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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

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Parenting Out

Parenting is hard. Anyone who’s ever attempted it knows that. But it’s also one of the greatest sources of joy in life. One minute you’re pulling your hair out, and the next, you’re filled with wonder at some new achievement your child has reached. These experiences are common across all parents, but those parents don’t take just one form. You may have a mom and dad living together with their kids, sure. But there are plenty of separated parents, single parents, and primary caregivers for nieces, nephews, and grandchildren.

There’s another category of parents out there whose story is sometimes less told: parents who are same-sex, transgender, or who otherwise identify as part of the LGBT community. Their stories can be less familiar to some people, but the child-raising experience is universally recognizable no matter who’s doing the parenting. 

While sometimes misunderstood, LGBT parents deal with the same highs and lows as every other parent. Underpinning all these experiences is love, which makes all families the same at their core. I had the opportunity to speak to a handful of LGBT parents in the Fredericksburg area about their struggles and joys with raising kids and the love that ties it all together.

Parenting ain’t easy

Brian, Will, Hazel, and Clementine

Brian and Will are married and live together with their family in downtown Fredericksburg. They have two adopted daughters: Hazel is 7, and Clementine is 2. Will is a university professor, and Brian owns and runs a local spa. You can catch their family out walking downtown or along the river path a lot of the time. At home, like many parents of young kids, one of their current struggles is handling their kids bargaining and arguing about every little thing. 

“We’re dealing with a lot of negotiating right now,” Will says.

Kids everywhere learn about the world by pushing back against the rules, and their experience is no different. And just like all parents, Will and Brian get a lot of comfort out of knowing that they’re not the only ones dealing with that.

“Seeing other kids with their parents,” Will continues, “we’re like, oh, we’re not the only ones that have a house full of small lawyers.”

Wives Heather and April also live in downtown Fredericksburg. Heather works from home doing freelance marketing; April is a school counselor. They have a 9-year-old son, Elliot, and a 6-year-old daughter, Emerson. Elliot was adopted, and Emerson was donor-conceived and carried by Heather. Like pretty much any family, and especially families where both parents work full-time jobs, one of their biggest struggles is balancing time. Elliot plays baseball five nights a week; Emerson does gymnastics. Finding room for some simple time together as a family is a challenge, especially for dinner.

“We’re constantly trying to beg, steal, and borrow time,” says Heather.

She also points out that for them, like many parents, their busy schedules make it hard to find time for her and April to get time together.

“I can’t remember the last time we’ve gone out, just the two of us,” she says.

Will and Brian, both working full-time, also have the same struggle with time management.

“We’re constantly juggling who’s gonna pick up which kid at which time and shuffle them where,” Will says. “And God forbid one of them gets an earache and the whole thing falls apart.”

Time management and contentious behavior are just a small cross-section of the frustrations that all parents have to deal with. Everyday headaches, while outweighed by the great experiences that come with raising a child, are a fixture in every parent’s life. And those headaches come up for LGBT parents just as often. Dealing with younger children’s issues can be a handful, as we’ve seen. But struggling as a parent isn’t just limited to LGBT parents with young kids. 

Faith and Family

Dani (3rd on the left) and family at her son’s wedding

Dani lives in Spotsylvania with her wife. They began as a husband and wife, but Dani’s yearslong struggle with her gender identity led to her identifying as a woman about six years ago. One hurdle to her transition was her devotion to her Catholic faith colliding with the church’s anti-LGBT stance. Now, as a transgender woman with four grown children, 13 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild (so far), she is able to look back on her years of parenting with an eye to how she was simultaneously struggling with her family and her identity. 

“When you’re transgender and can’t help it, you try to keep your mind busy to keep off of it,” Dani recounts. 

She was and still is involved in the church, but for a while devoted large swaths of her time to it in part to avoid addressing her identity. Those activities took away from the time she could spend with her kids in their young teenage years. 

“I look back on it and I wish I had more time with my children,” she says. 

She also wrestled with another common parenting struggle: taking the way she was raised and trying to improve on it for her own children. 

“All I ever heard when I was growing up was, ‘Don’t walk that way. Don’t talk that way. Don’t sit that way. You can’t dress that way.’ I did that to my children when I started out, and then when I realized what I was doing, I had to change,” Dani recalls.

These days, she is much happier with her relationships with her family and is happy to share with them the love that she has learned to have for herself.

