Adoption: Lesbian and Gay Adoptive Parents
Abstract and Keywords
Adoption by lesbian and gay parents is becomingly increasingly common. This entry presents an overview of the limited research that has focused on lesbian and gay adoptive parents. Specifically, this entry addresses the experience of adoptive parenthood for lesbian and gay parents, with emphasis on the decision-making process (that is, choosing adoption, choosing an agency, choosing an adoption type, and specifying child characteristics), the transition to adoptive parenthood, the psychological adjustment of the adoptive parents and their children, and the adoptive parent–child relationship. We end with recommendations for future research and implications for practitioners and policymakers.
The number of gay men and lesbians who are pursuing parenthood in general, and via adoption specifically, has increased since the 1980s (Goldberg, 2010). Further, both female and male same-sex couples are more likely to pursue adoption than heterosexual couples as a means of becoming a parent. Specifically, among couples with children, same-sex couples are four times more likely than different-sex couples to be raising an adopted child (Gates, 2013). Yet the subject of adoption by lesbians and gay men continues to be controversial (Appell, 2011). Despite considerable research showing that sexual orientation is not a relevant indicator of parenting ability, religious and political opposition to lesbian and gay parenting continues to fuel social and legal debates about whether lesbians and gay men should be allowed to adopt (Goldberg, 2010; Hicks, 2003; Ryan, Pearlmutter, & Groza, 2004). As such, the legal landscape concerning gay adoption is complex, constantly shifting, and varies by state. As of 2012, 21 states (plus Washington, D.C.) allow same-sex couples to jointly adopt a child (Human Rights Campaign, 2013). In other states, same-sex couples are unable to jointly adopt, and so must adopt serially (that is, one parent adopts the child first, and the other parent completes the adoption later; this is referred to as a second-parent adoption). In still other states, such as Nebraska and Ohio, second-parent adoptions are not granted to same-sex partners. Until 2010, Florida prohibited all individuals and couples from adopting a child if they were openly in a same-sex relationship (Shapiro, 2013).
In the pages that follow, we seek to (a) illuminate the decision-making process involved in lesbian/gay adoption, including how same-sex couples decide whether, and via what route, to adopt, and what types of child characteristics to prioritize or select for in the adoption process; (b) examine the transition to adoptive parenthood for same-sex couples; (c) review the studies that have explored parent, child, and family functioning in lesbian/gay adoptive-parent families; and (d) offer suggestions for practitioners (for example, social workers, therapists) and policymakers based on this research.
Complex Choices: Decision-Making Related to Lesbian and Gay Adoption
Lesbians and gay men face many important decisions in becoming parents, from how to become parents (adoption versus some other route), to what type of adoption to pursue, and to what type of child to adopt (for example, infant versus older child).
Choosing Whether To Adopt
Sexual minorities who seek to become parents often consider a number of potential parenthood routes. The array of parenting choices is undoubtedly more limited for gay men, though, compared to lesbians. Surrogacy is quite expensive ($100,000 to $150,000), making it a financial impossibility for many gay men (Goldberg, 2010). Indeed, cost is often described by gay men as a primary barrier to pursuing parenthood via surrogacy (Goldberg, 2012). Likewise, coparenting arrangements (whereby, for example, a lesbian woman conceives and gives birth to a child, using a gay man’s sperm, with the intention that both individuals, and possibly their same-sex partners, will parent together) pose many potential emotional and legal challenges, and, in turn, many gay men ultimately veer away from this as a potential parenting route (Dempsey, 2012; Lev, 2004). Thus, adoption is often the only viable route for many gay men pursing parenthood.
In contrast, lesbians generally have more options available to them. Specifically, in addition to the above options, lesbians also have the option of conception via donor insemination, which is, in the absence of any fertility problems, relatively inexpensive and straightforward (Goldberg, 2010). So what makes lesbian couples choose adoption over insemination? Goldberg and Smith (2008) examined 36 lesbian and 39 heterosexual couples who ultimately chose to pursue adoption as a means to parenthood and found that lesbian couples were less likely to have tried to conceive prior to considering adoption, and, if they had pursued insemination, they were likely to have tried fertility treatments (for example, in vitro fertilization). In other words, adoption was more often their “first choice” route to parenthood. Furthermore, in a qualitative study of 30 lesbian couples and 30 heterosexual couples, Goldberg, Downing, and Richardson (2009) found that lesbian women who had tried to conceive typically described an easier time moving from trying to conceive to considering adoption, as compared to heterosexual men and women. As one lesbian woman explained: “We tried insemination six times, and it was really painful and uncomfortable, and I didn’t like it. I’ve never really felt a need for a biological tie to feel like it was my child. This was just the easiest option, it seemed, at the time” (p. 955).
