On the day that Ronan was born, Paul and Rob, who have been married for 11 years, were both in the delivery room. “It was like a live one-hour National Geographic show,” Paul says of witnessing the “awesome” birth of their first child through gestational surrogacy. Since that heady event 20 months ago, the family has settled into a comfortable way of life in Port Credit, Ont. “If you’re looking for the gay couple that lives in the suburbs in a five-bedroom house with a pool—kind of the gay version of the white picket fence,” says Paul, “that’d be us.”
It’s a family unit that is becoming increasingly common as more homosexual men in committed, long-term relationships pursue fatherhood. “You used to hear about the lesbian baby boom,” says Rachel Epstein, coordinator of the LGBTQ parenting network at the Sherbourne Health Centre in Toronto. “Now they’re talking about the ‘gay-by boom.’ ” A quick online search turns up countless postings by prolific gay daddy bloggers eager to document their daily trials: “She’s gone from sucking down eight ounces to last night she ate three.” Some exhibit a paternal version of mommy brain: “Today is the 28th day of March. No, it’s not. It’s April. It is a Thursday. No, it is Wednesday.” Others, when faced with pragmatic decisions such as whether to buy a minivan, lament a loss of identity: “I don’t want to be a soccer mom!” Between feedings and diaper changings there’s even a smidge of sentimental waxing: “Ken asked me if I ever pick them up and think, Oh my God, I have children. I don’t have time to stop and think, but I know it’s incredibly amazing.”
If none of this sounds uniquely gay, that’s because “parenting is parenting,” says Epstein, and “worrying about money, school, sleeping, traditional labour and discipline” is universal. But evidence does not examine the specific experience of gay men as they transition into parenthood. A groundbreaking paper recently published in the Journal of GLBT Family Studies interviewed 40 gay men—mostly white and affluent with a median age of 40.8—to find out what changes had occurred in their career, lifestyle, relationships and self-worth since having a child via gestational surrogacy. (One partner’s sperm fertilizes a donor’s egg; the resulting embryo is implanted into a surrogate, who carries the baby to term. One dad is biological, the other is usually adoptive.)
The findings reveal a fascinating portrait of these new gay dads. After having a baby, they experienced higher self-esteem, and more closeness to their extended families. They began to identify more with heterosexual couples who are parents than single gay men or childless gay couples. But unlike straight two-parent homes in which housework and child care still falls more to the woman than the man—StatCan says that in 2005, moms put in 3.4 hours a day with kids under age five and another 2.4 hours on chores, compared to dads’ 1.6 hours and 1.4 hours, respectively)—both gay dads reported scaling back their careers to be more involved at home—and the division of child care and housework between them was equal.
Paul and Rob fit most of the study’s findings. Since becoming parents, they have more in common with their straight friends, although Paul believes that’s partly because parenthood is still “atypical” in the gay community. Ronan is adored by both sets of grandparents. (Neither knows who is biologically related to him, but both pairs insist their grandson looks just like them.) Paul and Rob have significantly adjusted their careers as consultants so that they no longer have to travel. While a nanny cares for Ronan during the day (typical of the gay dads studied, given their higher socio-economic standing), “we’re both home each night for supper and story time,” says Paul, and when it comes to child rearing and housework, “It’s very much 50-50.”
And yet, the prevailing problem most gay dads say they encounter is the perception that they are second-rate parents. Epstein says that previous research has revealed a sense of “invisibility” among them. Most parenting books are written as if the reader is female, says Paul, and those intended for fathers provide “advice at the idiot level.” Movie theatres seldom offer “pop and tots” afternoon screenings, and there are no parking spots for “daddy and baby.”
Many gay dads also question their “entitlement” to be parents, adds Chris Veldhoven, coordinator of queer parenting programs at the 519 Church Street Community Centre in Toronto, often internalizing messages about homosexuals being unfit fathers. They wonder, “do I have a right to want to be a dad?” explains Epstein. Yet the long, complicated and expensive route to parenthood via gestational surrogacy—it can cost $80,000 in Canada, take years, and require lawyers, social workers, and medical professionals—is a testament to these fathers’ commitment to their children. “They have to be among the most intentional, planful parents on the planet,” says Robert-Jay Green, a psychologist and co-author of the study, who also teaches at the Rockway Institute at Alliant International University in San Francisco. “You can’t have a kid by accident if you’re a gay man.”
His research has prompted Green to call for a redefining of the phrase “fathering a child”—which usually signifies the ubiquitous male impulse, having sex—to a more holistic, nurturing meaning: “Men are fully capable of performing the things that are usually associated with mothering.”
There are signs of a shifting tide toward acceptance of gay dads. “Gay-by” paraphernalia includes a bib that reads, “Some babies come from their mother’s tummy. Some babies come from their father’s heart.” On TV, the image of all fathers as bumbling Ray Barones from Everybody Loves Raymond is slowly being replaced by a more egalitarian representation. The hit mockumentary sitcom Modern Family features the characters of two highly competent, devoted and caring gay men, Mitchell and Cameron, raising their adoptive daughter Lily. In one episode, the dads demonstrate their fondness for being home with baby—scheming over who has to go back to work. Mitchell quips: “It’s Cameron’s turn to be out in the world interacting with other grown-ups while I get to stay at home and plot the death of Dora the Explorer.” Cameron’s view? “I can’t pressure Mitchell. But I really, really, really just want him to get a job so I can go back to being a stay-at-home dad/trophy wife.” If only every kid had it so good.