Whenever I pick up a new book in psychology, I want to know something about the author, so let me introduce myself. I come to the issue of how mothers are raising children with both a strong professional and personal interest. I was raised in a homogeneous, suburban East Coast community in an era when the Father Knows Best ideal of family life prevailed. When I was 3 1/2, my own father died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving my mother a widow at age 33. So, like many of the children in this book, I was raised by a single mother. I had older sisters, which was like having three mothers. We were the only family in the neighborhood without a dad. This growing-up experience led to my lifelong curiosity about what it is like for children who, as I did, grow up without fathers in female-dominated households. I think that my interest in psychology and my determination to pursue a career that combines research with therapy also has deep roots in those years spent in a family that was then quite unusual.
I am also part of a long-married, heterosexual couple, but my family tree continues to sprout in ways that challenge tradition. My son, now 25, was conceived the “usual” way, but after waiting 14 years for another child, my husband and I adopted our daughter as a newborn. I’m an older mother with a young child. Many of my contemporaries have children in high school or college; they’re out of the house or married. Some of my friends are even grandparents. Having an elementary-school-age adopted child along with an adult son has helped me to understand firsthand today’s school-age children, as well those girls and boys whose places on their family tree are untraditional.
Being married so long to the same man paradoxically makes me part of a new minority. The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that only 23.5 percent of households in the United States now contain families like mine -- the Father Knows Best kind, the kind with a married mom and dad and their children. The definition of family that prevailed during most of my life and professional career is inexorably shifting because of new technologies for conceiving children and new configurations of familial relationships. Families are changing. Parenthood is changing. All you have to do is pick up the daily newspaper to see it. My version of family has even left our TV screens. Children NOW, a national child advocacy organization that examines media messages to kids, reports that the nuclear family is disappearing from network television. On the six broadcast networks in 2001, only about 1 in 10 regular characters in prime-time series is a parent, and over one-third of those parents are single.
In a country in which one in two marriages will end in divorce, and 40 percent of babies are born out of wedlock, the mom-dad-and-kids definition of family is now less than definitive. Moreover, ideas of how children are conceived and what kinds of relationships add up to a “family” are being redefined. More and more children in the Western world are being raised not in the traditional nuclear family but by single or divorced parents, stepparents in “blended families,” adoptive parents, and grandparents. An increasingly large number are being raised by mothers who are single and who have not divorced a husband or been abandoned by a man; these mothers are single by choice and have made a conscious decision to have a baby and find a sperm donor to do it. Lesbian couples and single mothers by choice are pioneering new ways of getting pregnant via donor insemination. In the midst of the social upheaval and debate that has taken place about family structure, I became fascinated with the question: Can parents in nonnuclear families, without both a mom and a dad in the household, successfully raise children?
Years before I began the research for this book, as a professional mental health worker, I was shocked to observe the level of prejudice against mothers, manifested in subtle and cruel ways. While studying for my first master’s degree at Columbia University, I worked in a foster care adoption facility, where I was primarily responsible for the placement of children. One of my cases involved a white couple that had been foster-parenting two 3-year-olds: Mandy, a Caucasian girl with blue eyes and brown hair, and a Hispanic child, Ana, with mocha-colored skin and piercing dark eyes. Both were adorable. Though the couple professed to love each child, they could -- or would -- adopt only the Caucasian child, despite the fact that the girls had been raised as sisters in this foster home for over half their lives.
The agency worked long and hard to find a family placement for Ana. Finally they came up with what was in effect a two-mother family: a fairly affluent professional woman who was dying for a daughter and whose mother lived in the same home. I had the unfortunate task of picking up Ana to take her to her new family. Needless to say, there were a lot of tears. Ana had met her new mother before, and there had been a transition period, but she was being taken away from the only home she knew. It was heart wrenching. Still, I knew that in the long run she would be better off with a single mother who desperately wanted her, and who had a family support system, than with the mom-and-dad family who had been ambivalent about her presence.
Over the following weeks, I visited both Ana’s old foster family and her new mother and grandmother. Though Ana was still experiencing some real grief and sadness, in many ways she had started to grow pleased about her new family situation. On one occasion, she proudly showed me her new room, and on another, her special chair in the kitchen. She let me know that her seat at the table was in the middle between her mother and grandmother. But she wasn’t the only child who had to adjust. When I went back to check on the family adopting the Caucasian girl, Mandy, the little girl took one look at me and yelped to a friend who was visiting, “Quick! Hide your baby brother. Mrs. Drexler is coming.” She saw me as the woman who took children away from their families. Such can be the cost of building any kind of family.