Choosing What Type of Adoption to Pursue
Lesbians and gay men may choose from several different adoption types. Typically, couples adopt via public domestic adoption (that is, through the child welfare system), or private domestic adoption (for example, through a lawyer or adoption agency). International adoptions are becoming increasingly difficult for lesbians and gay men to pursue, given that countries are increasingly stating that they will not consider applicants who are single/not married (Ladley, 2011); in turn, international adoption represents a rapidly disappearing option for sexual minorities. Although private domestic adoptions may be categorized as “open” or “closed,” open adoptions are becoming increasingly common in the United States (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013); likewise, closed adoptions are becoming increasingly rare. Closed adoptions refer to the arrangements in which the birth parents and adoptive parents do not exchange identifying information and there is no contact whatsoever between the birth parents and the adoptive parents. Open adoptions refer to arrangements that allow birth parents and adoptive parents to have information about and to communicate with one another before and/or after placement of the child. This move toward greater openness reflects a growing awareness among professionals and parents that greater transparency and openness about children’s genetic roots benefit their psychological, emotional, and identity development (Goldberg, Kinkler, Richardson, & Downing, 2011; Siegel & Smith, 2011).
Lesbians and gay men may consider a variety of factors in deciding which type of adoption to pursue. Lesbians and gay men who seek to adopt through the child welfare system are typically motivated in part by finances or altruistic reasons (Downing, Richardson, Kinkler, & Goldberg, 2009; Goldberg, 2012; Mallon, 2004). They may also believe that they have the best chance of adopting via public adoption, in that the number of children in the child welfare system far exceeds the number of heterosexual prospective adoptive parents. Lesbians and gay men who choose private domestic open adoption often do so because they wish to maintain contact with birth parents or want to be able to provide their child with information about their birth parent(s) (Goldberg, Downing, & Sauck, 2007; Goldberg et al., 2011; Goldberg, 2012). Goldberg et al. (2011) studied motivations for and early patterns of openness in a sample of 15 lesbian, 15 gay male, and 15 heterosexual adoptive couples, and found that members of all three types of couples described ways in which openness and contact would benefit them, their child, and the birth parents (for example, by eliminating secrecy and facilitating an ongoing dialogue among all members of the adoption triad: namely, biological parents, adoptive parents, and adopted children). Lesbians and gay men may also be attracted to open adoption because of the greater likelihood of adopting an infant compared to international or public adoption (Downing et al., 2009; Goldberg, 2012; Goldberg et al., 2007; Goldberg, Kinkler, & Hines, 2011).
By contrast, lesbian and gay prospective adopters may be drawn to international adoption because they suspect that birth mothers (who often select the adoptive parents) are unlikely to choose them because they are gay, and thus they worry that they may never be chosen and will remain childless forever (Downing et al., 2009; Goldberg, 2012; Goldberg et al., 2011). Their concerns are not unfounded. There is evidence that some birth parents specifically protest the placement of their child with gay/lesbian parents (Brodzinsky, Patterson, & Vaziri, 2002). Of course, same-sex couples who pursue international adoption must weigh such considerations against the fact that if they seek to adopt internationally, they must closet their relationship, which can create stress (Goldberg et al., 2007). Indeed, as of 2013, none of the “sending countries” (that is, countries outside of the United States that participate in international adoption) allow same-sex couples from the United States to adopt; one partner must pose as a single parent in order to adopt from abroad. Furthermore, as stated, fewer and fewer countries are permitting adoptions by single people from the United States, and thus this option is becoming more scarce for same-sex couples (Ladley, 2011).
Choosing an Adoption Agency
Upon choosing an adoption route, prospective adoptive parents must then choose an adoption agency, a process that can be especially challenging for lesbians and gay men, because of their vulnerability to discrimination and stigma in the adoption process. Some lesbian and gay parents who pursue private adoptions choose to work with attorneys, as opposed to private adoption agencies. Attorneys vary considerably in their knowledge and competence regarding lesbian and gay adoption; further, not all attorneys are willing to take on lesbian/gay clients (Goldberg, Weber, Moyer, & Shapiro, in press; Shapiro, 2013). Gay and lesbian parents often spend significant effort and time researching potential agencies for evidence that they are open to working with sexual minorities [that is, policies that support same-sex parents, a reputation for social workers being especially “gay friendly,” etc. (Goldberg, 2012; Goldberg et al., 2007; Goldberg, Moyer, Weber, & Shapiro, 2013; Mallon, 2004)]; indeed; some adoption agencies, particularly religious (for example, Catholic) agencies, refuse to work with lesbian/gay prospective adopters (Brodzinsky et al., 2002; Goldberg, 2012). This process is particularly challenging in areas of the United States where the laws are in flux or have only recently changed [for example, in Florida (Goldberg et al., 2013)] and/or areas that are relatively rural, have few LGBT resources overall, and have few LGBT-friendly adoption agencies specifically (Kinkler & Goldberg, 2011; Matthews & Cramer, 2006). In a study of 37 same-sex couples (29 female, 8 male) who were pursuing adoption in rural/non-metropolitan areas, Kinkler and Goldberg (2011) found that some couples encountered great difficulty locating agencies in their immediate area that were willing to work with them. Some ultimately chose to work with agencies that were far away from their homes, which posed practical inconveniences (for example, in terms of meeting with their agencies on a regular basis).
