Not that any of us lesbian parents are surprised. But it’s nice to have a good, rigorous psychiataric study or two to cite, when heckled.
Sunday morning I went to my old friendâ€™s Unitarian Universalist church to hear Dr. Nanette Gartrell talk about her ongoing longitudinal study of lesbian families (one of whom is a member of the church). Alas, the sweet exigencies of kiddle care kept me outside the room more than in it. But I gathered enough to be grateful for her research, very impressed by its scope and results, and eager to discover her future findings.
The National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study is the nationâ€™s largest and most long-running investigation of lesbian parents and their children conceived by donor insemination. Launched in 1986, it follows over 75 U.S. lesbian-headed families. So far the retention rate of subjects is exceptionally high for such a long-term study, which is no surprise to me, since I for one hunger for the kind of information her research is turning up. I should think that her subjects, having begun their families even earlier in the LGBT “gayby boom,” would feel that desire even more keenly. About the motivation for the study, Gartrell, et al. note:
The [survey] questions were designed to provide the type of information that participants themselves might like to have had before they embarked on motherhood. In addition, the findings should be useful to professionals in a variety of disciplines-health and mental health, sociology, feminist studies, education, ethics, public policy, law-who are increasingly likely to be consulted by lesbians on matters pertaining to motherhood.
The families are spread between San Francisco, Boston, and Washington D.C.; most include both a birthmother and a co-mother, though a good handful are headed by single mothers; most were in their mid-thirties when the study began; their donors are evenly divided between known and unknown; nearly all of the participants are “out” to their families and to one degree or another in their work and public lives; most are white and middle-class. In the first of their published findings, “The National Lesbian Family Study: Interviews With Prospective Mothers,” Gartrell et al. discuss the factors influencing the relative ethnic and economic homogeneity of this cohort. It’s available online, along with reports from interviews with the mothers and kids at regular intervals: when the kids were toddlers, five-year-olds, and ten-year-olds. The most recent report is “Interviews with the Mothers of 10-year-old Children,” published in the May 2006 issue of Feminism and Psychology.
I will try to resist the temptation to convey absolutely everything verbatim, since you can read for yourselves. But I will excerpt some highlights from the “Interviews with the Ten-Year-Old Children,” as a teaser. (In an attempt at a modicum of brevity, I nixed the references to other studies, but they are legion, and can be found in the original.)
The prevalence of childhood sexual abuse among NLFS girls (5%) [by “older, unrelated men”] and boys (0%) contrasts strikingly with national rates: Thirty-eight percent of U.S. women and 5%-10% of U.S. men report that they were sexually abused as children. None of the NLFS children had been physically abusedâ€¦. [T]hese data suggest that the absence of adult heterosexual men in households may be protective against abuse and its devastating psychological sequelae. [here–I had to Google sequelae, too] In social and psychological development, the NLFS children were comparable to children raised in heterosexual families. The NLFS girls demonstrated fewer behavioral problems than age-matched peers. These findings are consistent with other studies demonstrating a high degree of emotional well-being in children of lesbian families. It is noteworthy that there was no difference in psychological functioning in NLFS children with known donors versus those with unknown donors. Although the children with known donors benefited from having a father, most who had not yet met or would never meet their donor were unconcerned about not having a father. At 10 years old, more than half of the NLFS children were completely out, and nearly half had already experienced homophobia. The children who reported homophobic encounters demonstrated more psychological distress than those who had not been harassed. Many NLFS mothers have been vigilant about helping their children to avoid homophobia, have taught their children healthy responses to harassment, and have been sensitive to their children’s concerns about being out at school. The NLFS children displayed a sophisticated understanding of diversity and tolerance. They were saddened when schools or classmates were discriminatory. Even though their mothers tried to provide LGBT-affirmative educational environments, finding schools that are judgment free is challenging for any parent. Most NLFS children attended multicultural schools with children from other lesbian families. Having LGBT faculty and curricula was additionally helpful for many index children. Overall, the T4 investigation [that is, the study at age 10] confirms that the children of lesbian mothers are resilient and thriving. As anticipated, the NLFS children are experiencing homophobia. However, the NLFS mothers are educating their children about diversity and preemptively preparing them to confront discrimination.
Dr. Gartrell, in “The kids are all right,” an American Psychological Association article discussing research on LGBT Families, noted: “The kids I’ve interviewed are enormously thoughtfulâ€“they are not only sensitive to discrimination to their groups but other groups as well. This is something LGBT families have to offer the world.” Here, here!
The next installment in the study will be with–fasten your seatbelts–teenagers. I would expect this to be a really interesting chapter in the whole study, since her findings have shown–as many folks’ own experience may corroborate–that adolescent kids begin to exercise more discretion about disclosing their parents’ lesbian identity. Though in the UU church talk, Dr. Gartrell reminded the assembled that “any teenager wants to put their parent in some closet of some sort.” Many folks, clearly old enough to know from raising teenagers, snickered that more than a few teenagers might want to even throw away the key. One lesbian parent in the audience shared a nice anecdote: their son had a school field trip, the orientation to which required both parents to attend. It was his first opportunity to compare his two lesbian parents to those of all his peers, en masse. After it was over, he told her: “You don’t look any worse than they did!” Yahooie! Again, I find myself thanking the heavens I’ll have a dozen more years to prepare.
Though the study has been funded, over the years, by a number of different foundations, Dr. Gartrell has dug into her pockets to keep it going in lean times. She deserves a huge amount of gratitude from all of us. I don’t know what kind of support it provides her study, but I figure the least I can do is GET THE NLLFS T-SHIRT!