In a recent conversation about same-sex marriage, a young woman we love wrote to Jenet, “Families come in all different shapes and sizes (I know this well) and I think all of them should be celebrated.” While a young teenager, her parents divorced after her father refused to end an extramarital affair. Her mother’s remarriage to a faithful husband created a new step-family.
From this young woman’s experience, there was no one “ideal” family. Instead, the “reality” of many different types of families was reason to celebrate them all as equally ideal.
We too are personally acquainted with modern realities of many families. When Michael’s parents divorced, his mother asked if he would like to live with her or with his father. He was 6 years old. Broken-hearted and unable to choose between them, Michael remained speechless and refused to answer.
It was 1981, the peak of the divorce rate. At the time, social scientists genuinely believed it would have little effect on children. As a prominent scholar once told Jenet, “We really thought it would be like getting a bad cold. It would hurt for a time, but kids would get over it.” A decade later they were deeply surprised at the actual effects. In every area of development from physical to emotional to academic, research studies showed that children whose parents divorced were more likely to struggle, and for the long-term.
Michael’s parents decided on joint custody, a decision for which we are grateful. Their unique influences — a significant portion of which came from their unique genders — were irreplaceable. But while they did the best they could for Michael, it was not ideal to be raised in a broken marriage. Underlying his upbringing was a painful question: If the parents who made him were not meant to be together, what was the purpose of his own life? The answer did not come until Michael developed hope for a family of his own, following his Christian conversion and faith in the doctrine of Atonement. For him, the pain of the “real” was healed by hope in the “ideal.”
Years later, Michael supported Proposition 8 in California, in part because his personal experience convinced him that children need, as much as possible, a mother and a father. In an email exchange, an adoptive gay father of two siblings asked Michael to consider his circumstances. The state had taken custody of these young children after severe neglect caused by their biological parents’ drug addictions. The little boy was born with severe birth defects. A social worker helped this gay couple adopt both children after a young married (heterosexual) couple wanted the little girl, but refused her little brother.
Upon hearing this story, Michael expressed, as genuinely and sincerely as he was able, his deep admiration and respect for their decision to raise and love these children. Then, he affirmed, as politely and respectfully as he was able, his belief that marriage laws ought to communicate the message that children need both a father and a mother. The father’s response was unexpected: “I agree 100 percent with you that a healthy mother and father are what is best for every child.” But he was gay, he explained, and could not change that, and his children’s biological parents had neglected them. “So, yes, mothers and fathers are the best choice,” he concluded, “sadly that is not the world we live in.”
For this father, the realities of “the world we live in” made impossible the ideal for all children to be raised by their father and mother. But abandoning hope in that ideal brings its own new realities.
Another adoptive gay father, Frank Ligtvoet, wrote openly and honestly in the New York Times about motherless parenting: “Sometimes when my daughter is nicely cuddled up in her bed and I snuggle her, she calls me Mommy. We could fill our home with nannies, sisters, grandmothers, female friends, but no mothers. My daughter says ‘Mommy’ in a funny way, in a high-pitched voice in a voice that is not her own. It is her stuffed-animal voice. She expresses not only love; she also expresses alienation. She can role-play the mother-daughter relationship, but she cannot use her real voice, nor have the real thing.” Ligtvoet concludes, “Motherless parenting is a misnomer” because even “when she is not physically there, she is still present in dreams, fantasies, longings and worries.”
We deeply appreciate what these adoptive fathers provide that the biological parents of their children did not. But in doing so, we need not ignore that there are differences — real differences — between being raised by a father and a mother or by two fathers or two mothers.
Recently, the legal landscape has changed quickly to embrace same-sex unions as constitutionally equivalent to man/woman marriage. Changing laws, however, cannot alter fundamental biological, anthropological and social differences. Those “realities” cannot be ignored. It is vital, therefore, that religious, educational, and other social institutions continue to preach, teach and nurture the ideal of children raised by their married mother and father, despite the perceived realities that might make such hopes seem impossible.
The truth is that ideals shape realities. It was hope in the ideal that healed the broken heart from Michael’s childhood, making possible our marriage. And, at the website “Voice(s) of Hope,” scores of people, both married and single, are sharing their lived experiences pursuing the ideal of man/woman marriage despite the reality of same-sex attraction. In doing so, they are creating a new reality that many have considered unthinkable. With hope, the ideal can become real.
Michael Erickson is an attorney. Jenet Jacob Erickson is a former assistant professor at Brigham Young University and a family science researcher. They live in Salt Lake City.