When a Mom is a Dad: Overcoming Bias Against Male Nurturing

By Tom Glaser and John Watkins
If you put twenty gay, bisexual, or transgender male parents in a room and ask them what it is like to be a child's primary care provider, brace yourself for the stories.  At "When Mom is Dad," a session at the annual Rainbow Families Conference in 2001, the emotions ranged from amusement to frustration to outrage as participants shared their memories.  Presenter Tom Glaser recalled how a neighbor offered to be "the woman in little Elliot's life" shortly after his son arrived from Ukraine. Presenter John Watkins remembered his encounter with a fundamentalist neighbor less than a week after he returned from Russia with his son Dmitri.  The woman looked into his stroller at the sleeping one-year-old and then glared at John in unmasked horror: "What . . . you . . . .you've ADOPTED HIM!  You can't possibly take care of him."  A member of the audience recalled more fondly an encounter at Old Country Buffet, where he and a group of other gay dads were having dinner with their toddlers.  A beaming octogenarian came up to the table and said:  "What I would have given if my husband had known how to take care of a little child like that.  Your wives sure are lucky!" 

One common theme united all the stories, from the funniest to the most politically and personally disturbing.  We live in a society that has traditionally assigned the nurturing of small children to women.  Times are changing.  Heterosexual men, for instance, are playing increasingly prominent roles in the lives of their children. The men seen on the playground at 10 AM on a weekday are not necessarily gay.  But even among GLBT parents, men who are the primary or sole care providers for infants and small children still constitute a distinct minority.  Unlike men who fathered children in heterosexual marriages, or men who share their parenting responsibilities with lesbians, they have never co-parented with a woman.  In many cases, their children's biological mothers have renounced all claims to their children and live on other sides of the globe.  For these kids, the only mom in their life is their dad.

Social structures have changed dramatically, but the old attitudes that barred men from their children's lives remain intact.  English-speakers use the verb "to mother" to mean things like "to comfort," "to nourish," and "to console."  "To father," on the other hand, has one distinct meaning: "to procreate."  Our language itself reinforces the assumption that men are primarily impregnators and bread-winners, not care-providers. 

The old attitudes sometimes come up in the most unexpected places. The neighbor who offered to be the "woman" in Elliot’s life was no homophobe, and she did not mean to suggest that Tom was incapable of sufficiently caring for his child.  But she was speaking from the assumption that every child needs a female mother-figure in his or her life if he or she is to have a "normal" life.  Even some of the most gay-friendly adoption agencies ask their male clients what they plan to do to ensure their child will have important female relationships in his or her life.  For most of us, the question seems perfectly reasonable and we can usually answer it by talking about our own close relationships with female friends and relatives.  But the question reinforces the assumption that gay households are inherently deficient. It is highly unlikely that agencies ask parallel questions about other social variables, such as "what are you as a white professional going to do to make sure that your child has strong relationships with people of color or blue-collar workers." 

Identifying the hidden assumptions that shape our attitudes toward parenting is often difficult, and changing them is harder yet. The more visible gay men become as primary child-care providers, the more society at large will begin to recognize the validity of our parenting vocations.  But passengers on airplanes and grandmothers on playgrounds are not the only people who harbor the suspicion that women are better suited to childcare than men. Gay parents themselves must work to identify and overcome their own feelings of inadequacy. 

 POSITIVE STEPS FOR DADS AND OTHERS

  • Examine your own attitudes and assumptions regarding the ability of men to provide nurturing 
  • Don’t be afraid to admit to harboring internalized homophobia and heterosexism; in fact, it can be critically helpful to discuss it with trusted friends
  • Refrain from engaging in “male bashing” and gently confront it in others
  • Contribute financial and/or volunteer resources to Rainbow Families, Family Pride, The Men’s Center, OutFront Minnesota, etc.
  • Be “out” as a gay dad
  • Socialize regularly with gay dads and other men who you know to be great care-givers

If you are gay and expect to be the primary caretaker of a child, be prepared:

  • Talk with others who have been there
  • Actively grieve the losses of or changes in identity

John Watkins, PhD, and his partner live in south Minneapolis with their teen son. John is an English professor at the University of Minnesota, where he serves as academic director of the Steven J. Schochet Center for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies.  John can best be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Tom Glaser, MS, is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Minneapolis. He and his partner adopted their now teenage son from Ukraine. Tom can be reached at 612.240.4289, www.TomGlaserLP.com, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

This article was originally published in the Rainbow Families Newsletter.  Another version was subsequently published in MenTalk, the publication of the Twin Cities’ Men’s Center.

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