Even when lesbians and gay men do identify agencies that they believe to be affirming, they may still encounter heterosexism in the adoption process. For example, they may participate in support groups that only seem to acknowledge the experiences of heterosexual couples, and/or that presume infertility as a motivation for adopting (Goldberg, 2012; Goldberg et al., 2007). Relatedly, they may also encounter rejection by heterosexual adoptive parents (Averett, Strong-Blakeney, Nalavany, & Ryan, 2011). Further, they may encounter adoption professionals who hold discriminatory attitudes toward gay men and lesbians and who sabotage potential adoptive placements (Brown, Smalling, Groza, & Ryan, 2009; Downs & James, 2006; Goldberg et al., 2007; Goldberg, 2012; Goldberg et al., 2013; Riggs, 2011; Ross, Epstein, Anderson, & Eady, 2009). Gay men may be uniquely vulnerable to discrimination in the adoption process based upon both their sexual orientation and their gender (Downing et al., 2009; Goldberg, 2012; Hicks, 2006; Mallon, 2004). That is, gay male prospective adopters may encounter adoption professionals who view them as “deficient” in nurturance, by virtue of their gender, and as incapable of and unsuitable for parenting infants or very young children (Gianino, 2008; Goldberg, 2012; Hicks, 2006; Schacher, Auerbach, & Silverstein, 2005). On the other hand, lesbian mothers may also encounter stereotypes and assumptions related to the intersection of their gender and sexuality. For example, Hicks (2000) notes that lesbian mothers are potentially categorized by social workers as either “militants,” “threats,” or “automatically safe” during the home-study process, in part based upon how well they conform to gendered stereotypes (how feminine they are). In turn, lesbian prospective adopters may feel pressure to be considered “good lesbians” to improve the likelihood that they will be seen as acceptable parents by their social workers.
Given lesbian and gay adopters’ vulnerability in the adoption process, an important question concerns how they respond to discrimination in the adoption process—that is, what they do when confronted with such experiences, if they do anything at all. Indeed, because of their vulnerability in the adoption process, lesbian and gay prospective parents are sometimes silent in the face of discrimination, so as not to be “blackballed” or targeted as “difficult” by adoption professionals, which might further jeopardize their chances of being placed with a child (Goldberg, 2012). For example, they may wait many months before their social worker approaches them with a potential child placement, causing them to wonder if they are being “overlooked or deprioritized” by their agencies (Goldberg et al., 2007, p. 53)—yet they may not openly question whether this is the case out of concern that their queries will invite further discrimination. Notably, there is some evidence that lesbian and gay adopters with less power (for example, fewer financial and educational resources or geographic limitations, such as living in a rural area) are sometimes less likely to challenge instances of discrimination than those with considerable social, financial, and geographic resources, who can ultimately choose a different agency if they are unhappy with the treatment that they receive (Goldberg, 2012; Kinkler & Goldberg, 2011). More work is needed that examines how power and privilege (for example, with regard to race, social class, and gender) impact how sexual minorities respond to perceived discrimination in the adoption process.
Choosing a Child: What About Race, Gender, Age, Special Needs. . .?
Upon choosing an adoption route and an agency, prospective adopters must make a number of additional decisions about whether and how to limit the characteristics of the children they are willing to adopt. Are they open to adopting any child? That is, are they willing to adopt a child of any race, any gender, any age, and any special-needs status? Often, the answer is “no.” Research on lesbian and gay adopters’ gender preferences has found that gay men are the most likely to express a gender preference for their children (in comparison to heterosexual men and women, as well as lesbian women; Goldberg, 2009a). Furthermore, when they do express a preference for their child’s gender, gay men tend to prefer boys (55%), and lesbian women tend to prefer girls (62%; Goldberg, 2009a). In explaining their preferences for boys, gay men tend to cite gender socialization concerns (for example, they believe that they would have more in common with a boy, in that they were once a boy; likewise, they are unsure about how to raise a girl in the absence of personal experience). Gay men who prefer girls tend to emphasize bullying concerns (that is, they believe that girls with gay dads will be less likely to be victimized than boys with gay dads, in that the latter group will face more stigma surrounding their masculinity (Goldberg, 2009a). Lesbians who prefer girls also tend to cite gender-socialization concerns. Lesbians who prefer boys, on the other hand, tend to cite their own gender atypical interests (for example, greater interest in sports and other stereotypically masculine activities than dolls and other stereotypically feminine activities [Goldberg, 2009a]). Of note is that these data regarding gender preferences come from one empirical study; thus, findings may not generalize to lesbian and gay prospective adoptive parents as a whole.
