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On our best behaviour: Lesbian-parented families in early childhood education

Debora Lee and Judith Duncan
Abstract: 

Lesbian parents live in a world that often assumes that all families consist of mum, dad, and the kids. This can complicate their families’ participation in early childhood education. Through interviews with gay mothers, this article draws out the tensions underlying their experiences at early childhood centres. These mothers negotiate between achieving visibility and acceptance, and avoiding negative reactions for their children.

On our best behaviour:
Lesbian-parented families in early childhood education

Debora Lee and Judith Duncan

Aotearoa New Zealand’s early childhood curriculum document Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 1996) consistently promotes strong partnerships with all families and whānau. The foreword, introduction, and implementation sections emphasise a curriculum commitment to collaboration with families and whānau. Despite this, there is little evidence of positive visibility for same-gender families in early childhood centres. Gunn and Surtees (2004) have worked consistently to address issues of homophobia and stereotyping with early childhood student teachers and teachers over the last decade, yet admit they have witnessed little change. Surtees, in Gunn et al. (2004), describes witnessing a lack of support from both teachers and other parents when children mentioned their samegender parents. She reports hearing homophobic remarks that no one took the opportunity to question. When teachers reassure families that boys dressing in skirts are not going to grow up to be gay, the underlying message is clear: “being homosexual is not okay” (Gunn et al., 2004). These messages permeate the social world of the child.

The purpose of the study that informs this article was to investigate the experiences of a group of gay mothers who had children attending early childhood centres. The study aimed to find out which practices supported, or otherwise, the inclusion of these families, and whether Te Whāriki intentions were being met. The research has wide-reaching significance for the wellbeing of children from gay- and lesbian-parented families, and for gay and lesbian youth. Children develop identity in a multifaceted manner, which includes the political dimensions embodied in the social world of which they are a part (Williams & McKenna, 2002). The attitudes of others have a significant influence on children’s developing sense of self and wellbeing. If positive attitudes towards people of diverse sexualities are evident in early childhood education, greater acceptance in other education sectors could result.

A tension existed for the mothers in the study between wanting to be seen as “just like any other family” and their knowledge that the acceptance afforded to gay and lesbian people is often tenuous. This tension was evident in the juxtaposition between the warmth with which the majority of teachers welcomed the families and the lack of provision made for lesbian-parented families in most of the early childhood centres. The tension sometimes resulted in the mothers not addressing their concerns with teachers. Staying silent about not being included may result from feelings of being “other”, and therefore not wanting to appear demanding. These feelings could be alleviated if family diversity was acknowledged and embraced by teachers.

Theoretical framework

The theoretical framework for this research was informed by queer theories and Michel Foucault’s (1977) thinking about how society ensures compliance by using techniques of discipline and control. Heteronormativity emerged as the most significant construct from queer theories. Heteronormativity is the pervasive expectation that people are heterosexual, and it is underpinned by constant reinforcement in all aspects of our lives (Warner, 1993). Adrienne Rich (1980) suggests that the understanding that families are comprised of a man and a woman and their children permeates every element of human existence. This pervasive supposition is aptly described by Sedgwick (1991, p. 68) as “the deadly elasticity of heterosexist presumption”.

The common assumption that families are formed by a heterosexual couple means that any family that does not fit this pattern is likely to be viewed as “other” and to experience the resulting stigma. Even if overt homophobia is not displayed, the expectation of heterosexuality has a profound influence. In order to work towards a more socially just society, listening to the voice of the “other” is paramount. Dahlberg and Moss (2005) posit that teachers have a responsibility to acknowledge “otherness”, rather than attempting to create homogeneity, or a false sense of sameness.

Foucault’s (2000) construct of desire was significant for this research because it suggests that people act in order to experience pleasure, and that people’s desires are manipulated in order to control their behaviour. As a method of ensuring that people are unlikely to stray from societal expectations, desire is highly successful. The power of societal “norms” provides constant evidence of the place of those who do not successfully “fit in”, and examples are provided in our media to prompt us should we forget. For the mothers in the study, the most powerful desires were for the wellbeing of their children and that they be seen as any other family. These desires are likely to have influenced the extent to which the mothers requested that consideration be made for their families.

Methodology

The participants in this research responded to advertisements in the gay and lesbian media or through “word of mouth”. All the eligible participants were interviewed. The early childhood settings included public kindergartens, early education and care centres, and Playcentre.

Semistructured interviews were used to ensure that the interviewer could be responsive to the unique stories that were shared, and to promote discussion.

