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The Key Word in Gay Parenting: Honesty

Barbara F. Meltz, Boston Globe Staff

When the 3-year-old daughter of a lesbian couple flew for the first time, the preschooler struck up a conversation with the woman in the seat behind them. "Who are you traveling with?'' the parents heard the woman ask their daughter.

"My two moms,'' the 3-year-old answered.

"Which is your real mom?'' the woman replied.

The child was incredulous. "Do you believe in ghosts!?'' she asked. "They're both real!''

This is one of Children's Hospital social worker Jade McGleughlin's favorite anecdotes and not just because it makes her chuckle.

More than anything she can think of, it illustrates two points widely agreed on by professionals who study children raised by same-sex parents. The first is how accepting and matter-of-fact young children are about their family's differences. The second is how important it is for parents to be open and truthful about those differences.

"Children's interaction with a culture that is homophobic impacts parenting every step along the way,'' says McGleughlin. "They don't just need practical strategies; they need inner strength that comes from feeling secure within their family.''

Put another way: Children fare best when there are no secrets.

For the estimated 6 to 14 million children in the United States who are being raised by same-sex parents, this isn't always so, says Manhattan psychologist April Martin, the nation's foremost clinician specializing in gay and lesbian family issues.

Most of them were born to heterosexual couples and have been raised by a homosexual couple after a divorce. If they are struggling not only with the split-up of the family, not only with a parent's changed identity, but also with a secret, "this is a child in distress,'' says Martin. She is the author of "The Lesbian and Gay Parenting Handbook'' (HarperCollins).

When a parent's sexuality is hidden from a child, he senses something is wrong; lacking information, he fills in with his imagination, which is often worse than the truth: "Dad must be sick or dying.'' When the family story is hidden from the world, it becomes a source of shame: " `There's something wrong with my family' typically evolves into `There's something wrong with me,' '' says Cambridge social worker Jennifer Firestone.

Indeed, a child's sense of shame can be so deep that Firestone counsels partners not to become parents unless they are willing to be open. Firestone is the founder of Alternative Family Matters, a counseling and resource agency, and leads workshops for prospective lesbian and gay parents at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates in Cambridge.

For partners who can't be out for fear of losing custody or a job, she urges at least being open with your child. Otherwise, says McGleughlin, "children have no way to voice their distress about the way the world is treating them.'' McGleughlin is the founder and codirector of the Center for Alternative Families, also in Cambridge, and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

The sooner the better

If you have left a heterosexual marriage, a good rule of thumb is to tell a child as soon as possible that you are gay, no matter what his age, says Martin. For instance, a mother might say: "Something I have discovered about myself is that I love women. I'm not involved with anyone now, but I might be and you might have questions and feelings about it.''

At the same time (or in preschool, if your child has been raised since birth by you and a same-sex partner), give a child the language he needs, for instance: " `Hetero' means `different' in Latin, and `sexual' refers to gender, so heterosexual parents are parents of different sexes, a man and a woman. `Homo' means `same,' so homosexual parents are two men or two women.''

If you are partners whose child has been with you from birth, begin then to tell him his story, not just how he came to be born but also that there are different kinds of families, some with a mom and a dad, some with a stepparent, some with two moms or two dads, some with grandparents. Talking about this with relatives and strangers as well as with your baby is as much for you as it is for your child, notes Martin:"For many parents, it takes some getting used to to speak these words out loud. You need to build up your muscle.''

Establishing your own comfort level comes in handy soon enough. All children of same-sex parents come home with uncomfortable experiences early in life, from a classmate's innocent question - "What do you mean, you have two moms?'' - to being excluded: "My mom says you can't come to my birthday party because you have two dads.'' By far, children with two dads have the hardest time, says developmental psychologist Charlotte J. Patterson, a professor at the University of Virginia.

"People are more likely to notice two men and a child, so more notice is drawn to these kids,'' she says.

Which is why what parents model counts so much, even when a child is only a baby. Are you afraid of questions or do you respond with good faith and information? Do you go into the school and advocate for your child - "This is who we are; what can we do to support/help you present this to the community?'' - or shirk from it?

"Whatever you do becomes the equipment a child works with. The toolbox,'' says Martin.