Research on lesbian and gay adopters’ racial preferences has also been conducted. This work has found that lesbians and gay men are more willing to adopt a child of color than are heterosexual men and women (Farr & Patterson, 2009; Goldberg, 2009b; Goldberg & Smith, 2009a). In explaining why they are open to a child of color, white lesbian and gay adopters tend to emphasize that their communities are diverse, they have support from family and friends, and that because of their own previous histories of being stigmatized for their sexual orientation, they are well-equipped to cope with and address the type of racial discrimination that a child of color might face (Goldberg, 2009b; Richardson & Goldberg, 2010). Furthermore, in a study of 27 lesbian, 29 gay, and 50 heterosexual adoptive couples, Farr and Patterson (2009) reported that couples who tended to describe “child-related” reasons (for example, there are children in need available to adopt) in explaining their motives for adopting were more likely than couples who described “adult-related” reasons (such as infertility) to be willing to adopt a child of color. Notably, research has found that when lesbians and gay men adopt children whose characteristics (for example, gender, age, race, special needs status) differ from their preferences or initial expectations, they may experience additional stress during the transition to adoptive parenthood, especially when their children have unanticipated special needs and the family does not receive adequate support (Moyer & Goldberg, in press).
The Transition to Adoptive Parenthood
The transition to parenthood is widely recognized as a major life event, and one which has profound implications for parent and couple adjustment. Thus, of interest is how lesbians and gay men experience the transition to parenthood, and, specifically, the transition to adoptive parenthood. What types of changes do they experience with regard to mental health, intimate-relationship quality, and broader social-support networks? How do their work-family arrangements change? What kinds of challenges do they encounter during the early transition period? Research has only just begun to examine the transition to adoptive parenthood experience for lesbians and gay men. This research has revealed that, similar to heterosexual couples, lesbian and gay adoptive parents’ mental health (Goldberg & Smith, 2011) and relationship quality (Goldberg, Smith, & Kashy, 2010) decline somewhat across the transition, although high levels of support (from friends, family, and one’s workplace) tend to buffer all parents from experiencing these declines.
Changes in social support may also accompany the transition to adoptive parenthood (Goldberg, 2012). Indeed, although lesbian and gay adoptive parents tend to perceive less support overall from members of their families of origin than their heterosexual counterparts (Goldberg & Smith, 2008; Kindle & Erich, 2005), some lesbian and gay parents ultimately find that, once a child enters the picture, family members become more supportive and involved (Gianino, 2008; Goldberg, 2012; Sullivan, 2004). That is, family members who were resistant to women and men’s homosexuality and/or formation of same-sex relationships are able to move past, or push through, such resistance once a child arrives, so strong is their desire to have a relationship with the new grandchild (or niece or nephew) (Goldberg, 2012). Indeed, in some cases, family ties may be strengthened by the arrival of a child, such that, for example, lesbian and gay parents enjoy closer relationships to their own parents after becoming parents themselves, perhaps in part because of a new shared interest and point of commonality (Goldberg, 2012; Schacher et al., 2005). At the same time, however, that family members may become more supportive, they may harbor fears and anxieties about what it will be like for a child to grow up with a gay or lesbian parent (Gianino, 2008; Goldberg, 2012; Sullivan, 2004), demonstrating, as Gianino (2008) noted in his study of 16 gay adoptive fathers, “a mix of elation for the couple alongside of worry about what the future would hold for a child being raised by two men” (p. 221).
Of course, not all family members become more supportive and involved across the transition to parenthood. Some lesbian and gay parents confront reduced support from their families upon announcing their decision to become a parent, or upon the actual arrival of a child (Goldberg, 2012; Sullivan, 2004). For example, family members may be opposed to their decision to parent on moral or religious grounds (that is, they believe that homosexuality is morally wrong, and, in turn, that homosexual persons should not be allowed to adopt; Goldberg, 2012; Hicks, 2003). They may also oppose the parents’ chosen route to parenthood, that is, they may be opposed to the idea of adoption in general, or transracial adoption specifically (Gianino, 2008; Goldberg, 2012). Indeed, in some cases, family members’ worries about the “unknown” nature of an adopted child’s genes (Goldberg, 2012), and about the transracial nature of the adoption (Gianino, 2008), are more prominent than concerns regarding the sexual orientation of the prospective parents.
Turning to changes in paid and unpaid labor, there is evidence that same-sex adoptive couples continue to share the division of unpaid and paid labor (child care, housework, paid employment) more equally than heterosexual adoptive couples once they become parents (Goldberg, 2013; Goldberg, Smith, & Perry-Jenkins, 2012). Furthermore, same-sex couples are more likely to distribute tasks evenly, compared to heterosexual couples, who tend to specialize in certain tasks (Farr & Patterson, 2013). Lesbians’ and gay men’s relative egalitarianism regarding the division of unpaid labor represents an area of strength insomuch as disagreements surrounding the division of labor have the potential to intensify when couples become parents, given that there is suddenly so much more to do, and there is so much less time to do it (Goldberg, 2013). Furthermore, lesbian and gay adoptive parents appear to shift their priorities regarding work and family once they become parents. For example, in a study of 70 gay adoptive fathers, researchers found that almost half of them shifted their work/family priorities after they adopted their children (Richardson, Moyer, & Goldberg, 2013). Men whose priorities turned more toward their family than to work emphasized that they felt that their work life was no longer as important because of their new roles as parents; as one man explained, “You suddenly realize that there is more to life than spending every day focusing on work” (p. 322). Other men, however, expressed that once they became parents, they were more committed to their careers—but this was often in order to be able to provide for their families.
