My Primary Identity is Being a Parent
I never imagined that my adult home would be spotted with professional wrestler figurines on the floor, football teams on the bedding, and superheroes on the television. This is not to say that I expected my children to discover the world through the same introspective Sondheim ballads interpreted by Bernadette Peters as I did… or to reflect on their own behaviors through the observational humor of a Joan Rivers, as I did. After all, each of us explores the world through expressions that are important to us. In doing so, we may find ourselves as members of communities that share similar interests or circumstances. Before starting a family, I assumed that I would be actively joining a sometimes bohemian, sometimes stigmatized community of “gay dads.” But you know what they say about assuming.
In a recent study, my colleagues and I analyzed in-depth interviews with nine lesbian, gay, bisexual, and same-gender loving (LGB+) adoptive parents. We conducted this analysis to explore the ways in which same-sex parenting may change the ways in which people think about themselves and the communities to which they belong. After all, parenthood is often considered the hallmark of adulthood, more significant than professional achievements and independent living. Research has overwhelmingly focused on heterosexual identity, as it relates to parenthood. Yet LGB+ parents—who may be subjected to other people’s homophobia, scrutiny, and personal biases—are increasingly pursuing the family formation process.
The most common routes to parenthood for lesbian and gay couples include adoption, donor insemination, and surrogacy. With respect to adoption, lesbians and gay men are more likely to adopt than heterosexual couples. Suffice it to say, all nine participants were adoptive parents through public or private adoption agencies, throughout the United States. A video testimonial of their common perceptions about life before and after adoption offers more perspective.
With respect to family formation, participants in our study shared that they felt an innate need to become a parent, some from a very young age. In fact, some indicated that they selected partners based upon their mutual desires to form a family, while weeding out those who were uninterested.
With respect to how adopting a child changed their identity, participants said that they de-emphasized LGB+ aspects of their identity and, instead, aligned with a broader “parent” identity. One participant referenced the “common ground” that all parents stand on, like experiencing scheduling issues and finding babysitters. By embracing this new identity as parents, participants viewed their child-rearing experiences simply as “parental” rather than “LGB+ parental.” To this end, participants expressed a desire to be perceived as a “valid family unit” rather than as “gay dads” or “lesbian moms.” Some noted that participation in parent groups, such as with other parents at little league practices and games, may have normalized the LGB+ parenting experience for other, heterosexual families. Additionally, participants shared that—through the common experience of being a parent—their own LGB+ lifestyle felt more relatable to their own families of origin.
I find overwhelming joy experiencing the world through my child’s eyes (even if much of it passes through a superhero filter). I also enjoy relating to my family and my husband’s family (and any family with children, frankly) with newfound appreciation and humility. For the foreseeable future (and hopefully for life), our primary identity is being parents. Just parents.
For Further Reading
Forenza, B. (2017). Exploring the affirmative role of gay icons in coming out. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 6(4), 338-347.
Forenza, B. Dashew, B., & Bergeson, C. (accepted/in press). LGB+ moms and dads: “My primary identity… is being a parent.” Journal of GLBT Family Studies
Goldberg, A. E. (2010). From partners to parents: The transition to parenthood for lesbians and gay men. Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children: Research on the Family Life Cycle, 49-88.
Brad Forenza is an assistant professor of social work at Montclair State University.