Over dinner, when I ask Emma, our 9-year-old daughter, about her day at school, she tightens her face and shakes her head.
“Kids keep asking me if I’m adopted,” she says.
“So what do you do?” I ask.
“Sometimes, I explain it. Other times I just change the subject or pretend I don’t hear them.”
Emma has two dads — myself and my husband, Chris. We’ve recently moved to a new city, which means a new school with new classmates. In October, we also welcomed our second child who, like Emma, is biologically related to one of us and was born with the help of an egg donor and a gestational surrogate (i.e., a surrogate who is not biologically related to the child she carries). These life events prompt more questions from Emma’s classmates. Emma’s not embarrassed or ashamed of our family — she’s just exhausted from all the questions she’s received over the years.
Emma’s mostly given up on explaining how she could have two dads and not be adopted, even though she’s right. A pre-birth court order recognized Chris and me as her legal parents months before she was born, and we were immediately listed as Emma’s parents on her California birth certificate. The same is true for our second child. An Oklahoma court issued an order establishing my husband and me as our future child’s “sole parents” and instructed that only our names be added to the birth certificate following our son’s birth. On the day of his birth, there wasn’t any confusion that my husband and I were our child’s legal ― and only ― parents. No adoption was necessary.
The adoption question persists because of assumptions about family-building — mom, dad, biological kid conceived through so-called “traditional” means — that adults usually pass onto their children. But according to UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, even among male, same-sex couples like us (the group most likely to adopt), less than a third are raising adopted or foster children. This means that the most common assumptions about families that look like ours are often wrong.
Despite today’s greater diversity among families and a wide range of family building options, children’s baseline understanding can often seem stuck in another era.
Emma has faced questions about our family since early in her life. When she was four years old, she was chatting with a boy around the same age at the playground as they took turns standing on an overturned bucket to reach the monkey bars. The boy asked Emma where her father was and she pointed in my direction. Then, he asked where her mother was.
“I don’t have a mother,” Emma said.
“Everyone has a mother,” the boy replied.
“I have two dads,” Emma said, her voice tinged with frustration.
“Then how were you born, silly?”
“Stop it!” Emma said, and she marched away from the boy.
It’s easy to see how these kinds of interactions could grow tiresome for a child. So when Emma recounts her most recent story in which she’s tasked with the job of explaining our family again, I am exasperated too. Though I don’t expect other kids to be experts on the language of assisted reproduction, it would be nice if the burden didn’t always fall to my child to do the explaining.
“If you are curious about other kids, just ask!” That’s the central message of “Just Ask!: Be Different, Be Brave, Be You,” a celebrated children’s picture book by Justice Sonia Sotomayor that features kids asking other kids about their differences. I feel horrible admitting it, but the book makes me cringe. Because nearly all of its pages glide over the fact that even children emotionally prepared for questions on topics central to their lives might find them annoying, draining or, occasionally, stupid. I know my daughter is not alone in feeling this way.
For the last eight years, I have worked as a fundraiser and grant writer for a LGBTQ-focused nonprofit. Through that work, I’ve met dozens of teenage and college-age kids who have shared their experiences growing up with queer parents. As a gay parent myself, I’ve always been especially interested in hearing their perspectives. Two takeaways from the conversations are how proud these kids are of their parents and, second, how exasperated they are from all the questions they’ve received from friends, classmates and adults in their lives.
One college-age daughter of two men recounted being asked who her “real Dad” was ― presumably the questioner’s shorthand for asking her to identify her biological father. Because, I suppose, her peer was curious. It’s just another variation on the unfortunate tendency of people to force us into the boxes with which they are most familiar.
I am tempted to equip my daughter with a different answer for the next round of questioning from her classmates: Just Google it!
Last winter, Emma’s occasional avoidance of situations that might prompt others’ curiosity took a wrenching turn. As we were packing our skates and bundling up under our jackets for an outing to the town’s ice skating rink, Emma tilted her head downward and turned silent.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“You’re both coming?” she asked, referring to my husband and me. Her voice was barely a whisper.
I took a breath and told myself not to make the moment about my feelings. “Would you prefer if just one of us comes?” I asked.
“I’ll be the only one there with two dads,” she said. “I just want to skate.”
“I understand,” I said, and I let her know I could take her alone this time.
She didn’t want to worry about whether a classmate at the rink ― or a perfect stranger ― might treat her dads’ presence as an invitation to ask her questions. She just wanted to skate.
At the start of most school years, I encourage Emma’s teachers to address the constellation of family types and to introduce related terminology into the classroom. I don’t want to become an “advocate” — it’s tiring enough being a parent — but I position the suggestion within a larger context: such lessons would be helpful not just to the children of same-sex couples like my own, but also to children from a wide range of family structures, whether they are the children of single parents, divorced parents, living with extended families, blended families, or beyond. The suggestion feels urgent to me given my own experience and, more broadly, the changing landscape of American families: Pew Research Center reports that less than half of kids are now growing up in a so-called “traditional” family with two married parents.
For pedagogical reasons or for reasons of expediency, the schools usually shoehorn discussion, if any, into the existing curriculum — making it a tangential part of a social studies lesson or connecting it to larger themes of diversity that leave little time to address the nuances of family formation. Especially as kids grow older, they have more questions, which require something more than an exploration of general notions of difference. Kids crave specifics and transparency, not verbal gymnastics to avoid any mention of eggs or sperm or ― gasp ― sex.
The default position is to wait for a future developmental stage in which students will be “mature” enough to understand the content. The reality of course is that kids entering a classroom are immediately trying to make sense of the kids and families represented alongside them. The schools’ hesitation just ensures that kids will turn to one another to figure it out.
And unlike the experiences of the main characters in ”Just Ask!” that is not always a good thing.
What else could reduce the burden on children whose families may look “different?” One parent last year reached out to me and said, “My son is asking questions about how Emma was born. How would you like me to explain it?” This was a simple and profound gesture, which opened up a conversation — parent to parent — that helped both of our kids.
I explained Emma’s birth story, her understanding of how she came into this world and the terms we use to refer to our egg donor and surrogate. The parent didn’t have to provide her child with speculative, assumption-ridden answers like, Maybe she’s adopted. Or to push away the conversation out of discomfort or respect for our privacy with a response of, I don’t know. She empowered her child with honesty and information.
More parents doing the same ― alongside schools that supported their efforts with early and specific content ― would create a world in which children get the benefit of grown-ups making their days easier for them, while we still can.
That’s the kind of story I’d love to see written.
Brad Snyder is an essayist and humor writer whose recent nonfiction work has appeared in The Gay & Lesbian Review, Multiplicity Magazine and The Dillydoun Review. Brad is pursuing his MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing at Bay Path University. He lives in Chicago with his husband, daughter and newborn son, along with his sometimes warring cat and dog. You can find more of his work at bradmsnyder.com or follow him on Instagram.