Other challenges and experiences may present themselves during the transition to adoptive parenthood, depending upon what type of adoption is pursued. For example, Goldberg, Moyer, Kinkler, and Richardson (2012) studied the initial transition to parenthood among 42 lesbian, gay, and heterosexual couples who had pursued adoption via the child welfare system and found that the initial transition to parenthood was often stressful in part because of the legal insecurity of the placements. That is, although all of the couples in this study were pursuing legal adoptions of the children who had been placed in their homes, at the time that they were interviewed (three to four months post-placement), these adoptions had not yet been legally finalized. The lack of legal security of these placements was thus a stressor and inhibited some parents’ ability to fully attach to their children. Furthermore, the stress of the initial transition was exacerbated by having to interface with various institutions and agents, including the child welfare system, the legal system, social workers, lawyers, and judges.
Of course, legal challenges may befall lesbian and gay parents regardless of the adoption route that they choose. As discussed, some states do not allow same-sex couples to jointly adopt a child, and thus only one partner is able to legally adopt the child, as a single parent. In some states, the other partner can subsequently adopt the child, via a second-parent adoption, thus enabling their child to have two legal adoptive parents (Shapiro, 2013). Yet again, second-parent adoptions are not granted to same-sex partners in all states. Thus, in some couples, only one parent is a legal parent, which may contribute to feelings of anxiety and stress, particularly for the legally invisible parent (Brown et al., 2009; Gianino, 2008; Goldberg, 2012; Goldberg et al., 2007; Goldberg et al., 2013).
Lesbian and Gay Adoptive Parents’ Functioning and Experiences
What happens beyond the transition to parenthood for lesbian/gay adoptive couples and families? This is a topic that has become increasingly important to policymakers, the legal system, and social scientists. Indeed, opponents of gay adoption frequently invoke arguments about the “unfitness” of lesbians and gay men as parents, as well as the “harm” that is inevitably done to children raised in lesbian/gay-parent families. In turn, research documenting the mental health and parenting abilities of lesbian and gay parents, and the psychological, social, and gender development of their children, has become very important in deflecting these arguments, as policymakers and courts debate the deservingness of lesbians and gay men to adopt children (see Goldberg & Allen, 2013; Tasker, 2013).
Although research on lesbian and gay adoptive parents’ adjustment is still relatively scarce, several studies have compared the mental health of lesbian/gay adoptive and heterosexual adoptive parents. These studies find equivalent, and relatively low, levels of depressive and anxious symptoms across all three groups (Farr, Forssell, & Patterson, 2010; Goldberg & Smith, 2008, 2011; Goldberg et al., 2011). Conditions that have been linked to fewer symptoms (greater well-being) in lesbian mothers and gay adoptive fathers include higher levels of intimate relationship quality (Goldberg & Smith, 2011), higher levels of social support [for example, from friends and family (Goldberg & Smith, 2008, 2011)], less homophobia/greater gay-friendliness from neighbors (Goldberg & Smith, 2011), lower levels of internalized stigma about adoption (Goldberg et al., 2011), and fewer child behavior problems (Farr et al., 2010).
Parenting Skills and Stress
In addition to focusing on lesbian and gay adoptive parents’ mental health, studies have also examined aspects of their parenting: namely, their parenting skills and parenting stress levels. Goldberg and Smith (2009b) studied adoptive parents’ reports of their own parenting skill (using a sample of 47 lesbian, 31 gay, and 56 heterosexual couples) and found that there were no differences in self-reported skill by sexual orientation. Rather, parenting skill was predicted by gender, level of depressive symptoms, expected child care involvement, and relationship conflict, such that women, parents with lower levels of depressive symptoms, parents with greater expected child care involvement, and parents who reported lower levels of relationship conflict, reported higher levels of skill.
With regard to parenting stress, Farr et al. (2010) studied 27 lesbian, 29 gay, and 50 heterosexual adoptive families and found that all parents reported relatively low levels of parenting stress, with no significant differences by group. Parenting stress was elevated in parents who had adopted children with higher levels of behavior problems. Similarly, Goldberg and Smith (2013a) conducted a longitudinal study of parenting stress in a sample of 50 lesbian, 40 gay, and 58 heterosexual adoptive parents, and found that stress did not differ by parental sexual orientation. Rather, low pre-adoptive levels of family support, friend support, and intimate-relationship quality were associated with higher parenting stress, as was adopting a child with behavioral problems. Finally, in their study of 231 gay adoptive fathers, Tornello, Farr, and Patterson (2011) found that the men reported parenting stress levels that were well within the normal range. Parenting stress was predicted by social support, their children’s age, and their own gay identity, such that fathers with less social support, older children, and a less positive gay identity reported higher stress levels.
That lesbian and gay adoptive parents demonstrate such positive outcomes suggests notable resilience, given that they develop in a heterosexist society and are exposed to stigma and non-support in multiple intersecting, overlapping contexts, including their families, their communities, and the legal sphere (Goldberg, 2010). Consistent with this, research has found that lesbian and gay adoptive parents who perceive less support from their families, and who live in less supportive legal contexts, tend to report poorer well-being (Goldberg & Smith, 2011).