However, the situation of Ana’s adoption possessed far greater enduring irony: If she had been a boy, she never would have been placed with the two women. Nor would she have been placed with a single mother. As independent parents raising children without the presence of a father, mothers have long been treated with dubiousness, fear, and even contempt. Traditional theories contended that mothers who reared sons without the presence of an active father -- or who were married but “overbearing” or raising “mama’s boys” -- instilled lifelong psychic disability, schizophrenia, or, worst, homosexuality in their sons. More recently, society’s guardians have declared that mothers -- especially single mothers, whether unmarried and poor, divorced and employed, straight or lesbian, or as white and prosperous as Calista Flockhart and Jodie Foster -- are sending violent, drug-using hellions out in into the world, boys who present no positive maleness, all due to the combination of Mom’s presence and Dad’s absence. Since Freud, mothers have been inculcated with the idea that we need to cut our sons’ cords to make them men ready to take on masculine roles in the world, from working toward worldly success to making war.
We have been further told by Freudians, social psychologists, and the popular culture that our sons need their dads in order to become upstanding male citizens. If not for Beaver Cleaver’s mom and dad, June and Ward, where would Beaver and his brother, Wally, have been? Without Ward, wouldn’t the boys have missed the supposedly crucial opportunity to separate from June by identifying with a very present father?
According to Freud and others who followed him, June alone could not have achieved everything required to bring up “the Beav” successfully. During the first 3 to 4 years of Beaver’s life, he would have needed Ward to imitate, long for, and react to, in order to gain the prize of being like his father. This theory -- that boys acquire masculinity only with an in-house male in the mother’s bedroom -- has prevailed to the detriment of both mothers and their sons. It presumes that the earliest relationship between infant and mother is simply a caretaking one. The assumption is that the mother is only a need provider for her son, while he in turn becomes physically and emotionally dependent on her. Eventually, assuming there is a present father in the home, the mother must withdraw herself from the child if her son is to become independent of her and escape the dire fate of being a mama’s boy.
The deep emotional connection between a mother and her son has been demonized for generations. As a research psychologist, I have seen how mothers worry that they will emasculate their sons by loving them too much. God forbid that a boy suffer from “smotherlove.”
Mothers of all kinds worry about smotherlove. Married mothers worry about the damage they might inflict by spending time with their sons, especially if Dad works long hours at the office or is often away from home. Newly single mothers worry about providing a solid foundation for their sons’ masculinity because most boys see much less of their fathers after a divorce. Single moms by choice are on the desperate lookout for male role models for their sons.
The 1990s began to see a cultural shift in these attitudes, with a spate of books alerting parents, and the culture at large, about the need to attend to boys’ emotional needs in order to temper the violence and depression rampant among young men. Yet even the most thoughtful mothers continue to internalize the “Back off, Mom” rule that has applied for so long. They worry about their “smothering mothering” and consciously pull back from ongoing connection with their sons. I lived through these worries myself when my own son was growing up.
Although in today’s world sons are placed in families with only a mother, concerns persist about a single mother’s ability to raise a masculine boy without the presence of an in-house male. During the century it’s been open, the Gladney Center for Adoption in Fort Worth, Texas, an international leader in adoption services, has placed more than 26,000 children in forever homes and has assisted more than 36,000 birth mothers. Mike McMahon, its president, told me in an interview that when a boy is considered for placement in a single-mother family, the organization always queries the prospective mother about the child’s opportunity for male role models. “Among ourselves, yes, we have a fear . . . that the boy [adopted by a single woman] wind[s] up without a balance in his life and [he may] wind up very effeminate as a consequence of that.” He further explained, “We ask [single mothers of sons] a lot more” about their plan for parenting.
McMahon agreed that women can and do raise sons successfully without a husband, but he claimed the need for a male figure of some sort still exists. “If we had two women living together,” he said, “we would still be pushing to say, ‘I know you have a plan and it’s great you have somebody who can care for this child when you travel, but you still need to have a male around somewhere.’ That’s hard to say. It’s pretty judgmental on our part, but we think it’s the right thing to do.”
However, when Gladney places a girl in a single-mom family, it doesn’t require the same plan for having a male figure around. “We don’t. We should, but we don’t,” McMahon admitted. “That’s probably more candid than I should say, but we really don’t. There’s probably a bias that it’s not as important [with girls], frankly, when it is.”
Are such concerns -- evident not just among social conservatives but among liberal-minded people at places like Gladney -- truly warranted? Are the sons of these women in danger? The traditional developmental view pronounces the presence of a strong male family figure to be vital to a child’s development. This view holds that the nuclear family remains the only model that doesn’t by its very nature damage kids. Some social scientists have declared that children reared in homes led by women are always at a disadvantage, suffering from increased levels of poverty, greater risk of involvement in crime, higher levels of teenage pregnancy, and lower levels of educational achievement. According to these scientists, boys are especially at risk if they’re fatherless.
