On being a gay dad

I’ve seen it said in discussions of race or gender bias that there is a feeling common to black people or women in the workplace that they must exceed the performances of their white male colleagues in order to feel as though they are accepted as equals.  The perception that they are in some way either inferior, or that they have been given their position because of some quota rather than their own merit, creates a drive to outperform their peers.  Furthermore, like it or not, they are in some way ambassadors for their race or gender as a whole, and their abilities and work ethic are somehow a reflection on the abilities and perseverance of black people (or other racial minorities) or women everywhere.  It’s not good enough to be on the same level as anyone else.  They have to work harder, do better than anyone else in order to be taken seriously.

Being a white male, I have obviously never experienced any kind of prejudice on the basis of my gender or race.  I haven’t felt those same pressures within the workplace.  Insofar as my sexual orientation is concerned, I’ve been pretty lucky in that regard too.  With a couple of exceptions, neither of which are pertinent to this discussion, I’ve never perceived my being gay as having any impact on my career at all.  Nevertheless, I’m coming to a better understanding of what the feelings I describe above might be like.  My experience of a similar perception has nothing to do with my work life, however.  Where I rub up against a fear of judgment and a compensatory desire to outperform is in the parenting department.

As my glib little bio attests, I have a son and a husband (the latter not yet legally sanctioned in the state where I live).  Our son is bright and curious and adorable.  He is also busy and boisterous and on occasion incredibly frustrating and demanding.  He is two years old, with gusto.

Our busy and boisterous and occasionally incredibly frustrating and demanding child is a normal toddler, and behaves in normal toddler ways.  Often this behavior is winsome and delightful, and evokes smiles from friends and strangers alike.  Often this behavior is loud and obnoxious and grating, and recently necessitated a peremptory time-out in the middle of Midway Airport.  (While I am skeptical about the long-term efficacy of time-outs as disciplinary strategy, for the time being they work well enough.)  While I have the normal parental anxieties about such things, I know intellectually that even his unpleasant behaviors are of a piece with his developmental stage.

However, whenever he takes off running or shrieks and kicks when I pick him up or screams like a banshee when reprimanded, I worry that people are chalking it up to his having two dads.  Whenever we go out to dinner at a local chain restaurant (it features talking animatronic wild animals, which is a big hit with The Monkey), I am hyper-aware of anyone who seems to be looking overlong in our direction, and worry about what they’re thinking.  (More often than not this is simple paranoia, as those same people usually end up smiling at us sooner or later.)  I feel as though we are held to some unstated higher standard, and that anything that seems even slightly awry might be silently ascribed to the deficiencies of same-sex parenting instead of just the expected mishaps of raising a child.

I have those feelings despite not once encountering even the faintest whiff of overt prejudice as a gay parent.  Nobody has ever said anything to me or the Better Half about our family to even hint that we are being judged in the way I fear.  (To paraphrase one of America’s greatest cultural icons, I almost pity the person who is foolish enough to do so.)  To the contrary, we are surrounded by friends and family who treat us with affection and offer us support.  And yet still I feel this quiet, ineffable pressure to make sure I Represent Gay Parents Well.  It is obviously irrational, but persistent nonetheless.

Pondering this has helped me realize that the perception of being scrutinized and judged and the subsequent self-imposed pressure to exceed those perceived expectations can exist in the absence of actual increased scrutiny or judgment.  I would not presume to pronounce on the subjects of racism or sexism with any authority, having no actual experience of either.  But I can understand how one can experience the lingering effects of prejudice, even in an environment that does not itself confront one with overt forms of discrimination.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. More than anything, this post reminds me how universal an experience parenting is. I am not gay, but have two sons – and can tell you with absolute certainty that I know exactly what you mean.

    If you were not gay, Doc, I can guarantee you that your brain would find another reason to worry about people looking at you and judging you as you were, as I like to call it, “parenting outdoors.” It’s like a baby crying on an airplane: The people who’s nerves it frays the second-most are those that have never raised kids. The people who’s nerves are the *most* frayed are the kid’s parents, stressing out about how everyone else is viewing them.

