by Kim Bergman, Ph.D.
After 14 attempts over 18 months of donor insemination I was finally pregnant--something I had wished for and wanted for years. That's why I was so surprised at my reaction when at 8 months pregnant I visited my friend Holly (who was a month ahead of me) right after the birth of her second son. I walked into her hospital room and saw him in her arms, tiny and pink and looking entirely too fragile and delicate. Holly immediately handed him to me (she was an expert at this, having an older daughter already). I held this tiny creature, watched his eyelids flutter, marveled as his mouth sucked reflexively and thought to myself, "No way am I prepared to do this in just one month!" It was like slow motion and one of those voice-overs saying, "Do not attempt this at home".
My wife and I went home and proceeded to have about three days of the worst anxiety ever. Here is a peak inside my brain during those few days:
--what were we thinking
--we have no idea what we are doing
--babies are so tiny and fragile
--what were we thinking
--what if I mess this up completely
--how will we do it
--what were we thinking
--how will I ever leave the baby
--what if something happens
--what were we thinking
over and over....for several days!
My reaction was utterly terrifying and took me completely by surprise. Over the next month my anxiety gradually subsided and on the wonderful day that my daughter was born (almost exactly 15 years ago as I write this) it was joy, and not anxiety that I felt.
While there is really NOTHING but parenthood to prepare you for parenthood. I have found that sharing our common experiences can help ease the transition into this new phase of life, and knowing in advance some of the ways that parenthood changes us can lesson the anxiety.
There are lots of baby books that seek to prepare people for parenthood so I am not going to talk about the emotional ups and downs, sleepless nights and endless diapers of being a new parent. Instead I am going to focus on some of the emotional issues that my wife and I, and other LGBT parents face as we make the transition to parenthood.
For me one of the biggest deals about becoming a parent was that it was a total identity shift. As a lesbian, I thought that maybe I wouldn’t be able to be a mom at all. I hear this time and time again from the gay men and lesbians that I help on the path to parenthood. For many of us being gay or lesbian seemed incongruent with being a parent, yet we had the compelling urge to be mommies and daddies. So we find ourselves living our dream of becoming parents, and our identities have quite a transition to go through to catch up.
For starters, gay men and lesbians who are new parents have to adjust to being the center of a lot of attention. If you live in a big city where there are a lot of other gay families you will probably be admired and ogled over. If you live in a smaller town or one where there are few or no gay families you may be the object of some hostile attention. Either way, people will likely stare a lot, and this can take some getting used to.
The thing that goes hand in hand with this attention is a whole new level of coming out. Babies with two mommies or two daddies out their parents everywhere they go. And as the kids get older this becomes more and more of an issue when "passing" by not correcting someone’s hetero-assumptive comment has some very real consequences for a child overhearing. If we are not yet out to co-workers and employers, having a baby will make that omission hard to live with. This continual coming out can be a bit jarring at first.
For many gay men and lesbians, our parents and family of origin have been less than supportive and we fear that our becoming parents will be a source of stress and judgment. We worry about how homophobic family members will treat our children. My mother-in-law had to have a real “talking to” when she treated my two children differently (I gave birth to one and my wife the other). We let her know that she had two grandchildren or none; happily she chose two, but we would have made the difficult choice to let her go if we had to. Many folks that I work with report fearing that their parents will not accept their children, but an almost equal number come back and tell me that once the baby was born their parents’ or in-laws’ reactions ranged from slowly accepting their grandchildren to immediate complete turnarounds as they fell in love with the baby at first sight, their homophobia dropping by the wayside. Babies can be that magical!
To learn even more about how other gay and lesbian parents make the transition to parenthood, I did a research project to better understand the experiences of the gay men that I work with. What I discovered made me proud, and I hope that you will find it helpful:
• In most respects, life changes resulting from parenthood were very much like those experienced by heterosexual couples: closer relations with co-workers, a transition away from single friends toward other couples (straight and gay) with children, and less time for sleep, exercise, and hobbies.
• Gay dads were more likely to scale back their careers in order to care for their children than heterosexual dads.
• These fathers reported that their self-esteem and their closeness with their extended families increased after becoming parents.
• The fathers in my study reported that their relationships with peers at work improved because of the shared parenting experience.
• The couples had been together an average of 12 years, and none had dissolved their relationship after becoming parents.
• Most fathers reported that relationships with their families of origin had become closer, and that having a baby increased recognition of the couple as a family.
• Gay dads in my study derived pleasure and pride in taking care of their children.
• They also received increasing validation from their families and their communities.
• Being a parent contributed to greater meaning in their lives.
While none of these findings surprised me it’s always good to have research to back up your ideas and personal experience.
No matter how you create your family, the transition to parenthood is one of the most glorious experiences one can have. And, while there are some unique issues that lesbian and gay parents may face, in the end the baby is the common denominator, and that tiny adorable bundle of magic will get you through it all. But buckle up!
(My kids are now 15 and 12, so I am working on the next chapter in parenting, “The Transition to Parenting Teens,” which I am expecting to be as exhilarating a roller-coaster as those first 6 weeks of parenting a newborn!)
Kim Bergman. Ph.D.is the founder of Fertility Counseling Services, Inc., providing all aspects of psychological services to individuals and agencies in the field of fertility and assisted reproduction. Dr. Bergman also is a co-owner of Growing Generations LLC.
Kim Bergman Ph.D. 2011. All Rights Reserved. Permission granted to The AFA