Mommies Know Best

Nearly 20 years after the seminal children's book "Heather Has Two Mommies" was published, sociologists have begun to ask: Do gay parents have it better? Here in Portland, many same-sex couples say the answer is yes.

By Stacey Wilson August 19, 2008 Published in the September 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

"All I know is that I got fired from the laundry," says Amy Swanson.

Swanson, or Mommy Amy as her youngest daughter calls her, laughs between sips of white wine. Sitting next to her on a leather couch in the living room of their 1911 Craftsman is Heather Block, or Mama Heather, who shoots Swanson a look of mock disgust.

“Well, that’s only because I was fired from the cooking. Everything I make is apparently ‘too healthy’ for everyone,” Block says. “So she’s in charge of cooking now. That’s why you got a cooking class for Mother’s Day, right, honey?”

Swanson fills her wineglass, pats their daughter Janna on the head, and settles back into the couch. The pixie-ish 4-year-old, to whom Swanson gave birth via artificial insemination with the help of a friend who offered to be the sperm donor, is sitting quietly on a little car shaped like a rocket ship. Periodically a digitized voice emerges from the ship: “Ready for blastoff!” Another child, 11-year-old Emily, Block’s younger daughter from her marriage to her ex-husband, reclines in a chair opposite the couch. She’s friendly, but performs the part of a disinterested preadolescent well, twirling her long, flaxen hair around her finger and occasionally rolling her eyes.

Block is the more serious of the two moms. Her demeanor is sweet, but stern—you might call it momlike—as she talks about her frustrations when “things don’t get done around here” and her overall lack of patience with “everyone’s crazy schedules.” Not unordinary concerns coming from a modern family of five.

“But the nice thing is that I can say to Amy, ‘You’re not listening to me.’ And she’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m not? I’m sorry. What do you need?’” says Block. “Just that ability to be on the same page, in that I want to stop and hear what you have to say kind of way—it’s amazing.” Block says her relationship with Swanson is pleasantly free from the power struggles she sometimes experienced during her marriage to her ex-husband.

Swanson is breezy and lighthearted when she admits her shortcomings on the domestic front. She had to learn to pick up the pace a bit in terms of staying on top of chores, which comes with living in a home where each partner expects the other to pull her weight equally—an aspect of their relationship that Swanson says she doesn’t always see in some of the male-female households she knows. “That said, I know I’ll never be up to Heather’s standards in terms of keeping the house clean,” Swanson says, smiling. “I tend to camp out with the kids on that one."

After the pork chops on the grill are done, we move to the patio for dinner. While we eat, the family talks about their church, the New Thought Center for Spiritual Living; the moms’ jobs (Swanson works as an internal communications manager at the Standard, an insurance company, and Block in preventive care at Kaiser Permanente), and what time they need to pick up their oldest daughter, 15-year-old Mekyla, who’s at a sleep-away church camp in Vernonia until Saturday. The moms also gush about how excited they are for their upcoming nine-day trip to Cape Cod in August. It will be only their second vacation without the kids in the 10 years they’ve been together.

Once Emily clears the dishes (she wants it to be known that she did this without being asked) and stacks them on the kitchen counter, the family retires to the living room. Emily curls up next to Block on the couch. Janna sits on Swanson’s lap and places a tinfoil crown on her mother’s head. “Mommy, you look bee-oo-tiful,” she proclaims.

About 10 minutes later, Block asks Emily if she could please put the dishes in the dishwasher. Emily frowns. She tells me she can’t wait for school to start in September so she won’t have to do as many chores.

“OK, how about a new plan?” Block offers, clearly too tired at 8:30 on a Tuesday night to push the matter. “How about everybody gets in their jammies and you can watch a TiVo’d episode of So You Think You Can Dance before bed. Sound good?”

The kids meet the offer with just enough enthusiasm to indicate approval. “See? Don’t we make parenting look like so much fun?” Swanson says, smiling. “We really are a normal, regular family. There just happens to not be a man living here.”

