Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Perceptions of Children's Parental Preferences in Lesbian Two-Mother Households

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Perceptions of Children's Parental Preferences in Lesbian Two-Mother Households

Article excerpt

This study explores how lesbian mothers perceive their 3 ½-year-old children's parental preferences in families in which one mother is genetically linked to the child. Thirty lesbian couples (60 women) were interviewed about their children's parental preferences, their explanations of why preferences for one parent existed (or not), and their affective and behavioral reactions to such preferences. Many women acknowledged that their children, as infants, preferred their birth mothers due to biological factors (i.e., breastfeeding) or differential time spent with the child. Despite this initial preference, most women perceived little stability in children's preferences over time, such that children preferred both mothers equally. Findings support the power of "social motherhood" in fostering maternal connections that transcend biological relatedness over time.

Key Words: early childhood, lesbian, mother-child relations, motherhood, qualitative, social construction.

Some research supports the notion that, on average, the parental role is more salient to women than to men: Women invest more emotionally in the parental role, and their sense of self is tied more closely to the parent role than men's (Arendell, 2000). Cultural ideas of mothering may make it difficult for women to relinquish responsibility for some of their maternal repertoires, and some mothers are ambivalent about collaboratively sharing parenting (Alien & Hawkins, 1999). Further, both women and men may regard motherhood and the mother-child bond as exclusive, natural, and biologically inherent. In turn, notions of bonding as resulting from biology and instincts are common and serve to validate the notion that biology equals destiny and that the (birth) mother-child relationship is primary (Walzer, 1998).

Lesbian parents disrupt and expand notions of kinship in that, among couples who choose insemination, only one parent is the biological parent of the child. Given that two-mother families exist in a societal context that treats biological ties and parenthood as inextricably linked (Hargreaves, 2006), of interest is how mothering (and partner) dynamics unfold over time in lesbian parent households. In a prior study using the current sample of lesbian mothers, Goldberg and Perry-Jenkins (2007) found that at 3 months postpartum, most women did not feel that the biological relatedness of one mother had shaped their parental roles. Nonbiological mothers who did cite the influence of biology sometimes experienced feelings of exclusion, and several women expressed feeling helpless because they could not nurse. These women expressed hope that as their children aged (and breastfeeding ceased), their children would prefer each parent equally. Given that society privileges biological ties (Hargreaves, 2006), theories of child development tend to emphasize the (birth) mother-child relationship (Winnicott, 1987) and nonbiological lesbian mothers lack legitimacy under the law, it is possible that birth mothers are consistently the "preferred" mothers. In turn, their partners may continue to experience feelings of exclusion. Although lesbian parent families possess the potential to transform family relationships (by virtue of their shared sex and sexual minority status; Dunne, 2000), they also may reify the discourse that prioritizes biological connections as central to child-parent connections.

The current study focuses on how lesbian parents perceive their 3'/4-year-old children's parental preferences. Of interest is how lesbian parents discuss their affective and behavioral responses to the parent-child relationship as it develops over time and to what extent they view their children (as they become increasingly mobile, verbal, independent, and willful; Marvin, 1977) as displaying clear preferences for one parent over the other. Data from 30 lesbian couples (60 women) were analyzed, and the following questions guided the study:

1. What patterns emerge with regard to children's preferences? …

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