Adopted Children of Lesbian and Gay Parents: Functioning and Experiences
Since the turn of the twentieth century, research on adopted children’s experiences and outcomes in lesbian/gay-parent families has begun to emerge. In part, these studies have, again, been inspired by ongoing debates about the fitness of lesbians and gay men to adopt, and, thus, interest in how the children raised by these parents ultimately fare (for example, with respect to their psychological functioning and gender development).
Research comparing children raised by lesbian and gay parents to children raised by heterosexual parents tends to find few differences in psychological-adjustment outcomes in children and adolescents as a function of family structure (Goldberg, 2010). Studies of adopted children raised by lesbian and gay parents, specifically, although relatively rare, are consistent with this larger body of research. Several studies have explicitly focused on children with lesbian and gay parents who were adopted at a very young age (that is, before the age of 5, and typically during infancy or early toddlerhood). Goldberg and Smith (2013b), for example, studied 40 lesbian-, 35 gay-, and 45 heterosexual-parent families with adopted children, all of whom had been placed in their adoptive homes before the age of 18 months. They found that children’s psychological adjustment (that is, the level of externalizing and internalizing symptoms) was well within normal limits, and did not differ by parental sexual orientation. Rather, a lack of parental preparation for the adoption, and parental depressive symptoms, was associated with higher levels of both externalizing and internalizing symptoms. Additionally, parents’ relationship conflict was associated with higher levels of internalizing symptoms. Similarly, Farr and colleagues (2010) examined 27 lesbian, 29 gay, and 50 heterosexual couples with adopted preschool-age children (age range 1 year to 5 years), all of whom had been placed in their adoptive homes in infancy. They found that levels of externalizing and internalizing symptoms were within normal limits and were not predicted by parent sexual orientation. Rather, parenting techniques and parenting stress were related to child problems, such that dysfunctional parenting techniques and higher levels of stress were associated with higher levels of child problems.
Finally, in a study of 31 single heterosexual mothers, 31 lesbian couples, and 31 heterosexual couples who had adopted daughters from China (the mean age was 5.5 years at the time of the study), Tan and Baggerly (2009) found some differences in children’s adjustment by family type, such that preschool-age children in single-mother families had lower internalizing-problem scores than children in lesbian-couple families, and school-age children in single-mother families had lower externalizing problem scores than children in lesbian-couple families. There were no differences between children in lesbian-couple and heterosexual-couple households. The authors suggested that the findings may point to the particular strengths or resources possessed by single mothers who adopt internationally from China; indeed, single mothers must meet particularly stringent criteria in order to adopt from abroad.
Several studies have examined child adjustment in samples that varied widely in age at the time of the adoptive placement and at the time of assessment (for example, Averett, Nalavany, & Ryan, 2009; Erich, Leung, & Kindle 2005). These studies also did not find differences in children’s functioning related to their parents’ sexual orientation. For example, Erich and colleagues (2009) found no significant differences in child externalizing or internalizing problems as a function of parental sexual orientation in a sample of 72 lesbian, gay, and heterosexual adoptive parent families with children ranging in age from infancy to adolescence. Likewise, Averett et al. (2009) studied adoptive families headed by lesbian/gay (n = 155) and heterosexual (n = 1,229) parents, with children who varied in age from 1.5 to 18 years, and found that parent-reported child-behavioral functioning was unrelated to parent sexual orientation, even after controlling for child age, child gender, and family income.
Finally, Lavner, Waterman, and Peplau (2012) conducted a longitudinal study of the cognitive development and behavioral issues of 82 children adopted via foster care into lesbian-, gay-, and heterosexual-parent households. Children in all types of households demonstrated gains in cognitive development and maintained similar levels of behavioral problems over time—even in spite of the fact that lesbian and gay parents tended to adopt children with higher levels of behavioral and environmental risk factors. In other words, the lack of differences by family type is particularly notable given that the children in lesbian- and gay-parent families had backgrounds characterized by higher levels of risk.
Because children who grow up with lesbian or gay parents from birth typically lack a male or female live-in parent, respectively, attention has been paid to whether these children demonstrate gender-typed play and behaviors that differ from those of children with heterosexual parents (see Goldberg, 2010). Many major psychological theories [for example, social learning theory (Bandura, 1977)] posit that parents influence the gender development of their children. In turn, scholarly interest has centered on whether the presence or absence of a same-gender parent in the household of lesbian- and gay-parent families might impact gender-typed play and behavior to the degree that children model the same-gender parent’s behavior.
