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by Suzanne M. Johnson and Elizabeth O'Connor
Guilford Press, 2001
Review by Rebecca Howard on Dec 4th 2001

For Lesbian Parents

When I saw the posting on an e-mail list asking for a review for the new Johnson and O’Connor book on lesbian parenting, I immediately responded to the invitation.  As a lesbian parent and Early Childhood educator (now college instructor), I was thrilled to see a book had finally been published specifically addressing the issues, concerns, and needs of lesbians who undertake a parenting role.  This type of book is long overdue: there is certainly no lack of parenting manuals available, and most of them have information that is important and relevant whatever your family make-up and sexual orientation.  There are definitely, however, specific issues and concerns that need to be addressed from the particular circumstances of a lesbian-headed household, and those discussions are, obviously, not included in parenting manuals that assume a heterosexual audience.

For Lesbian Parents is an overdue entry in parenting literature, and one that is much needed in lesbian communities.  I would like nothing more than to write an overwhelmingly positive review of such a work.  Unfortunately, Johnson and O’Connor haven’t given me enough to be overwhelmingly positive about.  There is much that is good about this book, but not overwhelmingly so.  The authors are certainly quite comprehensive in the scope of issues covered.  They address such topics as how to interact with doctors and teachers; helping children cope with bigotry and harassment; the place of religion and spirituality; the development of gender and sexuality; stepfamilies; legal issues; etc.   Johnson and O’Connor are at their best when they are discussing what they clearly know: developmental psychology.  They do an excellent job of explaining what to expect from children at various developmental stages, particularly in relation to specific issues.  For example, in Chapter Four, “How to Help Our Children Better Understand Our Family,” they provide a clear explanation of the different needs, capabilities, and reactions of children from Pre-School, School Age, and Adolescent stages.  They do this again when discussing how to help children respond to the break-up of a family (Chapter 12), as well as the Chapter 7 topic of “Dealing With Schools.”  Again, the primary significance of these discussions is their direct relationship to specifically lesbian parents and our children.  It is refreshing, reassuring, and helpful to have access to this type of material, and Johnson and O’Connor present the information in a clear and cogent manner.

The other element of the book that is basically sound is that they refrain from becoming overly-academic in their tone.  Most of the material is offered in a casual, conversational manner, which has the potential for being very engaging, and there are also a number of quotes from lesbian parents that they interviewed.  It is also the case, however, that this strength has its pitfalls.  The problem with academics trying not to sound academic is that they can, instead, come off as sounding condescending or patronizing.  Johnson and O’Connor make a noble effort to remain casual while presenting some clearly technical information, but there are times when they become so casual that their statements are insulting or over-generalized.  For example, one of the “What You Can Do” suggestions that they provide at the end of each chapter states, “ As your children get older, point out the political agenda of many conservative religious leaders.  For example, when someone appears on television campaigning for the latest Republican candidate, talk about how conservatives pick and choose their Biblical scriptures to match their political goals” (127).  Such a statement offers a very stereotyped portrayal of conservatives and Republicans.  In a book that repeatedly reminds the reader how important it is to discourage stereotypes in so far as they affect our children, it seems to me unwise to perpetuate stereotypes as they relate to other people.   The line between casual and academic is a fine one, and difficult to balance.  At times, Johnson and O’Connor achieve this quite effectively, but at other times they are off the mark.

The primary problematic element of this book, in my opinion, is the clear bias that is evident but not acknowledged in terms of who they believe they are writing to and about.  I have dubbed this the “white/bio-bias,” because the assumption seems to be that most everyone reading this book is white and has become a parent through artificial insemination.  My first red flag to this came at the end of Chapter 1, “Lesbian Mothers: Who We Are,” where the authors delineate the “diversity” of lesbian parents, noting such things as geographical location, religious commitment, level of “outness” and political involvement, etc.  There is no mention in this listing of the racial and ethnic diversity in lesbian communities and among lesbian parents, and throughout the book, the only discussions of such diversity are in terms of adoptive parents whose children are from a different racial or ethnic background (in each of the illustrative examples discussed, the parent is white and the child is the one who is different).  There is virtually no discussion of the specific potential for additional issues surrounding lesbian parenting in various ethnic communities.

The “bio” part of the bias is evident throughout, giving the assumption that everyone reading the book became artificially inseminated (or gave birth while in a straight marriage before coming out as lesbian).  While it is undoubtedly true that most lesbian parents became parents through AI or straight consensual sex, it is problematic to assume that everyone reading the book has come to parenting in that way.  More and more lesbians are finding ways to adopt, and there are, unfortunately, lesbians who have been raped and become pregnant as a result.  Johnson and O’Connor mention adoption and straight sex pregnancy, but it comes off as being an attempt at being inclusive, rather than an assumed inclusiveness from the outset.  This “bio-bias” is woven throughout the book in subtle ways; for example, in a Chapter 13 discussion of “Lesbian Stepfamilies,” while considering the issues involved in forming a new relationship with someone who has a child, they explain, “Sometimes a biological mother gets the sense that her new partner may be more interested in her children than she is in her” (205).  The use of the word “biological” in this sentence is absolutely extraneous and unnecessary, and serves to demonstrate the underlying assumption about the means to parenthood that is evidenced throughout the book.

There is nothing wrong with writing from a specific perspective, and writers are generally encouraged to keep in mind a specific audience they are addressing.  The bias is not the problem: the lack of acknowledgement of that bias is.  This would not be such a problematic element in this work if the authors weren’t setting themselves up as experts who are writing comprehensively.  Even so, there is a wealth of important and much needed information in this book, and lesbian parents can find tremendous value in what Johnson and O’Connor have to offer, especially if you are a white, “biological” mother.  Those of us who are removed from one or both of those qualifiers can still find this book a valuable addition to our parenting library, but must do so with an adaptive eye.

© 2001 Rebecca Howard
 

Rebecca Howard is a parent, partner, and educator.  After retiring from a seventeen year career as an Early Childhood teacher/administrator, she is currently teaching Women's Studies and Interdisciplinary Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.