A Gay Dad Looks at Preschools
by James D. Marks, parent
Last September, my partner Mark and I, and our then 2.5-year-old son and daughter entered Manhattan's preschool application process. Twins like ours are born with increasing frequency in today's miraculous era of in vitro fertilization.1 In fact, the Parents League even had some extra advice for parents of twins: apply to at least ten preschools. Our family had quite a research project ahead of us. Moreover, Mark and I felt we had some additional preschool research to do, because we are a gay couple who planned our children's birth.
In America today, Mark and I are among two to eight million lesbian and gay parents, who have between four million and fourteen million children.2 The majority3 of these parents became so outside the context of a lesbian or gay relationship. For example, they had their children within an opposite-sex marriage and then divorced. However, thanks to legal change and technological advances in assisted reproduction, there now seem to be lots of couples like us with young children, particularly here in New York City. Many of these couples are even fathers of twins. What happens when our children start school? How do we even know what to look for in a school?
Luckily, through alumni volunteer work, I got to know a fellow alumna of my boarding school who is now a friend, and who is very dedicated to the Parents League. She made Mark and me aware of the Parents League's early childhood workshops for families applying to preschool. The workshop we attended was a great starting point because it helped us identify and organize our hopes and concerns. It also showed us how much we had in common with other parents.
In fact, our aspirations for our preschoolers compared to those of straight parents seem to be far more similar than they are different. We all want what's best for the children; we want a safe, supportive atmosphere in which our children can learn and be socialized. Most of the specific factors that were important to Mark and me rank high on the lists of most parents. For instance, we felt the school should foster a sense of fun and discovery. We wanted a reasonable commute. We wanted ways for parents to participate actively. We cared about the length of the school day, the style of discipline, the approach to separation.
Do meaningful differences exist between gay parents' and straight parents' concerns for their children and, if so, how do those translate into choosing a preschool? Academic research over the last twenty-five years tends, like us, to observe mostly how similar are the concerns. However, pointing the direction for further research, there are a few tantalizing and provocative hypotheses that our school visits brought to mind.
Might gay and lesbian parents generally be a little less likely than heterosexuals to desire particular gender-traits in our children - for example, a little more likely to encourage our daughters to aspire to ambitious careers and perhaps to temper aggression in our sons?4
One preschool gave a slide show for prospective applicants, and among slides of dramatic play, cooking and blocks was one slide of a little boy dressed up in opera-length pearls, holding a handbag and a cell phone. The director explained that children like to emulate their parents and how they see their parents working, such as talking on cell phones. We were utterly delighted that the director was unfazed by the pearls and handbag and that she was focusing on the fact that this boy was evidently pretending to do work like his mother's. This slide was up a good, long time, and we wondered if the straight parents were having a different reaction. But in fact the general reaction was mostly like ours, amusement and certainly not concern. Lots of New York parents seem very comfortable with a non-gendered, "all for all" approach to preschool activities.
At some schools, however, the approach to gender-traits might be a little different. For example, we visited one where the children wear adorable uniforms, but the uniforms happen to create a highly accentuated visual difference between girls and boys, which is usually less apparent at that age. Moreover, on the day we visited a classroom it happened that all the boys were playing with cars on one side, and all the girls were playing with various other things on the other side. In truth, this made us uneasy, though the director assured us it was atypical.
How about another possible difference? Might gay and lesbian parents generally rank higher than do heterosexual parents the importance of teaching children respect for others and tolerance of diversity?5
Diversity is an important consideration for us. We hope our children will be friends with many kinds of individuals and families. Diversity actually also seemed to be an important consideration at every school we contacted. For many families, living with diversity of all kinds is an advantage of residing in New York City. Reflecting openness to the children of same-sex parents, eight of the application forms of preschools to which we applied asked for some variation of "parent" and "parent"; only two asked for "mother" and "father". The one ongoing school we visited even has a committee of parents of children from diverse family backgrounds, with monthly meetings that discuss topics like families affected by adoption, single parent households, families in transition and same-sex heads of household, among many more. That appealed to us. The school offered a welcoming environment for our family, and we would not be alone there. In addition, a process of inquiry and learning was in place for parents and the school to cooperate around difference.
Less far along the curve was one preschool we visited at which both our tour guide and the admissions director told us frankly that the school is facing a challenge when it comes to diversity. In that case, we felt we would "be" part of increasing diversity, and the school administration would be supportive as we and some other families tackled that school's challenge together.
