A Post-Father's Day World?

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Jun 28, 2010 8:00 PM
A Post-Father's Day World?

On Father's Day, whom do we celebrate?

If you are President Obama issuing a Father's Day proclamation, the answer is: fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers, two dads and my personal favorite, the totally genderless "caring guardians." When it comes to children, so many voices seem to be saying, there's nothing special to celebrate about the father.

And, after all, didn't the prestigious journal Pediatrics just publish a study showing that lesbian moms are better parents? Fathers don't seem to matter anymore.

Well, if that's what the science says, maybe we have to face the fact: Men, this is your get out of family free card.

For if it is true that fathers don't matter in particular, that the body is irrelevant, that what counts is adults' desire to form families, not children's longing for a mother and a father -- then for how long can we continue to hold men accountable for children created from passing sexual acts? Why are these guys deadbeat dads? Why aren't they just part of the great national trend toward family diversity?

But in fact, the science on gay parenting is far less definitive than the media is reporting, especially given the breadth of evidence that children do best raised by married mothers and fathers.

Take the Pediatrics study.

Here's what this study didn't do: It didn't look at how the average child raised by two mothers fares. This is a volunteer sample, not a random sample of lesbian mothers. That in itself makes it difficult to say how typical these women are of lesbian mothers generally. (The 93 percent retention rate of original participants, amazing after a decade or more, also suggests this is an unusually motivated set of mothers). If you want to know how children fare on average in different family forms, you need a probability sample, not a self-selected sample.

Here's another thing this study did not do: It did not study a comparison group. The reports of the mothers on their children's outcomes were compared statistically to children in a database known as the Achenbach normative sample of American youth. This is a system designed primarily for "screening" to identify children in possible need of interventions and evaluation, not to settle family structure questions. The sample included children in a wide variety of family structures, making the study's relevance to the marriage debate particularly unclear.

Here is what this study did: It asked a self-selected group of lesbian mothers how their kids are doing. "Great!" they said. Their children are doing so fine, in fact, that even when lesbian families fall apart, the study concludes these mothers report no ill effects on their children's emotional well-being. "Within the lesbian family sample no ... differences were found ... between offspring whose mothers were still together and offspring whose mothers were separated."

Given what we know about the effects of divorce and family transitions on children, this "no difference" result is improbable in the extreme. We cannot know for sure, but could we have here a self-selected sample of highly motivated women anxious to validate their own mothering, and to further the great civil rights cause of the century?

I know there are lesbians who are good and caring mothers. The research shows this, just as it shows there are other single mothers who are good mothers.

But why is it that 50 years into this debate we still have no research that looks at a nationally representative sample of children raised by two lesbians and follows them into adulthood and compares how they fare? And why do we lack even one single study, based on even non-representative samples, that looks at how children raised by two gay men fare?

And how can educated people continue to make the claim the science has disproven the advantages of dual-gender parenting, when the actual scientific data is so weak?