In one of the few studies to include lesbian, gay, and heterosexual adoptive parents, Farr and colleagues (2010) examined the gender-typed play behavior of preschool-age adopted children in lesbian-, gay-, and heterosexual-parent families and found no differences in gender-typed play behavior by family structure. Yet Goldberg, Kashy, and Smith (2012), in a study of preschool-age adopted children with lesbian, gay, and heterosexual parents, found that the behavior of boys and girls in same-gender parent families was less gender-stereotyped than the play behavior of boys and girls in heterosexual-parent families, according to parent reports, and the sons of lesbian mothers were less masculine in their play behavior than the sons of gay fathers and the sons of heterosexual parents. The authors suggested that both social constructionism and social learning theory can be useful lenses for understanding the study’s findings. That is, according to social constructionism, lesbian and gay parents may (for example, because of their own gender flexibility and more liberal attitudes towards gender nonconformity) be more likely to facilitate their children’s cross-gendered play and activities by creating a social environment in which such behaviors are not punished, and may even be encouraged (Tasker & Golombok, 1997). Social learning theory further suggests that boys in lesbian-mother families may engage in less masculine play than boys in other types of families, not only because of a more liberal social context, but also the influence of having two mothers and no father. That is, boys in two-mother households may develop somewhat different play and activity styles than boys with fathers, in part because they are less likely to be exposed to and/or reinforced for playing with certain types of masculine toys and activities (Jacklin, DiPietro, & Maccoby, 1984).
Lesbian and Gay Adoptive Parent–Child Relationships and Family Outcomes
Little research has explored parent–child relationships and bonding in lesbian and gay adoptive families (Bennett, 2003; Erich, Kanenberg, Case, Allen, & Bogdanos, 2009; Goldberg, Moyer, & Kinkler, 2013). Goldberg and colleagues (2013) explored parents’ perceptions of bonding to their adopted children using a sample of 30 lesbian, 30 gay, and 30 heterosexual parents who had adopted two years previously. They examined parents’ perceptions of how bonding had changed or evolved across the past two years, and their attributions for why bonding was easy versus challenging. They found that although parents expressed a range of bonding experiences, most described a strong and stable bond to their children over time. Those who described a slow initial bond to their children often attributed their delayed attachment to their children’s age (for example, these parents had often adopted older children), as well as their child’s early difficulty attaching to them. In addition, some participants (mostly men) tended to invoke their child’s developmental stage in explaining their slow early bond (that is, they did not bond easily to infants, but grew more attached as their children grew more verbal and interactive), and some participants (mostly women) emphasized the suddenness of the transition to parenthood (for example, the absence of a nine-month preparation period) as a barrier to early attachment. In this way, gender, but not sexual orientation, emerged as salient in shaping some themes related to bonding.
In addition, Bennett (2003), in a qualitative study of 15 lesbian couples (30 mothers) who had adopted children from abroad at least one year earlier (the children ranged from 1.5 to 6 years of age at the time they were adopted), found that all parents reported that their children had strong emotional bonds with both of their mothers. Yet Bennett also found that most mothers described their children as more bonded to one mother: namely, in 12 of the 15 families, children were reportedly more strongly bonded to one mother. According to the mothers, this differential bond had evolved despite shared parenting and equal division of childcare between the two mothers, and they therefore attributed such differential bonding patterns to the quality of maternal caregiving (that is, how skilled or “natural” each mother was as a parent) as well as the mothers’ personality characteristics and parenting styles. In another qualitative study (Ciano-Boyce & Shelley-Sireci, 2003), the authors found that children’s parental preferences for one parent over the other were a greater source of conflict between partners in lesbian adoptive-mother families (n = 18) than lesbian-mother families created via donor insemination (n = 49) and heterosexual adoptive parents (n = 44). The authors suggested that this may be related to societal expectations about gender and biology. That is, lesbian adoptive mothers cannot attribute a child’s preference to gender, whereas heterosexual parents can (for example, when children preferred their mothers, mothers and fathers attributed this to the notion that mothers are the more natural and primary parent). Likewise, lesbian adoptive mothers cannot attribute a child’s preference to biological relatedness, whereas lesbian inseminating couples can (for example, when children preferred the biological mother, biological and nonbiological mothers attributed this to the biological relatedness between mother and child).
Some research has been conducted on older adopted children of lesbian and gay parents as well. Namely, in a study of 210 adopted adolescents with 154 lesbian, gay, or heterosexual parents, Erich and colleagues (2009) found that, according to both parents and children, the quality and warmth of the parent–child relationship did not differ according to parent sexual orientation. Speaking to the powerful implications of strong parent–child relationships for parents’ and children’s adjustment outcomes, this study also found that reports of parent–child relationships were related to adolescents’ reports of life satisfaction, and parents’ reports of satisfaction with their relationship with their child, such that more positive relationships were linked to more positive outcomes.
Thus, the existing data suggest more similarities than differences in bonding patterns and processes across adoptive parents of different sexual orientations. Yet they also suggest that when children bond differently to one parent versus the other, this can pose unique questions and potential issues for same-sex adoptive-parent families.
Future Research Directions
Impressive inroads have been made since the mid-2000s in particular in studying lesbian and gay adoptive families. Yet, as of 2013, the research on lesbian and gay adoptive families is still sparse. Furthermore, the vast majority of studies cited in this entry have been conducted on relatively affluent, middle-class, white adoptive-parent families. There is some evidence that lesbian and gay parents who adopt via the child welfare system may be less affluent than those who pursue private adoptions (for example, see Goldberg, 2012). Studies focusing specifically on these families are useful, in that they may identify how intersecting dimensions of oppression (for example, stigma related to sexual orientation, poverty) create unique stresses for lesbian- and gay-parent families.