Can parents in nonnuclear families, without both a mom and a dad in the household, successfully raise children? Even more specifically, can mothers raise boys, since young males seem more vulnerable than girls to familial discord, drugs, and social violence? In a world where the radical transformation of family and parenting has caused consternation, worry, outrage, and fear, the question of nonmarried mothers raising sons has become one of our most crucial and contentious social issues.
I became convinced that it was my job to investigate the causes of this attitude toward single mothers and two-mother couples raising sons and to find out whether this was justified, or simply a prejudice that had worked its way into our belief system. No family configuration has stirred more controversy in recent years than those of gay and lesbian parents. Whatever rights and status gay and lesbian people may have secured, the way gay men, lesbians, and children live as family units has generated immense curiosity, fury, and uneasiness. Most specifically, the idea of lesbian mothers raising America’s sons causes many raucous debates.
The fact that researchers at least a decade ago estimated the number of lesbian mothers in the United States to be as many as 5 million -- coupled with the more recent flurry of gay marriages that prompted heated national debate -- underscores a growing phenomenon of lesbian couples having babies and raising families. According to the Family Pride Coalition, a national advocacy group for gay and lesbian families, some 9 million children in America have at least one gay parent, and one in five lesbian-coupled households includes a child under age 18.
“Same-sex couples and single women are 40 percent of our business, and it is the fastest-growing segment,” said Marla Eby, vice president of marketing at California Cryobank in Los Angeles, which ships semen nationwide.
Despite this trend, the majority of Americans still seem to believe that it is better for a child to have two parents of the opposite sex than to be raised by two lesbian mothers. A clear majority of Americans also agree with President George W. Bush’s simple position -- marriage should be between a man and a woman. In a Time/CNN poll, 62 percent of respondents said they opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage; fewer than a third favored it.
Clearly, lesbian and gay families continue to be viewed with reproach and disdain by many in the dominant culture, who worry that the estimated 6 to 14 million children living in these types of families are bound to suffer grave harm from being raised by homosexuals. Was that so? I wondered. What was the truth about how lesbian mothers raise sons?
In addition, I wanted to find out what lesbian parenting would tell all of us about how mothers -- whether they are what I call “maverick mothers” raising kids without fathers, or mothers in more traditional mother-father families -- foster values, character, and assurance in their sons. Later, my study would extend to single mothers by choice as I sought to answer a vital question: Could sons prosper through the power of mothers alone?
After obtaining a master’s degree at Columbia, I continued to explore the issues around raising children as a clinical social worker and a faculty member at the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Payne-Whitney Clinic of New York Hospital/Cornell Medical School. In 1996, during my graduate work at the California School of Professional Psychology, motivated by curiosity about the nature of a phenomenon I was witnessing firsthand -- and long fascinated by how all nontraditional mothers parent their children -- I decided to do my dissertation on the moral development of sons of lesbians. How, I wondered, did these boys attain the moral compass required to be ethical and balanced adults, without the presence of a father who knows best? I began my study by comparing the moral development of elementary-school-age sons of lesbian couples with that of boys from more traditional families, using both standardized psychological tests and extensive one-on-one interviews with the boys and their parents. My work grew into a larger investigation of all the issues facing the sons of lesbians in couples. It evolved further to include the sons of single mothers by choice.
In these two later stages of my work, I conducted extensive interviews as well as other research into how the boys interacted with their mothers, how they interacted with adult men in their lives, how they related to their classmates, and how they developed a sense of maleness without having an adult male in the household. Not only did the parents in my study take time from their busy schedules to talk with me -- usually in person -- about their feelings, motivations, and emotions; they entrusted me with their sons. Each family, parents and children alike, participated to the fullest, openly sharing their thoughts and feelings with me. I was often privy to information that mothers did not have about their sons, that sons did not have about their mothers, and even that partners did not have about each other.
In reviewing these extensive interviews, I looked for individual distinctions, as well as shared qualities among the participants. In this book I’ll present the data I compiled and the patterns I observed as collective experiences. In all cases, I have honored the confidentiality I promised, by changing names and disguising identities. Throughout this book, you will read in detail about my findings and their implications for these boys, their mothers, and all mothers who raise boys.
Beyond the specifics of how women are successfully raising sons, I came to see that good, loving, growth-encouraging parenting is what sons need. Parenting, moreover, is not anchored to gender. Parenting is either good or deficient, not male or female. A good female parent will change diapers and coach soccer. A good female parent will help a boy to develop his full potential as long as she values his manliness and encourages his growth, independence, and sense of adventure.