It has been nearly 20 years since Lesléa Newman’s children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies first brought to light the idea that, contrary to popular belief at the time, children raised by gay parents could lead normal, well-adjusted lives. The book was a revelation for the suburban soccer-mom-and-dad set: Yes, gay families were already living among them, and yes, these families were a lot like their own.

Today, more than a third of lesbians in the United States have given birth, and one in six gay men has fathered or adopted a child. In Portland—which ranks third, after Oakland and Seattle, in the per capita number of female same-sex couples, and eighth in male same-sex couples—19 percent of all same-sex couples are raising children under the age of 18, according to Gary Gates, author of The Gay and Lesbian Atlas, a detailed geographic and demographic portrait of gay and lesbian families in all 50 states. And the numbers continue to rise all over the country, even in regions that are considered more conservative, like the Midwest and the South. Which is perhaps why sociologists are increasingly turning their attention to same-sex parents in order to shed light on the nature of traditional heterosexual parenting.

Could it be, they wonder, that straight parents actually stand to learn something from gay parents? Have gay parents—given their relative freedom from societal expectations and traditional gender roles—been able to construct new, perhaps even improved, models for sharing household labor? Do they have unique ways of communicating in their home lives? And in gay households in which one parent stays home and takes on the domestic duties traditionally assumed by a wife and the other takes on the breadwinning duties historically assumed by the husband, is the dynamic between partners any different than in straight-parent homes?

Such questions are what have prompted researchers like Gates, now a senior research fellow at the University of California at Los Angeles’s Williams Institute, a think tank that conducts research on sexual orientation law and public policy, to begin gathering data in Portland. “Historically, Portland has been seen as gay-friendly and supportive of gay-parent families,” Gates says.

But the data that has been gathered in places like Portland, according to Gates, tends to represent the experiences of mostly “white, upwardly mobile gay couples,” who are better equipped to engage in the expensive process of adoption, surrogacy, or insemination than their counterparts in lower income brackets. Still, Gates says, it’s a start. “Gay people have always had kids, but what has changed is their level of visibility, their willingness to make their personal lives known in a more public fashion.”

To find out how some gay parents in Portland have dealt with the challenges inherent to parenting, I spoke with 12 same-sex couples who are raising children here. Half had adopted traditional family structures—with one parent as breadwinner, the other as stay-at-home caretaker—and the other half, a construct in which both parents work full-time and manage child care and chores together.

None of these couples claimed that they parent better than straight people, nor that they are immune to the typical stresses of maintaining a relationship amid the chaos of child-rearing. But almost all of them indicated that they feel freer—and, in many cases, happier—to assume gender roles in whatever way they see fit, because they are able to make the conscious choice to do so rather than automatically default into them.

“Families headed by heterosexual parents tend to ‘specialize’ more—meaning, the dad specializes in making money and the mom specializes in child care,” says Charlotte J. Patterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who has studied gay-parent families for the past 15 years. “While many hetero couples don’t follow these traditional patterns, the Ozzie and Harriet scenario is still the majority.” In gay households, she says, there’s inherently more flexibility around gender roles.

In 2004, Patterson published a study of 33 lesbian couples and 33 straight couples; all of them had young children ages 4 to 6. “There was a greater sense of egalitarianism among the lesbian parents in how they run their home,” Patterson says.

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Craig Hartzman, 49, who’s raising two adopted children in Portland with his male partner of 23 years, couldn’t agree more. “Is there a true democracy in our home? Well, there is more equality, for sure,” Hartzman says. “Because those traditional gender roles didn’t exist for us, we were able to create more of a feeling of ‘This is a team effort’ from the get-go.”

For Kevin Reedy and Scott Cooley, becoming first-time parents in their mid-to-late 40s—and in the midst of successful, and lucrative, careers—was, to say the least, a little challenging. Cooley, a Texas native with a slight drawl, met Reedy in Chicago in 1996, and the two talked about kids right away. 

