Lesbian Mothers Making Men

The Lesbian Baby Boom Is Also a Baby Boy Boom. How Are These Lads Being Raised?

"Sure, I'm a boy. I do boy things like play ball and stuff. I look like a boy. What else would I be?" asked nine-year-old Ned,* the son of Caroline, 35, a speech therapist, and Kate, 37, a systems analyst. From my first encounters with Ned and boys like him, I was witnessing them devise a boyhood using not just social cues but what seemed like innate male-identity-building talents. Whether he was riding the wind down a hill on a skateboard, pumping on his Rollerblades, or playing just about anything with a ball, he projected a joyful boyishness. Steven, age seven, the only son of Hannah, a 34-year-old physician's assistant who lives with her partner, Carol, a 42-year-old attorney, knew his father but rarely saw him. Steven loves baseball, plays the game, collects baseball cards, and enjoys going with Carol to see the Giants play. Eight-year-old Carl, whose father lived in another state, loves to build complicated spaceships with his Legos and run races with his neighborhood friends or playmates in his after-school program. Ned, Steven, Carl, and all the other boys in my study refuted—to a man—the notion that boys raised by women will shrink from challenge and be unable to identify or connect with their own power.

The boys' mothers affirm, even relish, their sons' boyishness. "You know, I like seeing Ned wrestle with his friends," Caroline told me. "But I also like the fact that he's not a thug out to humiliate them. I just don't see an oppressive power struggle when he's roughhousing with his friends." Hannah calls Carl "my budding entrepreneur": He wants to send his Lego spaceships to the Lego company and is sure he'll win a prize. So much for the myth that lesbians hate men and might undermine their sons' masculinity. Engendering what I call "boy power"—a generous, confident sense not of masculine entitlement but of natural male possibility—is not merely the patented practice of dads. It is an equal-opportunity opportunity.

illustration: Yuko Shimizu

But even if the brains of boys are wired as they are from birth, don't they need grown-up men to show them the way? Whether from the stuff of his own life or from more remote figures, each boy I studied could, as it were, roll his own role model. Some have models close to home, either their biological fathers or other males they are related to. Others become close to men their mothers have deliberately introduced into the family circle for the boys' benefit. I found that most had more male figures in their lives than boys from the heterosexual families I studied, where the father was often the sole adult male in his son's life.

As a small child, nine-year-old Henry had picked out a special guy who worked in his after-school program. He would hang on the man's leg when his mother would come to take him home; when he was older, he adopted some of the man's characteristics, such as the way he wore his hat or waved his arms when he was excited. Kenny, 11, had connected with his soccer coach. Evaluating aspects of men he knew, Kenny declared his Hebrew tutor to be very smart—but he'd rather be a veterinarian, like his (male) neighbor. Some boys invented or summoned up other admirable males from the world of sports as well as real-life heroes or fictional characters, from Jim Davis, the creator of the cartoon Garfield, to Thomas Edison and Harry Potter. Ned was fascinated with the basketball star Kobe Bryant, whom he admired not only for his prowess but for his sportsmanship.

Some may say that these boys' reliance on cartoon, fantasy, and media figures is pitifully inadequate, offering no opportunity for real boys-to-men interaction, growth, and learning. But my observations suggest that these boys are forging healthy, well-integrated masculine identities whether they actually meet their role models or not. And if boys can construct a father as needed, they contradict the default belief of mental-health professionals, social scientists, and the culture at large that their fatherlessness thrusts them ipso facto into social and psychic danger. All mothers raising boys without men around could be heartened by that.

When these boys imagined what it would be like to have a father around, most declared almost immediately that they thought a dad would be "strict" with them. The father of Kenny's best friend, Ian, always wanted to be a pro golfer but never was. Now he was pushing Ian, making him practice all the time. "I wouldn't want a dad like that," Kenny told me. "He doesn't give Ian a chance to be a kid. I have more choices than Ian. I can play soccer, baseball, and football. All Ian can do is practice his golf swing." Lesbian-parented boys are less likely to be terrorized by that golf swing—and more likely to feel integrated into a post-feminist culture that celebrates sensitivity and openness.

Are sons of lesbians different in any way from the sons of heterosexual parents I studied? Yes—and the impact is mostly positive. Boys with lesbian parents are undoubtedly more self-aware. My study corroborated findings by psychologists Valory Mitchell and Ann O'Connell that boys and girls with lesbian or gay parents are more adept at communicating their feelings and exhibit more empathy for people different from themselves.

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