Thus, when it comes to gender-traits and diversity in general, we found that our approach was largely shared by the other parents going through the process and by the preschools we were evaluating. Only one question relating to children with two fathers produced a surprising variety of responses when we asked the preschools. We asked them how they would handle Mother's Day.
The question goes to the point that, pretty early on, gay and lesbian parents are forcibly put in the position to have the conversation about where our children came from. And of course, our families are not the only ones that immediately and perceptibly contrast with those that have one mother, one father, and evenly spaced children. There are single-parent children, adopted children, children created through surrogacy and/or egg donation and/or donor insemination, multiples created through IVF - all of whom can suggest by their presence alone that something other than "traditional" reproduction took place. We believe that the preschool needs to be ready when classmates ask our children the obvious questions about where their Mommy is. Will the other parents be angry if we tell our children where they came from, and they share that at school? Very likely not.6
What we are afraid of is that failure to address this difference - and a preschool's approach to Mother's Day is a good indicator - could produce a confusing, or even stigmatizing effect on our children. They have been told that Daddy and Papa made them, and that their surrogate, whom they've met, "carried them inside until they were ready to come out." Imagine how puzzled or even distressed our children would feel under the following scenario, which the director of one preschool described. "On Mother's Day, your children will make something to bring home to Mommy, and they will give it to whichever of you two plays the Mommy role."
Happily, she was alone in this approach. The more frequent response was that the school did celebrate Mother's Day, but made some allowance for children with no mothers, or mothers who could not be present. "Mother's and Special Person's Day" was a common formulation. We started to wonder who our children could bring as a "Special Person". Their female caregiver who works for us Monday through Friday? A dear, grandmotherly neighbor who comes to play with them once a week?
To our relief, three of ten preschools to which we applied do not celebrate Mother's Day at all. One of those three stopped celebrating in 2002, after one of the preschoolers' mothers was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Centers. All three preschools are clear that they want to avoid distressing or stigmatizing children who have no mothers, and they actually avoid celebrating most holidays so as not to exclude any children. Interestingly, via my unscientific sample of upstate schools through my four sisters-in-law, all of whom teach young children and who come from Millbrook, Wappingers Falls, Rhinebeck and Highland, none of the schools at which they teach celebrates Mother's Day for that same reason.
Was Mother's Day the dispositive factor in our decision? No. We looked for a developmental approach, a gradual separation, and not too much structure, since out of necessity twins get a lot of structure at home. But as it happens the preschool that our children will be attending does not celebrate Mother's Day.
James D. Marks and his partner are the parents of a son and a daughter, who started preschool in Manhattan this fall.
Opening Doors: Lesbian and Gay Parents and Schools (Washington, D.C., Family Pride Coalition, 1999)
- In the United States, between 1973, when assisted reproduction technology became available, and 1990, the frequency of twin births increased by 65%, and of higher-order multiple births by more than 220%, while the frequency of single births increased by only 32%. Previously, the rise in the birth rate had been the same for singles and multiples. Luke, B., Obstetrics and Gynecology 84 (1) (1994), pp. 101-106, as cited in Malmstrom, Patricia Maxwell and Poland, Janet, The Art of Parenting Twins (New York: Skylight Press, 1999), pp. 4-5.
- Casper, Virginia and Schultz, Steven B. Gay Parents, Straight Schools (New York: Teachers College Press, 1999) p. 4. These populations still are partially hidden, so exact numbers are hard to reach. The 2000 United States Census identified 46,490 households of same-sex partners in New York State, with over 34% of the lesbian couples and 21% of the gay couples raising children in the home. Simmons and O'Connell, Married Couple and Unmarried Partner Households, 2000 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003), pp. 2, 9.
- Johnson, Suzanne M. and O'Connor, Elizabeth. The Gay Baby Boom (New York: New York University Press, 2002), p. 69.
- Stacey, Judith and Biblarz, Timothy J. "(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?" American Sociological Review, 2001, Vol. 66, pp. 168-169. References are to Hoeffer 1981; Golombok et al. 1983; R. Green et al. 1986; Steckel 1987; Hotvedt and Mandel 1982.
- Johnson and O'Connor, op. cit., pp. 132-133.
- Richardson, Justin and Schuster, Mark A. Everything you Never Wanted your Kids to Know about Sex (but were afraid they'd ask) (New York: Crown Publishers, 2003), pp. 44-45.