“I didn’t want to do it if I couldn’t be a stay-at-home parent, but we didn’t know if it was financially possible for one of us to stay home,” says Cooley, 49. The couple is relaxing in the spotless front room of their Alameda home (they admit they tidied up the toy area a bit before I arrived) after a long afternoon in the sun at the Mississippi Avenue Street Fair. Their 2-year-old adopted son, Caden, is upstairs sleeping because, Cooley explains, the warm weather “wiped him out.”

In the end, the dads say they were able to make good on Cooley’s wish to stay home with Caden while Reedy, 47, continued his career as an investment adviser. Cooley says it was easier than he thought to quit his job in the software industry, but admits that not getting a paycheck was, at first, tough. 

“For so long, I’d gotten a piece of paper with my name on it, followed by a bunch of zeroes,” he says, adding that he understood what it feels like for career women to drop out of the workforce when they have kids.

Reedy, a lanky Chicago native with a shock of thick blond-and-gray hair, says that Cooley is the more hands-on dad, while his own days are consumed with professional pursuits. “It’s an important division for us, and it works,” says Reedy. “When it’s your decision, as opposed to society imposing it, you really are more empowered.”

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Beren deMotier didn’t have to struggle with quite the same issues: She knew she wanted to be a stay-at-home mother the day her oldest son, Duncan, was born. “They placed him on my chest and I said to Jannine, ‘I’m not going back to work.’ And she said, ‘I know.’”

Today, 16 years and two more children later, deMotier and her partner of 21 years, Jannine Setter, both 44, still don’t struggle too much over who does what, because having someone stay home has always been a priority for them. Besides, Setter’s job tracking inventory at the Boeing Company (she now works at Intel) was more lucrative than the one deMotier held at Airborne Express at the time (today she writes and makes art from home).

But mostly, says Setter, she just didn’t want to stay home. “I simply can’t do what she does,” Setter says. She is sitting with deMotier on the couple’s green couch in the living room of their home in the Hollywood District. Their kids Graeme, 5, Anna, 13, and Duncan, 16, all blood siblings from the same donor father, are down the hall watching a movie and playing on the computer. 

“Jannine works 50 to 70 hours a week, so there is no way she can take the kids to their swim lessons or make dinner,” says deMotier. “My mother, who is heterosexual, says that if you accept that both roles are equally valuable, then it’s a whole different ball game. And [Jannine] knows that she couldn’t have this lifestyle without me.”

Setter and deMotier say there has definitely been some fine-tuning to their prescribed roles in the home. While the basics are still in place (Setter does the driving and home repairs; deMotier manages the cooking and gardening), they’ve shifted a bit over who handles the finances. They say it depends mostly on “who has enough room in her life to pay the bills that month.” And deMotier says that as they’ve gotten older, they have been more deliberate about letting go of control. “Whoever does the task gets to make all the decisions about the task,” she says. “If [Jannine] is doing a repair, I don’t need to stand there and micromanage. It’s not good for the relationship.”

Lesbians with whom I spoke who live in households like these, in which one woman has embraced a more traditional role in the home, said people are sometimes surprised that they’re comfortable with the setup. Myra Lavenue, 43, a tech writer at Laika animation studio, says that her partner, Elizabeth Lavenue, works as a part-time voice teacher from their home in Northeast Portland, so, in some cases, it makes sense that Elizabeth would assume responsibilities like cooking dinner or doing laundry.

“It’s funny, because I’ll call home at 4 p.m. to check in, and Elizabeth will say, ‘I just put a chicken in the oven,’” Lavenue says. “And my co-workers are like, ‘Wow, you have a real wife? That is so awesome!’” But, says Lavenue (who was once married to a man), the difference between her situation and that of many of her married coworkers, is that both partners are giving 100 percent all the time. This means divvying up tasks like who picks up their 5-year-old daughter, Aria, from school; who puts her to bed; who does the laundry; and who gives the other a night off to go out and have fun with friends.

And there are always discussions about how to do it better. A lot of discussions. “We are constantly reassessing what’s really necessary,” says Lavenue. “Does the living room need to be picked up every night before bed, or is it better to get more sleep? It’s good to establish the ‘necessary’ stuff and the ‘nice-to-do-if we-have-the-energy’ tasks.”

