one another.

The Courts

I was relieved to hear that most study families who used courts to settle custody, visitation and child support disputes experienced neutral or positive outcomes. Their experiences suggest growth within US family courts’ ability to properly serve same-sex families. Nonetheless, respondents (even those with neutral or positive experiences) report lawyers asking them to not flaunt their relationships in the hopes that judges could more easily ignore them. This, lawyers counseled, is in the best interest of the same-sex family. Most respondents describe retaining custody of their children, but several describe being chastised for the same-sex relationships by judges and court personnel.

Unfortunately, those with negative court custody experiences report what I can only term — a nightmare. Two respondents describe losing custody of their children to their biological fathers, in one case for failing to properly promote femininity in the home. In another case, this occurred for failing to promote appropriate masculinity in male children. Gender conformity, it seems, is something courts continue to be concerned with enforcing. Even with all of the social science scholarship suggesting that children raised in same-sex families are doing great, some courts continue to be concerned that these children will not grow up to do gender appropriately. This presents an interesting conundrum for my colleagues and me to begin unpacking. We can either go the route of quelling this fear for the courts with data showing that our kids are just as gender conforming as those kids raised in heterosexual households and that gender conformity has nothing to do with the sexuality of your parents. Or, we can go the more radical, but also more risky, route of showing that gender fluidity is a sign of self confident and resilient kids. I strongly prefer the later approach. But, I worry that as a country we aren’t yet ready for that.

Mixed Race Families

Nineteen study families are mixed-race— in that they include white parents who adopted children abroad or who adopted a child of a different race from the foster care system. Mixed-race study families also include interracial couples. These families spoke a lot about tensions with extended family members – particularly for those that included two white parents raising non-white adoptive children. It seems extended family such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, sometimes struggle to accept these kids as “real family”. The respondents, many of whom have already done extensive emotional labor with their families to gain acceptance for their same-sex relationships, continue the labor of teaching extended families that these children are their real children. Some have removed family members out of their lives and others have distanced themselves from these extended family members. These practices, while necessary, are also concerning. Considering what the findings suggest about families’ lack of trust in the courts and their reliance on extended families to protect stepparent-child relationships, the distancing I am finding for mixed-race families is more concerning.

Since marriage equality in the United States, there has been a great deal of confusion from the courts on how to address custody issues that involve same-sex parents. Existing family laws are heteronormative at best. These laws were never written for same-sex families. The cases we are beginning to see in court pose questions regarding who counts as a parent, who can exercise parental rights, and whose rights can be terminated. They illustrate the ambiguity within which same-sex families (whether formed after relationship dissolution or not) operate. We need extended family to help us compensate for this ambiguity. We need extended family to help us compensate for legal shortcomings.

There is much more left to analyze in this data and I am excited to be able to make this a priority this Fall. Stay tuned for future sneak peeks.