My work challenges the tide of opinion and the research arguing that boys need fathers in order to grow to manliness. My findings have incited both support and vehement opposition. That two women could raise a boy to a man without warping his manhood is an idea that challenges the preconceptions of social scientists, health care professionals, judges, politicians, pundits, and parents. The consequences of such research bear on notions of family that encode Western culture’s most profoundly held convictions about gender, sexuality, and parenthood. While the implicit presumption governing the discourse is that healthy child development depends upon parenting by a heterosexual couple, I came to rely on a controversial literature that challenges the commonly accepted risks of fatherlessness.
As word of my work spread, and as America began to pay serious attention to “alternative families,” I was frequently asked to speak about my study at conferences that brought together professionals from all over the country, at independent schools around the United States, and at hospitals and colleges, including Harvard Medical School and Harvard Law School. People were very interested in my study, which after extensive review by my fellow professionals was published in 2002 by Gender and Psychoanalysis and Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic. So I traveled from coast to coast, as well as to states in the middle of the country, like Missouri, and to the south, like Florida, and I spoke at all kinds of educational institutes to parents and teachers from preschools through graduate schools, and at family service agencies and community centers.
Universities also demonstrated their interest in my work. The New York University Child Study Center asked me if I would be willing to serve on its board of directors. My research on sons of two-parent lesbian families was and is innovative and groundbreaking, and in a highly unusual step, Stanford University renewed my appointment as a gender scholar for a second term. I began to be consulted as an expert on the changing American family and the lives of boys by both mainstream publications and television journalists.
I felt that my conclusions were important and significant enough to publish in book form as a “report from the field.” This book seeks to be the kind of systematic study of lesbian parents and their sons that Robert Coles undertook when he studied children from Appalachian families or Black families in the rural South or in northern ghettos. My study of these children resembles in scope and, I believe, in social significance the work Judith Wallerstein has done with children of divorced parents. I believe sexual distinctions can be as significant to the well-being of children as those based on race, class, religion, and family structure. Moreover, with all the freighted meaning that America assigns to its boys, especially in an age characterized by anxiety and uncertainty about what masculinity should be and how it manifests in the world, I want to show what it has been like and continues to be like for these boys to pursue their lives.
I am well aware that scientifically definitive research on the children of lesbians and of mothers who are single by choice will take many years to complete. This book represents a cross-sectional analysis of two phases of a planned long-term engagement with these boys and their families; it is a snapshot of a moment in time in these boys’ lives. Yes, it’s tough to write a book when, as in life, there are no final answers. But I believe strongly that the boys I know are at a significant moment in their young lives, a moment worth noticing and understanding. Each stands on the cusp of adolescence with an intact and powerful sense of self. I plan to revisit the families I studied when the boys are well into their teens and young adulthood and report on what I’ve found. So stay tuned for a second and maybe even a third volume.
With this book, I invite you into my living laboratory of two-mother and single-mother-by-choice households. You will see how it is possible for mothers to raise boys on their own, the way that so many women in this culture are called to do. The stories, voices, data, and findings here will reassure, hearten, and empower you, whether you are a maverick mother or a traditional one. For women weighing their ticking biological clocks and their craving to nurture children, this book shows that you have reason to take that informed leap of faith. But the lesson for all mothers -- including the ones with husbands -- is that women possess the innate mompower that in itself is more than sufficient to raise fine sons. The mothers and sons in this book offer us the opportunity to rethink and reshape our community of caring. They are not just reshaping our family trees. They are calling on us to enlarge the possibilities of love.
One of the strongest weapons we have against violence in our neighborhoods and schools, as well as ultimately in the larger world, is our ability to communicate with our boys about what is going on in their lives. Simply put, we must talk to them, and listen to them. This book is rooted in the many, many hours I spent having these conversations.
When I speak around the country about raising boys without men, people want to know how I was able to get the information I did from the boys. Why were they so open with me? The question implies that I must have a special trick that made it possible for notoriously taciturn young males to reveal their true selves to me. I laugh and tell my questioners the truth. Although I do have special training, it’s simpler than that. I was curious and eager to know these boys -- and I still am. They inspire me and give me hope. In a world that sometimes disappoints, scares, and hurts them, they still want to connect. I have written this book for the wonderful boys I drove around San Francisco in my little black VW Beetle, listening to their dreams and fears, their plans and frustrations, their jokes and homework hassles, their sense of justice and their fierce love of family. It is their story, and this book is for them.
Copyright © 2005 Peggy Drexler
Finalist: Books for a Better Life Award in Parenting. Books for a Better Life awards recognize and pay tribute to outstanding and influential self-help, motivational, self-improvement or advice books.
Finalist: Lambda Literary Award in Nonfiction—The Lambda Literary Foundation celebrates achievements in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) literature.
Best-Seller: San Francisco Chronicle—“Raising Boys Without Men, Peggy Drexler, a study by a Cornell psychology professor finds that single mothers and lesbian couples are just as effective at raising sons as more traditional families.”
Hot Summer Read: Harper’s Bazaar
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