Further, attention is needed into how the added dimension of race intersects with lesbian and gay adoptive families’ experiences. In that many lesbian/gay-parent families are multiracial (Gianino, Goldberg, & Lewis, 2009; Goldberg, 2009b; Goldberg & Smith, 2009a), attention should be paid to the strengths and challenges that, for example, white parents raising children of color face on a daily basis, as well as the experiences of the children in these families (who juggle multiple complex identities, such as those related to their parents’ sexual orientation, their adoptive status, and their race). Indeed, in a small qualitative study of 14 young adults of color with lesbian and gay adoptive parents, Gianino et al. (2009) found that the youths recalled “always knowing” they were adopted and said that it felt like a natural part of their family narratives. Further, they explained that the racial difference between their parents and themselves was often a catalyst for engaging in family discussions about their adoption. Some youths noted, however, “racial boundaries” between themselves and their adoptive parents, whereby they felt that their parents could not directly understand their experiences. In turn, they sometimes experienced frustration with and anger toward their parents (for example, because they felt misunderstood)—although overall, they did recall being satisfied with their parents’ level of communication about race and adoption. These youths also expressed that they were more hesitant to disclose their parents’ sexual orientation, compared to their adoptive status, to others, in part because they tended to have encountered mostly positive reactions about their adoptions by outsiders, whereas reactions to their parents’ sexual orientation were more varied. Further research is needed to gain a more complete understanding of racial-minority children’s experiences in their adoptive families, with emphasis on how their race and their parents’ sexual orientation interact to influence their development.
Finally, given that numerous studies have found that sexual minorities experience discrimination and prejudice throughout the adoption process (for example, Downing et al., 2009; Goldberg, 2012; Hicks, 2000; Mallon, 2004), further investigation of social work training programs and policies that are inclusive and sensitive to lesbian and gay adopters would be beneficial (Ryan et al., 2004). Specifically, studies might examine the effectiveness of such programs and policies from the perspective of lesbian and gay adopters, as well as barriers to implementation from the perspective of agency personnel.
Implications for Practice and Policy
Social workers and other practitioners who work directly with lesbian and gay prospective parents should aim to (a) develop an in-depth and nuanced understanding of the experiences, unique strengths, and unique challenges that lesbian and gay adopters face during the adoption process and beyond; and (b) use this knowledge, and their understanding of the research on lesbian/gay-adoptive parent families as a whole, to inform their practice. In addition, they should use the knowledge that they have gained to challenge assumptions (such as those held by colleagues) regarding the unfitness of lesbians and gay men to adopt, and they should actively seek to correct unjust practices (such as the avoidance of placements in lesbian/gay-parent families because of misguided beliefs regarding the inferior nature of these households; Goldberg et al., 2007; Riggs, 2011; Ryan et al., 2004). Social workers may wish to (re)evaluate their programming and materials for heteronormative language and assumptions in order to most effectively recruit and train lesbian and gay prospective foster parents and adopters. They may also wish to have readings and resources available that explicitly address the strengths of lesbians and gay men as adopters, as this may be especially appreciated by lesbians and gay men seeking out supportive agencies and personnel (Goldberg, 2012).
Post-adoption services, too, should reflect the experiences and concerns of lesbian and gay adoptive-parent families. For example, social workers may wish to address how issues of bonding and attachment may be uniquely shaped by parents’ gender and relational context (two men/two women) and provide guidance for successfully navigating these issues. In addition, adoption professionals should acknowledge and address the role that multiple minority statuses (that is, race and sexual orientation) may have on children and their adoptive parents. That is, being a member of a racial- and a sexual-minority group adds to the complexity and challenges of being an adoptive family; therefore, social workers should be mindful of this added level of complexity and potential stress on same-sex parents who adopt transracially. It is our hope that the research presented in this entry enhances practitioners’ efforts to address the myriad of child- and parent-related challenges that may arise during the initial adoption- adjustment period and beyond (for example, child behavioral difficulties, peer difficulties, and parenting challenges). Practitioners should be aware that families headed by same-sex adoptive parents have a heightened possibility of experiencing stigma and discrimination throughout their transition to adoptive parenthood and beyond (for example, finding an adoption agency, interacting with birth parents, and seeking post-adoption support from family, friends, and professionals). These families would benefit from services provided by professionals and policies that are sensitive to their circumstances and needs. At the same time, professionals should keep in mind the many ways that the experiences and adjustment of lesbian/gay adoptive parents and heterosexual adoptive parents are quite similar—including their desire to build strong and healthy families that will be treated with respect and accepted by society.
Beyond their role in supporting lesbian and gay adoptive parents and their children, social workers have the potential to act as key social-change agents on behalf of lesbian- and gay-parent families. Namely, they may wish to advocate on behalf of these families by pushing for legislation that protects sexual minorities’ right to adopt as well as legislation that protects them from discrimination and stigma in the adoption process (for example, by adoption agencies).
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