Same-sex parents, so what?

Research Associate Kate Ellis-Davies from the University of Cambridge is responsible for managing «The New Parents Study». Ellis-Davies’ looked in particular at the differences of parenting between same-sex and different-sex couples and the reasons why and how caregiving is divided between the parents during early childhood.

In your residency you have analyzed data from 131 European families to better understand the different factors which influence transitions to parenting, parent and child well-being, and who takes on the roles of caregiving. In particular, you looked at the differences of parenting between same-sex and different-sex couples and the reasons why and how caregiving is divided between the parents during early childhood.

How did you become interested in this topic and why did you decide to research it in the three countries France, Netherlands and the UK? 
Much of the research with families still focuses on heterosexual co-parenting couples. In these samples research still finds women to be the predominant caregiver. However, this has often to do with how the research is designed as well as historical and economical reasons. Ultimately if we only look at heterosexual couples we may find it hard not to conflate the characteristics of primary caregiver role with gender. To avoid this confusion we have become interested in so-called new family forms. These new family forms include families formed by assisted reproduction technologies, and same-sex parents for example. With these families we can ask how caregiving is organized, how they decide on who becomes the primary caregiver and why. .  As you can imagine the first few months of becoming a parent is the biggest shock to the system as your life changes on all levels: your professional life, and your relationships with your partner, your friends, your peers, and your family. Everything changes within a short period of time and you also have to take care of your baby. There is a lot to navigate and we need to better understand how different groups navigate those situations. This is where our initial questions came from. We have picked the three countries because they all have different laws on surrogacy and assisted reproduction, which are the methods that our research sample uses to become parents.

What influences the decision of who takes the role of primary caregiver in same-sex couples? 
Kate: These are two questions really: What is the decisive factor at the beginning and how stable is the role? Heterosexual parent roles traditionally are quite stable and whoever is the initial primary caregiver, which tends to be the woman, stays the primary caregiver. For same-sex couples gender is never a deciding factor on caregiving roles and so more contextual factors are involved in the negotiations around caregiving roles, such as personal preferences, economic, or individual and relational factors.  For different-sex parenting couples there are less examples of the pragmatic and relational discussion. Internationally, mothers in different-sex parenting couples then tend to work and do a higher percentage of caregiving time.

Within the first year the really big decisions are made on how the caregiving role looks like for the couple, what role daycare plays and when and how to return to work. With same-sex couples research suggests more flexibility in caregiving roles, whereas with heterosexual couples caregiving roles are unlikely to switch in the early years. . This stability in caregiving roles in heterosexual parenting is associated with the “mothering tax”a phenomenon where mothers returning to work from maternity leave see a prolonged and significant drop in salary. This is not the case  for non-parenting female colleagues, or male colleagues (regardless of these men’s parenting status). Fathers, on the contrary, see a rise in their earning potential. Initial research on lesbian mothers, find that there is not the demonstrated “mothering tax”. This suggests that gender is not necessarily an all explaining variable.

What policy implications does your research have? 
The laws on surrogacy are different in our three research countries: in France surrogacy is illegal and if you have a child by surrogacy the child will never be given French citizenship. In the UK surrogacy is legal but you cannot pay the surrogate, only cover her expenses. In the Netherlands surrogacy is possible but clinics will only pursue this option if it is a medical necessity, which automatically discounts same-sex couples. This shows that the broader social context people live in and the policies really impact their ability to pursue parenting. And this in turn not only affects their way of being a parent but also how society sees them.

In the UK, any family who goes through a surrogacy has to get a parental order when the child is around four or five months. That process involves a home-visit from a social worker making an assessment of the family and the environment and then reporting to a judge. After that the parents are taken to court to hear the judges decision if they can keep their child or not. Because there is little evidence around these new families and new experiences it is a challenge for the social workers to write their reports. It is very important for them to have evidence-based policies to help them in that role, and also the families need to be confident that the process is evidence-based.

Is there a particular topic that social workers are most interested in when they receive your evidence?
Social workers are very concerned with the communication in surrogacy families on the child’s conception process. But we found that social workers do not need to worry about this as in all of our projects we saw that gay fathers always plan to tell the child how they were conceived. The fathers will not pretend that the stork came and dropped the baby off but think about how and when to tell their child well in advance. They also carefully think at what age the child should be to start addressing its biological
conception. Gay fathers also tackle the question if they should maintain contact with the surrogate, if the child will and should be able to meet the surrogate and what’s the best way of communicating the surrogacy to children of different ages. I think that the way many gay fathers go about communicating the surrogacy should be viewed as best practice. It is this kind of evidence that will support the social workers in understanding how parents navigate these issues. The best way we can support evidence-based policy is actually giving evidence of how well these families do.

Do you think that your policy implications will be applicable for other countries? 
I would hope that any policy being developed that impacts on or has assumptions about caregiving roles would take our evidence into account. Across all family types becoming a parent is a life-changing transition and the similarities are often more striking than the differences. It is important to realize that this is a family process, which is in studies appears more important than the family’s structure. It is important to be supportive of new parents as it has positive implications for how they parent, the parental relationship and the child’s development.

Kate Ellis-Davies’ research interests focus on infant and parent contributions to the development of communication, attachment and regulation. Kate has examined the roles of infant attention, motor and language milestones; temperament; parenting and well-being within the context of normative and atypical human development across the lifespan.
Current research is undertaken as part of her post as Research Associate within the Applied Developmental Psychology Research Group, where she is the research associate responsible for managing The New Parents Study. Work within this project centres on the development of children across the areas of Kate’s interests, within families based in the UK, France, and The Netherlands where conception has occurred through assistive reproduction who are headed by straight, gay and lesbian parents.