This kind of communication is a relational style that, according to Nanette Gartrell—a psychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco who has presided over a 22-year study of lesbian moms, the longest of its kind—may be more common among same-sex couples than among heterosexual ones. According to Gartrell, because division of chores in lesbian households tends to be determined primarily by abilities and preferences, communication about these duties typically unfolds with less defensiveness than it might in male-female households, in which traditional gender roles are often fallen into rather than chosen. “Lesbians do fight, but it’s usually about who’s getting more time with the kids and jealousy issues surrounding the birth mother than who didn’t take out the garbage,” Gartrell says.

On the other hand, Elizabeth Reis, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Oregon, theorizes that if there is a lack of strife over domestic labor in gay-parent homes, it might be attributed simply to a greater willingness to negotiate. “When there are two mothers or two fathers, there is not one ‘go-to’ person, so there is more natural potential for equality between the parents,” she says. But Reis acknowledges that an ability to negotiate is one that any couple, gay or straight, should be capable of. “It’s important to keep in mind that there are straight parents who make a conscious effort to share parenting responsibilities, too. It’s all about open negotiation between partners, and that doesn’t matter if they’re two women, two men, or one woman and one man.”

It’s not just a willingness to discuss and negotiate that distinguishes many same-sex couples from straight couples. The couples I spoke to also uniformly reported that the sheer deliberateness and planning that gay people must go through just to have children—whether through an expensive adoption process or the complex ordeal of seeking candidates for artificial insemination or surrogacy—adds an extra element of gratitude to their home life and the way they regard their partners. It’s this “bonding through adversity,” as one lesbian put it, that gives gay parents a more empathetic view of the world and that helps them to function harmoniously as parents and as partners.

There is some science to back this up: In 2003, the Relationship Research Institute, a nonprofit organization in Seattle that conducts research on marriage, family, and relationships, published a 12-year study of the communication styles of 21 gay male couples and 21 lesbian couples. The study found that, compared to straight couples, gays are “generally more upbeat in the face of conflict,” “use fewer controlling, hostile emotional tactics,” and that in a fight, “gay and lesbian couples take it less personally.”

“This data suggests that when same-sex couples become parents, they may also be better able to buffer themselves from the inevitable stresses that all parents face when they have a child,” says Dan Yoshimoto, research director of the institute. “Their strength in being able to resolve conflict more effectively than heterosexual married couples may provide them with a step up when it comes to creating a healthy emotional environment for their children.”

Several studies, including those conducted by Gartrell and Patterson, suggest that in addition to being able to effectively and calmly work out disagreements over domestic chores, same-sex parents tend to share household responsibilities fairly equally—while separate studies have suggested that in households run by heterosexual parents the opposite is true, and that more resentment can occur as a result. According to the University of Wisconsin’s National Survey of Families and Households, in a heterosexual partnership in which both parents work, a wife spends 31 hours doing housework each week, while a husband spends 14. If the wife stays home, those hours increase to 38 each week, while the husband’s contribution decreases to 12 hours. Research conducted at the State University of New York at Buffalo shows that 58 percent of women in heterosexual couples report feeling frustrated by the uneven distribution of domestic duties.

Cindy Bunker, 49, a public defender in Multnomah County, says that when she listens to some of her straight female counterparts at work talk about the uneven distribution of labor at home, she’s grateful for her own domestic situation. She and her partner, Teri, 44, a nurse practitioner, have two adopted 14-year-old sons. Because both she and Teri work full-time, they have to delineate clear divisions of labor, which means, among other things, that she handles all the yard work and Teri does all the cooking. “I’ve cooked three meals in 10 years,” Bunker says. “I can’t even tell you what a gallon of milk costs because she handles all the shopping.” It’s not a perfect system, she admits, but it works for them. And, perhaps most important, neither of them feels resentful.

For many gay parents who don’t have the option of a stay-at-home caretaker, or who simply don’t want to completely give up a career in order to have a family, home life tends to be a planned-down-to-the-minute affair, as it certainly can be for heterosexual parents.