The data were analysed using a rigorous process of organising the material into themes. This analysis occurred after examining the transcripts using Foucault’s (1972) ideas about discourse, discipline, and control; resistance; subjectivity; desire; and surveillance. The discursive practices of heteronormativity, and the desire to be accepted, emerged as strongly influencing the experiences of the mothers and their children. Three themes were identified as common to all of the interviews. These were: “A family by any other name”, “Children first”, and “The right to belong”. These themes provided a framework for the research findings.

Findings and discussion

Desiring sameness: We are family

The most striking feature of the findings was that many of the mothers stated adamantly that they saw themselves, as Robyn put it, “just like the family across the road”. This desire was expressed strongly, and the mothers were adamant that being gay was not a major part of their lives. When she spoke of the lack of provision for lesbian-parented families, Kym said:

That doesn’t bother me that much to be quite honest. Although we are a lesbian couple it’s not the main part of my existence, if you know what I mean. In a lot of ways it’s just normal people getting on with life.

Amy made a similar point, recognising that there were differences in the type of family, but asserting that family composition did not detract from the imperative for families to care for, and about, each other:

I mean for me, I know we are a different type of family but for all of us … this is just our family … I know that we are different. We are not different as far as I am concerned; we do the same things that any family does. We support each other, we love each other, we try and encourage each other the same way any other family does … I don’t see us as a family that are different to any other family. Everything else we do, the dynamics of our family, are probably the same as any other family.

Many writers suggest that gay mothers view themselves as the same as any other family (Hequembourg, 2007; Kitzinger, 2004; Robinson, 2005). Saphira’s (1984) research into lesbian-parented families in Aotearoa New Zealand emphasised similarities in parenting styles between lesbian-parented and heterosexual families.

A desire to be seen as like other families also emerged in the discussion about how the mothers named their families. The mothers spoke of their family predominantly as “a family with two mums”, sometimes leaving other people to make the connection to “gayness” for themselves. The women did not tend to use the word lesbian in the context of their family, but several used the word to describe themselves when wanting to make a point. The women reported that they used terms to describe their families that their children could identify with. The term “a family with two mums” plays down the differences between lesbianparented families and heterosexual-parented families (Robinson & Jones-Diaz, 2006). It is probable that the heteronormative nature of the early childhood setting encouraged this language use, and that the women’s desire to fit in contributed to their decisions about how to name their families.

Warner believes that queer people who down play their differences are more likely to be successful at achieving a sense of belonging in straight circles: “The more you are willing to articulate political issues in a way that plays to a normal audience, the more success you are likely to have” (1999, p. 44). Most of the mothers had thought about how to name their families in order to describe their family composition to the teachers in the centres. The use of “a family with two mums” was evidence that the mothers wanted to avoid “uncomfortable” words like lesbian in favour of the safer and more socially acceptable mum. This approach to naming causes little or no disruption to discursive practices in the early childhood centre and is perhaps an example of the “best behaviour” referred to in the title of this article.

Desiring wellbeing: Protecting children

“Coming out”1 was problematic for the mothers because of the tension between their desire to be seen as just like any other family and a desire for recognition of their family composition. Both of these contradictory desires were founded on a commitment to the wellbeing of the children. By “coming out” and making their family visible, the mothers knew they put their children’s wellbeing at risk of negative responses from others.

The mothers were sensitive to the teachers’ responses to their “coming out”, with most being adamant that acceptance of their family was essential for their children. Robyn was extremely aware of the ongoing nature of “coming out”:

You constantly have to ‘come out’. I mean that’s how it is when you are gay anyway. But … it just multiplies a million times when you have a child. I don’t care so much for myself; I care that it’s awkward for [my child].

Several of the mothers commented that they were skilled at sensing if someone had a negative reaction to their family. Robyn smiled knowingly when she remarked, “You always see a slight twitch or something.” It was important to most of the mothers that the teachers did not react negatively, although one said she believed she could establish relationships that would counteract an initial negative response. Anne felt strongly that a positive welcome was important for her children:

I think we are quite good at reading initial responses and we didn’t want to put our kids somewhere where there was that almost sense of homophobia … We just wouldn’t do that to our kids.

In the study, all of the mothers were “out” to at least some of the staff in the centres. Several of the mothers said that they were assertive when they introduced themselves to teachers. McCann and Delmonte (2005) found that some gay women take a strong stand about being nonheterosexual in order to pre-empt negative or homophobic responses. Heteronormativity privileges heterosexual relationships to such an extent that same-gender families are made invisible. In order to be recognised as a lesbianparented family it is crucial to make a point of directly stating family composition.

