This research on gay fathers contradicts beliefs that fathers have less innate caring ability than mothers and challenges the historical emphasis on mothers.
Researchers at Cambridge University in the UK have found that 10- to 14-year-old adopted children of gay fathers showed higher levels of “secure autonomous attachment” than did adopted children of heterosexual parents. Children who score highly on secure autonomous attachment are able to cope on their own at times, and have positive coping mechanisms, when upset, such as turning to others for support.
Secondly, adopted children of gay fathers also showed lower levels of “insecure preoccupied attachment” than children adopted by either lesbian or heterosexual couples. Children who score highly on insecure preoccupied attachment are typically over-dependent on parents for support and show high levels of anger towards them.
Finally, children of gay fathers showed lower levels of “disorientated-disorganised attachment” – contradictory or incompatible coping strategies – than children of heterosexual couples.
But before rushing to the conclusion that gay fathers are innately better parents, as opposed to equally good parents, the researchers point out other possible explanations.
For example, gay fathers, who are still leading a social change and forging a new way in the world, are on average more motivated and well-adjusted than heterosexual parents. Indeed, in this research, gay fathers rated lower in depression and parenting stress than heterosexual adoptive parents.
Or perhaps the adoption screening process for adoption by gay men is more stringent, meaning gay fathers have to demonstrate stronger motivation and competence than do other adoptive parents. Alternatively, adoption agencies might be placing children with fewer behaviour problems with gay fathers, though there is little evidence of this. Indeed, on average, gay fathers in the sample adopted older children, and older children are more likely to show behaviour problems.
Another possibility difference between gay fathers and heterosexual parents is that they are unlikely to have been through the distressing process of attempting and failing fertility treatment. This traumatic experience can harm parental wellbeing.
Beliefs about mothers’ innate caring abilities, and the historical emphasis on mothers as “primary” attachment figures, might raise questions about attachment patterns in families with two gay fathers. However, the evidence from this research contradicts such ideas.
This is good news for the adoption system. The researchers conclude, “Given the number of children waiting to be adopted and the scarcity of suitable adoptive parents, it is important that potential adopters are not discriminated against based on their gender or sexual orientation.”
The study took place in two phases, once when the children were four to eight years old and again six years later, when the children were 10 to 14 years old. In the second phase, the children were interviewed using the “Friends and Family Interview”. The interviewers focused on how the children discussed the relationship with their parents, assessing this against various measures of secure and insecure attachment. On three out of four measures, secure autonomous attachment, insecure preoccupied attachment, and disorientated-disorganised attachment, they found statistical differences between adopted children of gay fathers, lesbian mothers and heterosexual parents. There were no differences on the final measure of attachment, “insecure dismissing”, when children portray themselves as strong, and minimize negative experiences and their need for support from others.
Earlier research has established that children do equally well when raised by lesbian mothers as they do when raised by heterosexual parents. In later research, this finding was found to apply to gay fathers, who were more responsive and warm towards their children and spent more time with them, on average, than fathers in heterosexual couples.
Header photo: Caitlin Childs. Creative Commons.