Joshua Todd and Stephen Dunlevy are two dads living in Southeast Portland with their adopted daughter and son, Charity, 8, and Aaron, 7. The dads are young, handsome, fit, and wearing near-matching T-shirts and cargo shorts. They are thoughtful, reflective, and attentive. So attentive that Dunlevy gets up at least three times during our hourlong chat because he thinks he hears the kids stirring from their naps.

In 2004, Todd, then a single foster father to Charity and Aaron, founded a social networking group called Daddies & Papas, which meets at Portland’s Q Center. (More than 65 couples show up regularly to the group’s monthly meetings.) He says that he and Dunlevy, who now run the meetings together, spoke at great length about their parenting and domestic-life philosophies before they committed to each other. “Luckily, we realized we both had a very structured approach,” Todd says. “So that was one less stress to deal with.”

Both men work full-time for Multnomah County—Todd as a youth-empowerment advocate and Dunlevy as a mental-health social worker for adolescents—so, to save themselves time, they’ve started to chart the family’s weekly schedule. From homework to tae kwon do to bath time, the family business is mapped out and posted in the kitchen.

“Our kids have a hard lot in life,” says Dunlevy, 39, laughing, as he shows me the chart. "It’s kind of like we’re running a business around here. But it’s really good for them to have this structure, and it helps us a ton.”

Todd, 32, admits that the chore chart was born out of moments when “inequalities crept in before we had the task delegated.” He says that he and Dunlevy were increasingly prone to arguments in the vein of “Yard work/laundry is harder/easier, therefore you should have more/fewer chores.”

“We realized the arguments weren’t about the chores, but about being appreciated for what you were doing,” Todd says.

Caden Cooley Reedy is prancing around the living room wearing nothing but a diaper, while Scott Cooley, one of his dads, peers into it from behind to see if Caden needs a change. Caden’s other dad, Kevin Reedy, stays put on the couch and watches all of this transpire. The dads are discussing dinner plans. It’s too hot to cook, so how about dinner at Justa Pasta in Northwest Portland?

“It’s very kid-friendly,” Cooley tells me, then chuckles to himself. “I never thought I’d be excited about that kind of stuff on a Saturday night.” Reedy nods in agreement.

Cooley asks Reedy to take Caden upstairs to get dressed and wash his face (he drank some sticky watermelon juice at the Mississippi Avenue Street Fair). Moments later they’re back, Caden prancing around in a green T-shirt and baby Bermuda shorts and Reedy realizing that he forgot to wash the toddler’s face. Cooley sighs and grabs a wet washcloth from the bathroom. We then pile into the family’s Ford Escape and Cooley chauffeurs us out of Alameda toward downtown Portland. The summer sun is still brilliant at 6:30 p.m., but apparently it’s not bright enough for Caden to don his blue sunglasses, which he places in my hand for safekeeping.

On the drive, Cooley tells me about his conservative Southern Baptist upbringing in Texas and the letter his older brother wrote to him after he and Reedy adopted Caden. It outlined the “cruelty” the two men were inflicting on this “poor child” by raising him in a gay household, and how Cooley needed to bring the Lord into Caden’s life as soon as possible.

“I didn’t write him back, but he ended up meeting Caden shortly after that,” says Cooley, referring to a visit he and Reedy took to Texas when Caden was 5 months old. “He’s coming to visit for the first time in August because he fell in love with Caden. People are just so scared sometimes of what is unfamiliar.” Cooley doesn’t know whether his brother will ever fully accept his family, but he says his brother has demonstrated “genuine love” for Caden.

Reedy turns his head to check on his son, who smiles back. “You’re such a good boy,” he says, beaming.

Later, Reedy tells me that he and Cooley rarely, if ever, think about the fact that Caden has two dads. By all accounts, he is just a happy, well-adjusted little boy. And Caden’s happiness, he says, is the couple’s only real concern. “Isn’t that what we all want for our kids?” he asks.

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