The mothers felt a sense of responsibility to be open, positive, and confident when they spoke about their families. For many of the mothers this was part of their commitment to demonstrate to their children that they were proud of their families. It was important to the mothers that their children saw them engaging openly with teachers when they explained their families.

Interestingly, most of the mothers seemed to see the initial contact with the teachers as most crucial. For many of the women in the study, being overt about their diversity in an ongoing manner was not desirable either for their sense of safety or for the safety of their children.

The tension between being open about their families and the resulting loss of safety was present in many of the mothers’ stories and appeared to result in them modifying their behaviour at times in order to not stand out.

Conflicting desires: Tensions

The desire to be seen like other families yet also wanting acknowledgement as a samegender family created tensions that were evident in many of the stories shared. These tensions included attempting a balance between visibility for the family and the wellbeing of the child, and wanting recognition but not wanting to be typecast. An example of these tensions was Sophie’s statement about feeling unable to ask for any special provision for her family. Her use of the word brave suggests that she felt constrained by the power of the heteronormative expectations of the centre:

We’re such a tiny minority. I don’t really feel I can say, ‘Well, hang on, when you are telling a story could you fling a same-sex partner in there?’ I am not quite that brave.

When discussing practices and resources that would increase her family’s sense of belonging at the centre, Sophie did not think that these should be viewed as optional extras:

It is really odd that I think it’s a wish list, and that it’s probably not going to happen. I mean, I am a pretty ‘out’ person but it horrifies me to think that it would be like a bonus, whereas really, damn, it should be there. I mean really, it should be there. But I have kind of got myself into thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be so nice if they actually did.’

For a few of the mothers, their awareness of themselves as “other” in the early childhood environment meant that they were cautious of accentuating the composition of their families. Pat appeared nervous that talk about families with two mothers may not necessarily be facilitated in a natural and uncomplicated manner:

I am not certain, in a roundabout way, whether I really want them to be sitting there discussing that some people have two mummies. I don’t know, not if it was a contrived conversation.

The fear that discussions about their family could lead to discomfort meant that several of the mothers did not broach the topic with teachers after the initial “coming out”.

Another concern expressed by one of the mothers was that the media portrayal of lesbianparented families is a negative one. She did not like having a sense that perceptions about her family were coloured by media stereotypes. Cheyenne did not identify with this portrayal and felt strongly that the messages given about the nature of her family were not consistent with her experience:

Whenever there is anything on the news about lesbian families they are always overweight with buzz cuts and really strident. And that’s obviously an extreme, but that’s obviously what the media like to portray. But I don’t identify like that.

Interestingly, it was the mothers who were most likely to initiate steps to visibly include their families in the early childhood education settings. The mothers reported that very few of the teachers openly investigated or instigated ways they could respectfully include lesbianparented families. Te Whāriki calls for visible recognition of all families whose children attend early childhood education centres, expressed in the Family and Community principle, as a “strong connection and consistency among all the aspects of the child’s world” (Ministry of Education, 1996, p. 42). The Holistic Development principle asks for “the child’s whole context” (Ministry of Education, 1996, p. 41) to be respectfully taken into account. My findings demonstrated that heteronormative expectations and practices meant that there were few opportunities for the mothers and their children to witness the inclusion of lesbianparented families in the centre programme.

Moss (2005) uses the idea of “making the narrative stutter” in his critique of what he calls “narratives of quality”. Stuttering brings to mind stopping and a starting anew, perhaps a faltering. It is time perhaps to cause the narrow discourses of heteronormativity to stutter. This will not occur unless teachers desire a more inclusive and just world for gay and lesbian people and same-gender families.

Implications

Heteronormativity is displayed in many ways in early childhood centres. The forms that families fill out are often not inclusive of diverse families, resources do not reflect lesbian-parented families, and conversations and dramatic play routinely reinforce heterosexuality as privileged (that is, the only option for children growing up). Adults will smile indulgently at children roleplaying weddings, but will react quite differently should the conversation turn to same-gender relationships (Gunn et al., 2004).

Early childhood centres are particularly susceptible to the forces of heteronormativity because of the image of children as innocent and the wish to protect them from any matter aligned to sexuality (Blaise, 2005; Gunn, 2005; Surtees, 2006). This means that teachers are nervous of addressing same-gender relationships (DePalma & Atkinson, 2007; Robinson & Davis, 2007). For teachers to take a stand and actively acknowledge lesbianparented families would take courage in most early childhood settings.