What a wonderful world

Parenthood has its struggles, but along with the struggles come great joys. No matter what your family structure is, the love and wonder that comes from watching your child grow is the same. Dani’s children are all grown and have children of their own, and her face lights up when she mentions how proud she is of her kids and grandkids. She mentions in particular a grandchild who has come out as transgender, and the connection that they have because of that shared experience. 

“I actually feel closer to my grandchildren since they started coming out to me, and we’re open with each other,” she says. 

Coming out isn’t easy, and getting to see her grandchild face that challenge was a source of pride for Dani. Similar to overcoming hardships, watching your children learn something new is a joy. Will remembers the satisfaction he got from teaching Hazel to ride a bike.

“I get a big thrill from remembering how scared she was at the beginning, and now she’ll just go for miles without even thinking about it,” Will says.

Heather, April, Elliot, and Emerson, from when Emerson was a newborn

Some of the greatest joys in parenting can be the little things. The cuddling, the affection, the closeness of your loved one. April and Heather both really appreciate the love that their kids give them. Hearing the kids yell “mama!” and come running at the end of the day is one of their favorite things.

According to April, “I don’t know that there’s anything that brings me joy as much as both of our kids being really good huggers.”

She also is proud of how her kids have so much compassion for each other. Elliot carries Emerson around on his back everywhere, and Emerson will get upset if her brother is in trouble. At school, when Elliot had the chance to get a prize for good behavior, he picked out something for Emerson.

“He was the only kid that got something for his sister,” says April.

Brian and Will’s kids are also in the younger stage where they’re very loving. Brian says his favorite thing is simply making his kids laugh. 

“Whether it’s tickling them or chasing them, you know, it’s just having that connection with them that’s nice,” Brian says.

All in the same boat

Being an LGBT parent is the same as everyone else with kids: in many ways similar to all parents, but also a completely unique journey for each person. For the most part, the similarities are a source of strength. 

Regarding dealing with his kids when they’re causing headaches, Will says, “You talk to parent friends, or read about it in a blog, you realize you’re not so different from what everybody else is going through.”

And according to Heather, “I’ve never been anything but a lesbian mom. But we have lots of friends and family who are parents, and it’s not much different.”

And really, it isn’t much different, either for the parents or for the kids. A wide-ranging 2014 study of same-sex parents showed that children in families with same-sex parents fare just as well as children in households with two different-sex parents. This is true across a wide spectrum that includes academic performance, social development, and psychological health.

Daddy and Papa

Even though the love and compassion are the same as in all families, there are definite differences in the experience of being an LGBT parent. To start with, there’s the question of what the kids even call their parents. For Will and Brian, they went with “daddy” and “papa”, respectively. Heather goes by “mommy”, and April is “mama.”

“And if it didn’t matter, Elliot started saying ‘mah-mia,’” laughs Heather.

For Dani, her kids still call her “dad” in private, but “D” in public.

There are also the bigger questions from other people. Heather and April’s kids inevitably get asked at school, “where’s your dad?”. And when Brian and Will were visiting family, the little girl from across the street playing with Hazel and was curious about why she had two dads. And most times in their experience, it’s been a case of curiosity rather than hostility. 

“She was just trying to understand,” Will recounts.

Different families, same love

In their experience, the best answer to these questions is a pretty simple one: families take many shapes, and they all are filled with love. As long as the children are loved and cared for, it doesn’t matter what structure a family takes. 

Heather puts it like this: “There are all different kinds of families. Some people just have a grandma or grandpa, some people might live in a foster home, some people have two moms or two dads or a single parent. There are all kinds of families, and we respect all kinds of families, and the most important thing is that those children are loved.” 

There are lots of different shapes of family, not just with same-sex parents.

“Everybody has a different family,” Brian says.

And Dani reminds us, “God has created a great variation of people, and we need to appreciate it and love each other.”

And love, at the end of the day, is what it’s all about. Every parent shares love with their children, whether they’re LGBT or not. Every parent goes through a journey that starts the minute their child enters their life. And every parent’s journey is a valid one. Dani, Brian, Will, Heather and April all love and nurture their children. They raise their kids to be the best, most caring, most loving people that they can be. They change diapers, help with homework, and argue over bath time just like all parents do. They put in the work, the time and the compassion, and raise their children as best they can, like any other parent. Their homes ring with laughter and tears, joys and struggles, and tons of love.

As April puts it, “It’s all about love. And that, we have lots of.”

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