    • Though I think this is true in a general sense, I do think that there is something specific and unique when a large contingent of the population argues in favor of legislation that would legally prevent you from becoming a parent. The social desire to be a good parent approved of by peers and strangers takes on a whole new dimension.

      • I’m inclined to agree with Will. I love the state where I live now, but it does make one a bit more concerned about how one’s family is viewed when the majority of voters decided to repeal legal equality for your relationship after the legislature passed it and it was signed into law.

  2. I agree with Will. In fact, I would say that that the attitude toward gay parenting makes it worse than sexism. I work in a male-dominated field, and while I feel some extra pressure here and there, everyone in the field at least says that they want women there. And no one is trying to *ban* us from being in the field, or actively argues that our presence harms the field. At 20% of my field, we’re still far more common than gay parents, so any one of us is less likely to be someone’s only experience.

    I find there’s something related, though quite different, about being a special needs mom. No one thinks I’m bad for the children or anything. But people give us such pitying looks when we go out, and I know they think our lives are a living hell. I feel an extra obligation to be cheerful and not display any aggravation. I want to make people feel comfortable having my kid around, and I want to know that he’s not an unmitigated tragedy – he’s a kid. But it can be, of course, frigging aggravating to deal with a non-verbal, non-ambulatory, average-sized two year old. But I feel I have to be super-happy – certainly no rolling of the eyes with other parents as when my older kid is acting his age.

    • A truly sweet and tender heart you have, Rose! Also, a very lucky husband.

  3. I was never intimidated by taking my children anywhere. When they were too small to walk, I took them in my backpack, even into better restaurants. I’d ask the maitre d’ for a table by the door, sit on my chair sideways and when they made a peep, I’d excuse myself from the table and deal with them.

    Socializing children early pays off. It’s not just the child who benefits from the process: a child doesn’t come with an instruction manual. You’re learning how to be a parent, too. If you’re nervous or self-conscious with your child in public, the child will sense it. Most children thrive in social situations, it’s the children who aren’t socialized early who embarrass their parents. It’s turn-about, if you’re embarrassed of them, they’ll ensure you’ll have a good reason for it.

    Sigh. For all the talk about Terrible Twos, it’s Three you need to worry about. Two is adorable. Three, they’re getting into everything, their vocabulary’s grown enough for them to be impertinent. Four is so wonderful, they still want hugs and they’re so clever. Every child of mine was a distinct joy.

    We grow in the image of those we love. Though I’m sure you already know it, always try to catch your child doing something good, every day. Children need encouragement and they’ll strive to win your favor, every day. I don’t hold with this Pee Cee business of every child needing a prize, but be there when they cross those first few finish lines of life. When they’re doing the right thing, tell them you’re proud of them. The tape recorder is always operating: they will always thrive with your encouragement.

    May I offer this perhaps-unwanted piece of advice? Do not allow your child to come between you and your husband. Your husband comes first by a country mile and don’t ever let your child forget that fact.

  4. As someone who sees parents deal with their irritating kids all day long, let me say this:

    We don’t judge you for the way your children behave. We judge you for the way you treat them.

    Kid screaming? We don’t care. Give the kid a candy bar to shut him up? You’re a horrible monster.

    Loudly threaten spankings once we get home but never follow through?We can tell, you coward. Either hit your kid or find another way to make him stop screaming.

    And seriously, there’s no reason to push your three year old around on wheels. He’s old enough to walk, god damn it. I don’t care if he sometimes runs off and you have to go catch him. He’s a kid–kids do that. This is the reason for the childhood obesity epidemic right here. It’s not junk food. It’s that you’re too much of a control freak to let your kid’s feet touch the ground.

  5. Is it just being a gay parent, or is it specifically being a gay dad?

    There’s still a cultural narrative of women as the caretakers of children, and while that’s often detrimental to women (who want to advance their careers etc), I can see the flip-side of that affecting expectations of how men interact with their children, which could be especially problematic for gay couples.

    I know that certain people have expressed doubts that a lesbian couple could successful raise a son to “be a man” (usually, without any evidence whatsoever), based on cultural narratives about gender roles.

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