“Stuttering the discourses” of heteronormativity is complex. Avoiding putting families at risk of exposure to homophobic reactions from other families requires a great deal of consideration (Skatterbol & Ferfolja, 2007). Sensitivity is also necessary towards families for whom the presence of a lesbian-parented family in the centre creates discomfort. A considered approach is needed in order to ensure the safety of all groups. Skatterbol and Ferfolja believe that the safety of diverse families requires that teachers consciously create environments where they are visible in both the physical environment and in conversations. For example, it is extremely rare to see the rainbow flag or poster adorning an early childhood centre, but displaying the rainbow in some form would act as a symbol of welcome to same-gender families.

Consistent with the findings outlined in this article, Skatterbol and Ferfolja suggest that attempts to demonstrate acceptance of lesbianparented families must include discussion and negotiation with the families themselves. Kerry, a mother in this study, believed that ongoing communication between teachers and members of lesbian-parented families could result in positive changes to practice. She would have liked to think that the teachers had considered how it might be for her and her family but doubted that they had. Although she spoke positively about her relationships within the centre, Kerry had not shared her feelings about this issue with the teachers:

I guess the thing would be just taking the initiative … I mean they have fortnightly staff meetings … if one day they said, ‘Let’s spend fifteen minutes just thinking about what would it be like to be a lesbian couple and to have a child in [the centre] … what might that mean?’ I have never got any sense that they have actually talked about it amongst themselves really.

Several of the mothers said that they would like teachers to know of the possibility of lesbianparented families attending centres. The large number of relieving staff in centres and the wide variety of qualifications, backgrounds, and experience made the job of being open with teachers extremely difficult. The mothers did not know how safe their children were over things like Mothers’ Day cards, student teachers, and some other families.

The findings from this study suggest that in order to “begin anew” it is imperative that teachers are aware that they may encounter lesbian-parented families in their teaching. It is therefore essential that they have considered their responses and professionally addressed any fears or misgivings they have about diverse families. Recognising that heterosexualparented families receive constant affirmation through language, literature, and images, teachers could also think about how this sense of belonging might be achieved for any child who has a family background that differs from what is considered the “norm”.

Conclusion

Lesbian-parented families do not fit with the powerful heteronormative expectations that appear to be present in early childhood education centres. In order to facilitate the inclusion of their families, the mothers in this study worked to downplay their differences and to emphasise their similarities to other families. Teachers know that each family is unique and understand the importance of not making assumptions. Had all of these mothers been confident that their families would be respected and acknowledged, in keeping with the principles of Te Whāriki, they may have felt more open to sharing aspects of their lives that would assist the visible inclusion of their children.

Dahlberg and Moss’ (2005) challenge to teachers to acknowledge otherness resonates throughout the findings of this research. Sedgwick’s (1991, p. 68) description of “the deadly elasticity of heterosexist presumption” aptly describes the power wielded by heteronormativity. The desire of the mothers for the wellbeing of their children mirrors the desires of most mothers. They are not asking the impossible. Kerry’s wish that the teachers would take time to seriously consider what it was like for her family as a minority group in the centre is valid. Sophie’s admission that she does not feel brave enough to ask for visibility for her family shows that she understands that her right to belong is perhaps conditional on her not “rocking the boat”. Yet in order to cause the powerful discursive practices of heteronormativity to “stutter”, someone has to rock the boat.

Acknowledgements

Warm thanks go to the mothers who generously gave their time to participate in this study. Debora has deeply appreciated the skilled supervision of Dr. Judith Duncan and Megan Gollop and their consistently positive attitude to her work. Thanks also go to The University of Auckland and the University of Otago for the financial assistance that enabled the completion of this research.

This Australian resource includes practical suggestions that teachers can use to consider the questions and challenges that may arise for lesbian-parented families in early childhood education.

Further reading

We’re here: A resource for childcare workers. (n.d.). Retrieved 31 March 2008, from http://www.also.org.au/discover/
projectsandservices/documents/werehere.pdf

Note

1.&;&;Referring to stepping out of an imaginary closet and declaring oneself homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, or transgender.

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Debora Lee is a lecturer in early childhood social sciences and the Practicum Coordinator (ECE) at the Faculty of Education, The University of Auckland.

Email: d.lee@auckland.ac.nz

Judith Duncan is an Associate Professor in Education, School of Māori, Social and Cultural Studies at the University of Canterbury College of Education, Christchurch.

Email: judith.duncan@canterbury.ac.nz