She hopes every toolbox includes community support. "All children of gay parents need to see and know other children who are like them,'' says Firestone. McGleughlin says, "It's a source of strength to see that life isn't just about not being something but also about being something.'' Nancy Witherill and Susan Brace of Cambridge are convinced of the truth in that.

They became involved with a group of lesbian families even before their daughter, Moira, now 13, was born. For years, the group of mothers traded baby-sitting and overnights for the kids and shared summer vacations. In fifth grade, when Moira faced a barrage of nasty taunts by peers, it was the support of children from that group that helped her through. "I could talk to them, one friend in particular,'' says Moira. "There were some things I didn't even tell my moms.''

Stages of development

At least part of Moira's response was driven by her stage of development. This can play a key factor in how a child of any age copes:

Infants and toddlers. What their family looks like to the rest of the world matters not at all to them, as long as they are well loved, says Patterson.

Preschoolers. Children begin to notice all kinds of differences: the color of a playmate's skin or hair; that someone has a mom and dad instead of two moms. They don't know, however, that there is a cultural message attached to it, says Patterson. Keep your response matter of fact and simply acknowledge the truth in the observation: "You're right, Sally has a mom and a dad. You have two moms.'' Expand on it if you have other examples to point to - "Gerard has a stepmom and a dad, and Maya has brown skin and her parents' skin is white'' - but also point out ways in which your families are alike: "We have a dog and so does Gerard's family. You have a sister just like Maya.''

Early elementary age. In kindergarten and first grade, you'll begin to see some recognition of cultural values, from, "Why am I the only one in the class with two moms?'' to, "I don't like being the only one.'' This is a dawning sense that being different has consequences, and it's your cue to talk about how the world works, says McGleughlin.

She recommends couching it in terms a child can grasp: "You know how the teacher has more to say about what happens than the kids? Well, in the world we live in, there are more heterosexual families than homosexual families, so they have more to say about how rules work. Some of the rules in the world are good and some are bad. One rule says that families with two moms aren't as good as families with a mom and a dad, and that's a rule we want to help change because we know it isn't true and it's not a good rule.''

Follow through by being a visible advocate in your child's school, being available to talk to parent groups, to Girl or Boy Scout groups, etc., says Firestone.

Late elementary and middle-school age. Because this is a stage when children want more than anything else to be like everyone else, it's the trickiest time for parents. "Even the most loving and accepting kid can be embarrassed by same-sex parents or at least be more cautious about disclosure,'' says Martin. She says it's not unusual for a 10-year-old to come home saying "I hate our family!'' or to ask "Could you not hold hands in front of my friends?'' or even "Can I call you Uncle instead of Dad?''

Patterson calls this one of the "bumps'' same-sex parents have to deal with. (Another one: mothers teaching a son to pee. "You draw on friends or relatives,'' she says.)

As hurtful as the apparent rejection can be, Martin urges not to take it personally. "It's about the need to fit in, not about you,'' she says. Her advice is to be as respectful and responsive as possible: "OK, we won't hold hands.'' If you have to draw a line, try to negotiate around it: "I can't pretend to be your uncle, but maybe there's some other way we can make this more comfortable for you.'' Some children are sad or withdrawn during these years. "Learn to tolerate the sadness but don't be silent yourself,'' says McGleughlin. Let her know you're available to talk, and initiate conversations even if she doesn't: "Has there been any teasing lately?''

Mid- to late-adolescence. A developmental task of these years is coming to grips with your sexual identity. Once this is resolved for a child, family differences are less of an issue, too, says Patterson. Firestone points out that studies show that children of gay parents are no more likely to be gay themselves than children in the rest of the population.

Some children have thicker skin than others. McGleughlin tells of a 9-year-old who was tired of getting hassled about having two moms. "Look,'' he told his classmates one day, "this is the way it is. Get used to it.''

Moira Brace, now an eighth- grader, says having two moms makes her feel special. "It feels good,'' she says. "It's the same as having a mom and a dad. They love you. You don't really think about it day to day.''

March 2, 2000: Barbara F. Meltz's Child Caring appears every Thursday in At Home. Meltz is the author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World" (Dell). She welcomes letters and comments, and can be e-mailed at meltz@globe.com.