In same-sex gay parent families, do gender roles still apply?

In a Family With Two Dads, Does One Always Have to Be the “Mom”?

In a Family With Two Dads, Does One Always Have to Be the “Mom”?

Outward
Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Jan. 23 2017 4:33 PM

No One Is Safe From the Gender Binary—Even Gay Families

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Who's your daddy?

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Hey, Daddy! is a monthly column exploring the joys and struggles of parenting from a gay father’s perspective. Got a topic idea or question for Daddy? Send your letter along to johnculhane19104@gmail.com.

Guess what I got for Christmas from my kids?

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A T-shirt that reads “The Daddy of all Daddies.” This was sweet, and I’m glad to win any competition, no matter how imaginary. But it was also weird in a way. If I’m the “Daddy of all Daddies,” where does that leave their other father?

The easy answer, and likely the one that animated my daughters’ purchase, is that I’m “Daddy” and David is “Papa.” (How we arrived at who’d have which title is a matter for another column.) But there’s a more complex one, too, which I’m guessing was in the back of their minds: I’m the dad, and David is the mom.

I don’t even have to imagine this as their thinking, really, because one of the kids said as much out loud a few weeks ago. David had just given her medication to help her deal with a cold, and, quite abruptly, she announced that he was “more like the mom” and I was “the dad.” Wait, what? How can our kids (of all people!) be hypnotized by the rigid gender dichotomy that our family undermines by our very existence?

It’s not even as though we follow roles that break down in quite the way of “traditional” mom/dad couples. My job’s hours are pretty flexible, so I have lots of time to spend with the family. I do my share of the laundry and generally clean up after dinner. David does the cooking. And when it comes to caring for them when they’re sick—which, after all, triggered the mom/dad comment—it’s a pretty even deal. In fact, I had to interrupt writing this column to mop up some vomit.

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I admit the home workload isn’t strictly a 50/50 proposition. David’s design business is part-time at this point, and he does more around the house than I do. But our roles are flexible and nongendered enough that calling us Mom and Dad is just weird.

It’s also true that our neighborhood is very gender-progressive. Our next door neighbors both work full-time, but the dad’s home a lot more, does more than half the cooking, and is forever busy around the house. On the next block is a dad who mainly works from home while mom goes off to her full-time engineering job. Another mom is a high-level nurse practitioner whose husband is an ice sculptor. And so on. In sum, there is no shortage of gender-role busting all around us. Why isn’t all that enough to steer our kids away from such reductive ways of thinking?

Because even those important, living examples of role flexibility are still overwhelmed by the morass of gender traditionalism swirling around them.

Let’s go back to 2007, when the kids were just 2 years old. We’d just completed the adoption process and wanted to have their Social Security cards re-issued with their new last names and with David and me listed as their legal parents. What ensued, though, was homophobic hilarity of both the internal and external types. The Social Security forms had spaces for two parents: “mother” and “father.” The nice-enough guy who processed the form advised that there had been a few other same-sex couples in this situation, and the solution was simply to choose one parent to do an on-the-spot, limited-time gender change. In other words, he was asking me to lie to the government by designating one of us as “mother” although the application itself was the bigger liar. Then he said: “And since you’re the one standing here, you get to be the father.” I muttered something now lost to the ages and did as he’d suggested.

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Not 30 seconds later, of course, I had second thoughts: Why was he making any suggestion besides “fill in whichever blank you wanted.” And why did I accede to this absurdity rather than doing the only respectable queer thing—signing myself in as “mother,” and then turning on my heel and striding imperiously away, perhaps while quoting Mommie Dearest?

I understand that the forms have been changed since 2007, but the essentializing assumptions that underlay them are much tougher to drive out of our collective mental beehive. Just this past weekend, I heard a trailer for some NPR show featuring a lesbian comedian who declared, to forced laughter, that having two sons was the ultimate joke on her and her wife. I’m sure that if I’d searched out the actual show from which this inanity was plucked, I’d have heard the requisite disclaimers (“Oh, our children are our lives … ”), but I’d already had enough. I thought we LGBTQ parents were supposed to be knocking down these pegs rather than mining them for cheap laughs. Yeah, there’s this “lesbians hate men” trope, but really? And the “joke” feeds into intractable stereotypes about how boys need dads, and girls need moms—even though the comedian was probably trying to make a different point.

Before I work myself into hysterics, though, it’s worth acknowledging the more benign take on all this. Maybe my daughter was just expressing, in the terms available to her, that David’s more likely to express his feminine side, or is more comfortable doing so. But I have trouble with that explanation when gender division is made normative from birth. Retail establishments still divide clothing and toys by gender, and the advertising that parades in front of kids’ eyes almost invariably features moms doing mom things, and dads doing dad things. That I don’t even have to tell you what they’re doing makes the point well enough. Our daughters have managed to develop their own gender styles despite all this hounding, but as they reach adolescence, that’s only going to get harder to maintain. The “Papa is the mom” comment could be an early sign of what’s to come despite our tiresome reminders otherwise.

Is this a big deal? Yes. Recall, as we must, that we have an incoming president who brags about grabbing women’s genitals, and at least a few women who find the idea of having that done to them flattering—and many more who didn’t find this reptilian behavior disqualifying. Rigid patriarchy hasn’t worked out so well for women, and the cages it creates captivate men, too—just in different ways.

There’s still a very long way to go. The recent election doesn’t inspire confidence that we’re even moving in the right direction. But just as local activism can be a powerful response to the nightmare about to be endured at the national level, everyday challenges to the still-dominant, uncritical gender binary has potential to move the needle. I suppose I could start by doing more around the house.

John Culhane is the H. Albert Young Fellow in Constitutional Law at Delaware Law School, and Co-Director of the Family Health Law & Policy Institute. He is a frequent contributor to Slate, and is working on a book about the legal recognition of relationships other than marriage. Following him on Twitter is possible, but not necessarily wise.