Gay Mom Struggles With In-Laws' Favoritism
My wife and I each gave birth to one of our two children, born a year apart, using the same donor. We then legally adopted each other’s biological child. We are both loving, committed parents to both children, who are now 10 and 11 – we’re a family. Still, my in-laws clearly favor the child my wife gave birth to, as if her biological child were the more real member of their family. They shower affection on my wife’s biological child, but not on the child I carried (and whom their daughter adopted). The issue is that we’re lesbian, and our intimate life somehow taints our children in their minds. I’ve talked to them directly, but they won’t budge. Our children love Grandma and Boppa, and they don’t understand why they’re being treated so differently. We try to limit contact, but this is putting a real strain on our family. How can we fix this? —Martha, Buffalo, NY
If you would, Martha, let me start with a digression that isn’t intended to make any less of your situation: Difficulties with the in-laws! Now that’s a sign of progress on the road to marriage equality. In fact, these “intergenerational conflicts” are a common theme in the questions I get.
That said, yours is a tricky question on a number of different levels. As regular readers know I am not a family therapist, so I consulted one, Kenny Levine, LCSW, a gay man with children himself. Mr. Levine e-mailed me with nary a hesitation that to “fix this” you need to “unite as a family to minimize the damage to your kids by this unfair treatment.” I agree.
My antennas shot up when I realized that you alone had talked to your in-laws — not with your wife, their daughter. Yes, “Grandma and Boppa” are part of the problem, but what you are asking for, ultimately, is that they recognize you as a family unit. To do that, you’ll need to act like a family and talk with your in-laws together.
Before you do that, however, it’s important that you and your wife get onto the same page, which I sense you’re not. Does she agree that her parents are the problem? Is it because of your sexual orientation? Or is it just a run-of-the-mill in-law issue with a lesbian twist? After all, yours is not the only family facing issues of grandparent favoritism. (Personal note: My own grandmother always referred to me as her “Number 1,” much to the consternation of my younger sibs — alas, Nos. 2 and 3. It had nothing to do with sexual orientation, but birth order.)
Surprisingly, your dilemma turns out to be relatively common among L.G.B.T. families. After posting your question on Facebook, I heard from other gay mothers and fathers about the same kind of favoritism by one or both grandparents. Some suggested that your in-laws might understand this as a traditional adoption situation (“yours is yours, hers is hers”) or even as a step-grandchild (“not really part of the family”). One lesbian mother even told me about her wife’s family trust, which specifically excluded children who were not “naturally born” into the family. Of course the times they are a changing, but it’s up to us to educate our parents about our modern families.
Assuming you’re all on speaking terms, I’d say it’s time to sit down as a foursome and explain your expectations clearly and unemotionally. Although you can’t make the in-laws feel affection for a child, you can ask them to treat the children equally. If they buy a Christmas gift for one, buy for both. If they hug one, hug the other. I wish civil behavior could mandate equal loving, but alas not.
You’ll also want to decide on the possible consequences if your in-laws don’t change their tune. Shorter visits? Fewer? None for the time being?
In the end, though, this is about your children and your role as parents in teaching and protecting them. To this point, Mr. Levine, the psychotherapist, told me, “As parents we want nothing more than to protect our children from any sort of emotional pain.” But that’s not really possible, is it? We all take our knocks along the way. Instead, Mr. Levine counsels: “The greatest gift we can give our children is the freedom to develop a strong sense of self, to nurture within them the wisdom and self-confidence to stand up for themselves. In order for them to learn to do this, they have to know you’re behind them all the way.”
So to “fix this” I hope you and your wife will sit down with your in-laws as a couple — as adults, and as advocates for your children. And you need to talk with your children, making sure they don’t feel as if they’ve done anything wrong (which they often do). Or, you could do what this Facebook poster suggested: Tell Grandma and Boppa that the children were switched at birth, and that you’re actually the birth mother of their little favorite. Not!
Originally published in The New York Times, 12/18/2012